Offline Captioning for Realtimers
By Gary D. Robson
Offline captioning and realtime captioning both allow those who can't hear the soundtrack to see it, instead. They accomplish that goal, however, in very different ways. In this article, we'll look at the technology and tools involved in offline captioning. Then, we'll explore the markets and career opportunities for court reporters and realtime captioners in the offline business.
When you're generating realtime captions, it's a major task just to produce clean, accurate text. After you have adequately honed your skill, you can write realtime while moving the captions around on the screen. This is sometimes required to avoid obscuring anything important on the picture, although many realtime captioners don't worry about it. In fact, many realtime captioners can't even see the video they're captioning when they work remotely.
Your timing goals for realtime captioning can be summed up in a single word: Fast. You're working in realtime, so you write it as soon as you hear it. If you misstroke a word or miss one entirely, you move on, and do it quickly.
In offline captioning, however, positioning and timing are crucial.
Offline captioners use caption positions as speaker identification cues. When there are two people on-screen, captions on the left side of the screen denote the speaker on the left. An announcer or voice-over is usually centered at the top or bottom of the screen. Off-screen speakers are often italicized, although each captioning company has its own stylistic rules. In advertising, caption placement is even more important. An advertiser certainly doesn't want a caption to cover his product or any of the on-screen text.
Caption timing is more complex in offline as well. Captioners must do their best to have the captions appear as close as possible to when the words are spoken. At the same time, they try to synchronize caption changes with shot changes. Studies have shown that if the scene changes but the caption doesn't, the reader's eye tends to snap back to the beginning of the caption. This can cause viewers to read a caption twice.
Expectations are also higher in offline captioning when it comes to nuances like music note symbols and sound effects. A foreign word or a proper name can be skipped over or paraphrased in realtime captioning, but that's rarely tolerated in offline. The captioner is expected to research the spelling, and include everything.
Sometimes, offline captions are edited rather than verbatim. British and Canadian broadcasters often require captions to be simplified to lower the reading rate. In American children's programming the reading rate is kept low so that younger children can keep up. Some U.S. captioning firms edit captions on general programming, but surveys and studies have shown that most deaf Americans prefer verbatim captions.
All in all, offline captioning is a much more painstaking process than realtime. Where a one-hour show usually takes a realtime captioner less than two hours (counting preparation time and setup), that same one-hour show would take an experienced offline captioner anywhere from ten to sixteen hours. There are some "quick and dirty" captioning companies that do roll-up, hand-synchronized offline captioning. This can be done in half the time, but most broadcasters find this style unacceptable.
The core technology is the same for all Line 21 captioning. Whether the caption text is generated in realtime or added to a videotape in a studio, it still uses the same encoders and decoders. The big difference is the equipment needed for manipulating the video in an offline environment.
In the old days, a few short years ago, offline captioning began with a dub of the master tape. This was usually made on SVHS, 3/4" U-Matic, or Betacam tapes. That dub had embedded timecodes on it, which attached a unique identifying number to each frame on the tape. The offline captioning system could read those timecodes to tell where it was on the tape, allowing frame-accurate timing. Offline captioning systems could also control the tape deck from the computer keyboard or mouse. Fancier systems could display the video directly on the computer screen, and place captions by dragging them around with the mouse.
Offline captioners would watch the video, pausing the tape and typing the transcript as they go. The transcript was broken into individual captions, which were edited, placed, and timed. They would then do a "dry run," allowing the captioning system to display the captions as they'll appear on the final tape. Once any glitches and errors were corrected, the caption file was sent to an encoding facility, where a copy of the master tape was made with captioning on it. Some of the larger captioning companies had their own encoding facilities, some used duplication companies, and others set up their customers to do the final encoding. These offline systems could get expensive. In addition to the computer and the captioning software, they required a broadcast-quality tape deck, a timecode reader card for the computer, a caption encoder, a television set, and sometimes other specialized hardware as well. A fully-loaded captioning workstation could easily cost $15,000 to $20,000.
Non-Linear Offline Captioning
The offline systems described above are known as "analog" captioning stations. The new generation of offline system is called "nonlinear." In a non-linear system, the video is copied to a computer's hard disk, or placed on a CD or DVD. The captioning workstation can use virtually any computer that has a big enough disk and a reasonably fast processor. Both PC and Macintosh-based systems are available. No tape decks, timecode readers, encoders, or televisions are required. This slashes many thousands of dollars from the system price. You can even caption using a notebook computer.
Equipment cost isn't the only advantage to nonlinear captioning, though. Imagine that you're captioning a show, and you don't know how to spell the name of one of the characters. The easiest way to find it is to watch the credits at the end of the show. With an analog system, that means fast-forwarding the tape to the end, which takes several minutes. Then you find the name in the credits and rewind the tape to where you were, which takes another few minutes. To get from Frame A to Frame B on the tape, you must pass through all the frames in between.
A nonlinear system, on the other hand, allows you to easily jump from one place in the program to another instantly. When you find that hard-to-spell name, you bookmark your location, and skip to the end of the tape with a single keystroke. Finding the credits is the work of a few seconds. When you've found the name you need, a few quick keystrokes take you back to your bookmarked location. A five or six minute task becomes a matter of seconds. If you bookmark the credits, the next name will be even faster to look up.
The years have seen many advances in realtime captioning automation, such as phonetic translation rules, automatic conflict resolution, macros, globals from the steno keyboard, sophisticated script control, and much more. Would you expect any less in offline systems?
Most modern offline systems include such amenities as cut & paste, spelling checkers, and simple formatting macros, but systems in the last few years have added much more. The systems can automatically process a script and separate it into captions, automatically time captions during credits or theme songs, and even locate shot changes for caption timing.
In addition, offline systems routinely offer captioners the ability to insert non-caption data such as Internet links for interactive television (known as ITV Links), V-Chip ratings, and other extended data services.
The core market for both realtime and offline captioning is broadcast television (including cable and satellite). Offline, however, has a huge secondary market in videos and DVDs. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 only mandates captioning on television. Even so, the vast majority of movies released on video and DVD now have captions.
It is much easier for a video producer to do offline captioning in-house than realtime captioning. Realtime usually requires a highly-trained stenotype reporter, although realtime captioning has now been performed using voice writers with speech recognition systems. Either way, people in the U.S. having the requisite skills can be counted in the hundreds.
Offline captioning, on the other hand, requires good language skills, research ability, some artistic sense, and a moderate amount of computer skill. There are hundreds of thousands of people that have the potential to be good offline captioners. All they need is a few months of training.
If you want to work as a realtime captioner, you are pretty much limited to working for a captioning firm or starting your own captioning firm. If you want to do offline work, there are many more opportunities. There is, of course, a downside. With high supply comes low wages. Offline caption editors are paid significantly less than realtime captioners.
Why, then, would realtime captioners be interested in offline captioning work? Most of them aren't. However, realtime steno lets you build a transcript much faster than a typist can, which gives court reporters an advantage. Also, captioners suffering from hand and wrist problems may find that offline work causes less physical stress (or at least different stress), although it does still involve typing.
Offline work doesn't have the same time pressure that realtime does. You can get up and go to the bathroom whenever you please. You can even take a dinner break in the middle of a show. If you make a mistake, you have time to go back and fix it. This lower stress level and more flexible schedule is appealing to some people. If you have a small realtime captioning business, it makes sense to get to know the folks in your area that do offline work. You can swap sales leads with them, and help each other gain clients that require both types of captioning. Offline captioning is a different discipline from realtime. The work is no easier and no harder, but draws different kinds of people. If you're considering a career in captioning, look at both opportunities to find the one that suits your skills and temperament the best.
About the Author
Gary Robson is a freelance writer, JCR Contributing Editor, and closed captioning consultant. He has written three books about reporting and captioning, designed and built offline and non-linear captioning systems, and currently has a patent pending on a new closed-caption filtering technology. His most recent book, Alternative Realtime Careers, is available from NCRA. Visit Gary's Web site at www.robson.org/gary for archives of over 100 articles he has written.