Joe Clark: Media access

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Cinema → How to make movies accessible

Updated 2002.03.30

How to make movies accessible

All right. You’ve acknowledged that not everyone who wants to go to the movies has perfect eyesight or hearing. So just how do you make a film accessible to blind/visually-impaired/low-vision people? What about deaf/hard-of-hearing people?

You actually have several options. First, some definitions.

Defining our terms

(See also: Understanding Media-Access Terminology.)

Rendering dialogue and other meaningful audio information in visible words. Not the same as subtitling
audio description
Descriptive narration (custom-written and read out by a human being) that explains all the visual details you cannot figure out from the soundtrack alone. Description talks you through what’s happening onscreen

How do you do it?

Broadly, there are two means available: Open and closed.

Open access

open captioning
Everyone in the theatre sees the captions
open description
Everyone in the theatre hears the descriptions

Open captioning

There’s more open captioning than open description. In fact, to my knowledge there have been only two screenings of open description in world history – My Left Foot in Washington in 1990 and Stardom in 2000.

Until recently, open captioning has used the same technologies as film subtitling:

laser etching
A laser beam burns the emulsion off the film negative, forming characters the way you’d write your name in peanut butter. Typography is poor (the monoline or “stroked” characters cannot really be said to have a typeface) and the resulting white characters are hard to read against a white background
A separate strip of film bearing titles runs on top of the movie

It’s also possible to add titles on a nonlinear video editing system before the negative is struck. Pretty much nobody is doing this; among other reasons, there’s no credible software for the task.

At any rate, the largest source of open-captioned films is Tripod, which tends to use Cinetyp as titling vendor, never has more than a handful of open-captioned prints available; only a few movie houses show them; screenings are “special” and infrequent.

It is generally believed that hearing people will not put up with open captioning. Even though there is no research whatsoever backing that up, and even though hearing people are now the majority audience of TV captioning, perception has long since become reality.

Pros and cons of open captioning

It should be noted that the DTS-CSS system is an open-captioning system: It projects captions on the screen or just below it. As such, every screening either has captions absolutely everyone sees or no captions at all. DTS-CSS can, however, transmit closed descriptions via wireless headset.

Open description

Open description is largely a theoretical prospect at this point, but for the heck of it, here are some pros and cons:

Closed access

In closed access systems, you the viewer must opt into the captions or descriptions.

This discussion more or less revolves around the WGBH MoPix system of Rear Window captioning and Descriptive Video Service Theatrical description. It’s not the only system on the planet (see my own articles), but it’s the only credible system with a meaningful installed base.

The Rear Window system includes a large LED display on the movie theatre’s back wall. It displays caption text in reverse. Viewers pick up a semitransparent Plexiglas panel on a gooseneck stalk, place it in the seat’s cupholder, and manhandle the panel into position so that it reflects the caption text in readabale words.

To listen to audio descriptions, viewers pick up a wireless headset which receives the description track without main audio, which you hear ambiently in the auditorium. (A mixed descriptions-plus-audio feed creates unpleasant echoes.)

Maybe somebody will invent another closed-access system for movie theatres, but it is unlikely to happen for several years. And no, nothing will change when digital projection becomes the norm: MoPix is already digital and it already works in a digital-projection theatre (the Loews Cineplex/Universal City Cinema at the CityWalk complex in Los Angeles).

How do closed access features work in various media?

Pros and cons of closed access:

It is often claimed that movie captions and descriptions can be reused for home video. The basic transcript of captions may be useful, but format and presentation of movie, TV, and DVD captions are all very different; you can’t just copy and paste. You can’t even reuse Rear Window caption files in DTS-CSS projected captions. That advantage is oversold.

However, description tracks are almost immediately transferable. (One difference: Home-video description will in many cases read end credits in their entirety, adding black tape to the cassette if necessary. In-cinema description selectively reads credits so the descriptions will end when the film does.)

A clever possibility

If you have a local service provider who can do a decent job of audio description and if you have the rights to adapt a film, you can take advantage of the fact that nearly every theatre built in the last ten years in the U.S. and Canada has an assistive-listening device (amplified headsets) for hard-of-hearing people.

It is technically possible to transmit descriptions over ALD headsets. In essence, most theatres already are equipped to transmit and receive closed descriptions. There are a lot of provisos – you’re excluding hard-of-hearing people from that screening (you’re using their system!); you have to synchronize the descriptions and the film; you have to feed the description audio, and nothing else, through the system – but it is an idea.

Aren’t subtitles good enough?

This question is so common and so important it deserves its own section. If captions are “like” subtitles, can’t deaf people just go see subtitled movies?

Easy answer: No.

Nonetheless, when given no other option, deaf viewers will attend subtitled movies. But they aren’t good enough, and in fact subtitled films shown also need captioning, which they often actually receive on TV.