Chirp! Captioning BB-8 in The Force Awakens

(Warning: Spoilers throughout.) The release of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens on DVD and Blu-Ray last week gives us a welcome opportunity to take a much closer look at the closed captions.

The BB-8 droid provides an instructive case study. According to the official movie script, the orange and white spherical droid named BB-8 communicates in “BEEPS — FAST, MORSE CODE-LIKE SOUNDS” (p. 3). It is also described in the script as “SKITTERY.” BB-8 does not speak, so all of the captioned descriptions of BB-8 are nonspeech captions. A select few characters, including Rey (Daisy Ridley), can understand the meaning of BB-8’s beeps and translate them for other characters and for the audience. (For comparison, R2-D2 communicates in a similar style of electronic beeping patterns.) The BB-8 droid is an emotional character (the script refers to BB-8 as “he”), and the sound of his beeping changes according to the meaning he intends to convey: excitement, nervousness, happiness, fear, sadness, etc. Listeners watching with the closed captions turned off can pick up on cues, sometimes subtle, in the beeps themselves as well as the surrounding context to make sense of BB-8’s meaning.

Closed captioning is, at heart, an interpretative and creative practice. Closed captioners need to interpret the changing meanings of BB-8’s beeping sounds and convey them to readers. Note that captioning nonspeech sounds does not typically focus on what they sound like but what they mean. At a fundamental level, captioning is about the function and meaning of sounds in context, not their formal sonic properties.

The meaning of BB-8’s beeping is sometimes conveyed in the official script, but not always. In the official movie script, which sticks very closely to the movie, BEEPING is the primary way of describing BB-8’s communication (which makes sense given that “BB” sounds like “beeping”). Just a few examples:

BB-8 BEEPTALKS a question.

BB-8 BEEPS… then heads after her.

BB-8 sees her interest and BEEPS furiously, not liking this
conversation at all.

ACROSS THE MARKETPLACE, REY kneels with an emphatically

BB-8 STARTS BEEPING like crazy.

BB-8 watches Poe run off. BEEP-WHINES nervously, then turns
and heads off.

In the closed captions, by contrast, BEEPING is never used to describe BB-8. Instead, BEEPING is used to describe a range of other nonspeech sounds, including (ALARM BEEPING), (INSTRUMENTS BEEPING RAPIDLY), (CONTROLS BEEP), (MONITORS BEEP), (TERMINAL BEEPING), and especially R2-D2’s similar style of droid communication: (R2-D2 BEEPING), (R2-D2 BEEPING EXCITEDLY), (BEEPING RAPIDLY), (R2-D2 BEEPS HAPPILY), (RHYTHMIC BEEPING), and so on.

The main verb used to describe BB-8’s style of communication in the closed captions is CHIRPING. With one exception — (BIRDS CHIRPING) — this verb is reserved solely for BB-8 and contrasts nicely with R2-D2’s BEEPING sounds at the end of the movie. In the following clip, two “thugs” attempt to steal BB-8 before he is freed by Rey. In the course of about forty seconds, BB-8 chirps six times and exclaims twice.

Source: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, 2015. DVD. Featured captions: (BB-8 CHIRPS), (BB-8 EXCLAIMS), (BB-8 CHIRPS), (BB-8 CHIRPS INQUISITIVELY), (BB-8 CHIRPING), (BB-8 EXCLAIMS LOUDLY), (BB-8 CHIRPING), (BB-8 CHIRPS EXCITEDLY).

There are a total of 78 nonspeech captions for BB-8 in The Force Awakens. Some are informed by the script. Others rely on the captioner’s powers of description.

Every BB-8 caption in The Force Awakens

Timestamp Closed caption Official script
00:02:44 (BB-8 CHIRPING) “Suddenly a DROID RISES INTO FRAME, CLOSE: ROUND and SKITTERY, orange and white, this is BB-8. Focuses on something past camera. He BEEPS — FAST, MORSE CODE-LIKE SOUNDS, clearly worried. Moves EVEN CLOSER TO CAMERA — is MORE worried — BEEPS more — then TURNS AND ROLLS OFF FAST”
00:04:18 (BB-8 CHIRPS) “Poe sends BB-8 into the droid socket / co-pilot seat”
00:04:31 (BB-8 CHIRPS)
00:04:40 (BB-8 CHIRPING) “BB-8 BEEPS nervously as Poe GRABS HIS CONTROLS and FIRES AT THEM.”
00:05:21 (BB-8 CHIRPS) “(BB-8 BEEPS, hesitates)…BB-8 watches Poe run off. BEEP-WHINES nervously, then turns and heads off. Turns back once to look at Poe, then ROLLS AWAY. (Note: There is no beep-whine after Poe runs off.)”
00:09:13 (BB-8 CHIRPS) “BB-8 rolls across the sand, looks back: the X-wing FIREBALL. BB-8, afraid, continues on his own in a mysterious, dark desert. We see a FORM — an animal, its RED EYES LIFTING from the sand, watching the rolling droid, who just keeps going. In a WIDE SHOT, we HEAR HIM BEEPING to himself, lonely and frightened.”
00:09:19 (BB-8 MOANS SOFTLY)
00:14:48 (BB-8 CHIRPING FAINTLY) “Then, a distant ELECTRONIC SQUEAL — instantly [REY’S] up, helmet too big, she rips it off. Hears ANOTHER BEEPING SQUEAL. She hurries to her QUARTERSTAFF and runs off.”
00:15:00 (BB-8 CHIRPING) “Rey climbs a dune. RISE WITH HER, revealing BB-8, caught in a NET but fighting back, being held by a TEEDO (a small, brutish desert tyrant), who rides a LUGGABEAST. The teedo YELLS at BB-8, who BEEPS madly, struggling to free himself.”
00:15:07 (TEEDO AND BB-8 EXCLAIMING) “A half beat and the Teedo YELLS SOMETHING BACK, threatening. BB-8’s head swivels to him, then back to Rey, like watching a tennis match.”
00:15:15 (BB-8 CHIRPING)
00:15:24 (BB-8 CHIRPS ANGRILY) “This prompts BB-8 to start BEEP-YELLING at the departing bully, provocatively.”
00:15:34 (BB-8 EXCLAIMS SOFTLY) (NOTE: The scene doesn’t exactly follow the order of the script here through 16:36.) “BB-8 quiets instantly. The two watch the Teedo head off. Finally, BB-8 BEEPS a question.”
00:15:53 (CHIRPS MERRILY) (NOTE: The chirp is one quick tone and sounds like an electronic version of “yep” or “yes.”)
00:16:04 (BB-8 CHIRPING HAPPILY) “BB-8 starts after her, BEEPS. She turns sharply, he stops.”
00:16:12 (BB-8 SIGHS) “(he BEEPS again)”
00:16:14 (BB-8 CHIRPS INQUISITIVELY) “Finally he BEEPS to her — something SWEET this time.”
00:16:28 (BB-8 CHIRPING MERRILY) “But a gesture of her head says, reluctantly, ‘Come on.’ BB-8 quickly moves to her. They head off together.”
00:16:36 (BB-8 CHIRPS HAPPILY) “(he BEEPS)”
00:18:14 (BB-8 CHIRPS INQUISITIVELY) “BB-8 BEEPTALKS a question.”
00:27:23 (BB-8 CHIRPS) “BB-8 reacts nervously as Rey resists them — one pulls a SACK over BB-8 while the other grabs Rey’s arm”
00:27:30 (BB-8 EXCLAIMS)
00:27:39 (BB-8 CHIRPS)
00:27:50 (BB-8 CHIRPING) “Rey moves to the COVERED BB-8 — PULLS THE SACK OFF OF HIM.”
00:27:58 (BB-8 EXCLAIMS LOUDLY) “Rey talks to BB-8, who, nervous now, looks around and…SEES FINN! BB-8 STARTS BEEPING like crazy.”
00:28:00 (BB-8 CHIRPING)
00:29:00 (BB-8 MOANS DEJECTEDLY) “(sees BB-8 is sad, rolls off)…BB-8 heads off to the side, depressed.”
00:29:47 (BB-8 CHIRPING RAPIDLY) “Just then BB-8 BEEPS MADLY at something he sees.”
00:30:32 (BB-8 CHIRPING)
00:30:35 (BB-8 CHIRPING) “(to BB-8)”
00:31:49 (BB-8 CHIRPS) “Finn and BB-8 follow as they all run toward the piece of junk”
00:32:52 (BB-8 CHIRPS)
00:33:03 (BB-8 EXCLAIMS) “In the cylindrical corridor, BB-8 ROLLS TO THE CEILING!”
00:36:02 (CHIRPS INQUISITIVELY) “BB-8 BEEPS something urgent”
00:38:03 (BB-8 CHIRPS) “(BB-8 BEEPS)”
00:38:26 (BB-8 CHIRPING) “She and Finn look to BB-8 — who considers the whole situation, then BEEPS.”
00:39:57 (BB-8 CHIRPING)
00:43:15 (BB-8 CHIRPING)
00:47:55 (BB-8 YELPS) “Chewie FIRES DOWN THE HALL as Han CROSSES THE CORRIDOR, BB-8 following nervously.”
00:51:36 (BB-8 CHIRPS)
00:51:37 (BB-8 YELPS) “Chewie ROARS. BB-8 scurries off.”
00:51:39 (BB-8 CHIRPING)
00:58:08 (BB-8 CHIRPING)
00:59:48 (BB-8 CHIRPS)
01:01:00 (BB-8 CHIRPS)
01:05:00 (BB-8 CHIRPS UNCERTAINLY) “BB-8 nervously follows.”
01:11:20 (BB-8 CHIRPS INQUISITIVELY) “Then she HEARS A BEEP — turns to see BB-8, catching up with her.”
01:11:22 (BB-8 CHIRPS) “(he BEEPS)”
01:11:26 (BB-8 CHIRPS INQUISITIVELY) “(he BEEPS again)”
01:11:30 (CHIRPS)
01:12:54 (BB-8 CHIRPS LOUDLY)
01:13:25 (BB-8 CHIRPS NERVOUSLY) “(BB-8 BEEPS; bravely through her fear)”
01:20:15 (BB-8 CHIRPS INQUISITIVELY) “(BB-8 beeps)”
01:21:35 (BB-8 CHIRPS HAPPILY) “Then BB-8 SPEEDS RIGHT PAST HIM, almost knocking him down — Finn watches as BB-8 rolls over to the PILOT GETTING OUT OF THE BLACK-MARKED X-WING.”
01:21:40 (BB-8 CHIRPING)
01:21:43 (CHIRPS)
01:23:39 (BB-8 CHIRPS INQUISITIVELY) “BB-8 BEEPS at R2, pulls off the tarp and tries to start a conversation. But R2 DOESN’T RESPOND AT ALL. BB-8 tries again. Nothing. BB-8 NUDGES R2.”
01:23:45 (CHIRPING)
01:23:48 (CHIRPING) “BB-8 looks up at C-3PO, who stands there.”
01:23:55 (CHIRPING) “(BB-8 beeps)”
01:24:07 (CHIRPS SADLY)
01:40:38 (BB-8 CHIRPING RAPIDLY) “A BEEPING from BB-8, riding in the back of his X-wing”
02:01:16 (BB-8 CHIRPS INQUISITIVELY) “As BB-8 approaches R2-D2, the long dormant droid suddenly stirs. The droids beep at each other.”
02:01:21 (BB-8 CHIRPING)
02:02:03 (BB-8 CHIRPING) “BB-8 BEEPS”
02:03:23 (BB-8 CHIRPS)

Breaking down the BB-8 captions

A total of 78 nonspeech captions describe BB-8’s electronic communication.

67 of these captions use CHIRP as the main verb. (Nonspeech captions are usually built up around a key verb.) CHIRP never appears in the movie’s official script. Instead, the script relies on BEEP to describe BB-8, a verb that is associated with a range of electronic sounds in the captions.

CHIRP is reserved solely for descriptions of BB-8 in the nonspeech closed captions, with one exception (BIRDS CHIRPING). How CHIRPING differs from BEEPING is worth exploring. Whereas BEEPING suggests a mechanical, nonhuman source (alarms, instruments, controls, monitors, terminals, and R2-D2 all BEEP in the movie’s captions), CHIRPING suggests a biological source potentially capable of intelligence and emotional response. CHIRPING also suggests a playful, diminutive, non-aggressive source when we associate the sound of chirping with small birds such as robins and parakeets. CHIRPING animals can usually be kept as pets as well. “BB” sounds like “beeping,” as I said above. But it also sounds like “baby.”

The remaining 11 BB-8 captions rely for a key verb on EXCLAIM (5 times), MOAN (3 times), YELP (2 times), or SIGH (1 time). These verbs suggest that BB-8’s emotional range is human-like.

Nonspeech captions are qualified by the duration of the sound, as is typical of nonspeech captions (see Chapter 2 of my book on discrete vs. sustained sounds). CHIRPING (present participle, -ing ending) is used 29 times, presumably to signal a longer beep or series of beeps. The -ing ending suggests a more sustained sound or series of sounds. CHIRPS (third-person present tense) is used 38 times, presumably to signal a short or quick burst. I have not verified whether this distinction holds up in practice across many or all of the BB-8 sounds but here’s one example: (CHIRPS MERRILY) at 15:53 refers to a single electronic note that sounds like a digitized and high pitched form of “yes” or “yep.” In this example, BB-8 is responding to Rey, who asks “Classified, really?,” with a simple sound of assent. The present tense (-s ending) suggests a quick burst of sound, which is reinforced by BB-8’s short chirp/yep sound.

Nonspeech captions are also sometimes qualified by the manner in which the sound is expressed, as is typical of nonspeech captions. Adverbs modify the verb 37 times in the BB-8 captions: INQUISITIVELY (11 times), EXCITEDLY (4 times), NERVOUSLY (4 time), HAPPILY (3 times), DEJECTEDLY (2 times), LOUDLY (2 times), MERRILY (2 times), RAPIDLY (2 times), SOFTLY (2 times), ANGRILY (1 time), ANXIOUSLY (1 time), FAINTLY (1 time), UNCERTAINLY (1 time), SADLY (1 time). In these adverbs, BB-8’s personality is revealed. He most often asks questions, tends to be upbeat and agreeable, and rarely gets angry. (These captions suggest that BB-8 is more likely to give a thumbs-up than the middle finger.) Because BB-8 is easily captured by bad guys and does not seem to have any weapons to fend off attackers, he becomes understandably nervous or anxious in the face of the ominous threats around him. Human contact is important to BB-8. He depends on humans like Rey to rescue him. As a result, he feels dejected when Rey tells him not to follow her, and, later, when he finds out that his owner, Poe Dameron, has presumably been killed. In both cases, BB-8 hangs his “head” as the captions tell us that (BB-8 MOANS DEJECTEDLY). Because BB-8 is treated as an intelligent, emotional character, Finn is prompted to say “I’m sorry” to BB-8 when he shares the news of Poe’s supposed death.

Source: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, 2015. DVD. BB-8 reacts to the news that his owner, Poe Dameron, has been presumably killed. Featured caption: (BB-8 MOANS DEJECTEDLY).

Source: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, 2015. DVD. Featured caption: (BB-8 CHIRPS NERVOUSLY). In the middle of a battle, BB-8 reacts to Rey’s instructions to “keep going” and “Stay out of sight.” But the droid’s response sounds more like a word of encouragement than a nervous reaction, especially considering Rey’s response: “I hope so, too.”

What else chirps in nonspeech closed captioning?

In my small corpus of official DVD caption files, chirping is used in two ways: 1) to describe the sounds of small animals (crickets, chicks, birds, and dinosaur babies), and 2) to describe the short burst of electronic sound associated with a car alarm when it is activated by key fob, or an emergency siren when it is used to gain attention. A quick google search suggests that the police car’s chirp call is used as an attention-getting device by police officers who do not need to run their sirens in full emergency (wailing) mode (see this Reddit discussion and my post on sirens wailing in closed captioning). In both cases, the source of the chirping sound is diminutive (a cute dinosaur baby in an animated comedy!) or short in duration (a quick burst of attention-getting sound). In other words, a chirping sound in nonspeech closed captioning is rarely threatening or cause for alarm.

(crickets chirping) — Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
(CHIRPING) — Avatar (2009) (A palm-sized alien dragon makes this sound.)
[CHICK CHIRPING] — Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
(siren chirps) — CSI: NY, “Unspoken” (2012)
(DINO BABIES CHIRPING) — Ice Age 3 (2009)
[siren chirps] — Killing Them Softly (2012)
[indistinct chatter, birds chirping] — Killing Them Softly (2012)
[Car Alarm Chirps] — Shaun of the Dead (2004)
(BIRDS CHIRPING) — Skyfall (2012)
(BIRDS CHIRPING OUTSIDE) — Twilight (2008)
(CRICKETS CHIRPING) — Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Small, harmless, young or youthful, playful, attention-getting, dependent on mother figures or caretakers: When BB-8 is described as CHIRPING, these meanings and associations resonate for caption readers.

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