WGBH’s Media Access Group (MAG) played a crucial role in making 10 of this year’s Oscar-nominated films more accessible to people with hearing or visual impairments. It’s a service the group has provided for more than 45 years, since closed captioning was invented at WGBH. But this year was particularly rewarding as one of the Oscar-nominated films — FRONTLINE’s For Sama, in the Best Documentary Feature category — was also produced at WGBH. We sat down with Tim Alves, Manager for Media Access Technical Services at MAG, to learn more about the team’s efforts to caption the work of their FRONTLINE colleagues and other filmmakers across the country for this year’s Academy Awards.

So, what does captioning and describing a film entail, anyway?

Tim: FRONTLINE is a straightforward show to caption. The post-production crew we interact with is top-notch, so they always have a script ready for us. One or more of our captioners will take that script and format it according to our caption style guide and import it into our captioning software. Once the formatted script is in place within the software, the captioners then time each line of captions to correspond to the audio, correcting the script as needed and adding textual descriptions of audio cues. Once the captioner completes the timing, the project then moves to the review phase. A coordinator then performs a quality control check of the file, watching the video with the captions rolling to ensure accuracy in timing, placement, formatting, punctuation, and overall accuracy. Once the review is complete, we output the file of choice and send it off to the post-production team.

What was the process like captioning and describing this film, which involves several different languages and lots of audio, including bombs and other sounds of war?

Tim: FRONTLINE’s For Sama was challenging to caption in that we needed to avoid the traps that heavily subtitled films set. It's easy to say, "Well, the words are already on screen. We can take this section off." Yes, subtitles reflect what's spoken, but not necessarily who's speaking. While some of us can hear when voices change and know when a speaker change occurs, a significant portion of the audience who relies on our captions don't share that privilege. So it's our duty to indicate who's speaking the words on screen, or at the very least to indicate there's a change in speaker when it's not obvious on screen. We also need to indicate audio cues when they happen in addition to captioning what's being spoken. For example: is the explosion distant or nearby?

How is your team's work impacted by films and programs that are emotionally charged, like For Sama?

Tim: There is undoubtedly an emotional toll taken when captioning something like For Sama. Both our offline and real-time teams caption news programs frequently — every day, in real-time — so, over time, one tends to become inured to the content. But that isn't to say we become indifferent; professionally, we need to be able to compartmentalize in order to function. In a typical news broadcast, there's just enough artifice to create an emotional buffer. But in For Sama, there was no buffer. At least there wasn't in my experience. There were a few points in the film where I had to step away and process what I saw in order to go back and do the job properly. Different members of the team have varying tolerances for certain subject matters, and we try to be sensitive to those tolerances when assigning projects.

Why is it important to provide captions?

Tim: Captions, if done well, are essential to giving equal access to all consumers. That's why we value our relationship with all of our partners both within WGBH and outside the foundation. Our partners realize the value of high-quality captions generated and vetted by highly trained, smart people dedicated to fulfilling MAG’s core mission. And a large part of that value is opening your program to the widest possible audience and allowing everyone to engage with it on a level playing field.

What does it mean to your team to have a WGBH production — and one you've worked on — honored at the Academy Awards?

Tim: We value making every project accessible to viewers. Knowing how hard everyone within WGBH works on their projects, we're not surprised when their work is honored. Personally, I've worked with FRONTLINE for over a decade, and they deserve every accolade imaginable. We're inspired by the dedication to their craft, and take pride in the fact that they trust us to provide the media accessibility their projects deserve.

The MAG team also captioned and/or described the following Academy Award-nominated films:

  • 1917 (Best Picture, Best Director for Sam Mendes, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Production Design, Best Music Original Score, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing)
  • Little Women (Best Picture, Best Actress for Saoirse Ronan, Best Supporting Actress for Florence Pugh, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Music Original Score)
  • Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Best Picture, Best Director for Quentin Tarantino, Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio, Best Supporting Actor for Brad Pitt, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing)
  • Pain and Glory (Best Actor for Antonio Banderas, Best International Feature Film)
  • Harriet (Best Actress for Cynthia Erivo, Best Music Original Song)
  • A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Best Actor for Tom Hanks)
  • How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (Best Animated Feature Film)
  • Klaus (Best Animated Feature Film)
  • Les Misérables (Best International Feature Film)

Learn more about WGBH’s Media Access Group as well as past events that the group has worked on, including the impeachment hearings of President Donald Trump and last year’s Super Bowl.