On March 18, 2013, I attended the 7th Annual Asian Film Awards with Jade King in Hong Kong. I met up with Jade at 11 that morning to get to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. I was beyond excited to be attending such a big event with her – it is the equivalent of the Oscars in North America! Needless to say, I was pumped and ready to see all the behind-the-scenes of the event and most importantly, to steno alongside Jade and see how live captioning worked.
As we walked through the grand hallways of the Exhibition Centre to get to the main room, we passed by many press members and film critics. There was a bustle of activity all around us even though it was hours before the show was to start. The red carpet was rolled out and there was already a wall of paparazzi members lined up with their photo and video equipment.
Since this was Jade’s fourth year captioning the Awards, she had an idea of where she would be sitting and how the whole setup usually worked. She had written about and posted pictures of her previous experiences on her blog, and having followed her on it (her blog is how I first “met” and spoke with Jade), I also had an idea of what to expect when we got there. However, the biggest surprise hit us when, after meeting Eric, the manger of the show, we were not led to the spacious booth that overlooked the stage where Jade had previously captioned from, but instead, we were led to the back of the room where the sound guys were set up. A hastily assembled wooden box greeted us. (Jade later jokingly called it a “hothouse shed” and “shoe box”). Looking back on this, it was quite the experience and rather amusing to have to work in a “wooden box”. Although the working conditions were not ideal, Jade showed tremendous professionalism. She took this opportunity to tell me that, sometimes, this is what happens in the field of steno – you never know what to expect and where you’re going to work. To paint a clearer picture of the situation, the box itself was small – the tech guys weren’t even able to fit a small television screen inside of it; they had to place it on a crate outside of the box looking in. They used duct tape to soundproof the door, an air vent on top of the box to keep the air flowing inside the tight space, and Plexiglass “windows” so that Jade would still be able to see the stage while she was sitting inside. Unfortunately, the stage was still very far from us. In spite of all the shortcomings, I was still really excited about everything and took many pictures.
After we got over the shock of the working conditions, we went to eat some lunch and then Jade settled down and did some prep work for the show. While Jade practiced the briefs that she had come up with for the names of all of the movies and directors, actors, and actresses, I used the time to grade some dictation assignments from my theory students. Looking at the sheet of briefs that Jade had created, I was impressed with how straight-forward and clever they were. For example, to write the category “Best Film”, Jade used BIF* and for the movie title “When a Wolf falls in Love with a Sheep”, she used SHEEP*. Jade also quickly stenoed through the draft script of the show to make sure that everything translated correctly. When Jade was provided with an updated version of the script, we headed over to the business centre to print off the briefs, cut them out, and stapled them to the corresponding parts of the script so that she would have all the corresponding words in one place during the show. I was able to witness Jade’s Cantonese when she asked for a pair of scissors too. Jade’s Cantonese has become so fluent since the last time that I heard her speak! 🙂
Outside, the stars had started to arrive. The large TV screens near the stage were showing live footage from the red carpet. I saw many celebrities posing for pictures and autographing the wall. Coupled with the theme song of the Awards show blasting every couple of minutes — which Jade jokingly said she knew by heart since it was the same year after year — it was all very exciting!
Before long, the show started at 8 p.m. I sat beside Jade inside the wooden box. We both had our steno machines ready. I had witnessed Jade’s writing when I shadowed her at the Lamma boat inquiry a few weeks back so I already knew how cleanly she could steno. However, during the show, I was even more impressed as every single word and comma, period, and quotation mark that came up on the screen was perfect. Although I was writing on my own machine, I have to admit that for the first couple of minutes, I couldn’t help but watch Jade out of the corner of my eye to see her fingers fly over her steno keys. It was truly amazing to watch every stroke come up on the big screens flawlessly. Even more impressive was when there was a moment when the names didn’t match up with what the draft copy of the script had, Jade used one hand to flip through the pages that she had in front of her even while she was live captioning the show to double-check the spellings! It was incredible.
Behind us, there was a row of similarly assembled boxes that the simultaneous interpreters (SI) sat in. They worked in pairs. There were seven languages represented that night during the show, a few of which were Japanese, Cantonese, and Mandarin. Every time that an actor, actress, or director from a foreign film was called up to the stage, the SI for that language would interpret immediately what was said into English. Jade wore headphones (I also wore a pair) that were connected to all of the SIs’ microphones, which meant that once the SI started interpreting, Jade stenoed what the SI said. This was the first time that I saw how simultaneous interpreting worked in captioning and through this experience, I now understand why there may be some lags in the captions that show up during a big event like this one.
Case in point: During one acceptance speech, there was some technical difficulty that caused no translation to be heard on the microphone. Jade gestured to me and asked me if I heard anything on my headphones, and I said no. Eric sat right outside our booth, so Jade tapped quickly on the Plexiglass which sent Eric running to find out what the problem was. Soon, the SI’s voice was heard on the headset and that’s when Jade was able to steno again. But at this point, a lot of what the foreign speaker had said was lost and not interpreted. THIS is precisely why sometimes the captions do not immediately show up on the screen when you are watching the show at home. It is not the captioner’s fault for being unable to provide the captions; it has to do with the interpreters being unable to provide anything for the captioner to steno to. It takes concentrated effort for everyone to stay on the ball to prevent lag time and to interpret immediately once the corresponding foreign speaker starts speaking.
There was also one instance where a foreign winner’s acceptance speech did not have any captions because they did not have an interpreter for that language. Jade and I just kind of sat through that speech since there was nothing we could do. Through all of this, I was able to see everything that has to occur in order for accurate and fast captions to appear on the screen behind the scenes. It can be a stressful job to be in especially when millions of people are watching the screen and relying on closed captioning to understand the show.
When the event ended that night, everyone was exhausted and ready to go home. The sound guys disassembled the equipment and Jade and I parted ways. There were many memorable parts of that night aside from what I have written about thus far. Here are some more highlights of the night:
- During some downtime before the show started, Jade tried out my steno machine. Jade was using a Stentura at the time and was curious about my Diamante. She asked if she could write on it, and of course I was okay with it! I got to write on her Stentura for a little bit too and was very surprised at how deep the strokes on her machine were set up to be. It’s amazing for someone who can real-time up to 250 wpm to write so deeply since that usually means more time is spent on pushing down on the keys. Jade was also very pleased with the feel of the Diamante and how comfortable it felt. It was such a surreal moment for Jade to be writing on my stenograph and for me to be writing on hers! (It was actually because of how much Jade loved the feel of the machine that she herself went out and bought one of her own since then– a Wave – which is practical since she is always realtiming and connected to a computer). Also, while we were both trying out each others’ machines, some of the sound guys came over and commented on my “high tech” machine and seemed really impressed with how it worked. It is such a nice feeling to share the field of stenography with others and to see how amazed they were.
- We talked a little bit about the captioning that Jade used to do in Australia. Jade told me that in Australia, the captions are not in block letters like they are in Canada; instead, everything is formatted in upper and lower case letters. In addition, whereas in Canada, the captions come up as white text on a black background, Jade had to utilize four different colours to distinguish different speakers when she captioned. It was very neat to hear her speak about her past captioning experiences!
- I had the chance to speak to one of the simultaneous interpreters. I had a lovely chat with the Cantonese SI and he let me know that there were plenty of work opportunities in Asia if I ever wanted to move there to work.
- Lastly, by being at the Awards, I got to see the “Hidden Tiger, Crouching Dragon” star Michelle Yeoh receive the Excellence in Asian Cinema award, among other HK stars like Andy Lau, Miriam Yeung, and Gigi Leung.
This experience of getting to caption the Asian Film Awards with one of the best captioners in the industry will never be forgotten. I learned so much from it and I have a greater understanding of what goes on in order for a smooth live captioning experience to happen. It’s also amazing the places that this career of stenography can take you. A little more than 15 years ago, Jade was still practicing Phoenix Theory on her own at home. Since then, she has captioned many major televised events and is making a fantastic career out of her stenography skills. Thank you again, Jade, for inviting me to attend the Awards with you. It was truly an honour to sit beside you and learn from you.