A website devoted to exploring accessibility at the intersection of technology and rhetoric. What began in 2008 as a space to explore accessible podcasting has turned into an ongoing reflection on the rhetoric of closed captioning. I welcome your feedback.
What the Hypnotoad can teach us about closed captioning
Recurring sounds on TV shows present us with an opportunity to explore questions of consistency and accuracy in closed captioning. When a sound recurs in the same context or originates repeatedly from the same character, should it be captioned consistently? Moreover, given a number of different, presumably viable options for captioning the same recurring sound/character, which option is best?
These aren’t easy questions, especially since captioning done well must be done in specific visual contexts. Still, it’s hard not to ask such questions when confronted with recurring sounds in recurring contexts. I’ve previously explored the various ways in which a running gag is captioned on Family Guy. Here, I want to track how the same sound — the Hypnotoad’s hypnotic drone — is captioned across multiple episodes of Futurama. Though a minor character on the show, the Hypnotoad is reportedly “one of Matt Groening’s favorite characters.”
What’s particularly interesting about the Hypnotoad’s drone is that the visual context for the hypno-sound is nearly identical through every occurrence. The Hypnotoad seems to be limited to making only one sound and taking one action. In other words, the context remains fairly constant across every occurrence of the hypno-sound. The hypnotoad is nearly always shown making the same sound and taking the same basic action. With context held fairly constant, then, we can focus on the different ways in which the hypno-sound is captioned, attributing differences in captions to the preferences of captioners as opposed to fluctuations in context.
The Hypnotoad sound also reveals the important role that visual context plays in captioning. Simply knowing that the hypno-sound is in fact a “turbine engine played backwards” is insufficient. Captioners don’t caption sounds in isolation. The actual origin of a sound may be unimportant. While it would be technically correct to caption the Hypnotoad sound as a “turbine engine played in reverse,” it wouldn’t be contextually correct. Captions do not simply convey the origin of a sound — or even what the sound really is in any abstract, technical, or decontextualized sense — but what the sound is doing in a scene.
As you view the clips, consider the differences among the official hypno captions. Do you have a preference? Why? How important is consistency when captioning a recurring sound such as the hypno-sound?
Everybody Loves Hypnotoad (DVD special feature on Bender’s Big Score)
Into the Wild Green Yonder (2009 movie)
Uncaptioned [Netflix and DVD]
(LOUD BUZZING DRONE) [Netflix and DVD]
Attack of the Killer App (2010)
Uncaptioned [Netflix and DVD]
(mechanical humming) [Broadcast TV]
Lrrreconcilable Ndndifferences (2010)
Uncaptioned [Netflix and DVD]
(electronic static) [Broadcast TV]
When we reach across episodes and put captions for the same sound side-by-side, we also put ourselves in an excellent position to make an informed decision about which caption, if any, we think is best. Even if we ultimately decide that any of these options will suffice, we can at least be struck by their remarkable diversity. This diversity raises a number of questions:
The Hynpo-sound is converted into a number of mostly synonymous action words: Humming, Thrumming, Grinding, Droning, Sputtering, Buzzing. Will any of these terms suffice, or do we need a term that captures not only the nature of the sound but also its function as hypnotic?
In one case (“droning mechanical sputtering”), two action words are used in the same caption. Do droning and sputtering together more effectively describe the sound and its function than a single action word?
Two captions describe the volume of the sound (“Eyeballs Thrumming Loudly” and “Loud Buzzing Drone”). Yet all the instances of the Hypno-sound (except for one) are approximately the same volume. (The exception is “Into the Wild Green Yonder,” in which the Hypno-sound on the TV screen plays quietly in the background.) How necessary is it to indicate sound volume in the Hypno-caption?
When the Hypno-sound is played quietly in the background of the scene from “Into the Wild Green Yonder,” it is not captioned. The short amount of screen time for the Hypnotoad is dominated by speech from the Professor and the TV announcer. Would it benefit caption viewers to have a description of the Hypno-sound wedged into the scene among the speech captions?
The origin of the sound is described as electronic, mechanical, or biological (i.e. emanating from the Eyeballs). Does it matter which one it is?
Only one of the captions indicates the specific location of the sound. “Eyeballs Thrumming Loudly” describes the sound as emanating from the toad’s eyeballs. Locating the source of the sound in the eyeballs is most likely an interpretation on the captioner’s part. The Futurama Wiki states that the Hypnotoad “emits a droning hum” but doesn’t indicate where that sound comes from because, as far as I know, it’s not clear how the toad makes the noise. This caption is particularly interesting to me because it shows how captioners don’t simply caption sounds in isolation but caption sounds embedded in visual contexts. Captioners don’t caption the actual origins of sounds (i.e. the sound is actually “a turbine engine”) but the apparent origins of sounds.
One caption uses the word “sound.” But viewers already assume that captions describe sounds, so adding the word “sound” to any caption is usually a waste of precious caption space.
One caption is in ALL CAPS.
DVD, Netflix, and Broadcast TV captions for the same episode will not necessarily be the same.
DVD extras are not usually captioned in my experience. In order to make DVDs fully accessible to deaf and hard of hearing caption viewers, extras and special features on DVDs must be captioned, starting with the 22-minute episode of “Everybody Loves Hypnotoad.”
[A note on method: The closed captions included with the clips are the official captions. I used the Futurama Wiki to gather a list of episodes in which the Hypnotoad character appeared. According to the Futurama Wiki, the Hypnotoad appears in three episodes, two feature-length movies, and one 22-minute DVD extra. I recently identified two additional appearances of the Hypnotoad in “Attack of the Killer App” (2010) and “Lrrreconcilable Ndndifferences” (2010). I viewed every appearance on DVD, Netflix streaming, and Broadcast TV, with the exception of "Rebirth" and "The Day the Earth Stood Stupid." I am still waiting for these two episodes to appear on TV so I can record them. WGBH has captioned Futurama episodes for TV since season 1.]
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