Captioning Award Shows: an Expert’s Perspective

Award season is almost over, and the stars’ shelves are filling up with Grammys, Golden Globes, and SAG award trophies. With the Academy Awards airing Sunday night on ABC, we talked to Adrian Jonas, a realtime captioner of nearly 17 years on the preparation that goes into captioning an award show — over 20 hours of research for a single event, not to mention the grueling 4+ hours for which the program airs!

A single captioner, like Adrian, “writes” — or types the captions — for the entire broadcast, from the red carpet to the end credits, which means he or she is responsible not only for knowing the names and proper spellings of actors, directors, movies, and fashion designers, but also the possible attendees and current events that might be mentioned during the broadcast. To ensure correct spellings of all proper nouns, the captioner researches such terms and adds them to a “dictionary,” or an electronic reference list that has a one-to-three-keystroke shortcut to each preprogrammed term. That way, every word is spelled correctly and efficiently, with nothing lost in between.

For example, anyone can spell “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” but what about the film’s star, 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis? For that, a captioner makes a brief to turn the 16-letter name into a 1-keystroke cinch. If a host mentions ’50s TV star Zsa Zsa Gabor, or a name not programmed into the captioner’s dictionary, the captioner has to “finger-spell” the name, trading his or her stenography machine for a traditional keyboard. This, of course, takes valuable time, which is why a captioner tries to incorporate everything into his or her dictionary.

After graduating from court reporting school (which has a 90% dropout rate) Adrian and her fellow VITAC realtime captioners go through a training regimen called “boot camp” under the direction of veteran captioner Amy Bowlen. Once they pass this rigorous training, the captioners are largely responsible for their own process. “There are no 10 steps to live captioning,” says Adrian, whose process is fairly simple — immaculate organization, exhaustive research and hours of practice for a single award show.

In preparation, a realtime captioner references newspapers, entertainment shows, and websites like imdb.com to find miscellaneous events that may come up in the show. For example, Hollywood buzz from the internet reports that Seth McFarlane, the host, is going to sing a duet at some point Sunday night. Whether his number will be a classic number, a Lady Gaga cover, or an original, the captioner will know to have a lyrics websites close at hand so he or she can get the words right at the big moment. The captioner receives an advance briefing from the show’s producers, but it may arrive only hours before the broadcast, and the details are limited. Adrian also goes above and beyond by practicing in advance, writing Oscar buzz shows on her home steno machine. Elements of her method are even used as an example in new captioners’ boot camp training!

VITAC is unique in that some of our realtime captioners have the ability to write shows from our headquarters. This is an advantage if something unexpected occurs to interrupt the captioner’s groove. In case of a failed internet connection, a power outage, or a meteor strike, captioners like Adrian have a team of highly experienced production coordinators to assist her. “I could flip switches, and someone would come running down the hall,” Adrian says that kind of immediate support is unique to VITAC. She also cites the impressive control room as a benefit, as she has several different monitors and connections at her fingertips. All VITAC captioners are employees, not subcontractors, which ensures a client with so many redundancies that we can guarantee 99.9% uptime in our realtime broadcasts.

What about the final 24 hours before show time? “Get a good night’s sleep, and eat well,” says Adrian. “The first five minutes [of the broadcast] are the most difficult,” she says, which is why she warms up for a few minutes before her captions air.

There are only two certainties when it comes to an award show: nothing is certain, and Adrian and VITAC’s crew will be delivering high-quality captions nonetheless!

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