When You Can’t Hear Heroes

Response to Sean Zdenek’s [Reading] [Sounds]

If Sean Zdenek sought for his book to make us all more thoughtful about the rhetorical power of captioning, he succeeded in converting me at least. One idea mentioned early on in Zdenek’s text is that captioning seems to have as its target audience the broadcast companies that ensure they’re made available to fulfill a legal requirement. As a result of a focus on this audience, captions regularly fail to provide hard-of-hearing or deaf viewers with a means to access the aural world of video, especially in the case of non-speech sounds. I decided to assess whether a few recently released movie trailers for mega budget genre films spent any of the money in their marketing campaign in order to create accessible content for deaf and hard-of-hearing fans on the Youtube versions of the trailer.

For this micro case study analysis, I limited myself to only Youtube as a platform due their auto-captioning technology providing at the very least a default option for these studios. I then did a general search in Youtube for ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 trailer’; ‘Assassin’s Creed trailer’; ‘Logan trailer;’ and ‘Doctor Strange trailer.’ Logan and Assassin’s Creed’s trailers were both uploaded by the official 20th Century Fox account, and the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Doctor Strange trailers were uploaded by the official Marvel Entertainment account. Additionally, each trailer was also uploaded by Movieclips Trailers, an account owned and managed by the ticket-selling company Fandango. Each video also had additional uploads by miscellaneous users that for the most part reposted the trailer as shown by Movieclips Trailers or the film studio accounts.

Immediately apparent when looking at these trailers is that none of the studios thought to generate their own captions for the trailers. In fact, for every trailer uploaded by the studios, with the exception of Doctor Strange, 20th Century Fox and Marvel Entertainment have turned off Youtube’s auto-captioning feature for the trailer. In the case of the Doctor Strange auto captions, there are understandably several instances in which errors with the captions deprive the trailer of its intended impact. This is most obvious in one of the final scenes in the trailer where a man gives Doctor Strange a slip of paper with a word written on it, and Dr. Strange asks “Is this my mantra?” The guy replies “that’s the Wi-Fi password,” which is captioned as “there was this fine Monitor the Wi-fi password” (Doctor Strange 1:57). What makes this slip-up discouraging is that the moment is pivotal to an understanding of the movie’s tone since all the scenes prior to this emphasize the fantastical spectacle and tragedy of Doctor Strange’s backstory, and this scene serves to show audiences that in spite of all that there will be instances of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s knack for levity. “There was this fine Monitor the Wi-fi password” meaning could potentially be deciphered by a deaf or hard-of-hearing person, but by the time they would have done so the scene would be over, and it’d no longer have the humorous impact it has in the moment.

As previously mentioned, unlike the trailers uploaded by the film studios, those uploaded by Movieclip Trailers all featured captions. Not only do they feature English captions though, each trailer is available in at least 15 languages and allows viewers to add and edit captioning. In terms of speech sounds, the English captions do a great job of captioning the dialogue verbatim, even managing to avoid the “squeeze [of] linguistic variation that distinguishes one speaker from another: age, gender, region, and so on” done in facilitation of Standard written English (Zdenek 258). One way in which the captions do not facilitate uptake though is in their failure to provide speech identifiers for characters either off-screen or voiced-over even in cases where a hearing person with sufficient cultural literacy in genre films could identify the voice. For instance, Logan opens with a conversation between Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier and Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine aka Logan, but that’s not made at all clear to deaf or hard-of-hearing viewers reading the captions since we don’t see Xavier until thirty seconds into the trailer.

Additionally, the Movieclip Trailers captions do not represent non-speech sounds in any way. The only exception to this are captions for song lyrics in instances where no other sound plays besides the accompanying music, or captioning the presence of a musical track, which only happen in Logan and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, respectively. The Logan trailer’s shows captions of the opening lines to Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song ‘Hurt’ once Cash starts singing twenty seconds into the trailer. From then on, the lyrics for the song are captioned throughout the trailer whenever characters are not speaking. Their presence helps to distinguish the film from other more bombastic superhero movies, and underscores the film’s somber tone. However, the failure to caption non-speech sounds hinders deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers from being situated in the trailer’s tone as quickly as hearing viewers. This is because the opening guitar chords for ‘Hurt’ play immediately once the trailer starts, leaving deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers with twenty seconds in which they are less aware about why everything seems so grim. Arguably, the images that play in these opening seconds provide clues that things are not well (a Wolverine that’s older than we’ve seen him in other X-men movies drinks in a cemetery, the dialogue that opens the trailer in which Logan says ‘Mutants they are gone now’).

Youtube's Caption editor view of the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 trailer on Movietrailer Clips channel.
Youtube’s Caption editor view of the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 trailer on Movietrailer Clips channel.

Meanwhile, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s trailer opens with the neologistic sounds that begin Blue Suede’s ‘Hooked On A Feeling,’ a song repopularized by the first Guardians movie. In the Movieclips captions though, they’re simply captioned as ‘music playing in the background’ (Guardians 0:09) therefore preventing deaf or hard of hearing viewers from accessing the nostalgic feelings for the first film that hope to hook viewers by reminding them of their enjoyment of the previous installation. In the case of both Logan and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2., the oversight in regards to non-speech sounds prevents deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers to geek out to the same extent or similarly get excited for these new releases, diminishing the potential impact these trailers can have on that demographic. Interestingly though, when you go into the caption editor for both the Logan and Guardians trailer, the captions are presented differently there than in the standard Youtube viewer. Guardians, for instance, has neologistic captions for the opening lines to ‘Hooked On A Feeling’ when viewed in the editor; the software then seemingly changes it to ‘music playing in the background,’ which poses an interesting question: Is this captioning technology nullifying the efforts of people to create more accessible captioning? Does inaccessible programming shift accessibility to Google as opposed to the studios? What do fans get out of creating captions to these trailers, and what percentage of these fan of deaf and hard-of-hearing communities?



3 thoughts on “When You Can’t Hear Heroes

    1. Thanks a lot. I haven’t done much writing about movies in recent years. Used to write film reviews for a student newspaper as an undergraduate with El Gato Network at the University of Houston. Now I occasionally write very short reviews over on Letterboxd. Thanks again for the kind words!

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