After a summer dominated by blockbuster movies Barbie and Oppenheimer, it’s finally time for one of the biggest seasons in the film world: the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). This year, the festival is set to showcase films such as Les Indésirables, Hate to Love: Nickelback, Wicked Little Letters, and so much more — including a larger emphasis on Canadian and international films in wake of the ongoing Writer’s Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists strikes in the US industry.
But as we eagerly discuss hopping from theatre to theatre for movie premieres, I have a burning question: is it time we put captions in films?
You might be confused by that question — after all, don’t we already have the opportunity to add closed captions or subtitles to our movies and shows when streaming? Of course: as a person with hearing loss, I use closed captions for everything I watch online.
But on that special occasion when we go out to enjoy a movie in theatres, captions are absent. This has been the case for most of my life. As I watched Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, The Batman, and Top Gun: Maverick last year, I did so without captions. I enjoyed the movies, of course, but due to my hearing impairment, I missed a lot of dialogue and context to fully understand the plot of some of these films.
In North America, while captioned films in threatres exist, they are usually foreign-language films. Furthermore, for the billions of people outside the English-speaking world, captions are often essential in enjoying Hollywood blockbusters and in making these blockbusters successful on a global scale. When we watch movies in a foreign language, we don’t bemoan subtitles: they are an accessibility tool for those who don’t speak the film’s original language. Yet the same mentality isn’t applied for those who can’t hear the film’s dialogue.
Some say captions ruin the experience of cinema, some say they are too distracting, and others say they are too prone to technical problems. Yet the Silent Era of films had words on the screen — why have people’s attitudes changed now?
The downsides of captions
In an interview with Innis College Principal Charlie Keil, who as a professor had researched the Silent Era, he brought up three reasons why people may be against the idea of captioning in theatres. Firstly, unlike on a small laptop screen, when movies are projected in theatres, captions are literally larger and more noticeable — this perhaps contributes to the ‘distracting’ argument. Secondly, there may be pushback from the creatives and directors themselves. According to Keil, “Directors especially tend to see film as a more visual medium. [They] don’t want [their] lovely image obscured by writing.” Finally, caption technology is not perfect; if words are not in sync, it can ruin the pacing of the film.
“One of the things [the creatives] don’t like is what I would call anticipatory in nature of titling,” said Keil. “You don’t really want that joke until exactly the moment it’s spoken — but the way titling typically works is you get a block of text all at once. So if you’re a faster reader, you’ll get the joke before the joke has been said.” Therefore, in films with comedy and suspense, the timing of the captions is everything.
The silent film era
Unlike what the name suggests, the silent films of the early twentieth century were not completely silent. Keil explained that most films would have a musical accompaniment that would be played live following the plot of the movie. That being said, during that era, the main means of communication was purely visual. As a result, it was quite accessible for audience members who had hearing loss.
By the 1930s, however, the use of synchronous sound technology quickly became the norm, isolating the hearing loss community. One solution to address this problem was sign language interpreters; later, theatre hearing aids provided by theatre staff helped to amplify the movie’s existing sound. However, not everyone knows sign language or can have their hearing ‘fixed’ with amplification.
These logistical hurdles are why captions have become the preferred solution. They have a universal appeal, and can be used for both deaf and hearing audiences.
Captions, admittedly, aren’t perfect. They must align with the script for each specific film, requiring a meticulous and time-consuming process. They also must be synchronized with the film’s dialogue; if they go too fast or too slow, it will ruin the experience. Furthermore, captions on the screen cannot be hidden for the benefit of viewers who do not need subtitles.
There are some theatres out there that provide captions directly on the screen, and some American theatres even provide ‘futuristic’ caption glasses. But the main form of captions for movie theatres in Canada is through the use of machines.
Cineplex Entertainment — the largest cinema chain in Canada — uses a caption machine system called CaptiView. The portable machines, which have small rectangular screens the size of an iPhone, provide digital closed captions that glow in the dark. They have ‘shutters’ that ensure other people around you are not disturbed. You place its base in your cup holder and adjust it to your height. Before you enter the theater, a staff member will link it up with the movie you are about to watch.
This past summer, I decided to try these CaptiView machines for myself while watching Across the Spiderverse and Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning. Getting the captions was easy; all I had to do was ask an employee and scan my ticket.
The captions on my CaptiView machine followed the film well, yet I couldn’t help but notice some major problems.
Firstly, it is clunky: for it to work, I had to place the base in the cup holder, which took up space. And where else was I supposed to place my drink in a crowded theater? It also didn’t stay in the cup holder after a while so I had to hold it, which is difficult to do when eating popcorn.
Secondly, you have to multitask: shall I watch the movie or read the captions? The machine has an arm that extends upward to eye level, but it has to be at exactly the right angle to view the captions and film simultaneously. It was difficult to do so.
Thirdly, CaptiView is not for beginners. The previous issues were mostly resolved once I figured out how to use the machine my second time around, but the design isn’t as easy to understand if you never used them before.
Fourthly, the captions are inconsistent and not always in sync. Though the previous problems may be annoying to deal with, it was CaptiView’s inconsistency that made me reconsider future use. While the first time around it captured both dialogue and special effects really well, the second time I used it, it would leave large gaps of words, sentences, and even small scenes blank. If it was playing captions, they would be delayed or appear in advance to the dialogue.
Finally, CaptiView machines are not available at every theatre. What eventually killed my enthusiasm for using these machines was realizing that, out of the three theatres I go to in my town, only one had CaptiView. As much as I am grateful for the technology’ existence, I prefer having the freedom to go to different theatres — especially if they are closer, or have better seating, sound quality, or even popcorn.
While I am leaving a rather negative review of caption machines, I only bother reviewing them because I desperately want them to work. I would love to see the day when we actually have words on screen by default. Given the preferences of the hearing masses, however, on-screen captions may not ever become the standard.
For the time being, I only hope that developers like those behind CaptiView improve the current archaic tech to something more modern. After all, every year Apple drops a new phone, and we have touch screen technology. Why are we still using a hunk of hard plastic straight from the early 2000s as an accessibility device?