The first time I saw the guy in the Dairy Queen commercial hop on the subtitles and hilariously ride them as they chugged off the screen, I began searching for other examples in which characters showed an awareness of the subtitles. The examples I subsequently found, while not strictly accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers without the support of an additional caption track, nevertheless have the potential to increase awareness of subtitles and subtitling practices.
Subtitling practices occasionally break through to become a topic of discussion among mainstream audiences. For example, when the Papyrus typeface was used for the subtitles in Avatar, it was universally panned by designers and typophiles. Three quick examples:
An open letter to James Cameron from Papyrus on the Pr*tty Sh*tty site satirically congratulated Cameron: “Kudos to you for not spending a single cent of your massive budget on an expensive, attractive font for the subtitles, and opting to put me to the task instead.”
A contest on a design website asked designers to choose a new typeface to replace “possibly the least desirable typeface available to the design community for the subtitles of the film’s fictional species, the Na’vi.”
The Dairy Queen commercial is compelling to me for the way it similarly elevates subtitles to a topic of discussion. Subtitles become integral, meaningful elements of the text in their own right. They don’t support or translate the primary meaning of the text, or try to sit unobtrusively at the bottom of the screen. Instead, they make their own meaning. We are asked to look at them, not merely look through them.
The examples that follow elevate subtitles by breaking through the so-called fourth wall. The imaginary fourth wall separates the audience from the action on screen or stage. When the audience suspends its disbelief, the events are taken as real and believable. When fictional characters show an awareness of the medium (e.g. by talking directly into the camera, commenting on the soundtrack, bumping into or referring to the subtitles, etc.), they break through the fourth wall that enables the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
Put simply, fictional characters are not supposed to see subtitles. When they can, it’s usually in the service of a joke.
As you can see, medium awareness of subtitles is often channeled through comedy, especially the screwball variety. This isn’t surprising, since breaks in the fourth wall are often used for comedic effect. When a movie threatens the presumed sanctity of the fourth wall, viewers are moved out of the real and into the absurd.
Because subtitles in these examples share the same space on the screen with the closed captions, designers and captioners must strive to avoid conflict and overlap (e.g. see the Portlandia and Goldmember examples). It’s important to remember that some viewers will be trying to process two text streams at the same time: the on-screen subtitles and the closed captions.
What additional examples of medium awareness (involving subtitles) are you aware of?
[A note on method: A number of these examples were found on TVtropes.org, which is an excellent repository for all kinds of examples of medium awareness.]
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