How Uncaptioned Movies Are Like Old-Fashioned Vegetable Peelers

Old-fashioned vegetable or fruit peeler, with bare metal handle, against a mottled grey backgroundWould it really kill us hearing folks to go to the movies with open captions?

No one complains about sidewalk curb ramps or the bumpy yellow warning strips at TTC** subway stations: they’re just…there. We don’t tell folks in wheelchairs or scooters to use regular-height curbs and in the evenings only, or folks who are blind they will have safety during rush hours only. Then why the flip are we insisting that captioned movies (the few that are provided with captions) will be shown only on certain days, schedules and cinema screens?

I propose that we caption all movies and make them available at all times.

Now, before you whip out your I-hate-subtitled-foreign-films argument or your I’m-a-details-person rhetoric about how captions will block your view of the mise-en-scène, just grab a handful of popcorn and hear me out.

Humans don’t tend to love change. But generally, we do adapt. That’s why images like this are amusing:

Old fashioned produce peeler with bare metal handle; post says: did-anyone-ever-use-a-peeler-like-this-one-shareWe think, Wow, I can’t believe I used to put up with that! It’s ugly, it’s uncomfortable, it’s inefficient, and not everyone can use that thing effectively.

Eventually, we can barely remember what life was like before a new, improved version and, usually, we even realize that the old way wasn’t that great after all.

That is what would happen with open captions on movies. (Open captions are those that don’t leave the screen—you can’t decide to “close” them and watch video/TV/movies without. They’re ever-present.) We would become so used them that we wouldn't even remember what it was like not to have them. Non-users would tune them out; users would enjoy content more easily.

Not only would about 10% more of the population be able to go to the movies, individuals could broaden their social horizons by being able to attend a film with D/deaf or hard of hearing friends. As I mentioned in a recent article, I couldn’t attend a movie with more than two deaf friends due to the undersupply of assistive equipment (never mind captions). My more cynical side doesn’t understand why movie producers and cinema mega corps aren’t embracing this—aren’t they supposed to want higher box-office takings?

When surtitles*** were introduced to the opera world (by a Canadian company, by the way), people went bonkers. Opera would be ruined, the companies wailed. Opera had to be kept pure, cried the audiences. Guess what happened. More people started going. And most of them were young people. I LOVE surtitles and find they have enriched my opera experience. And if I lose interest or there’s a repetitive text being sung, I just look away. They’re placed in opera houses in such a way so that they don’t distract the disinterested eye but are quickly adjusted to when used. I don’t have to use or pay attention to them if I don’t want to.

But wait! you may interject, you can skip reading boring repeats in opera, but you can’t skip dialogue in a movie or you’ll be lost! Aha! rejoin I. Welcome to the world of the D/deaf and hard of hearing: the dialogue is integral to film. You’re aiding my argument.

And if you’re going to tell me your eye never leaves the multiplex screen for 92 minutes and you have taken in every object in a film, you must have a photographic memory. Most of us aren’t taking in the whole scene—in fact only about 12% of it (Sorry, directors!)—and research suggests that subtitles (and presumably captions) improve the visual experience of film or TV content. Or we look down when we drop popcorn, check our phone for the time, note the green or red exit sign, look at the couple two rows down who won’t stop talking, etc. We already are distracted. If anything, the research suggests, captions will hold our attention to the visual, not adversely affect it.

Also, captions and subtitles that have been edited should be of such a standard that we stop noticing that we’re reading them. So even if our eye does drift to them, they’ll allow us to be fully immersed in the storyline.

We have scent-free institutions for those with allergies. We have Braille on bathroom doors and other public signs. We allow service animals into restaurants. We keep peanuts out of schools. We’re starting to provide alternative-experience concerts for people on the autism spectrum. Do we have a fit about these accommodations? No. They have become part of the public fabric. Those who benefit from them, use them. Those who don’t, ignore them. So why the radio silence about open captions for movies? It’s like it’s not even up for discussion.

If you are such a purist cinephile who must see a “clean” version of a director’s oeuvre, buy the DVD with the director’s cut. (God knows it’ll be out soon enough.)

Or, even better, why don’t you invent some disposable eye gear like 3D glasses that will block out caption boxes at the bottom of screens? Or maybe a big tool, that looks like ET, to stick in your cupholder that will project the virgin film to your sightline alone? Oh…you…wait—why should you be put out so much when you’re just trying to see a movie?

That’s an interesting question, now, isn’t it?

 

 

 

* flickr.com, Grannies Kitchen, "Vintage Vegetable Peeler"

**TTC is the Toronto Transit Commission, which encompasses subways, buses, and LRT and hooks into regional traffic options.

***Surtitles is a trademarked version of supertitles, but as few people seem to know the latter term, I am referring to the former for clarity.

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The State of the Caption: Deaf Accessibility in Toronto’s Cinemas

In December 2017, I contacted the main corporate and some independent film venues in Toronto to canvass their provision of access to hearing assistance for the *Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing. Cinemas are only able to provide captions when production companies include the files. But who has what capabilities?

Before you scroll away because you “don’t know any deaf people,” consider this: you may think you don’t, but a lot of people don’t advertise their deafness because a) it doesn’t define them and b) it’s frustrating to keep explaining it repeatedly to hearing people. Also, hearing folks do use captions: English language learners; people needing cognitive support with visual reinforcement; watching shows with heavily accented or audio-obscured speakers; and in noisy places or where the volume is off or problematic. To read about my personal experience using assistive tech in a cinema, read this article. But here’s my experience accessing information about captioning and hearing-assistive devices in eight Toronto cinemas and chains.

In my online contact attempts, my website-linked business name was in my email signature (providing transparency), and I asked only the following of each recipient:

Hello,

I've looked at your accessibility page, and I'm writing to get up-to-date information about the availability of listening assistance at your cinema[s], be it open captions or assistive technologies. I'm in Toronto. Can the Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing attend movies with full access? Do I just show up and any showing will just have assistance available?

Thank you.

 

Here are the fascinating results of my inquiries.

Exterior photo of the Cineplex Scotiabank multiplex in Toronto

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevenharris/3371960989

Cineplex

Not surprisingly for a large corporation, I was assigned a ticket to my inquiry and received an automated reply. It said:

- Please type your reply above this line -##

Screenshot of automated reply from Cineplex about caption options and how to access that information on their website

 

 

I replied,

If an individual reads my email, they'll see I've reviewed the website and am requesting up to date information—i.e., has anything about availability changed?, etc.

I'd appreciate a non-automated reply.

Many thanks.

 

Hello Vanessa,

Thank you for contacting Cineplex.

All of our theatre locations have the capability to present shows with Closed Captioning and/or Described Services. Ultimately we rely on the film distributors to provide our theatres with the appropriate files for each film so our guests can enjoy these services; because of this there can sometimes be a film without these features offered. You can always check the availability of these services by searching film showtimes online and if you see (CC/DS) underneath the film format your show will have Closed Captioning and/or Described Services. (see example below)

If you need more information on what each device does see the links below.

https://www.cineplex.com/Theatres/ClosedCaption

https://www.cineplex.com/theatres/described-services

When you go to your local theatre simply request either device from the box office and the staff will be happy to set it up for your show.

If you have anymore questions please let me know.

Have a great day!

Cineplex Guest Services

 

I thought the “there can sometimes be a film without these features offered” was gilding the lily a bit. I also felt the DS info indicated that they were copy-and-pasting and not writing back specifically with my question in mind. I wrote back,

Thank you again.

But would it be possible to implement a search function so that we can look for films with CCs rather than clicking through every possible movie and theatre to see if they have captions/assistance? I think I will also have to approach cinemaclocktoronto.com about considering adding a search feature, since most of us look for movies online in one place, not at the discrete sites of cinema corporations.

The answer:

Hello again

I will happily share your feedback with the IT team in the hopes they can add that functionality. Please note you can search individual theatres and their showtimes at the bottom of each of those links I sent you.

https://www.cineplex.com/Theatres/ClosedCaption

https://www.cineplex.com/theatres/described-services

Have a great day!

Cineplex Guest Services

 

Hm. I think a chat with Powers That Be about searches and increased access would be fruitful...if only I could reach them.

 

External photo of the Carlton Cinema in Toronto

Imagine Cinemas

Image: grainger via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carlton_Cinemas_Toronto.jpg

The much-loved local Carlton and its related cinemas have demonstrated commitment to accessibility for audiences and employees, which I have respected greatly. Plus, their staff are outstanding in their customer service, and their reply reflected some of that.

 

Hi Vanessa,

We have a few locations with assistive listening devices, however we often experience technical difficulties with them which is why they aren’t advertised. We also have a few locations that play open caption films on certain days/ show times.

I will forward your email on to our Carlton and Market Square locations as they are our DT [downtown] Toronto locations and would have a better idea as to what they actually have.

 

And further follow up, since I’d mentioned me needing to bring this up with cinemaclocktoronto.com:

 

Our Carlton location have headphones that amplify sounds but no open caption.

Our Market Square location has assistive listening devices but have expressed that they don’t work very well. They do however have 1 open caption movie a week (see screenshot on how it would appear). They are the ones that say OC. The upcoming week they are playing The Greatest Showman and the following week is Star Wars.

Cinema clock is a third party website so unfortunately we cannot control how they display content.

Hope that helps!

 

Customer service first prize to Imagine! They already show one captioned movie a week—not what I’d call fully accessible but certainly open and willing to improve. They admitted their lackluster customer feedback and communicated that openly to me. They were also the first company to reply—the same day I emailed and a week before the other replies began to trickle in. Small chain, bigger heart?

 

 

Interior photo of the Hal Jackman auditorium at the AGO in Toronto

Image: https://www.ago.net/jackman-hall-overview

Jackman Hall, AGO

I received this reply:

Hello Vanessa,

Thank you for your email.

At the moment Jackman Hall Theatre is not equipped with open captions options or assistive technologies. We are able to transmit, however do not have the devices in house. It would be up to the client to provide the film with captions built into the film as well as provide any devices or hardware. We are working towards upgrading our venue in order to be more inclusive. At this time we not able to assist with deaf, deafened or hard of hearing patrons with full access unless the film is subtitle or a client provides the assistive devices/hardware.

Please feel free to contact me if you have further questions or concerns.

 

I found this interesting considering that it is in the AGO, which is 33% government funded, and that the AGO Transformation, which included the renovation of Jackman Hall, was completed in 2008. The $276 million project couldn’t throw in some hardware then or since??

 

Exterior photo of the TIFF Bell Lightbox cinema in Toronto

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: https://www.ticketmaster.ca/TIFF-Bell-Lightbox-tickets/artist/2270943

TIFF Bell Lightbox

Bell TIFF Lightbox’s reply was interesting in several ways.

Hello Vanessa,

Thank you for your email and interest in attending films at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Hearing Assist (which raises the volume for visitors with slight to moderate hearing impairment) is available for all of our screenings as it is provided by our theatre.

The availability of Closed Captioning and Descriptive Audio is dependant [sic] on the copy provided to us by the distributor. If we have films that come with Closed Captioning or Descriptive Audio we will display that information on our Website.

Please refer to the example below. (SUB = Subtitle, CC = Closed Captioning, DS = Descriptive Sound, TBLB 3 = Cinema #3)

When you arrive at the cinema please inform Box Office staff that you require additional equipment and the staff will be happy to assist you with the set-up and procedure.

Hope this information helps.

 

They said Hearing Assist was used as an amplifier but a phone call confirmed the brand was Listen, so this doesn’t seem to be updated info as requested.

Note, too, the use of the term “hearing impairment,” which is interesting terminology from a charity purporting to be “committed to a strategy that works to remove barriers to interacting with our programming” (TIFF, 2016: http://humber.ca/makingaccessiblemedia/modules/03/09.html). The echo I experienced was still a barrier. And being non-hearing is not considered an “impairment” or disability by the so-called afflicted or disabled. (http://cad.ca/issues-positions/statistics-on-deaf-canadians/)

I’ll also add here that during  December, as a TIFF member, I received nine donation-dunning emails between the 13th and 31st, with clickbait-worthy subject lines like “You’re on my mind” pleading for access to our thoughts about connection and access to members’ wishes. I am seriously considering cancelling my membership. It will be dependent on the response I get when I email them. If they’re really serious about “want[ing] to know what you think,” they may bite.

I wrote back asking about a search function for CCed films.

 

Hi Vanessa,

We are glad to hear the information was helpful.

At this time we do not offer a feature on our website like the one you have described but I have passed your email on to the department that handles the website for consideration when planning future updates and features. In the mean time [sic] clicking through the various films is the only way to see the information regarding Closed Captioning and Descriptive Audio.

Regards,

Customer Relations

 

Both in email and in person, I was readily informed that Call Me by My Name has CCs. This is incorrect, and I suspect a lot of venues and services, perhaps unwittingly, plug such films as accessible to the non-hearing: that film’s dialogue includes three languages, which are subtitled for marketability; it is not accessible in that it was intentionally released with non-hearing audiences in mind—that is captioning.

 

Interior photo of the auditorium of the Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: https://hotdocscinema.ca/c/history

Hot Docs

The old Bloor Cinema seems to be typically at the mercy of producers’ inclusion (or not) of caption files. I suspect most documentarians are making their films on low budgets; however, some are backed by humanitarian organizations, and you’d think their mores would support full accessibility. (Perhaps some PhD student can do some research into how many docs are captioned…) And, frankly, I’m surprised when the theatre was renovated, some funds weren’t allocated for assistive equipment like CaptiView. Surely some doc files are captioned?

Hi Vanessa,

Thanks for your question!

Firstly, for each screening we can provide head phones that allow the viewer to increase their own listening volume independently.

For more specific hearing aid devices, such as closed captioning, the most up-to-date information would be available at our Box Office, per screening; each documentary comes with/without its own set of closed captioning and hard of hearing accessibilities.

The best option would be to call our box office the week your preferred documentary is showing and ask for the accessibility options on that specific film.

I hope this helps.

 

 

Exterior photo of the Revuew Cinema in Toronto

 

 

 

 

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revue_Cinema

The Revue

Being a very small enterprise, understandably they wrote back

Hello  Vanessa,

We currently do not have assisted listening devices available at our theatre, But we are working on it.
So sorry for the inconvenience... We will make it a priority to attain these devices during the new year and you will be contacted promptly once we have acquired a few.

Thank you for your interest,

-Revue Cinema

 

Note the apology and plan of action. Good sign! I’ve made a note to check back with them.

 

Interior photo of the Royal Cinema's auditorium in Toronto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: http://newsite.theroyal.to/about-the-royal/#

Royal 

Through several emails, I learned that the Royal generally does not offer access to deaf-assistive technology but does, interestingly, have two series events that feature access vehicles: Drunk Feminist Films and Screen Queens, the former having hired ASL interpretation in the past due to a small Deaf community being involved. The other reason for provided captions is that events have live comedy commentary over top of the movie through microphones, thus captions allow people to listen to the comedians talk about the movie while also watching the movie. But with general programming, like all cinemas, they are stuck with only being able to provide captioning when it is provided by movie producers.

 

Cinema Clock  https://www.cinemaclock.com/ont/toronto

I also emailed this clearinghouse of movie listings to see if the search function could not be tweaked to include a way to find only those movies with CCs.

The email envelope icon on their home page does not work, so I went to their Contact Us link on the More tab and filled out an online form there. After three weeks, I have not heard back from them.

 

 

I’m going to assume that we have it relatively good in Toronto and that access to assistance for deaf moviegoers is generally sketchy or non-existent in most smaller Canadian cities and towns. If you know otherwise, please share information in the Comments.

If you're interested in accessing more caption options (i.e. for any time slot, not just the cinema's dead day), have a polite chat with or send an informative email to the management. Eventually, feedback will work its way up the corporate ladder and maybe—one day—access to movies for the Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing will no longer be considered an extra cost or frill. It'll just be going to the movies.

 

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Accessibility in Movies and Video in 2018

...and Why I’m Not Going to Shut Up about It

 

I recently had my first experiences using hearing assistance technology (and I use the word technology with something of an eyeroll) at two movie theatres in Toronto. Here's why filmmakers have got to start putting accessibility functions and services into their budgets. The cinemas can't project captions that aren't there.

 

Amazon's photo of a Listen personal amplifier: a small black device resembling a handheld transistor radio, showing volume and battery levels in a screen near the top.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio Assistance

At the first cinema, I was lent a Listen personal amplifier device with disposable earbuds in exchange for my driver’s license as collateral.

I was rather excited because I was seeing Interstellar, and I knew from previous viewings at home and in the cinema that Matthew McConnaughey’s voice is very difficult to hear in that movie. I thought this would help me hear more of his lines.

With the Listen brand amplifier (smaller than handheld transistor radios and thicker than a cellphone), there was a belt clip. That’s great if you’re wearing something with a waistband. Also, a little red light is visible, which I suspect may be annoying to seat neighbours, and I’m not sure there’s necessarily enough earbud-wire length to turn it upside down in your cupholder or to wear it upside down on your belt to not distract them periperhally.

If you know Interstellar, you’ll know that Hans Zimmer’s awesome soundtrack blasts through much of it—and I mean blasts, to the point of the seats and walls shaking in a non-IMAX movie: organ-lover’s delight! So, every time the action and mood was ramping up, I had to whip the earbuds out (I ended up using my own, as the provided ones were cheap) or have my eardrums practically split. Fine: hazard of the film, and amplification was not needed at that point. However, what was so disappointing was that all the hearing receiver did was create an annoying echo due to a delay in transmission, sort of like echos in cell calls or the overseas long-distance calls of yesteryear on landlines. Now I was hearing Matthew utter his tortured feelings in duplicated mumbling. I gave up on the “assistance” halfway through. This is a device retailing for about $250US or $400CA, so it’s no cheapie, and still the results were less than stellar…

How can an echo assist hearing? Do more current or more expensive models avoid this problem? Leave a comment below if you have other experiences. I retrieved my ID without comment, as I didn’t feel the box-office staff would be very invested in my feedback. They’re 20something with normal hearing, after all.

 

A CaptiView device in the foreground of a dim cinema auditorium; the green digital print gives connection instructions for that cinema.

 

Visual Assistance

My second experience was using CaptiView in a cinema; I did call ahead to make sure one would be available. Not only was it available, it was at the tickettaker’s booth, ready to go, and she knew how to set it up: good start! It conked out during previews “battery very low!!” and the manager said it was because it had just been used in a previous showing, so that indicates to me that perhaps several more are needed on hand to provide access while spent ones are recharged. Nevertheless he had another immediately available. Interestingly, they did not ask for ID or any security for the device: not that I’d want to walk out with one, but I was still pleasantly surprised not to be treated like a potential thief.

Complicating this experience was the flawed subtitles in the movie I saw when a foreign lanugage was translated, so I had two layers of imperfect access to negotiate in my attempt to be fully immersed in the story. In general, the CaptiView worked okay. But:

  1. As I’ve pointed out before, you have to place it in your cupholder, so that leave no cupholder for your pop, which is a problem if you also have popcorn to eat.
  2. Twice the device popped out of the cupholder and fell to the ground: you need to really shove it down prior to the show!
  3. The green type was a good size and clear, except when it didn’t show! Some captions were missing—as in entire or partial sentences never came up and the subsequent lines were on the second or third lines of the device, so I don’t know if that meant the problem was in the CaptiView or the digital file, but it happened about a dozen times.
  4. I felt like I was restricted to a corner of the back row: the green light is distracting to other audience members. What if I had arrived late to a filled auditorium? Would I have to ask a bunch of people to move or would they have to put up with it?
  5. Only the main feature was guaranteed to be captioned. In fact, as noted above, one trailer was captioned on the device. All the other movies that could have attracted the Deaf/hoh audience did not. (I’m assuming the Red Sparrows film itself is accessible and not just the trailer.) And all the pre-film promotional chatter, games, quizzes, interviews, etc. were not accessible. What—only hearing people want to know celebrity news and movie hype?
  6. What if a bunch of my D/deaf friends and I wanted to go to a movie? We couldn’t go spontaneously (what cinema is going to be able to guarantee six recharged devices always available?) or perhaps at all even if notice was given to a smaller company that might not have that many CaptiViews. So, in essence, we’re still facing a lack of or inadequate access. We’re still not able to participate fully in cultural content in the same way hearing folks are. Would it be okay if wheelchair ramps were only available 10% of the time?

In general, the experience wasn’t a disaster, but I certainly wasn’t enthralled with this option. Between my eyes constantly changing focus from short- to long-range, stumbling and losing story immersion when captions were missing, and missing a lot of the movie’s visual impact with the device as a distraction, I definitely did not engage with the film the way I normally would. In short, the CaptiView is sometimes available, but not always conducive to full cultural engagement, and that is a half-baked experience, not full access.

 

In December 2017, Charlie Swinbourne (UK journalist and Limping Chicken blogger about all things Deaf) started a poll to have UK cinemas dedicate one screen per multiplex to captioned movies. This was prompted after a fiasco of inaccessibility at the opening of The Last Jedi, where Deaf/deaf folks were treated shamefully. As of early January, he had 23,000 signatures and had spoken to cinema executives about relevant issues.

This  coincided with the investigation I was carrying out over the pond, which I have tweeted about, and I have been engaging in similar conversations with execs of the cinema corps I have access to in Toronto: Cineplex, Lantern/Imagine, TIFF, Hal Jackman (formerly Cinématheque at the AGO), the Revue, the Royal, and Hot Docs (formerly the Bloor Cinema). I emailed each via general contact emails to start and asked what availability they had for Deaf/deaf/hard of hearing moviegoers. The responses—some seemingly canned, some more invested—are here.

I’ve had conversations with some of these same execs to see if I can’t do some educating about hearing loss, advocating for better accessibility, and asking for meaningful follow through. Some have indicated a willingness to implement more if more products were provided with caption files. The general public tends to blame the cinemas, but they can’t project captions that aren’t on the film file. It’s the movie producers who need to step up.

I also canvassed some small film producers who are making films on (their own) shoestring budgets. Again, there is willingness to caption but not available financial resources.

This investigation has convinced me that if there is to be greater access, it must begin with the major film producers—the ones with the financial ability and the cultural clout to make it the norm to include caption-accessible prints amongst their distributions. I bet if a close relative of one of the big wigs were deaf, they’d have captions all over their product, including trailers (of which I only saw one file on CaptiView for the upcoming Red Sparrows by 20th Century Fox and Chernin Entertainment).

Finally, I don’t know why the government has paid only lip service to the large Deaf, deafened and hard of hearing communities, considering how many there are in Canada (most Western countries use the estimate of 10% of the population as having some form of hearing loss or problems). Accessibility to content for the Deaf, deaf or hard of hearing has been in the supposed forefront of accessibility changes for 30 years (really spurred on by the advent of VCRs in the 80s), but not much has changed. Currently, there's a survey about live captioning in Canadian TV, but this is duplication. The CRTC did a survey about captioning 10 years ago, and the requirement to provide captions (with various exceptions) is not enforced. You can read about its status here; while you can complain about bad captions, the independent ombudsman they promised in 2015 is still slated for the future. They've done standards policies, surveys, focus groups and pilot projects (2008, 2012, 2015). Where's the improvement? They don't seem to understand the nuances of captioning, reading, and how textual editing affects user experience. You can have the fastest captioners in the world produce CCs, but "quality control" needs to be two-stepped: technical and editorial. The latter is not taught or enforced. I know because I worked as a captioner. (I did offer to help set up a vocational school so that effective language training would be offered—in Canada, anyway. But crickets.)

VODS like Netflix* have continued to do the poorest job, just enough to stay out of regulatory trouble it seems, but my educational portfolio of hundreds of caption fails proves that the non-hearing are completely underserviced in all public services with captioning. Based on the attempts I’ve made to educate and offer improvement, the interest and will just isn’t there. And I’m not going to shut up about it until people needing excellent captioning in all aspects of life start seeing improvement to access, and therefore participation in Canadian life.

I’ve also written about 2017 being touted as the year of the deaf in the movies. Here’s what I thought about The Shape of Water, Wonderstruck and all the hype about D/deaf folks in film.

 

 

*I really don’t have a hate-on for Netflix alone; it’s just the system I have and use, not having a TV. But I do have ill regard for them: their attempts to service the non-hearing are terrible and nowhere near meet their advertised standards. This is because their system of hiring “Preferred Vendors” promotes unqualified bottom-feeders in many cases. (Not all—I have subtitling colleagues who are professional translators and titlers who are NPVs, but they are the exception to the rule.) If you’d like to send me screenshots of caption or subtitle fails from other sources, please do (info@reelwords.ca): I’ll add them to my portfolio of fails and fixes.

 

For information on booking teaching and speaking engagements, see that tab on my website.

 

Top image: from amazon.com

Bottom image: by author

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Captions Need Show “Bibles”

Colour photo closeup of gilded Bible pages, with gold cover, snap closure and tasselled bookbark hanging in the foreground.

 

Captions and subtitles need "bibles" just like theatre pieces or movie productions. Like their literal iterations, these collections of information are guides for all the relevant players on how to present content so that it's clear, correct, and, most of all, consistent.

When I was a captioner, some shows had 'em and some didn't. Worst was when we had to consult fan wikis for character name spellings, backstory, etc. VODS, shows, and movies need bibles templated and used, if they're going to commit to full accessibility for all users.*

Depending on where the captioner or subtitler is, there are differences in how they would normally write as a layman and how they would do their work. A Canadian captioning a show from and about the States would defer to American dictionary spellings and definitions and standard writing style guides, plus the client's house style guide. But an American subtitling an import series from Scandinavia would be wise to not only adhere to the client's wishes and that country's standard guides but also recommend other applications based on show content and branding, audience composition and an eye to future distribution potential.

Show bibles vary from artform to artform. It may well develop to have set and costume notes and samples, helpful visual ephemera, guidelines on authorized style guides, character details, notes on directorial changes and edits (updated), and all of this should be backed up—at least twice. Hard copies might also be wise should the internetalypse happen midproduction.

Here's an example of what Netflix's much (self-)touted subtitling policies did not address or succeed at (or this wouldn't have happened).

Peaky Blinders, Season 4, Episode 5 (accessed December 2017). In one scene, Cockney Jewish character Alfie Solomons is saying Good boy but the caption says Goodbye. Perhaps the non-native captioner (or one without British background or dialectic familiarity) should not be the titler for dialogue if they can't understand the accent, let alone understand that Goodbye wouldn't even make sense in the context if that were the audio. It causes errors and (although apparently not here) extra costs in QC corrections.

Screenshot of Alfie Solomons and Luca Changretta characters in Peaky Blinders show. The erroneous caption for Alfie says, Goodbye, trot on. Down there is Bonnie Street.
Image: cropped screenshot accessed Netflix, Peaky Blinders, December 31, 2017.

If a show bible is not extant or available, a good editor will do some research and preferably some subsequent consultation. The latter should be done by the most qualified expert in their professional network: moms with English degrees don't count. Having established some form of NDA, the editor should present their problem and its context, their research, and a suggested edit to the consultant. Confirmation or correction should lead to a fix, and either way the edit should be flagged with a justified query or note to the managing editor. Time is tight on titling projects, but there's no excuse for guessing. I have a time limit on how long I'll do my own research before turning to an expert; if I can't get the ME a recommended edit, I'll pass on my recommendations for next steps.

This example also points out the pitfalls of having blinders on about vendors. Perhaps your regular multilingual translator in Europe is multitalented, but this show would have required a titler who had ties to or experience with people in London and Birmingham, for instance.

Another problem with this scene was when, in the same episode,

Alfie Solomons was captioned as speaking Italian when in fact he was speaking Yiddish...

Alfie Solomons in Peaky Blinders show is captioned as "[speaking Italian]"

 

...but the captioner didn't have enough linguistic background to tell the difference between gutteral and romance language phonemes. (Note that although different, captions and subtitles are sometimes needed in the same product. Read more here.) The titler should have consulted someone (or perhaps shouldn't have been contracted in the first place). I have a whole discrete presentation I can give about foreign language subtitling inconsistencies within Netflix captions; see the Engagements tab to book similar lessons and discussions.

So a bible, shared with the captioner, would have been available to tell them that Alfie Solomons is a Jew from the East End, living in Birmingham, with the common interruptor of the area's "yeah" and that he has no known connections to the Italian language. These are two instances where Netflix would have been saved embarrassment from YGWYPF vendors. If they aren't embarrassed, simply in terms of access to content for the deaf they should be.

Bibles can be simple, and they don't have to be pretty. But they do need to be complete, proactive, shared and USED.

 

*Read here about who should be using captions and/or subtitles (and sometimes both); it's not just a "deaf problem."

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The Responsibilities of the Captioner

Scene from a modern-set opera with surtitles projected above the stage

 

I’ve commented elsewhere about the responsibilities of the captioner or subtitler, which include the best practice of not changing the film’s text.* Our personal feelings about content, as far as producing or editing the content is concerned, are irrelevant. (If something is truly offensive, you can turn down the project, just as we do in book editing.) I recently participated in a survey of subtitlers about emotional reactions to content we are working on, so it is a thing. However, assuming we are content to work on the file, the captioner or subtitler (or book editor) may not change the content. We are not the creators of the work.

I have two examples to discuss: translating and expletives.

I saw the HD Live Met presentation in the cinema of the fabulous opera Exterminating Angel by Thomas Adès. Although it is sung in English, surtitles** are provided, which is common for most major opera companies. With the exception of one title which might have caused confusion with an appositive due to the accompanying live shot, they were excellent. Until the climax of this dystopian nightmare story. There and in the last lines of the opera, in their characters’ terror the cast are singing a prayer: Libera me de morte aeterna et lux aeterna luceat, which translates to Deliver me from eternal death and let eternal light shine. The use of the Latin is intentional and very moving, because these words are excerpts from the Catholic Office of the Dead text. (If you know the movie or the opera, you’ll understand why these are used.) To my amazement, the Latin was not only not projected in the surtitles, it was replaced with the English as the Latin was being sung. This is unacceptable captioning.

While it is possible that the surtitle writer felt they were being “helpful” by providing the English, they shouldn’t have. First, they changed Adès’s and librettist Tom Cairns’s work fundamentally. They did not write that part in English for a reason. So, right off the bat, they made an editorial decision about an artist’s work. (If Adès or Cairns directed them to do so, I would happily stand corrected, but I doubt this very much. If the Met directed it, I would disagree with that decision.)

Captioners do not have the right to change art text: their responsibility is to make the piece as it stands accessible.

A caption editor (or book editor) knows to retain the original text.

Another reason this is not best practice is that it makes an editorial assumption about the audience: that they are not culturally savvy enough to know what these words mean, even if they aren’t Catholic. It would be deemed fairly common knowledge in the arts and literature audience to at least have a sense what the Latin was about, even if they couldn’t translate it word for word. So the surtitler decided who they were dealing with. (Again, if the Metropolitan Opera directed them to do it—well, my words would then be directed at them.) The composer knows who he will reach with the Latin and he knows how to best do it in that scene: with the atmospheric layer of using Latin. He does not dumb his libretto down for the audience.

Opera is attracting more young people these days, so some might argue that Millennials just don’t have that common knowledge, but that too is insulting and presumptive. The surtitler may not assume: that’s not their job.

The other thing that is wrong about this involves the Deaf/deaf/hard of hearing community. Did you know that some deaf people do go to and love the opera? My deafened friend loves opera: she said as long as the voices are big enough and surtitles are provided, she can attend and enjoy live opera and HD broadcasts. So the surtitler assumed it wouldn’t matter if the English were used (even if they did know deaf folks can go to the opera), and that is the type of trope the D/d/HoH community too often faces: they don’t matter. This is akin to the attitude of Ill tell you later or Why cant you just enjoy the beat? which I have tweeted about. If they are in the audience, they have the right to access the artistic work as it was created by the artist. It is not the surtitler’s right to even assume they won’t be in attendance, never mind that best practices wouldn’t apply to them. They cannot change an aspect of art because they figure an attendee won’t know anyway.

One final note about surtitles: there are various technological choices available, such as the old PowerPoint way, still used by some, and current surtitling software. These products can force certain style decisions for the surtitler. Also, some theatre and opera companies take divergent theoretical views of how far translations or same-language titles are to go. I belong to the more prescriptive school, obviously, and disapprove of general summarization.

Expletives in films or shows often bring up the issue of censorship—by whoever has the final word on content and house style. But the captioner/subtitler has a duty to at least present an argument (even if they don’t win people over) as to why potentially objectionable words must remain or at least be titled in a similar form.

It is the titler’s job to provide full access to the video product, with 95–100% accuracy for preprogrammed content

No matter what country you’re working in, standards of captioning/subtitling will all get at the point that it is the titler’s job to provide full access to the video product, with 95–100% accuracy for preprogrammed content. As in book editing, the titler must not edit the work to the point of changing content. So, if I’m a very conservative person, I may not decide to “fix” f-bombs or other offensive dialogue; even if I’m liberal personally, I must not “err on the side of caution” and tone down swear words in case a vulnerable audience is watching. I may be allowed, or indeed instructed, to use house style represent those f-bombs with nonsense characters, universally understood to mean expletives, but I may not choose to as a matter of my practice. I complain often about CCs on Netflix (see this article for a good chuckle), but I do appreciate that their style guideline says “Dialogue must never be censored.” They do retain expletives as used by onscreen characters. This is as it should be.

Just as we do not cover classical sculpture with fig leaves or add clothes to nudes in paintings, we should not censor swearing in films. Screenplay writers and directors include it intentionally to produce an effect, and it is effectively intellectual theft for the titler to remove it. There are many aspects of a video product that could offend audiences, but it is their job to choose their entertainment judiciously and not ours to introduce our personal bias into the work. Titlers do not have the right to judge; the have the responsibility to provide access. Period.

As Ada in Peaky Blinders (Season 1, Episode 2) says:Ada Shelby from Peaky Blinders is shouting to the projectionist behind her in a dimmed, empty cinema, Oi! I'm a Shleby too, you know. Put my fucking film back on!"

NB this incorrect caption should read: Oi! A native English speaker, especially one with British background (who would be the ideal choice as titler) would know this. Oy is an alternative.

 

 

If you ever see an example of captions or subtitles that do not represent the content (with the exception of occasional fudges required by timing and space allowance for reading speed), please email a screenshot to or tell me about it at info@reelwords.ca. I keep a file of such infringements to accessibility rights.

 

 

 

*Expletives may have different treatment, based on house style, but they must still be retained in some form or another (even if it’s %^@##!).

**The word surtitles is a trademark of the Canadian Opera Company, where the practice and technology was developed. [Yay, Canada!] The general term is supertitles, but as most readers will be familiar with surtitles, I’ve used that in this article.

 

Re: top photo: Image not credited on original source https://www.sdopera.org/experience/supertitles

Bottom photo is a screenshot from the Peaky Blinders series as presented on Netflix.

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“Captions Connect People”: Personalizing the Call for No More Craptions!

A cropped closeup colour photo of closed captions on a screen, the text being cut off to prevent understanding a sentence.

Guest Post by Chelsea MacLeod

Do you find craptions funny? Think closed captioning is only for “a few deaf people”? Read what one woman has to say about captions and why they need to be clear and accurate. The changes in her hearing may not be obvious to outsiders, but she depends on captions to engage in the wider world. And although her attitude is positive, she and the other perhaps 10% of North Americans who are hard of hearing or deaf still struggle with alienation, isolation, and missing out on art, culture and communication. Here is Chelsea MacLeod’s story. In the last section, I’ve highlighted her feelings. As an advocate for excellence in closed captioning and subtitling, I’m baffled as to why the Canadian government has failed to enforce the high standards that are legislated and why it has only paid lip service to the deaf/Deaf/hard of hearing. Calls for better quality have been made for 30 years! Accessibility through excellent captions is not an expensive frill: it’s a right that can be addressed and planned for in the post-production budget.

 

If captions are unavailable, I usually pass on participating.

I began to notice a significant change in my physicality and level of hearing in 1996.

I was at an Edmonton Oiler playoff hockey game. We were sitting in the nosebleeds, two rows from the very top. In Edmonton, hockey is extremely popular—it is like the life blood of the city—and the home team was winning. Describing the crowd as wild is a gross understatement. The whole place was electric, in a way that was beyond merely sound. It was an intensely energetic experience, in that I realized I was feeling sound in addition to hearing it. (This is difficult to explain, but I believe this was the beginning of an almost heightened sensory awareness.)

Each time they scored, the noise in the arena was literally deafening. I remember a pop or some kind of release occurring in my right ear over the course of the game, but I didn’t think too much of it. By the time it was over, I was so dizzy and nauseous that I could barely walk out of the arena on my own.

I had no idea what was happening to me. I spent the rest of the night and the next day unable to get off the couch. My whole world was spinning. I couldn’t really ground myself to determine what was up or down. This was my first experience with vertigo and the symptoms of Ménières disease, although I wasn’t aware of it as such at that time.

After a few days, the physical sensations passed, and I went on to normal life. I had periods of experiencing the vertigo off and on again, but I chalked it up to a heavy school and work schedule and simply tried to get more rest to mitigate the symptoms. In short, I was a graduate student with a part-time teaching schedule and various odd jobs, and I was living on coffee and convenient foods. In retrospect, I can safely say my nervous system was completely shot.

Fast forward, almost ten years later. In 2003, I gave birth my daughter. It was a joyous occasion despite a difficult labour and an emergency C-section. Again, I suppose my entire physical system was stretched to the limit. I developed a bad infection in the hospital and required large doses of antibiotics. My recovery period was slow and steady, but I had Chloe, and we just spent our days together getting to know each other with feedings and regular nap times.

Pretty early on, I realized that if I was sleeping on my left side, I wasn’t able to hear her when she was crying. I began a series of testing at a Rehabilitative Hospital in Edmonton where they not only tested my hearing levels but also my balance, coordination, etc.

The diagnosis was Ménières disease. I had 20% hearing ability in my right ear. My left ear also showed some damage, but it was relatively minor. 

At the time, they presented a few options I could pursue that required more antibiotics and invasive surgery. I declined and opted to see what I could do to treat the symptoms naturally. I began an acupuncture and herbal-medicine protocol. I did not notice any changes to my hearing levels, but I did begin to see the effects of addressing certain aspects of my nervous system by way of meditation, diet, and increased relaxation. This seemed to keep the Ménières at bay, but if it got really bad, there was nothing I could do but surrender to it, lie down, and be with my body until the symptoms subsided.

In terms of hearing loss, this is when I began a process of learning to adapt and manage the changes to my hearing levels. I began to lip read pretty naturally. I would turn my head to position my left ear to a speaker or to any sound. I began to listen to music with headphones to direct the sound more effectively. I also began to use closed captions when watching anything. If there were no captions, chances were I wouldn’t be able to watch it. This included going to movies.

During this time, I contemplated hearing aids but felt like I was managing all right without them, and so I decided against it.

Funnily enough, at Christmas 2013, my dad made me promise that I would get some hearing aids. It had always really bothered him that I wasn’t able to hear fully. I put it off for a while and then felt badly that I was not honouring my promise to him, and I booked an appointment at the Canadian Hearing Society. I went in for another round of testing, and it was revealed that I had progressively lost more hearing in my good ear.

I signed up for a pair of hearing aids immediately and, needless to say, they opened up the world to me. I really have my father to thank, as he was the catalyst. Incidentally, the sensory input of sound was so profound to my system that it took almost a full month until I was able to wear the hearing aids all day long. It was like I had to go in stages in order to condition my ears to all the sounds they were able to hear again.

One day in 2015, my partner and I were downtown at rush hour, standing on the sidewalk. I started to feel my balance go; I got shaky and began to hear electrical currents all around me. It was like I was hearing sound emitting from street lights and the air itself. By the time we were in a taxi, I could barely hear anything. My hearing aids could not keep up. It coincided with another Ménières episode, and I thought my hearing might return if I rested. However, after 24 hours, there was no change. I booked in to my audiologist immediately for more testing and to amplify my hearing aids. Without my hearing aids, I was pretty much stone cold deaf. But even with them, I could barely manage daily life.

Also during this time, I saw more doctors, naturopaths, and herbalists. I even underwent hyperbaric oxygen treatment because I had read that, for acute hearing loss, high amounts oxygen could restore hearing loss if it was done right away, as soon as possible after the traumatic event.

The hearing tests revealed that my left ear had less than 20% hearing ability. My right ear had also decreased slightly in ability, but it was now my dominant ear. I remember thinking of the irony of all those years I had referred to my right ear as my bad ear. Now it’s my good ear. From then on, I made a commitment to myself to refrain from talking about my body negatively in any way. I just decided both my ears were good and that they were doing the best they could. 

About a year after that, I began to notice I had become quite isolated, as meeting up with people, socially in restaurants or anywhere it was even slightly noisy, was pretty much out of the question. I think I didn’t notice it so much because I am blessed with a really supportive family and I have a busy and full life. All the same, I felt a need to connect with others and to be comfortable with who I was becoming without feeling shy or like I couldn’t keep up with conversation.

That’s the main reason I wanted to take up ASL. I felt like cultivating a community that was not hearing dependent—where I could communicate freely with others and learn to express myself in a visual way.

As I have progressively lost the sense of hearing, visual communication has heightened and taken precedence. And this brings me to the crucial role of closed captioning in my ability to experience the world around me. I use captioning on every type of media I can. If captions are unavailable, I usually pass on participating. Captions are my way of accessing vital information, art, culture and entertainment.

 

Captions that can’t keep up or that are garbled or inaccurate don’t serve anyone.

 

 

They not only distort the story or message that is being conveyed but also alienate anyone who requires them to receive information. This includes not just words but also sound experiences like laughter or a doorbell chime.

Sensitivity to captioning is the same as having sensitivity to written or oral language. How it is intended to be received by an audience is as important as translation, in order to accurately communicate anything from feelings and ideas to concepts and current events. Captions connect people. They engage a sense of belonging to the wider world and, when done well, captions have the potential to inspire a variety of interests and curiosities, not only those of the deaf and hard of hearing community.

 

While I’ve had hearing issues (Ménières disease, hyperacusis, and tinnitus) for about 30 years and do a fair bit of lip reading in noisy environments, I wanted to share the emotional and practical impacts of craptions and captions on someone with more hearing loss than me. I met Chelsea at the Canadian Hearing Society where we study ASL, and I'm grateful to her for being willing to share her story as a guest post for Reel Words.

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What’s the Difference between Subtitles and Captions, Anyway?

Colour photo of oranges in vertical rows on the left and red applies on the right, as they might be lined up on display in a grocery store.

 

Fuzzy on the difference between subtitles and captions? We tend to use the terms fairly interchangeably, lumping them into some vague notions about "boring films" and closed captions on TV "for the deaf." But they are distinct animals, and here I'll share some straightforward info about the two, why the distinction matters, and why they're necessary.

Let's start chronologically, with subtitles. Before talkie films, silent films relied on cards with text shown for several frames, to insert dialogue or other information relevant to the story. Later (see the links provided under History to fill jump ahead), subtitles were introduced so that audiences of foreign films to translated the actors' words. Although helping hearing people understand the language, subtitles are also used in teaching scenarios, as visual reinforcement of the audio aids language acquisition.

Subtitles tend to be at the bottom centre of the screen (although that convention is changing in some productions), they can be turned off (they can be "closed"), and they never mention the onscreen audio language, although they may when another language is used in the action. They often are not used if the audio is considered common knowledge or if the word sounds the same in the translated language (e.g. a lot of languages use some form of the word "cool" or "okay"). Subtitled films can subsequently be captioned. You'll see why below.

Captions are intended for the Deaf, deaf, or hard of hearing, people with a variety of hearing issues (such as the ones I outlined in the here), and in situations that aid the hearing audience: noisy spaces or places where the sound has been turned off. They can be closed (optional) or open (embedded in the video). Sometimes their position moves to indicate who is speaking or that name can be explicitly shown, such as [VANESSA:] or  >> TV anchor. They are usually in the same language as the audio and provide all utterances, tone of voice, atmospheric sounds or other effects. They can be added to subtitled work if this latter information needs to be conveyed for the CC audience.

The commonality is that both are often poorly written, or lack lustre at best. Many countries now have laws and regulations in effect to require that film productions and TV shows are distributed and broadcast with content that communicates with almost perfect verbatim accuracy and correct syntax, presentation, etc. That's where we come in.

Communication is a right, not a privilege.

In my work experience, subtitlers are professional translators and titlers who, despite their advanced training and skills, are hired at very low rates and with unreasonable turnarounds. It's no surprise, then, that they are too rushed to create a perfect file or that less trained people are awarded files. Unfortunately, subtitles are not considered important, seemingly something to slap on the end product to say it was done, without considering how their level of quality affects the viewer's immersion in the film. Which is counterproductive to critical and popular success, isn't it?

Closed captions are created with the same attitude (again, in my experience; others might have had better luck): captioners are typically not paid a living wage, and the speed at which they have to process material before broadcast encourages errors in spelling, grammar and written style. [However, house styles and extenuating circumstances in the material can force those shifts and they are then not errors.] Often they are hired largely based on keyboarding speed, and writing and editing training is erroneously considered irrelevant. When I captioned, the employees processing several shows or movies per day had no time or knowledge to be able to apply the editing I do, and the quality assurance supervisors were in the same boat.

So, while their form and function can be quite different, subtitles and captions both require editing. Google "caption errors" and the images that show up readily prove my point. No one is offering the editing Reel Words is, despite the very real need. And it's a shame because it is disrespectful of viewers who require the accessibility to fully participate in current culture and it ruins the enjoyment of audiences who love foreign films. Basically, the current state of affairs in subtitling and captioning is unacceptably abysmal.

The goal of all film storytellers is to keep their audiences completely immersed in the content; once attention is sidelined by errors, the flow is lost while the brain struggles to figure out what was (not) communicated and to keep up with the subsequent titles.
Our view is that we all deserve better—whether we are hearing or non-hearing. We expect outstanding CGI reults and online variety, but captions and subtitles are ignored. Part of the ethos of Reel Words is to advocate for actual improvement in standards, not just on the books. No More Craptions! may be lighthearted in tone, but the rallying cry is serious in vision.

Closed captions used to be considered a frill, and now they are required. Together, let's demand improvements in quality. If you are a producer, you can start by having your subtitle or caption file edited.

 

 

 

Photo source: frankieleon, let's compare apples and oranges, May 3, 2009 on Flickr.com

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