What the Hypnotoad can teach us about closed captioning
Recurring sounds on TV shows present us with an opportunity to explore questions of consistency and accuracy in closed captioning. When a sound recurs in the same context or originates repeatedly from the same character, should it be captioned consistently? Moreover, given a number of different, presumably viable options for captioning the same recurring sound/character, which option is best?
These aren’t easy questions, especially since captioning done well must be done in specific visual contexts. Still, it’s hard not to ask such questions when confronted with recurring sounds in recurring contexts. I’ve previously explored the various ways in which a running gag is captioned on Family Guy. Here, I want to track how the same sound — the Hypnotoad’s hypnotic drone — is captioned across multiple episodes of Futurama. Though a minor character on the show, the Hypnotoad is reportedly “one of Matt Groening’s favorite characters.”
What’s particularly interesting about the Hypnotoad’s drone is that the visual context for the hypno-sound is nearly identical through every occurrence. The Hypnotoad seems to be limited to making only one sound and taking one action. In other words, the context remains fairly constant across every occurrence of the hypno-sound. The hypnotoad is nearly always shown making the same sound and taking the same basic action. With context held fairly constant, then, we can focus on the different ways in which the hypno-sound is captioned, attributing differences in captions to the preferences of captioners as opposed to fluctuations in context.
The Hypnotoad sound also reveals the important role that visual context plays in captioning. Simply knowing that the hypno-sound is in fact a “turbine engine played backwards” is insufficient. Captioners don’t caption sounds in isolation. The actual origin of a sound may be unimportant. While it would be technically correct to caption the Hypnotoad sound as a “turbine engine played in reverse,” it wouldn’t be contextually correct. Captions do not simply convey the origin of a sound — or even what the sound really is in any abstract, technical, or decontextualized sense — but what the sound is doing in a scene.
As you view the clips, consider the differences among the official hypno captions. Do you have a preference? Why? How important is consistency when captioning a recurring sound such as the hypno-sound?
“The Day the Earth Stood Stupid”
- Season 3, Episode 7 (2001)
- Plot info: “The Day the Earth Stood Stupid“
- Source: Netflix
- Hypnotoad appears at: 01:52 (video 1), 04:55 (video 2)
“Bender Should Not Be Allowed on Television”
- Season 4, Episode 6 (2004)
- Plot info: “Bender Should Not Be Allowed on Television“
- Source: Netflix
- Hypnotoad appears at: 03:57 (video 1), 21:52 (video 2)
“Bender’s Big Score”
- 89-minute film (2007)
- Plot info: “Bender’s Big Score“
- Source: DVD (video 1) and Netflix (video 2). Same scene, different captions.
- Hypnotoad appears at: 01:05:37
“Everybody Loves Hypnotoad: Amazon Adventure”
- 22-minute “extra” on the DVD for Bender’s Big Score (2007)
- Plot info: “Everybody Loves Hypnotoad“
- Source: DVD
- Hynptoad appears throughout the 22-minute “episode” (only the first minute is included below)
- Uncaptioned (typical for DVD extras)
“Into the Wild Green Yonder”
- 84-minute film (2009)
- Plot info: “Into the Wild Green Yonder“
- Source: DVD
- Hypnotoad appears at: 27:15
- Uncaptioned (Hypnotoad and hypno-sound appear briefly in background)
- Season 6, Episode 1 (2010)
- Plot info: “Rebirth“
- Source: iTunes purchase (since season 6 is not yet available on Netflix)
- Hypnotoad appears at: 0:00 (episode opens with Hypnotoad)
- Caption file downloaded from Subscene.com and merged with movie file by me. Caption file appears to be official, ripped directly from DVD by uploader.
|The Day the Earth Stood Stupid (2001)||(Electronic Humming Sound)
|Bender Should Not Be Allowed on Television (2004)||(Eyeballs Thrumming Loudly)|
|Bender’s Big Score (2007)||(Mechanical Grinding) [DVD]
(droning mechanical sputtering) [Netflix]
|Everybody Loves Hypnotoad (2007)||Uncaptioned [DVD extra]|
|Into the Wild Green Yonder (2009)||Uncaptioned [brief appearance, in background]|
|Rebirth (2010)||(LOUD BUZZING DRONE)|
When we reach across episodes and put captions for the same sound side-by-side, we also put ourselves in an excellent position to make an informed decision about which caption, if any, we think is best. Even if we ultimately decide that any of these options will suffice, we can at least be struck by their remarkable diversity. This diversity raises a number of questions:
- The Hynpo-sound is converted into a number of mostly synonymous action words: Humming, Thrumming, Grinding, Droning, Sputtering, Buzzing. Will any of these terms suffice, or do we need a term that captures not only the nature of the sound but also its function as hypnotic?
- In one case (“droning mechanical sputtering”), two action words are used in the same caption. Do droning and sputtering together more effectively describe the sound and its function than a single action word?
- Two captions describe the volume of the sound (“Eyeballs Thrumming Loudly” and “Loud Buzzing Drone”). Yet all the instances of the Hypno-sound (except for one) are approximately the same volume. (The exception is “Into the Wild Green Yonder,” in which the Hypno-sound on the TV screen plays quietly in the background.) How necessary is it to indicate sound volume in the Hypno-caption?
- When the Hypno-sound is played quietly in the background of the scene from “Into the Wild Green Yonder,” it is not captioned. The short amount of screen time for the Hypnotoad is dominated by speech from the Professor and the TV announcer. Would it benefit caption viewers to have a description of the Hypno-sound wedged into the scene among the speech captions?
- The origin of the sound is described as electronic, mechanical, or biological (i.e. emanating from the Eyeballs). Does it matter which one it is?
- Only one of the captions indicates the specific location of the sound. “Eyeballs Thrumming Loudly” describes the sound as emanating from the toad’s eyeballs. Locating the source of the sound in the eyeballs is most likely an interpretation on the captioner’s part. The Futurama Wiki states that the Hypnotoad “emits a droning hum” but doesn’t indicate where that sound comes from because, as far as I know, it’s not clear how the toad makes the noise. This caption is particularly interesting to me because it shows how captioners don’t simply caption sounds in isolation but caption sounds embedded in visual contexts. Captioners don’t caption the actual origins of sounds (i.e. the sound is actually “a turbine engine”) but the apparent origins of sounds.
- One caption uses the word “sound.” But viewers already assume that captions describe sounds, so adding the word “sound” to any caption is usually a waste of precious caption space.
- One caption is in ALL CAPS.
- DVD captions and Netflix captions for the same episode will not necessarily be the same.
- DVD extras are not usually captioned in my experience. In order to make DVDs fully accessible to deaf and hard of hearing caption viewers, extras and special features on DVDs must be captioned, starting with the 22-minute episode of “Everybody Loves Hypnotoad.”
Let us know in the comments below how would you caption the Hypnotoad sound?
- No Caption Needed
- Mechanical Grinding
- Electronic Humming
- Droning Mechanical Sputtering
- Loud Buzzing Drone
- Eyeballs Thrumming Loudly
- Busy signal or engaged tone? Captions, language variety, and localized accessibility
- Captioned silence?
- How many TV commercials are closed captioned?
- Working at the Speed of Sound
Originally Posted on Accessible Rhetoric
[A note on method: The closed captions included with the movie clips are the official captions. I used the Futurama Wiki to gather a list of episodes in which the Hypnotoad character appeared. In some cases, I streamed episodes on Netflix (with captions enabled). In others, I viewed DVDs. In one case (because Netflix doesn't currently offer Season 6), I purchased an episode on iTunes. I merged the iTunes movie with a caption file I downloaded from Subscene.com (because iTunes didn't provide closed captions). This downloaded file appears to be a unaltered copy of the official DVD caption file. But because it wasn't collected by me from the source, I can't vouch for its accuracy.]
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