The subtitle surge and why we can’t get enough of text on screen

It’s not just a ‘young people’ thing. More of us than ever are switching on subtitles when we watch film and TV – but why? And what do they solve?
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.

Written by Constanze Bauer

Canon EMEA Communications Specialist

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 are using subtitles significantly more than any other generation, there’s a marked increase across other ages too.

To assume that this is simply another ‘Gen Z thing’ oversimplifies a really interesting phenomenon that seems to be a convergence of several adjacent happenings, rather than a general difference in taste of one set of people. 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, most importantly, ‘what’ new problems are subtitles solving for viewers?

Are we trying to do ‘Everything Everywhere, All at Once’?

‘Kids have no attention spans these days!’ is a common lament. 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. To put this into context: the attention span of a goldfish is reportedly nine seconds. Yikes. As you might expect, there does appear to be a correlation between this and the arrival of the ‘everywhere internet’. After all, our phones and their 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 happening on the first screen in a glance, while you can continue your groupchat or order a pizza.

But Elisa has noticed another surprising way that people are cramming more into less time – and this one is very much among young people. “On YouTube, you can speed up a video and I do notice younger people listening to things on double speed, which is really weird for me, but they're used to it.” Is speed the new subs? Are the demands of the digital world so great that we not only need to multitask constantly, but speed up how we multitask too?

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.

Is the ‘Pitch’ no longer ‘Perfect’? Has audio changed?

In a word, yes. Sound has changed over the years and microphones have become so clear and sensitive that actors no longer 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 a pattern of speech that is unfamiliar. But what happens when this dialogue occurs during a car chase? Or between two characters running from an explosion? Perhaps even in a scene where a string quartet plays beside a romantic moment? While you might consider that it would be a simple matter to just turn the volume of the dialogue up to compensate for the surrounding noise, that would actually be acutely discomforting for the viewer. Increasing the audio on voices too much can cause distortion, and audio down on explosions instead? Well, that would just sound weird and very unrealistic, especially in the actual 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, of course, we know that’s not always the case. Which leads us neatly to…

Does viewing on ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ make a difference?

“Huge Hollywood films, like Dune or Blade Runner 2049, 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, whether you have headphones or not, screen brightness, reflections, even the time of day. Poor audio quality of the device being used, background noise and simple politeness are, in general, the main reasons for using subtitles on small screens, but even when we’re on the move, we tend to multitask these days. “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. “It's like a combination of short and multiple attention spans, where you can have your brain on different channels at the same time and just pick what you think is most important of each.” Ultimately, this means we are sometimes viewing a huge cinematic epic in a space the width of a matchbox. And white-out subtitles are the clearest thing on the screen.

"You know, in journalism, we always 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."

Has Squid Game given the ‘Green Light’ to subs?

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 and All of Us Are Dead) have gained a huge following and are – at least in part – responsible for an increased in use of subtitles, even though the quality of some have been called into question by native Korean speakers. Dubbed versions, while available, are considered by younger audiences to be lacking in authenticity, more distracting and ‘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. It certainly makes sense that a more international mindset overall should be reflected in the media we consume, and this has certainly already the case for music and visual arts. 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.”

What does this mean for ‘La La Land’?

We have already seen the effects of certain digital platforms on the music industry and the amount of top ten hits that are now below three minutes in length has increased by nearly 40%, according to Billboard. Is the rise in use of subtitles an indicator that the same going to 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, instead of just an hour and a half.” 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, unconcerned by the ending, or dip in and out while doing a multitude of 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?”

Learn more about Elisa Iannacone’s work and download our Future of Filmmaking report.

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