On January 24, 2020, The Sundance Film Festival featured a screening of the film Crip Camp. This documentary tells the story of the beginnings of the Disabilities Act which fought for equal rights for those with disabilities. The director, Jim LeBrecht was born with Spina Bifida and has thus spent the majority of his life in a wheelchair. Those involved with the making of the film all met at Camp Jened, a disabilities camp, and it sparked a movement.
While Sundance provided audio assistance devices, the devices unfortunately malfunctioned and those with hearing difficulty could not watch the film in its entirety. An attendee with this impairment was scheduled to speak on the panel after the film and due to their unfortunate experience in being unable to watch it, Sundance apologized and spoke about how hard it was for them to imagine this happening with the film being primarily about accessibility for all, which “broke their heart.”
It was the perception of those in attendance that the Sundance apology was unauthentic. The film’s director expressed that matters of accessibility are taken very seriously, which caused attendees to question why closed captioning wasn’t offered? It makes the most sense for a film about accessibility for all to have closed captioning as a default, rather than a request or “plan b”. This sparked the conversation about reasons why subtitles aren’t simply included in every movie?
It is understandable that some people do not like subtitles as they can be distracting, illegible, and hard on the eyes. While some prefer subtitles all the time, hearing impaired or not. Could the answer to this issue be solved with the design of the subtitles themselves?
When it comes to design within the film industry, opening and closing title sequences are the cream of the crop, or should I say, the Oscar to the nominee. On the other hand, subtitles were designed in one way, at one point in time, and have rarely improved or evolved since. They are often forgotten and treated as more of a to-do rather than a priority. The film industry has a great opportunity to allow millions of viewers to experience their films in an entirely different way by intentionally designing the subtitles with as much enthusiasm and rigor as the other graphic elements within the film.
At the same time, their distractive qualities and demand for attention cause them to remain widely unpopular. While some may need or want them on the screen, it can negatively affect the experience of the others who may also be watching the film with them. Because subtitles often come onto the screen before some of the lines are said by the actors on screen they can kill the jokes, give away a major plot, or reveal things seconds before the music that is timed with the actors’ lines.
As you have been reading this article, I assume that you can immediately imagine what a subtitle looks like across a screen — the small white (often mono-spaced) text, sometimes with a black box behind it. Subtitles originally came to be when films were made without sound, so the viewer would actually have to read the film at the bottom of the screen in order to understand it. Due to their origin, having them on the screen in the present day feels old-fashioned, unadvanced, and unnecessary to those without a hearing impairment or who speak a different language than that of the film. The user experience of subtitles wasn’t enhanced until DVD came around and offered viewers the option of turning subtitles on or off, including which language the subtitles would appear in. However, here we are 24 years later and the majority of options for subtitle viewing on-screen remain the same, with little to no improvement.
As mentioned, the typography of most subtitles has been a slab serif or sans serif mono-spaced typeface which can give a sense of critical writing or thought. The power of typography is so often undervalued and mismanaged. The design of different letterforms and how they interact with one another imparts meaning to the words they represent.
While selecting a typeface can seem simple and unimportant, it actually can change the way a person interacts with and interprets what they are reading. This task is not one that should be taken lightly and it should be thoughtfully and carefully considered based on many different factors, but foremost with how the viewer feels when they read the type. This method is illustrated in the 2014 Keanu Reeves film, “John Wick,” which used various typefaces to impart meaning on the subtitles that appeared throughout the film. To place emphasis on certain words, the typeface varied but so did the color and style of select words. This is a common practice in poster design, magazine cover design, and various marketing and advertising strategies.
Subtitles are also often used as a tool for translation when the audience is multilingual. They also have the power to inform an audience with dialogue that is not audibly understandable. The BBC did a modern spin on “Sherlock Holmes” and with their modern take, they also chose to modernize their treatment of the subtitles within the show. Rather than showing a phone screen with a text for a few seconds, or having the actor read aloud a text message they received, they artfully crafted a display of the text message on the screen.
Thus, rather than the tried and true method of the character reading a text aloud, the text coming onto the screen in the same way a text can pop up onto one’s phone made it feel authentic and relatable. When Sherlock receives a text, the audience is aware that he reads it by his body language and the composition of the scene, but also because the actor’s performance remains authentic by revealing the unspoken dialog through subtitles.
The limits that once defined subtitles previously are no longer a restraint in video editing. Applying the rules of typography to subtitles, even something as simple as sizing and placing the text on the screen so it doesn’t interfere with the scene, and instead plays with it. Along with the placement of the type, the size of the text and the size of words within a phrase can add emphasis and enhance the viewers’ experience.
In this way, a viewer who is watching without the sound, or who is unfamiliar with the spoken language of the film, will know what words carry the most meaning. It’s also a way to highlight an actor’s dynamic performance. This technique was done for the subtitles of the 2004 Denzel Washington film, “Man on Fire.”
Contrary to the current stigma of subtitles being a boring but necessary element within a film, they are a powerful tool that allows words to shape and carry the meaning of a scene and typography can help bring that power to life in subtitle design.
Judith Heumann, who was a subject in the Crip Camp film, recently said in an interview “I hope this film will ignite other stories.” While this story highlights the areas in which subtitle design has failed and also succeeded, there is still so much that can be done to improve the experience only film can provide. For some to miss out on such a simple and attainable form of entertainment that so many of us take for granted, it’s really quite confusing. The design of the typography and placement of the subtitles is one way that they could be more pleasing, less jarring, and legible for viewers, but it still could be argued that they are distracting and unwanted. How could they be implemented into films worldwide as a mandatory requirement for a film to be released?
Another solution may be more tech-related. In VR technology, one can view an entire environment simply by placing some goggles over your eyes and immersing your imagination into the unknown. It’s a virtual yet real experience; it brings to life another scenario in a matter of seconds. Can the same be done in film? Perhaps an individual would simply need to wear a pair of sleek, lightweight, comfortable glasses and viola! The subtitles are visible. With the same sort of technology as 3D films or virtual reality, could it not be possible to create films with lines of copy at the bottom of the screen that only the viewer with these glasses can see? And why make it that simple? Why not integrate the same type, layout, color, and design principles mentioned previously into the design of the subtitles along with their stealthy existence? Using these principles along with the glasses would not only enhance the hearing-impaired viewer’s experience but the experience of everyone around them watching the same film.
So many who aren’t hearing impaired enjoy watching films with subtitles for various reasons, but the main drive behind subtitle design should be focused on those who are only able to watch and understand films with closed captioning due to hearing impairment. Former President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on July 26, 1990 and in doing so stated,
“With today’s signing of the landmark Americans for Disabilities Act, every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom.”
This moment in history brought hope and power into the lives of so many and it is our duty to keep that hope and empowerment alive by not just designing for some, but designing and creating for all.