Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Australian captioning colours

Here in the captioning demimonde, we suffer from a profound lack of captioning style guides, let alone style guides based on research or even common sense.

The Australian Caption Centre published a style guide for use by anyone involved in digital television in 1999. It’s available only as a Microsoft Word document, inconveniently enough.

To a Canadian audience, the use of colour-coding of captions is a tad foreign. It is essentially unheard-of despite the fact that colour has always been part of the Line 21 captioning standard.

Since we can’t exactly flick on our televisions to understand how our dear Australian friends use colour in captioning, I decided to create this simulation. Notes:

On with the show. Six simulations are available:

  1. Four speaking characters
  2. Two narrators
  3. Episode recaps
  4. Two announcers
  5. Multiple recollected voices
  6. Multiple offscreen voices

Four speaking characters

Colour scheme goes like this:

  1. white on black
  2. yellow on black
  3. cyan on black
  4. green on black

Repeat if necessary.

Nice work, Miles.



That should give the prosecution witnesses
something to think about.

Well done.

I hope you're getting
SOME free time.

Yeah, don't worry.


Between the two of us,

I think we've got a good chance now
of cracking this one.

Well, I think Anna had a role--

I'll meet you later.

You going to be long?

Five minutes.

I'll come back.

You OK?

Yeah. Fine.

Two narrators

The colour scheme is: White on black; yellow on black.

The Lying Lady Puzzle.

Five nice, pretty ladies,

who any man would be proud
to maybe have a kiss and a cuddle with.

But beware,
for appearances can be deceptive!

One of them give you a nasty shock,

because one ain't no lady--
she's a bloke!


Can you tell which one
is the she-man?

Is it Number 1?
Is her toilet seat up or down?

Hmm. Tricky.

Or Number 2.
What lies behind that mysterious smile?

(Surprised) Ohhh....

Could it be Number 3?
Is she a he or is she a she?

Or maybe she both.
But that would be cheating!

What about Number 4?
Would you kick her out of bed?

Mm, very difficult decision,
isn't it?

Or is it Number 5?

She got earrings and high heels.

Maybe that's important.
I don't know.

The question is,
which lady is actually a bloke?

Is it 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5?

Bet! Bet!
Bet! Bet! Bet!

Bet! Bet! Bet! Bet! Bet!

Whoa! Time out! No more bets!

If you say Number 2, you stupid,

because she obviously
a genuine pretty lady, eh?

If you go for Number 3,
you even stupider,

because she also a pretty lady.

What, can you not tell the difference
or something?

But if you say Number 4, congratulations!

You sorting the men from the boys!


Episode recaps

The colour scheme here gives an announcer his or her own treatment (white on blue), with normal colouration for character speech and everything else. But since there are only enough colours for four characters, this example, with eight of them, requires doubling up.

Previously on 'This Life'--


Anna, you're a complete mess.


Have you completely taken leave
of your senses?

If I have my way,

you won't be anywhere near
these chambers.

What's this bird's name?

It's a him.

I was going to take a shower.

Well, don't mind me.

Men, work, you name it--

whatever I touch
just slips through my fingers.

You look terrible. What was wrong?

She just fucked up.

Something in here
goes into blind panic!

Graham suggested
that you would be ideally placed

to pick up the baton.

There IS a condition
for your staying on.

Get this straight.
He is NOT my boyfriend.

Girlfriend, then.

You might turn out to be the one.

Don't take the piss, Kyra.

I'm getting fed up with it.

I just thought I detected signs

of the old chromosomes
finally slotting into place.

Two announcers

First announcer gets red on yellow, the second blue on yellow.

And we're seconds away
from the 100-meter butterfly.

While the East German (chuckles)...

are shaving their backs
3,000 miles away,

the Americans are heavy favorites.

Boo-hoo, you're breaking my heart!

Multiple recollected voices

Voices spoken in recollection or flashback have this colour scheme:

  1. white on blue
  2. yellow on blue
  3. cyan on blue (which means blue on blue, incredibly enough)

Wait a minute, Marge. Love isn't hopeless.

Maybe I'm no expert on the subject,

but there was one time I got it right.

Would you go to the prom with me?


I can think of a dozen highly cogent arguments.

Now, the first is from 'Time' magazine,
dated January 8th, 1974...

Marge, when I see you forming
the vowels and continents--


with your beautiful mouth,

your beautiful breath pushing past
your beautiful teeth...

So will you go out with me?
Please say "oui."

Multiple offscreen voices

When voices are transmitted through radios or communicators, red on yellow comes first, then blue on yellow. There is no provision for multiple transmitted voices beyond two of them, as in the case of airplane cockpit recorder transcripts.

We gotta get there quick.


American 1420 leaving two-two-zero
for one-zero thousand.

American 1420, Memphis, roger.

Sit 'em down early?

(Chime dings)

This is Nancy.

Yeah, how you guys doing back there?

This is Jennifer.

Yeah, how you guys doing back there?

Um, pretty OK.

They're still out in the aisle with the cart doing the service.


Really, huh?


It's, uh-- I think it's gonna get a little bumpy here again and if you don't mind.

Do we need to sit down?

Yeah, how far through are you?


Unfamiliarity is certain an issue here, but these simulations show that all colour-coding really manages to do is differentiate speakers – that is, signify a speaker change rather than immediately and transparently triggering an understanding of which character corresponds with which colour.

Colour-coding falls down entirely with more than four characters. In the episode-recap example, there are fully eight characters, meaning each of the colour codes is used twice. Just who belongs to which colour is irrelevant, really; all the colours signify is another character speaking. One wonders why we go to all that trouble.

The Australian standard also cannot accommodate a large number of voices transmitted through radios or communicators. It has never been clear to me – and I mean never, even after 20 years – why such voices get special treatment. Either we can see the speaker or we can’t; those would appear to be the salient criteria.

The Australians must be commended for ignoring the temptation to typeset red on black. Protanopes (people with a certain form of red–green colourblindness) cannot differentiate red and green and see a substitute colour for red that is much darker than the other main class of red–green colourblindness, deuteranopes. In effect, then, red on black becomes very dark beige on black, which isn't exactly easy to read.

Both groups could not differentiate red-on-black and green-on-black captions, and protans might not be able to read red-on-black captions at all.

It is also wise of the Australians to avoid gaudy colour combos like purple on green, though there is no excuse whatsoever for cyan on blue, in actual use for multiple recollected voices.

I do not have enough experience watching actual colour-coded captions to develop genuine expertise. The indications of these simulations, however, suggest it isn't worth the trouble, particularly under the Line 21 system, which requires a visible black space to turn a colour on or off.

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Australian captioning colours

Updated 2001.08.03, 2007.03.09 14:30

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