Never sleeping with the television on...

# "They never notice the zap gun in your hand
until you're pointing it and stunning their senses..."
# - Billy Joel

I've been thinking about those peculiar but interesting lists you sometimes see on the inside of book dust jackets that detail an author's biography, the one with unique and often surprising jobs they've done leading up to becoming a published writer, and in particular I've been imagining how my own list might look one day... It's a pretty small and undistinguished list really that includes Library Assistant, Community Journalist/Reporter and even a stint for the Copyright Licensing Agency but it's my current day job that I'll probably be most proud of in years to come...

I’ve referred to my work as a Broadcast Subtitler for television a couple of times on this blog journal before (as well as actually talking about it in my "soundbite" with the Live Theatre last July, which is still up for streaming incidentally!), but it’s a job I’ve been doing now for about eight years and so in no small part it has had an influence on my writing life. To sum it up in a sentence, at work as a Subtitler, I create captions for a deaf and hard-of-hearing audience of TV using a specialised PC software programme for pre-recorded shows that are on such channels here in the UK as Five, Disney and Sky. (You can click here to read more about the varied work of Subtitlers worldwide.)

I first got into subtitling way back at the very turn of the Millennium and it’s been a job I’ve grown with and learned a lot from, both professionally and creatively. I remember back at my initial interview for the position where I was asked how I’d feel about the "non-creative" side of the job because of the fact I’d be in effect reproducing other people’s speech, rather than creating it from scratch, but thinking of the role of a TV Subtitler as a mere “audio typist” is to really oversimplify it, and it’s a job I get a lot out of on a daily basis… (Incidentally, cinemas and even theatre subtitles are now becoming more common nowadays, so it’s both an interesting and growing niche market to be involved with really… Click these words now to follow to a link about the new idea of Subtitles in UK Theatres.)

My typical day is spent on the computer working on an assigned TV show either on my own or collaboratively with colleagues, co-ordinating how we’ll uniformly caption our shared programme. The shows we work on can be anything from about 20 to 50 minutes in length. A trusty dictionary is always at my side as I endeavour to spell everything in the correct way and research as much as I can using the Net about drama shows or feature films that come in to us as well.

During my time with the job I’ve also improved my used of English grammar and touch-typing skills, as well as getting into the mindset of a hearing-impaired audience member who we’re providing the service for through attending “Deaf Awareness" days. There’s been some fairly varied times too as I worked from home for six months a few years back with the job, worked to long and short shift patterns, and more recently have had the opportunity to do the trialling of some futuristic Voice Recognition technology as a means to subtitle TV programmes. (It’s probably my writer's sci-fi imagination gone wild but carrying out this experimental software did make me think that one day I could be out of a job, replaced by robots or machines who could perform much more efficiently) Seriously, though, the experience using Speech Recognition is similar to the one I have with my writing where I sometimesrecord verbal story notes to myself using my digital dictatophone. I often think it would be an interesting exercice one day to try writing a book or story with just Voice Recognition (which apparently Windows Vista comes with as complimentary these days, so I must give that a try sometime...)

Subtitling's a job I’ve got very comfortable in doing, day in, day out, while I carry on with my creative writing pursuits at home, but this year in particular in the day job has seen a renewed interest for myself because after seven years working with one particular software programme I’ve had to adapt and change to a completely new one and virtually retrain again (a useful exercise at any time and any aspect in life, I feel – even with writing, no matter how sharp you think you are, it’s probably good to return to the drawing board and get back to basics once in a while, recapturing your initial inspiration and drive for a particular story or project).

Working effectively in TV "post-production" as a Subtitler I often feel like one of the original back-room boffins of yesteryear or even the geniuses of the orginal BBC Radiophonic Workshop who used to handle all things technical and sound-related behind the scenes... I'm not that much of a tech-savvy whizz kid but speaking of the Radiophonic Workshop, one of the most fun parts of the job of a Subtitler is making up creative ways to label and describe sound effects - you do build up a memory bank of how you've personally described them in past TV shows but there's always some obscure music piece or random sound which comes up in any given programme, and if you have the time (working to deadlines can add pressure!) one of my favourite parts of the job still lies in the researching of these weird and wonderful sounds and thinking up how to adequately put these across to the hearing-impaired audience...

The ability to edit speech is also a key part of the job, whilst also keeping a good sense of what is actually being said. This can be hard at times because it's said that most people talk at 120 words a minute but type at 40, and the average person reads at a lot less than 120 words a minute too... So there's an interesting challenge that comes with each caption you create, really, trying to fit into a few lines on screen what might be spoken at a rapid speed by a hyper cartoon character or even 'real' person. Accuracy in "proofing" our subtitle files is quite a concern too and to that end this past couple of years I've been undertaking a Proofreading distance learning course through my day job (which you can read the results of at the bottom of this post!) More and more these days though in Subtitling we're provided with precise scripts or at least transcripts of TV shows which aid in our job no end, but also have given me an insight as a writer into how how professional scripts are set out and written.

In the near-decade that I've been working as a Subtitler I've captioned some brilliant programmes (I am trying not to just give the impression I simply watch TV for a living!) and some of the more memorable feature films I remember are The Winslow Boy (1999), The Patriot (2000) and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), as well as classics like The Browning Version (1952), The Valley of the Gwangi (1969) and The Wild Geese (1978) - all for Sky Movies (and all of which I got to put my name to at the end "Subtitles by Chris G Allan" - a credit that's fallen out of practice now, unfortunately). But it's mostly TV shows that I work at on a day-to-day basis and of these it tends to be kids cartoons and drama (perhaps unsurprisingly since I want to be a kids writer!) that stick out as the most fun to subtitle. These include Round The Twist, Gerald McBoing Boing, The Emperor's New School, Handy Manny, Pocoyo and Little Einsteins... Children's TV somehow allows us as Subtitlers to be a little more creative too because of the all the zany sound effects and phonetic shouting that you have to come up with as captions on screen...

Of late, I've also been working on the new Gladiators series for Sky and it brought back fond memories of lazy Saturday tea times in the mid-90s living at my parent's house when the original Gladiators aired) But also every so often you get the privilege to Subtitle some quite life-changing shows and one such recent one-off special was a charity drive by the actor Ross Kemp who visited Kenya where so-called "Glue Kids" live on rubbish dumps and desperately need aid from the outside world because their own government is failing to help them. (You can click here to find out more about Save The Children's work in Kenya.)

There are of course quite a lot of shows that I don't like to subtitle but have to do on a regular basis, but this post is meant as a celebration of "day work" rather than a complaint of it... On the whole I love my work as a Subtitler and, in fact, as I've indicated before on this blog, it's an odd ironic phenomena but I think that having the need for a day job (of any kind) actually fuels my creative writing outside of work and if it wasn't there, I wouldn't push myself as much to keep up with my writing at home - I remember the care-free years of being a student (over a decade ago now for me!) with huge, sprawling summer days with nothing to do, and did I do as much writing then? Not a jot...

My day job has definitely influenced my writing though in a lot of ways since I've begun my life as a Subtitler (actually, my serious attempts at a writing life only pre-date my Subtitling life by about two years anyway, so it must have some bearing on who am I as a writer, really!). When captioning a new programme, for instance, I always tend to fastforward to the end of the show to see where my last bit of speech ends (not in an attempt to spoil the end of the story but to let me know where I’m heading towards) and in my writing too I normally come up with the beginning and the end of a story at the same time – the middle of subtitling a show, as with any good written story, is always where the hard work lies...

Working as a Subtitler too has also taught me useful things about how different kinds of TV shows tell different kinds of stories (i.e. drama generally shows have an opening teaser, then the start credits which end with "Directed By..." and then a break before the main three "Acts" begin and then end with a denouement segment at the end). I mentioned above how I've got to see a lot of modern kids TV and this is definitely great for me as a budding kids writer to keep mental notes on the current trends in children's entertainment on TV... Another useful narrative device I've picked up that's particular to audio storytelling in the TV format (and one I regularly have to try to find a way to put across with my captioning) is using "sound effect set-ups" at the beginning a teledrama which act as clues, say, in a police detective show. So if a pager bleeps early on in a show, it could be relevant to Subtitle this because later on when it bleeps again it's the thing that might give away the criminal by the end. (Even if it's a red herring, I'd still caption it though, and it's all useful notes for me to keep on how to lead or mislead a reader on the way to a story's close...)

At work I tend to be a mild-mannered, little voiced Subtitler by day and then "the Scribbler" by night, Doozering away at my creative writing, where my characters scream out onto the page in the confident voices I hope to one day have as a professional author. As with most jobs though, I'm also grateful to my career in Subtitling for meeting a handful of the most inspiring people yet in life who have become firm friends in my adult life (one even acting as an usher at my wedding!).

It's interesting comparing your own generation to those that have gone before and their day jobs, and my paternal granddad worked in a factory for most of his life, chained to a machine, (I guess I'm sorted of attached to my own modern machine of a PC with my own day job, but probably with much better working conditions), so I'm grateful and also aware of how much 'cushy' I have it these days... I think my Subtitling mindset will probably always remain with me, even if I leave the job - the editing skills and knowledge of TV I've gained are fantastic training tools for the kind of writing I'm realising I want to put out in the future... Until then, though, "Lights, camera, action..." and let the reels continue to roll...

"The Proof Is In The Reading... (or so they might say...)"
This year, I've been undertaking a Proofreading & Editing Skills Course with Chapterhouse and with most posts here on my journal blog in 2008, as a way of motivating myself to keep going with it, (and because it's quite relevant to my writing, really) I've provided a small update on how it's all been going...

September's update:
“Well, it's been a long year doing this course which has undoubtedly helped me in my skills at work, and I'm happy (and relieved!) to report that it's now done and dusted! The final piece of marked work came back to me recently and informed me that I'd passed the course - I even got a nice certificate through from the people at Chapterhouse for my efforts. It's been a really useful course to do and I'd recommend it but having to do it in my free time while I try to fit in writing outside of work too has proven to be quite a tiring chore at times... But all's well that ends well, as they say, and hopefully the knowledge I've gained from doing the course will come in useful for my writing, going back over drafts of "Moon Crater" as well as, of course, my day-to-day working life as a Subtitler for TV..."


Popular posts from this blog

The Story So Far... (A three-reel epic and still counting!)

The Results of the 1st Moon Crater Fiction Decisions Poll!

Monday Afternoon Live!