Monday, October 24, 2011

Subtitling Ernest Willis

          “The Good Life” is the story of Patrick Willis, All-Pro linebacker for the 49ers, and his ascent from rural poverty and an abusive father.
          The story takes Willis back to his childhood in a rusted trailer outside of Bruceton, Tennessee.  His mother abandoned his family when he was four. His father, Ernest, a part-time logger who drank and used drugs, raised him and his three siblings.
          Willis and his siblings describe the physical beatings and threats they endured from their father before state officials placed them in a foster home.
          Ernest Willis was interviewed by E:60 producer Beein Gim, and denied the allegations of his children.
          But Ernest’s diction - colloquial and rapid - raised a question in edit: should he be subtitled?
          Executive producer Andy Tennant asked E:60 staffers their opinion after they screened the story.  Ernest was subtitled in the version they watched.   The result was a 50-50 split.
          Feature producer Lisa Binns, who did not work on the piece, opposed subtitles.
          “The first time I watched I relied on the subtitles and the second time I avoided watching them to see if I could understand and I did,” said Binns.
          Typically, subtitles are used to translate language foreign to the intended audience.  They may be used for the same language as the intended audience - if the speaker has impaired speech. Subtitles can be used for song lyrics, rapid dialogue, and for accents unfamiliar to the intended audience. They are used to keep the viewer in the moment if speech poses a potential distraction.
             Said Coordinating Producer Michael Baltierra: “When you subtitle somebody in our own language there’s always a concern of why are you doing this.”
          In this case, Tennant and senior producers sought out multiple opinions, including that of senior vice-president/director of news Vince Doria.  They reviewed the raw footage of the interview.  And they asked the E:60 staff for its vote.
          In the end, the decision was to subtitle Ernest Willis.
          Tennant explained it thusly:
          “If half the room can’t understand him clearly - if 50 percent of our audience is not going to understand his side of the story with clarity - maybe the way to go is to subtitle.
          “Several factors came into play.  One, he was not the main character...he was a secondary character.  But more important, he was responding to accusations against him by his children - serious accusations.  To be fair to him and to give him a platform to respond we thought it was an absolute necessity that people were 100 percent clear on what he was saying.”
          E:60 logged no complaints about the Willis subtitles,  Tennant pointed out.  And if the decision had been reversed, perhaps nobody would have complained, either.
          “When you produce this type of TV clarity is the most important thing,” he said. “You want to make sure it’s easy to follow and that the characters are easy to follow.  We did what we thought was the fair and right thing to do.”
          Going forward, Binns suggests that when a judgment call arises, the staff first should view a version without subtitles.
          “I’m suggesting as a best practice to show these things without subtitles to see how the room reacts,” she said.

posted by Steve Marantz on October 24, 2011