Reading a Pig’s Lips: The Joys of Movie Captioning

Gael Hannan
January 9, 2012

We had our drinks and our popcorn; we were at the “mooo-vies” and we were excited!  My son, 3 1/2, pumped about seeing the animated version of Tarzan, was jumping around like a chimpanzee.

But with Tarzan’s first words, I thumped myself on the head. What was I thinking? That perhaps my hearing had miraculously returned so that I could now read the lips of cartoon characters? In the late 1990s, big-screen captions were still a few years off and although animation technology was beyond amazing, artists had not yet been able to create “lip-readable” speech for its characters. The only good news was that Tarzan was so loud that I could understand the dialogue anyway.

Since childhood, I had always preferred movies over TV because on-screen faces were much larger and easier to speechread; yep, I just  loved watching Kevin Kline’s two-foot high lips. But as I became more dependent on visual cues, movies became more challenging.  They were being filmed in a more realistic, less theatrical style in which dialogue was no longer king. In the noisy scenes of old movies, where actors fought against hurricanes and fire, or against each other on booming battlefields, the sound was edited so that the dialogue was clearly understood above the racket.

Today, scenes are more realistic and the viewer often strains to understand speech which competes with the background or surrounding noise. And there’s a LOT of noise – the most popular movies include at least some spectacular and deafening special effects to meet the moviegoer’s thrill appetite.

In 2003, my husband and I went to see Master and Commander, a rollicking Napoleonic sea battle film with Russell Crowe. I think it was a good film – but I couldn’t say for sure. It took place on the high stormy seas, and there were major gun battles, and they all spoke with accents, and the actors didn’t face the camera! I left the theatre with a limited grasp of why the battles took place, what the shipmates were arguing about, and who that dead guy was at the end.  On the opposite side of the noise spectrum, in the quiet, moody films, actors tend to speak softly or model their diction after the poker-faced, cement-lipped Marlon Brando.

In spite of these challenges, I love movies and I have never stopped going to see them.  With the introduction of Rear Window Captioning (RWC), I was thrilled that “moo-vies” would now be accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing people.  Its arrival was timely. My family had just recently gone to see Babe, which starred a charming pig and a cast of a thousand barnyard animals, but I sadly stayed home because of lack of captions. At the RWC demonstration and media launch, I expressed my appreciation that I could now enjoy movies with my family and  “read a pig’s lips.”

I liked the RWC technology, in which reverse LED captions under the projection window are reflected on a semi-clear plastic screen that fits into the user’s cup holder. The manoeuvrable plastic screen didn’t block out much of the screen visuals and was easy to use, as long as the previous user’s fingerprints had been wiped off.  But there were two problems.

RWC wasn’t widely available except in major centres, and even in accessible theatre complexes, only one film out of the 12 would be captioned. So, if I didn’t want to see that week’s RWC movie – Night of the Walking Dead, let’s say – I was out of luck. The second problem was that I now had nowhere to put my drink.

The newest captioning system is  CaptiView, which is being introduced across the continent. I had forgotten that some wonderful new system was coming down the pipe until last month, when I was booking tickets for a group of us to see The Descendants with George Clooney. On the theatre website, lo and behold there was the beautiful CC closed captioning icon beside almost half the titles! Hallelujah!

At the theatre the next night, while the others found seats, I went to Customer Service to pick up my CaptiView thingy for the movie.

The manager looked at me, “Oh. I’m sorry but they sent us the wrong copy – it’s not captioned.”

“But you advertised it as being captioned! We’ve just spent $50 to come and see it, and I’m hard of hearing and I NEED IT!”

“I’m so sorry; what would you like me to do?”

“Darn, darn! So what else is showing, like right now, with captioning?”

He looked at his clipboard and then back at me. “Uh, Happy Feet 2?”

By the time I’d finished staring him down, he’d given me a free movie pass and a promise to never, EVER again show a non-captioned film that had been publicized as having CC. Luckily for me, The Descendants was a quiet, clearly spoken movie and I caught most of it.

Since then I’ve used the CaptiView technology several times.  I’m practicing with the best positioning for smooth transition between screen and viewer, but overall it works well.  There have been a couple of technical glitches, which my hard-of-hearing colleagues around North America have also experienced, but it’s a 100% improvement and it has given me back my “mooo-vies.”  Open captioning (where the words appear on the screen all the time) remains the gold standard of access for my people, but I’m not holding my breath it will be universally adopted any time soon.

For now, our job is to get the word out, to ensure that people who are deaf and have hearing loss are actually supporting the movie captioning technology. And I still need a place for my drink.

  1. I tried CaptiView and it gave me enormous eyestrain from focusing near for the captions and far for the movie screen. And I couldn’t look at both in focus at the same time – so I missed action on the screen when looking at the captions. So I can’t use it – I won’t risk damaging my precious eyesight. I’ve used RWC for many years with no problems, as the captions give the effect of being on the movie screen, at a distance because they are a reflection of the text on the rear wall of the theater. RWC could be installed in the other theaters of a multiplex – no good reason that they can’t put them in all of them – the price has come down substantially – so cost wouldn’t be a hurdle anymore.

  2. Thanks for the update on this technology Gael. I’ve heard of it, but don’t think it’s available here in NL yet, but I’ll check with Empire managment to see when or if it will available. I love your blogs; they’re well written on timely topics, insight and often very funny. Thanks and keep them coming.

  3. Gael – I have been to movies with Open Captions, Rear Window Captions, and CaptiView, and appreciate them all. Each has its pros and cons, but, like you, I am thankful to be able to understand the words of a Jedi warrior (Star Wars: The Clone Wars), a Kevin Bacon clone (the 2011 remake of Footloose) and, yes, even a talking pig (Nanny McPhee Returns)…all viewed at the theater with captions. It was a pleasure to work with AMC Theatre headquarters in my hometown of Kansas City to advocate for more captions. Like you, I am lost without them.


  4. What about “looping” the theaters? Why isn’t that happening, or is it? My mom and I just discovered induction loops, FM personal systems, and their interaction with t-coils. Seems like the best answer of all. What am I missing? Thanks for any feedback.

    1. Gael Hannan Author

      Hi Lynn. Looping is wonderful, but not everyone has a t-coil in their hearing aids…and not everyone with hearing loss can use hearing aids.

  5. Hi Gael,
    There is one theatre here in M Beach that has RWC so we have been able to enjoy “War Horse” but they were sent the wrong disc for Tinker,Taylor……s0 we were awarded 2 f’ree tickets and a box of popcorn. For both movies, I had to leave 5 minutes after they started to find the manager let them know that the RWC was not working.Im on 1st name basis with the manager now.
    The trouble is, we’re always the only ones using the RVC- at least they are using it for the better movies.
    I’m trying to get them to advertise it more.
    The CaptiView sounds exciting. What theatres in Toronto are using them?
    We’ll be there.
    We try to see all the Oscar movies but it’s a challenge without our neighbourhood Blockbuster and the RWC movies.
    Thanks for talking CCs. I’d loke to see our CHHAs making it a priority project.

    here and lack of movies

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