Open captions for movies – the real story

Monday, 15 October 2012 10:58am

Accessible cinema, which offers movies with captions for the Deaf and hearing impaired and audio description for the blind and vision impaired, is a much-debated topic worldwide as cinemas move from analogue to digital systems. The one constant in the debates is the issue of open captions.

The move to digital cinema is a major change to the industry across the world.  The delivery methods for movies are changing frequently and cinemas and film distributors are still coming to terms with accessing movie files in different formats. This all means that it is a very fluid situation and this is having a direct impact on access issues including the options available to show captions in an open format.

Media Access Australia works to ensure that the latest information is available to people. We have been following up with industry sources around the world to find out what the current situation is. 

There are a variety of approaches being taken overseas. In the UK, cinemas are currently showing open captions in a digital format, but only on a handful of sessions per week. There are industry discussions taking place now on closed captioning options. In the USA, closed captioning is being introduced on a cinema by cinema basis.  Here in Australia, we too are moving to closed captions through the Cinema Access Implementation Plan. This plan does not cover independent cinemas, which are still looking at how they will provide accessible movies.

One development that has led to a lot of speculation about the possibility of showing open captions more easily is that cinema operator Twilight Cinemas in Victoria has played digital closed captions directly onto the screen as a form of open captions.

Closed captioning is the default format provided for captions on a movie. They are formatted to display properly on devices such as a CaptiView display (the choice of Australian cinemas so far) or eyeglasses and other displays (that are being looked at elsewhere). This means that if a closed caption file is displayed as open captions directly onto the screen, they may be difficult to read, be incorrectly placed obscuring on-screen information, and have odd line breaks and other formatting issues. 

The companies that make the caption files, the film distributors and cinemas are concerned that using a closed caption file in this way would result in potential complaints about poor caption quality. The safest way to ensure that open captions display properly and provide a good viewer experience is to provide an open caption file that is properly formatted. This of course adds cost to the processes, as a separate version of the captions needs to be created and added to the digital master files.

Some consumers may say that they are happy with the standard of open captions provided by displaying the closed caption file. Clearly more testing and feedback is needed to determine what the real extent of the quality issues are before any definite statement can be made about whether this is a viable method of providing open captions.

Media Access Australia will continue to investigate and monitor updates on this issue, drawing on its range of professional sources from around the world. For more information on accessible cinema you can read our cinema pages or email us your questions.


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