Accessible film making or what if subtitles were part of the programme?

I was prompted to write this blog post by a recent tweet from director Samuel Dore who bemoaned the fact that he felt that film directors and distributors seem to ‘moan’ about the cost of subtitling content:

And I’ve seen tweets from others with comments of a similar nature.  This is a tricky topic because it would be wrong to label everyone individual or company out there as having this belief or attitude. However it’s another repeated theme I’ve seen discussed at access and language conferences this year.  That’s a good thing – it means its recognised as a potential issue for some companies or individuals and others in the same industry are challenging this assumption and trying to change it.  At the 2014 CSI Accessibility Conference Screen Subtitling’s John Birch asked the question “What if subtitles were part of the programme?”  He pointed out that in his opinion funding issues are still not addressed. Subtitling is still not a part of the production process and not often budgeted for. Broadcasters are required to pay subtitling companies,and subtitling companies are under continued to pressure (presumably to provide more, for less money). It is a sad fact that subtitling is not ascribed the value it deserves.

I would also argue that there is some lost opportunity with the current Ofcom Code on Access Television Services that gives new TV channels a one year grace period in which regardless of audience reach, if the TV channel is less than one year old it is not required to subtitle/caption any volume of its output at all. Whilst I understand the cost of doing so might be considered a barrier to even launching the channel in the first place, the problem is it promotes an attitude or thinking once  again of not budgeting for subtitling/captioning from the start of the business process.  So two or three years down the line when the grace period is over,the risk is that it becomes an additional cost that the channel has not budgeted for and could be perceived as hindrance or ‘punishment’ rather than something positive that adds value for the channel and its viewers.

The same is also true for translation subtitling. At the 2014 Languages & The Media Conference Pablo Romero-Fresco gave this statistic: Subtitling and translation make up 57% of revenue generated from English speaking movies but translation subtitling only gets 0.1% of budget. He argued that there needs to be a shift of change in the production process of filmmaking.  His suggestion is that film production should recognise and create the role of Producer of Accessibility who is involved before the final edit is locked.

Sherlock - text message - on screen typography

Sherlock – text message – on screen typography

He observed that in recent years text and typography effects like those seen in the BBC’s Sherlock, and Netflix’s House of Cards (and many, many more), which uses text on screen as part of the storytelling and is part of the post production process should also be integrated in this role.  I too have observed the increase in recent years of using typography on screen as part of the story telling process. It’s also being widely used in music videos. For lots of examples of kinetic typography be sure to check out this Vimeo channel.

Romero repeated this vision and idea at the Future of Subtitling Conference 2014.  You can read more in-depth information in the Journal of Specialised Translation.  I’ve also collated further tweets and information on this topic at Storify: Why subtitles should be part of the production process.

I think its a really interesting idea. I also think that it will require a monumental shift for this to happen in the industry but never say never. What is good, is that certainly between broadcast TV production companies and subtitling companies is that collaboration of a sort is happening. Information and scripts are shared well in advance so that subtitler’s can prepare as much as possible in advance of broadcasts. Clearly, Romero’s vision is to be much more integrated than that.

Currently for broadcast TV that is licensed under Ofcom, the responsibility for access and provision of subtitling lies with the broadcaster/TV channel. If the creation of subtitles and captions is implemented wholly into the production process then should subtitling provision then solely lie with the production company?

At the moment it would appear that the responsibility shifts between the two depending on a number of factors:

  1. Regulation, if there is any and whom is considered responsible for providing subtitles.
  2. The production company and/or the distribution company making the content (some will provide subtitles, some will not, and a broadcaster may have bought programmes from either one of these or they may be one and the same thing)
  3. The country broadcasting the content (what language do you need subtitles in and how many languages will a production company be prepared to produce?)
  4. The method of how content is viewed (digital TV, satellite, cable, online, download, streaming subscription, pay per view,)

It really shouldn’t be complicated but there is no denying that with all these variables it is. A lot of the above is complicated further by distribution rights which is another topic entirely. I do like the idea a lot though as it has the potential to simplify some of the above. I also think production companies would benefit greatly from the knowledge and expertise gained from years of experience from translation and subtitling companies as to the best methods to achieve collaboration and integration. What do you think?

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