How We Subtitled The 94th Academy Awards - And THAT Moment!

How We Subtitled The 94th Academy Awards - And THAT Moment!

By David Murphy

After a muted Oscars night in 2021, the 94th Academy Awards this year provided a return to the usual glitz and glamour at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre. There was the expected tear-inducing joy for the winners and the figurative slap in the face of disappointment for the other nominees – and an unexpected literal slap for a certain host! And while that moment tested the precise organisation required by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for one of the biggest televised events of the year, the transmission itself also provides a stern test for live subtitlers. 

Not only do live subtitlers have to train some 400 separate names and film titles for the various nominees across all 24 categories into the speech recognition software, Dragon, but we also need to constantly stay on our toes throughout the ceremony. Because, as we saw on the star-studded and controversial night of March 27th in LA, anything can happen during Tinseltown’s biggest celebration of the year! 

Of course, the ceremony features a cast of a thousand faces but also nearly as many voices. This means live subtitlers face a significant challenge in consistently relaying who is speaking at any given time to viewers using on-screen subtitles. 

There were three hosts at this year’s Oscars - Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall – all of whom would often pitch their considerable wits against each in ratatat exchanges throughout the night. This was along with a legion of additional presenters for each award category and the winners thereof. To provide viewers with a clear indication of who is currently speaking, we use one of four colours assigned to various participants and will try to retain that colour for the respective individual for the rest of the segment.

This colour scheme also applies to the many movie clips shown throughout the event, during which the subtitles should be verbatim to accurately relay the potentially Oscar-winning lines being spoken. A particular favourite of mine this year was a montage to celebrate the 50th anniversary of “The Godfather” films. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse - although I didn’t want to be waking up next to a disembodied horse’s head for not accurately transcribing some of the most iconic and quotable lines in cinema history, so the pressure was certainly on during that sequence! 

There were also frequent announcements throughout the show made over the PA which are an integral part of the ceremony. These provide viewers with information on what segment is coming up next, who it will feature, as well as details on the winners’ Academy history when announced. To provide extra clarity for said announcements, we added a prefix of “ANNOUNCER:” to those subtitles to ensure there is no confusion for our viewers as to where that dialogue is originating from. 

And for all the Oscar-nominated dialogue featured from some of the most celebrated movies of the last year, there was the event of THAT slap… The altercation between Best Documentary Feature presenter Chris Rock and eventual Best Actor winner Will Smith will live in infamy in Oscar history. As a live subtitler, you must keep a cool head and continue subtitling even though you have seen something that you immediately want to talk about with someone. All the subtitler at the time could do was message the overnight team, “Please tell me someone saw that?!”. 

After four-plus hours of live subtitling one of the most-watched televisual events of the year, it was as much an honour for the Sky Access Services team to make this iconic ceremony as accessible as possible for our audience as it was for the celebrated winners to receive their Oscars at the 94th Academy Awards.