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May 13, 2019

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Dynamic captions speak for themselves in Sundance Now podcast.

Paula Hendrickson

Telecasts have long been captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers, but some productions now employ dynamic captioning to give captions more dimension.

"It's a visual storytelling that's, in and of itself, a thing, as opposed to traditional captioning for television, which relies on a picture," explains Deborah Henderson, head of production at Insurrection Media, which uses the technique with scripted podcasts. "Dynamic captioning enhances the audio storytelling."

Insurrection recently used dynamic captioning for Exeter, the first scripted podcast on Sundance Now, a subscription video service of AMC Networks. "Podcasts, without something like dynamic captioning, are otherwise inaccessible to the hearing impaired, so it's really exciting to be involved with making a podcast accessible," Henderson says.

"When we developed Exeter, we fell in love with the words," says Jan Diedrichsen, general manager of SundanceTV and Sundance Now. "For us, the dynamic captioning was a way to enhance the storytelling experience. Not to make it a television show, but to make it an elevated aural experience."

"The benefit of dynamic captioning is that it is always on for everyone to see, and it benefits many folks, not just deaf and head-of-hearing people," says Zainab Alkebsi, policy counsel for the National Association of the Deaf's Law and Advocacy Center. She notes that dynamic captioning is used on social media, since people often scroll through posts with the sound off.

Yet it's a barrier for deaf-blind individuals who read closed-caption files on refreshable Braille devices. "If dynamic captioning is used, a transcript — with not just dialogue, but also descriptions of what is happening on screen — should be provided to ensure that deaf-blind people can also access the video."

Exeter, a murder mystery set in a small southern town, was never meant to be a visual story. The Sundance and Insurrection teams felt the dynamic captioning — done by Paul Cooper, a freelance motion graphic designer based in the United Kingdom — helped set the mood and convey characters' mindsets.

Every design detail was intentional. "I wanted to give a feeling of a police report or a detective's investigation, using folders and pieces of 'evidence' dotted around the frame," Cooper says. "This approach allowed me to have movement with the scenes and switch focus, depending on the character or location."

He also highlighted different tones and emotions. Misaligned type indicates a character is drunk. Antagonistic dialogue looks rough and distorted. "The difficulty was trying to make them feel different, but still remain legible," he says, so he avoided outlandish text effects and distracting animation.

The streamlined nature of podcasts makes them ideal for dynamic captioning. "In Exeter, there are never more than four characters per scene, which makes it possible to keep that clean, not frenetic, storytelling line going," Henderson says.

Diedrichsen says Cooper perfectly captured the mood. "It's not like closed captioning on television. This is interestingly and fascinatingly rolled out. You follow the story and know who's talking. The visuals give you a sense of the place, a sense of the story. We fell in love with it as soon as Paul did a test scene for us. He created an incredibly satisfying experience."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2019

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