For anyone who loves learning the behind the scenes work that goes into Supernatural, this is a MUST READ. As luck would have it, Ardeospina works for a close captioning company that captions episodes for Supernatural.
Thanks to the generosity of her employer VITAC and Warner Brothers, they permitted her to give us this fascinating tutorial on everything that goes into delivering the amazing dialogue and other sounds for the hearing impaired so they can enjoy this show as much as we do. Enjoy this very informative article.
100 episodes is a milestone achievement for any TV series. I think a large part of why Supernatural is still on the air is the dedication of its fans. Of course, every show needs fans to bolster its ratings, but that’s not what I’m talking about. The Supernatural fandom is a passionate, wonderful, creative, intense, and at times frustrating group that cares deeply about this show. As a result, we’ve been rewarded with 100 episodes so far, more to come in season 5, and a season 6 to look forward to. As a member of this exclusive group, I thought the 100th episode celebration was the perfect time to share the unique way I became involved with Supernatural and also provide a glimpse into a small part of bringing each episode to your television.
I’d love to say I knew from the pilot that this show was special, that I’ve been watching from the beginning, but that is simply not the case. In fact, I’m a latecomer to the Supernatural world. I had never watched an episode until the season 5 premiere, “Sympathy for the Devil.” That’s right. To be honest, I was a bit confused at first. I really didn’t know what was happening at times and why any of it was important but I thought it was really compelling. I decided to check out the first season on Netflix. After I decided those discs weren’t coming in the mail fast enough, I went out and got all 4 available seasons on DVD, and that was that! Now, of course, Supernatural is one of my favorite TV shows, and I absolutely love being able to write about it and discuss it with other fans and share all the drama and heartbreak with others.
None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for my job. And how on earth does my job relate to Supernatural you might ask? Well, I’ll tell you. I work as a captioner for VITAC, a closed captioning company based in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. My company has been responsible for preparing the closed captioning for Supernatural since the show started airing, so if you’ve ever watched the captions for this show on your TV, someone at my company prepared those. And for “Sympathy for the Devil,” the lucky captioner who prepped that episode was…me! It is my job, on occasion, to caption Supernatural. I get paid to watch Supernatural. And yeah, it is as cool as it sounds! So I might never have started watching this amazing show if I hadn’t been assigned to caption it at work. So thanks, VITAC, for getting me hooked!
Captioning “Sympathy for the Devil” was great but it just got better from there. I also got to caption “I Believe the Children Are Our Future,” “The Curious Case of Dean Winchester,” “Sam, Interrupted,” and “99 Problems.”
For those of you who aren’t familiar with closed captioning, allow me to explain it briefly before I move on to talk about the process of captioning Supernatural itself. In the United States, the term “closed captioning” has a different meaning than the term “subtitles,” in regard to television. Closed captions are for TV broadcast and are aimed at people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. They cover all spoken text, as well as sound effects and music. The captions are considered “closed” because you have to turn them on, or “open” them, via a menu button on your TV remote. Subtitles refer to text displayed on the video itself and generally are used when someone is speaking a foreign language or a speaker’s accent makes them difficult to understand for the average viewer.
My company has two different captioning divisions: realtime and offline. Realtime captioners caption live events like sports or news broadcasts. Offline captioners caption prerecorded material. I work in the Offline department. Within my department, we have two different styles of captioning, as well: roll-up and pop-on. Roll-up captions do just that: they are lines of text that roll across the bottom or top of the screen in lines that cover the entire width of the screen. Pop-on captions pop-up in smaller blocks of text that are positioned in different parts of the screen based on where the speaker is standing. Supernatural uses pop-on captioning.
Okay, enough about captioning in general. Let’s talk about what it’s like to caption an episode of Supernatural. First, Warner Bros. sends VITAC a copy of the video and a digital copy of the script for that episode. The tape gets digitized so that I, the captioner, can download it to my work computer and work with it in a special software my company developed specifically for captioning. But not just anybody can access the videos and open the scripts. You need a special security badge to even enter my company’s office suite. To unlock your computer, you need to log in with a user name and password. And then to open the software that gives you access to the video, you need a different user name and password. Content is really protected so that only people with permission to access it can.
Once I have the video downloaded, I import the text from the digital script. At this point, the script still has all the stage directions and acting cues and location descriptions in it along with the dialogue. But the dialogue is the only stuff I need for the captions, so I go through the script and get rid of anything I don’t need. Once that’s done, it’s time to start what we call timing and placing the episode.
All Supernatural videos have an episode time code that displays on the video, and this helps me match up the dialogue to the exact time it’s spoken. You don’t want your text to display before someone says something because you’re giving away the dialogue! And you don’t want text to display too late because the person has already spoken. This is what I mean by “timing.” It’s also important when timing the episode to try and match up dialogue with shot changes. A shot change is when the show cuts from one shot to the next. This is a perfect time to display a block of text because the eye sees the cut and the pop of the text at the same time, so it’s pleasing to watch. Try watching for this the next time you watch an episode. Supernatural is pretty good about having their dialogue match up with shot changes.
While I’m going through the episode to time and place it, it’s also my job to make any changes to the text to make sure it adheres to proper spelling and grammar rules, has the right punctuation, etc. These rules are often special for captioning so that the text is easier to read. I also have to keep an eye out for any changes in dialogue the actors might have made while filming or if they had rewrites and the script version I am using is different than the one they used for shooting.
Placing an episode involves taking the blocks of text, breaking them up into dialogue lines, and putting them at different parts of the screen depending on where the speaker is. When I import the script, it starts off as bigger blocks of text that I need to break down into smaller lines. This makes it a lot easier to read the text, and also allows me to visually show whether the dialogue is being spoken by a person on the left, middle, or right side of the screen.
Another important part of the show I have to pay attention to is sound effects. A hearing audience will be able to hear when the Impala starts or when a gun gets shot or when a door opens or closes, but if these things don’t happen on screen where you can see them, they need to be added in. So you might see something like [ DOOR OPENS ] or [ TIRES SCREECH ] or, especially on this show, [ GUNSHOTS ]. Along with sound effects, I need to make sure to convey just how someone is saying their dialogue. For example, if someone is really emotional while saying the line “I just can’t do this anymore,” I might use [ Voice breaking ] I JUST CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE to show that.
In the following examples, you can see some of the styles my company uses for captioning. Spoken dialogue is in upper case to show that people are saying that out loud in a scene. If someone is talking over a telephone, we can use lower case to show that they’re talking but not on screen. Words inside brackets are descriptor words, like sound effects and text descriptors. Italics can be used for a number of reasons, from showing that text is being spoken on TV to italicizing an individual word for emphasis.
Now that you’ve got the general idea as to what captioning is all about, let’s take a look at a couple scenes from “99 Problems” and discuss them in more detail. First up, the scene where Dean, Cass, and Sam are sitting around the motel room talking about how Leah is not really a prophet.
As you can see, the boys are being very nice to me here because they’re sitting on the left, middle, and right parts of the screen, and they don’t get up and walk around and switch positions. This is very helpful for me because now everything that Dean says can be on the left, Castiel’s dialogue can be in the middle, and Sam’s dialogue can be on the right.
So to caption this scene, I first take the imported text from the script, which looks something like this:
WE WENT OUT LOOKING FOR — YOU ALL RIGHT? YEAH. IT’S — IT’S
NOT MY BLOOD. PAUL’S DEAD. WHAT? JANE SHOT HIM. IT’S STARTING
WHAT’S STARTING? WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN? ON A BENDER.
DID HE — DID YOU SAY ON A BENDER? YEAH. HE’S STILL PRETTY
SMASHED. IT IS NOT OF IMPORT. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT WHAT’S
As you can see, the text is in a large block and needs to be divided up by sentence so that I can time it to the audio and place it on the speaker. You also don’t want long sentences stretching all the way across the screen because then that text is covering other people in the scene, so you’re not sure who is saying the lines. For example, you don’t want Cas’ lines covering Sam or Dean. You want a good visual representation of exactly who is speaking. So, going through that big block of text and breaking it up into nice, shorter captions, then placing it on the speaker results in something that will look like this:
WE WENT OUT LOOKING FOR —
YOU ALL RIGHT?
IT’S — IT’S NOT MY BLOOD.
JANE SHOT HIM.
WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN?
ON A BENDER.
DID HE —
DID YOU SAY “ON A BENDER”?
HE’S STILL PRETTY SMASHED.
IT IS NOT OF IMPORT.
WE NEED TO TALK
ABOUT WHAT’S HAPPENING HERE.
And here’s what the captioning for part of this scene looks like when I’m finished with it:
So far, we have Sam speaking at the right, a sound effect for Dean closing the door because you don’t see him close it, and then Dean comes in speaking at the left.
This is an example of how placement is used to tell the viewer who is speaking. We can’t see Dean say “Jane shot him” here because the shot is focusing on Sam. But because Dean’s dialogue has all been on the left so far, we know that he’s the one speaking.
And enter Castiel at center placement. In this last shot, you can see how italics are used to emphasize a single word.