The subtitle surge

5 min
A pair of socked feet rest on a red cushion on a table. Beside them is a bowl of popcorn. Beyond both is a blurred TV playing a show with subtitles.

Are you a member of The Subtitle Club? That is, when you watch your favourite TV shows, films or even YouTube, do you automatically switch them on, even if you’re not deaf or hard of hearing? It seems that barely a month goes by without another piece of research telling us how reading has become an integral part of the viewing experience – but only if you’re young. And while it’s clear that the under 25s use subtitles significantly more, there’s a marked increase across other ages too.

To call it a ‘Gen Z thing’ oversimplifies a phenomenon that seems to be a convergence of happenings, rather than general differences in taste. And, as Canon Ambassador and cinematographer Elisa Iannacone points out, it’s not a ‘sudden’ shift. “Even when I was working in Newsweek's video team, back in 2013, we were subtitling everything because stats-wise, we knew that so many people were playing things on their phone without audio.” So, perhaps instead of looking specifically at the ‘who’, maybe we should be thinking about the ‘why’ and, importantly, ‘what’ new problems are subtitles solving for viewers?

Maximum multitasking

‘Kids have no attention spans these days!’ Is it just kids, though? A few years ago, Microsoft released the results of a study of 2000 people, which found that the average human attention span has decreased from twelve seconds in the year 2000 to eight seconds in 2013. For context: the attention span of a goldfish is reportedly nine seconds. As you might expect, there does appear to be a correlation between this and the arrival of the ‘everywhere internet’. After all, apps are designed to make tasks faster and more efficient, but has this also had a direct impact on our capacity for patience? How many of us have our phones to hand when we watch a movie? ‘Second screening’ and ‘sidebar conversations’ (chatting with friends on messaging apps, while doing something else) are commonplace, and subtitles offer a way to quickly catch up with key events on the tv screen in a glance, while you can continue your groupchat or order a pizza.

A woman in headphones rests her chin on her arm, which is on a table. In the other hand she holds a phone, landscape, as though watching a video.

Clips, series or movies, we’re watching them all on a variety of screen sizes and in every conceivable location. It makes sense that we’d make whatever adjustments are necessary to make sure we get the whole picture.

Altered audio

Sound quality has changed, and microphones today are so clear and sensitive that actors don’t need to ‘project’ their lines quite so much to be audible. This is progress, but it also means that sometimes you just can’t quite catch what’s being said – especially if they mumble, whisper or have an unfamiliar pattern of speech. But what happens when dialogue occurs during a car chase? Or an explosion? While you might think that it’s as simple as increasing the volume of the speech to compensate for the noise, but that would actually be acutely discomforting for the viewer. Upping the audio on voices can cause distortion. Down on explosions instead? Well, that would just sound weird and unrealistic, especially in the cinema, where Dolby Atmos ‘moves’ sound around to create an immersive audio experience. Of course, most movies are made primarily to be experienced in cinemas, but we know that’s not always the case. Which leads us neatly to…

Watching far and wide

“Huge Hollywood films are meant for the big screen, but as cinematographers, we've had to relinquish so much,” laments Elisa. “We're already dealing with the fact that films are very likely to be seen on a tablet or phone, or even on those little screens on flights. And will they [viewers] opt for the highest quality or the quickest one to download?” When watching on the move, so much can affect what is seen and heard – the people around you, wearing headphones (or not), screen brightness, reflections, even the time of day. Poor audio quality, background noise and simple politeness are, in general, the main reasons for using subtitles on small screens, but we still tend to multitask. “Even on a phone, you have the capacity to make the YouTube or Netflix screen very small, so that you can be on different apps at the same time,” explains Elisa. “You can have your brain on different channels at the same time and just pick what you think is most important.” This can mean we are viewing a cinematic epic in a space the width of a matchbox. And white-out subtitles are the clearest thing on the screen.

In journalism, we say, ‘you lead with your strongest image’, but perhaps it is also with our strongest word sometimes, because it might be the word that actually hooks someone.”

From small to big screen

On a more positive note, streaming services have been an absolute game changer for non-English language TV and films. In particular, ‘K-Dramas’ (shows from Korea, such as Squid Game) have gained a huge following and are – at least in part – responsible for an increased in use of subtitles (dubbed versions are available but considered by younger audiences to be ‘a bit cringe’). Without a doubt, Squid Game and its contemporaries have encouraged many millions of viewers to explore a wider pool of TV series and films, and it’s a trend that’s showing no sign of abating. As Bong Joon-ho, the director of Korean horror film Parasite, said in his Oscar acceptance speech: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

We have already seen how digital platforms have affected music length, with top ten hits lasting below three minutes increasing by nearly 40%, according to Billboard. Is the rise in use of subtitles an indicator that the same will happen to the film industry? “I think we just need to know that if we make a 90-minute film or documentary, not everybody's going get through it,” says Elisa. “It's not personal. Series are so successful now because they're shorter. Psychologically, it's less of a commitment – only twenty or thirty minutes – and yet the irony is that people end up spending a day watching it.” Elisa acknowledges that the way people consume film has certainly changed, with so much ready availability meaning that we have reached a time where people can simply put a film on to fall asleep to, or dip in and out of while doing other things. “It doesn't mean I think that we should stop making them [longer films] because there is still a select group of people who really care.”

“But” she says hopefully, “the pendulum always swings in history, right? Perhaps at some point, people will crave sitting down for longer and realise that we need to be able to actually just sit through something, uninterrupted?”


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