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Reel Words, a company based in Toronto that offers subtitles and captions editing, has announced an award meant to encourage filmmakers to make films accessible to more viewers. I have interviewed Vanessa Wells, the initiator of this Award to find out more.

A transcript of my conversation with Vanessa Wells follows:

Transcript of “The Accessible Podcast”

Date: November 30, 2018

Title: The Reel Words Award for Excellence in Captioning

(Jingle: male voice over music: The Accessible Podcast)

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(Andreea Demirgian) Hello and welcome to the Accessible Podcast, an audio experience for all audiences. I am Andreea Demirgian, your host. Captioning a movie is crucial for more people than you would think. Not only members of the Deaf community benefit from having good quality captions. Newcomers to Canada, people for whom English is a Second language, as well as children, can better understand the message filmmakers are trying to convey if they can also see the words on the screen. But not all captions are equal. More often than you might think, they can be considered rather craptions than captions. Many independent filmmakers state they cannot afford to include captions, but there are government funding sources available to have them created by professionals.

Founded by Vanessa Wells, Reel Words is a company based in Toronto that offers subtitles and captions editing. A couple of weeks ago, Reel Words has announced an award meant to encourage filmmakers to adopt the best practices of captioning, in order to make films accessible to more viewers. I’ve had the privilege to sit down with Vanessa and talk about the Reel Words award.

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AD: Can you please tell me a few words about your company first, about Reel Words?

Vanessa Wells: Sure, hi Andreea! So, Reel Words Subtitles and Captioning Editing is self-explanatory, but what I do is I work for production houses predominantly in Europe but also in the UK and elsewhere and I also work in conjunction with subtitlers and captioners directly so if they’ve been hired by another company I am not necessarily their client but I am the subtitler’s client.

AD: Tell us a few words about the award that you have recently announced, the Reel Words Award?

VW: I initially set this up because when I was interviewed last winter on the radio about my work and why I was trying to increase awareness about it I started thinking afterward, after the interview, about… you know, people have been inquiring for this for thirty years and yeah, we have more captioning now but it’s not necessarily better. So I was wondering what is it about the model of complaining and explaining one’s rights that is getting us nowhere. And I thought well, maybe… maybe that’s not the only route I need to go, maybe I need to do something more along the lines of education with the filmmakers of today and hopefully, five or ten years down the road, they will just be seen as just a normal step of production.

AD: What exactly are you offering?

VW: We are offering a 500-dollar reward for the most excellent submission that we get of captioning for this award. It can be for people who already do include captioning with their films, but also if there are people who never thought about it but said oh that’s something I should look into, and we’re equally open to newbies as well. And I’ve been speaking with some filmmakers, making inquiries, it does seem that the will is there, I just need to get the word out more and perhaps educate people who haven’t really included that before.

AD: So your offer expires at the end of this year?

VW: The submissions can be made up until the end of January 2019 and then we’ll have a month or two to shortlist them and probably late March the Jury and I will sit down together and go over the last 5-10 entries and choose the winner.

AD: Who is in the jury?

VW: So I have Rob Harvie, who is well known in the Accessible Media world not only through his work but he also teaches at Mohawk College, I also have three people involved in the filmmaking word who are members of the Deaf Community. So I have asked Michael McNeely who actually identifies as Deaf-Blind, he’s made films and has also been a juror for the Reel Abilities Film Festival. I have Nicola Di Capua who is a deaf filmmaker and he premiered his film at Reel Abilities last year and Chantal Deguire who is a francophone deaf filmmaker and she I think her film is coming out anytime now or early winter.

AD: So your target is the independent filmmakers, really?

VW: That’s right, so we said independent, emerging, even students, even high school students, that’s fine, we just didn’t wanna get people who have made, you know, big huge films with wide distributions that are really, really aware of the resources, they can hire some big name production house to do the captions, we didn’t feel that would be fair so we are targeting newer and/or younger filmmakers.

AD: Are you hoping that these captioned movies will be in the Reel Abilities Film Festival?

VW: Well, we’ve initiated discussions with them and they have graciously decided that we can present the award at the next film festival, next May-June, but that would be pretty exciting if we got to provide their debut there, so we’ll take that up in the spring.

AD: Do you have any submissions yet?

VW: I have a couple of people who have said they just wanted to tie up some loose ends so they have talked to me about some inquiries and then they’re gonna submit. I’ve had good interest, not surprisingly, from the Accessible Media Community and a couple of people said they were gonna get in touch with me maybe help spread the word on their platforms which is great.

AD: Will this be an annual award or is this a one time offer?

VW: No, we’re hoping to carry it out annually. And I don’t really have a definition of success for this award, like, I’m not gonna say “Oh, I need this number of submissions” to feel like I did a really good job. My goal is to increase awareness and educate people, particularly filmmakers. So if it doesn’t make as big a splash as it did now in its second year, that’s fine, at least we have started the conversation with people who are in film and tv production.

AD: How did the Disabilities Community receive the news about this award?

VW: They have been our biggest supporters; they were really pleased. As you know they are always frustrated by corporate attitudes and government attitudes, although you know, you can have a Monday Morning showing of your “Black Panther” or whatever is cool at the moment… So they just feel that one more venue to support their needs of excellent captioning is very welcome.

AD: You have the guidelines posted on the website of the award

VW: I do.

AD: Would you like to review them briefly?

VW: Sure. There’s a lot of them, so I will just give you some highlights. We’re asking that people not send films much longer than 90 minutes, keeping in mind that I have to watch all of them, if you have a short film, that’s fine, but there need to be a minimum of one thousand caption words for that. And the submission process is really simple, there’s a contact and submit button on the website for people to send it in and so we’re looking for people who have a film that’s primarily in English, so the captions are English. Sometimes when there’s foreign language within that, that’s fine, but we ask that they also subtitle that. We’ve got some requirements about, you know…, depending on where you live, because this is an international award, we ask that you use a standard, convention style guide spelling dictionary for your region so we don’t want people using the American Webster’s Dictionary but British punctuation and whatnot. So we’re just looking for consistency.

AD: You said that this is an International award. Did you reach out to the international community of independent filmmakers? Did you have any answers from them?

VW: Sure I did, one of them was in England… It’s interesting, you know, whenever this comes up, people are chiming in from all over the world and they are all saying the same thing and unfortunately, it seems that poor or non-existing captions is the status quo almost everywhere.


AD: Submissions for the Reel Words Award are welcome now until January 31, 2019.  The winner will be notified by April and awarded at the Reel Abilities Film Festival in Toronto in May 2019. That was Reel Words’ Vanessa Wells, on the Reel Words Award that recognizes Excellence in Caption Editing. For more information on this award, visit the Reel Words website.

I am Andreea Demirgian, thank you for listening to the Accessible Podcast. Don’t forget to share our link with all your friends, help us spread the word that Accessibility Matters.