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Whisper & Explosion & Subtitles

Panel 1: A TV set shows the title screen for "Whisper & Explosion: The Movie". Panel 2: A man sits in his chair smiling at the TV. Panel 3: a scene from the movie shows two characters whispering to each other unintelligbly. Panel 4: the man in the chair says "…waahh…" while increasing the volume on the TV. Panel 5: the TV shows the volume at max with the whispering character finishing his sentence with "And that was important". Panel 6: the TV shows a large loud explosion. Panel 7: the man in the chair yells "HOOOOLLLLYYY" while decreasing the TV volume. Panel 8: the TV shows the end of the explosion with the volume set to minimum. Panel 9: the TV shows two characters whispering to each other unintelligibly again. Panel 10: the man in the chair gives an irritated expression at the TV.

"Whisper and Explosion" is an excellent comic by J. L. Westover that I'm reminded of just about every time I watch an action movie or TV show without subtitles.

If subtitles aren't available, I find myself constantly adjusting the volume in order to try to understand what's going on without destroying my eardrums—just like the man in the comic.

I don't remember exactly when I started enabling subtitles by default. A close friend of mine is deaf and we'd watch shows with subtitles when they were available, but I don't think I started defaulting to using subtitles until more recently. They've been particularly helpful while my kids run around screaming at the top of their lungs.

One of the common criticisms I've heard regarding subtitles is that they're distracting. Multiple people have told me they have a hard time watching a show with subtitles because they try to read everything on the screen and miss out on what's actually happening.

From having normalized to subtitles, I feel like "distracting" is probably the wrong word. I think "overwhelming" might be more appropriate. If you're not used to watching with subtitles, having the additional communication channel of reading on top of listening and watching is likely overwhelming your senses. When I watch without subtitles I often get somewhat fidgety because it feels like there's not enough happening.

Having said that, it's also important to note that subtitles frequently have problems. They often have issues where:

  • they don't match the dialog
  • they're too fast
  • they're too slow
  • they reveal spoilers in the immediate scene
  • they're badly positioned
  • they're too small
  • they're too large
  • they have color contrast issues

If you don't like subtitles because of any of the above reasons, I would suggest that it's not that subtitles are the problem per se. Rather, the implementation of subtitles is the problem.

Another reason I think subtitles have a tendency to overwhelm is because they're often rich with information that would have otherwise been missed. Quiet background comments that even people with good hearing might have missed are suddenly accessible. Auditory cues can be called out for anyone who might not otherwise recognize exactly what they're hearing. Song titles are frequently thematically tied to the current scene and having the titles or lyrics can help reveal the connection to provide a deeper level of engagement.

Being overwhelmed by subtitles is something that can be overcome with a bit of practice. Most things that are learned feel overwhelming at first, such as learning to perform a piece of music, riding a bike, or driving a car. With a bit of practice and repetition that feeling of being overwhelmed by subtitles will disappear and things will feel normal again, and you'll forget what it was like to not use subtitles.

All this is to say, regardless of whether you have trouble hearing, consider enabling subtitles. And, if you see subtitles that have problems, call them out. They're a great way to not need to adjust the volume while you're watching "Whisper & Explosion: The Movie".