Filmmakers could improve cinema for the Deaf community, with new guidance from University of Sheffield

9th May 2024

Improved captioning in the film industry could make watching film and TV more accessible and engaging for the Deaf community, according to new guidance published by the University of Sheffield and Sheffield-based research and design studio, Paper.

Improved captioning in the film industry could make watching film and TV more accessible and engaging for the Deaf community, according to new guidance published by the University of Sheffield and Sheffield-based research and design studio, Paper.

Members of the Deaf community, who have been Deaf all of their lives and use British Sign Language (BSL) as their first language, took part in a research project which asked them about their experiences of watching films.

The team found that poor captioning stopped Deaf audiences effectively experiencing filmmaking techniques like suspense in storylines, which led to them feeling excluded from the cinematic experience.

The project has resulted in a new film ‘Rethinking Subtitles’ and six new guidelines for the media industry, highlighting the commercially viable opportunities that improve the accessibility of films and TV programmes for Deaf audiences.

Dr Ryan Bramley, an expert on the social impacts of film from the University of Sheffield’s School of Education, said: “For Deaf cinema-goers to experience storytelling techniques such as suspense as filmmakers intend, the captions have to effectively replicate the effects of the sounds in the film, and currently, they often aren’t.

“Our project found that improvement is needed for Deaf audiences to help them connect in deeper ways to the characters and plot of films and enjoy an equivalent experience of watching a film as hearing audiences do.”

The project was a unique collaboration, supported by the University’s Made Together Programme and Sheffield Innovation Programme, which brought Ryan and Dr Kirsty Liddard from the University of Sheffield’s School of Education together to conduct the research with Beth Evans and Jon Rhodes from Paper.

Beth, founder of SUBTXT Creative and researcher who initiated and led the project, is passionate about designing more accessible and visually engaging captions for different audiences. She said: "Filmmakers will often use sound to evoke certain emotions in their audience, such as feeling suspense. But certain captions that describe sound, such as ominous music, may be quite subjective and perhaps have no meaning to someone who doesn't experience sound in the same way as the filmmaker. 

“Our participants explained that descriptions of sound are really important when watching a film as they see sound through captions. They told us that their experience was more immersive when captions had more detail about sound and music.”

Together the team worked with members of the Deaf community to find out how they experienced watching some well-known films with their captions such as Jaws, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and A Quiet Place.

Jaws, the Steven Spielberg classic, will inspire instant recognition amongst hearing audiences for its classic musical warning of the shark's appearance. The technique announces not only the shark's arrival, but that this is something to fear. The music is used as a specific trigger to create tension and the team wanted to know whether captions can translate the same emotions in these films to Deaf audiences.

Ryan said: “Our research found that certain descriptions of sound lacked key information that was central to the plot. For example, in Jaws, the participants were aware that there was “famous” music in the clip, but they told us that the captions did not convey that the music represented the shark getting closer. This impacted how much suspense they felt during the film.

“Because the Deaf community see sound in captions, delayed, missing, poor quality captioning, or too complex captioning, can result in Deaf cinema-goers feeling excluded and not treated equally to hearing people when watching films.”

The project has resulted in six new ‘Recommendations for Change’ for the media industry highlighting opportunities to improve the accessibility of entertainment, which have also been submitted as evidence to the UK Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry into British Film and High-End Television. The team believes that with the right attention, and the media industry actively working with Deaf media consultants, the recommendations could easily be enacted into cinema and TV and point to examples where this has already been done with success.

Beth added: “Programmes like Stranger Things have gone viral for their captioning being so immersive and creative. The captioners worked during filmmaking and got advice from Hollywood orchestrators to help choose the best descriptions of sound to encompass the genre and feel of the moment for Deaf audiences. 

“It shows how good captioning quality could be if it was given the same level of investment, collaboration and creative freedom as any other part of the film during production, instead of being an afterthought.”

The team’s recommendations urge film makers to invest more in captioning, to involve experienced Deaf consultants in the film-making process, and to take a more creative approach to developing captions. They include:

Captions should be designed collaboratively by captioners, filmmakers and Deaf consultants. The design of captions should happen throughout the filmmaking process, and not as an afterthought.

Creative captioning should be explored to reduce the effort Deaf viewers have to make to understand and feel immersed in the film. Filmmakers should rethink and redesign how audio is presented visually for Deaf audiences.

Captions should be tested with Deaf audiences before a film’s release to highlight any miscommunication in the captions and ensure people are getting the intended experience of the film.

Personalisation of captions should be explored to allow people to choose the style (for example, font, colour, size, placement) of captions, and the level of description or creativity used within captions to suit their preferences.

UK cinemas need to be more accessible for Deaf people. For example, cinemas should offer more frequent and more convenient screening times for captioned viewings, and improve the accessibility of venue and marketing materials.

More investment and allocation of budget is needed to fund innovation in captioning to create more accessible and immersive cinematic experiences for Deaf people.

Hamza Shaikh, Trustee of the British Deaf Association, was a participant in the project. He said: “I am delighted to be part of the University's wonderful research project, which recognises the imperative to diminish barriers for Deaf individuals, like myself, who have struggled to enjoy cinema outings fully. The lack of Deaf awareness and subtitles in cinemas breaches the Equality Act 2010 and the BSL Act 2022 and poses significant challenges for Deaf patrons.

“The British Deaf Association is the national representative organisation of BSL and ISL in the UK and our vision is to ensure a world where Deaf people can fully participate and contribute to society as equal and valued citizens. I hope this collaborative effort will catalyse the cinema industry to reevaluate its practices and prioritise accessibility for all patrons.”

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