Word Factory

[Aquarium bubbling] … [chairs squeaking] … [computer keys clicking] … These sounds are indications of productivity at CaptionMax, Inc., the Midwest’s only closed-captioning company. 

Long before CaptionMax moved into their capacious digs in Minneapolis’s Warehouse District, founder and president Max Duckler earned his first entrepreneurial dollar (in 1993), just months after installing captioning software onto a computer in his five-year-old son’s bedroom.

Duckler is a soft-spoken but self-assured man who started out as a video editor in the 1980s. He read an article in an obscure periodical about closed-captioning and proposed the idea to his superior, who said Duckler could work on it independently if he wished. Closed-captioning became a requirement for new broadcast programs after congress mandated it in 1996, and demand for his services multiplied.

“After a while I bought my own equipment, and within a few years CaptionMax was earning about five times the revenue that the editing place was,” Duckler recalled. “Never underestimate a small idea.”

At CaptionMax headquarters, editor Jonathan Quijano, his curly hair jutting haphazardly around his headphones, stopped typing to stretch in his low-slung chair. “I prefer the laid-back approach,” he said with an off-kilter grin. Quijano’s computer screen was split into areas with a column of captions trailing down the left side, a video window on the bottom right, and a frame-by-frame view across the top. Although Quijano sported a yellow button-down over his slacks, the dress code around the office is casual. “I tell people what I do is something like postproduction,” he said, “and they always go, ‘Postproduction? Oh. Ooooh.’”

Most of the twenty or so captioners at CaptionMax are, like Quijano, eclectic, youngish adults, with English or journalism degrees, who transcribe and edit closed-captions for various television networks. Programs range from televangelist broadcasts and classic westerns to experimental films and quilting shows. Employee Amanda Johansen, who sits behind Quijano, expounded on a Star Wars documentary she had just proofread. “It was such a weird show, especially the part where scientists were analyzing Darth Vader’s gastronomy. They were speculating on what his poop looked like. It was really bizarre.”

CaptionMax workers adorn the facility with lighthearted odds and ends. In the kitchen, a plastic ostrich stood on the fridge. Next to the coffeepot, an illustrated CPR instructional poster from the 1990s showed two plastic-looking individuals giving mouth-to-mouth. A printout taped above the poster proclaimed, “Let David Hasselhoff And Leona Helmsley Show You How To Save Lives!” And as an unabashed tribute to the nerdiness of wordiness, Magnetic Poetry captions were scattered across the side of the fridge, arranged in such profundities as “tiny weak man spank sad monkey,” and “do not eat the girl jelly.”

The CaptionMax team would argue that their casual approach doesn’t leak over into the captions. When it comes to business, word generation is painstakingly thorough. “The first thing people want to know about my job is if I’m one of those ‘live-typers’,” Quijano said, referring to what are called “real-time captioners.” Another coworker chimed in, “They want to know if we’re the ones who make all the mistakes on-screen.”

The editors that work in-house actually are not real-time, but instead, offline captioners; they transcribe shows that have not yet aired. Consequently, they have time to formulate precise captions complete with character identifications and juiced-up sound-effect descriptions. A well-placed “[spooky foreboding music]” adds atmosphere to the cult ’80s drama series “The Equalizer.” A timely “[thud]” emphasizes one of Evander Holyfield’s classic knockouts.

The captioners don’t always generate words quietly. Oftentimes they battle over them. Should it be “awhile” or “a while”? “Above ground” or “aboveground”? Should a comma follow the word “so”? Should “Frisbee” be capitalized?

“We can definitely get into arguments about grammar,” Johansen confessed. A handful of designated proofers, including Johansen, advanced through the editorial ranks while building up a plethora of punctuation and style rules. They oversee final episode files and decide what rules to add to the CaptionMax “Manual of Bling.”

Near the end of their shift, caption editors exchanged playful ribbing and grabbed mini Snickers bars from the candy bowl. One guy wheeled his bike into the elevator as noises of [drawers clicking shut] and [footsteps thumping] peppered the air. Eventually there would be [no audio] until the next morning at Minneapolis’s one and only word factory.