How to caption a film for deaf / hard-of-hearing audiences
Good captioning is an art that requires negotiating conflicting requirements. On the whole, you should aim for captions that are faithful to the audio. However, you will need to balance this against considerations such as the action on the screen, speed of speech, or editing and visual content.
There is no set of hard rules for creating subtitles. Here, we provide some guidelines and practical advice.
If you are not deaf or hard-of-hearing yourself, you need to put yourself in the mind of someone who is. Ask yourself:
What would I need to know to understand and enjoy the film without the soundtrack?
As well as the dialogue, what other important information is communicated through the sound?
You should never deprive the viewer of words or sounds when there is time to include them and there is no conflict with the visual information.
- Do not simplify or translate for deaf audiences. This is not only condescending, it is also frustrating for lip-readers.
- If the speaker is in shot, try to retain the start and end of their speech, as these are most obvious to lip-readers who will feel cheated if these words are removed.
- Avoid editing out names when they are used to address people. They can be essential for following the plot.
- Your editing should be faithful to the speaker's style of speech.
- Keep words that can be easily lip-read.
- Do not edit out strong language.
- Do not correct grammar that is a part of dialect, e.g. the Cockney "you was".
- Use labels for inaudible speech. Speech can be inaudible for different reasons. You should use a label explaining the cause:
( APPLAUSE DROWNS OUT SPEECH ),
( SLURRED SPEECH )
Each subtitle should comprise a single complete sentence.
Exceptions to this rule:
- A maximum subtitle length of two lines is recommended
- Each line maximum 40 characters each line
- Subtitles and lines should be broken at logical points.
It was Tuesday, I think, [line break] and it was snowing.not
It was Tuesday, I [line break] think, and it was snowing.
With two speakers, put each piece of speech on a separate line and insert a dash before each piece of speech, thereby clearly distinguishing different speakers' lines. e.g.:
- Did you see that? - Yeah, a flying saucer!
If the speaker is off screen and you can't tell who's speaking from the picture alone, prefix the caption with their name in CAPS:
DERRICK: Hey guys!
For voiceover, use a label
NARRATOR: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
- Hold a subtitle up for long enough to read it. This can often be longer than the time it takes the character to speak the words, especially if they're a fast-talker.
- It is less tiring for the viewer if shot changes and subtitle changes occur at the same time.
- Where possible, avoid extending a subtitle into the next shot when the speaker has stopped speaking, particularly if the next shot is a dramatic reaction shot.
Intonation and emotion
- Indicate a pause in speech with
Could it be... an alien?
- To indicate a sarcastic statement, use an exclamation mark in brackets:
- To indicate a sarcastic question, use a question mark in brackets:
Well that's a great idea, isn't it(?)
- Use capitals to indicate when a word is stressed e.g.
You did WHAT?. Do not overuse this device - text sprinkled with capitals can be hard to read. Don't be Donald Trump.
- To indicate whispered speech, use a label:
(WHISPERS): Don't let him near you.
- Indicate questions asked in an incredulous tone with
You're going to marry him?!
Caption effects only when necessary to understand the action.
- Sound effects in all CAPS inside square brackets, in the present tense:
[ DOOR BELL RINGS ]
- Describe sounds, not actions. Sound-effect labels are not stage directions:
[ GUNFIRE ]not
[ THEY SHOOT EACH OTHER ]
- If sound is obvious from the on-screen action, no need to caption it. e.g. if someone fires a gun on screen, there's no need to also caption
[ GUNSHOT ].
All music that is part of the action, or significant to the plot, must be indicated in some way.
- If it is part of the action, e.g. somebody playing an instrument/a record playing/music on a jukebox or radio, then write the label in capitals:
SHE WHISTLES A JOLLY TUNE
- If the music is "incidental music" (i.e. not part of the action) and well known or identifiable in some way, label with
#surrounding the name of the music:
# AXEL F - CRAZY FROG #
- Sometimes a combination of these two styles will be appropriate:
HE HUMS "God Save The Queen"
- If the music is "incidental music" but is an unknown piece, written purely to add atmosphere or dramatic effect, do not label it.
- Indicate song lyrics with
#. Song lyrics should almost always be subtitled.
# Love, love will tear us apart, again...
- StageText subtitling guidelines (PDF)
- Stagetext subtitling best practice (video)
- BBC subtitling guidelines (this page is specfic to the BBC, but provides useful tips to improve presentation and the accessibilty of subtitles)