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Using Subtitles Creatively

Using Subtitles Creatively

April 15, 2024

When it comes to the history of film and video, subtitles and on-screen text have been around longer than recorded voices or music. So why are they still a point of contention? And why haven’t they changed much in over one hundred years?

[keyboard clacking sounds]

Without being too black and white, you tend to find that there are those who enjoy subtitles and those who detest them. To the extent that many people will go out of their way to avoid watching content with subtitles. But the alternative is learning every language under the sun. And even if that were possible, it excludes the hearing impaired. So subtitles, quite frankly, aren’t going anywhere.

However, that trend is changing. When 2019’s Parasite won the Best Picture Oscar, the director (Bong Joon-ho) used his acceptance speech to say, “Once you overcome the one inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” And that has been reflected with more international language films and television shows eking their way into the mainstream. And that’s before we even consider that younger generations watch multiple screens at the same time. Flitting back and forth between the TV and their phone. So having subtitles and creative captioning is an immensely helpful aid to keep the viewer on track.

Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

So let’s take a minute to talk about the power of subtitles. Have you ever wondered if what is being printed at the bottom of the screen is actually correct? You could be watching a K-Pop music video on YouTube, with the subtitles helpfully translating the lyrics. Blissfully unaware that the translation is hideously off. And the only way to verify that, would be to learn Korean.

This means there’s a level of trust and a point of authority when it comes to subtitles. We, as the viewer, enter into a contract of agreement that the text is accurate. And on top of that, if there are colloquialisms and idioms that need to be explained, we can have a simplified or substituted version. It all sounds very complicated and involved, doesn’t it? You might assume, it’s as simple as running the words through a machine and slapping them on-screen. But the process is surprisingly intricate.

Words, with a twist

For any creative, there’s always another way. The tried and tested methods of the past act as a foundation but we like to push things further. And both the big and small screen have flirted with the idea of incorporating subtitles in novel, engaging ways.

A prime example that has endured and we now see all the time, is characters checking messages on their phone. In the past, the individual may have read the content out or we’d have seen the screen. But now we see bubbles of text popping up with accompanying sound effects. Just hovering next to the character in their room, office or wherever they happen to be. And if the conversation continues, we can see the speed with which words are being typed, adding to the dynamic of the scene. Three dots appearing and disappearing, for example, injecting so much tension.

Thinking outside the box

Films, with their significantly larger budgets, have sometimes taken this further. Back in 1977, in Annie Hall, there’s a fairly mundane conversation but the subtitles are used to express the character’s inner thoughts. It’s a cool idea but if you were giving that movie subtitles, it’d get very confusing. Similarly, in Austin Powers: Goldmember, there’s an entire fourth-wall-breaking scene, where the characters can see the subtitles. So when various white objects are placed in the way of the text, it – as Austin says – causes him to “misread the subtitles making it seem like you are saying things that are dirty.”

And while these instances are played for laughs, some of the most appealing and stimulating examples come from the American thriller Man On Fire, and the Russian horror fantasy Night Watch. In both films, the words being spoken aren’t relegated to the bottom third of the screen. They are incorporated into the events. When a character is hit on the head, the subtitles are jilted and fuzzy. When an important phone number is read out, it comes up number-by-number. And when a vampire is whispering eerie enchantments, the words “come to me” dissolve like blood in water.

Two steps forward, one step back

So, if we have the ability to make unique, engaging and interesting subtitles, why aren’t they used all the time? The simple answer is practicality and cost. When DVD first arrived in the late 90s – God that makes me feel old – it brought with it a wealth of new features. Suddenly you could switch the languages and subtitles with complete ease. Whereas previously, VHS had to have all these elements hard-coded. But we’re not talking about a line of code that informs your player what to put on screen, this is an entirely new visual layer. Which ultimately means you’d need to have multiple versions, for various languages. Essentially taking us back to that hard-coded rigidity. And it wouldn’t be a feature you could simply turn on and off.

The devil is in the details

This is something we encounter quite frequently. Many of our clients request subtitling for the videos. In addition to translating the content itself, we also have to consider what’s on-screen at any one time. An interesting example of this would be the animated explainer video for SEND. Around 30 seconds into the video, the screen is split down the middle in black and white. So naturally, we had to give the subtitles specific care and attention, to make sure we didn’t end up with an unintentional Austin Powers style situation.

Many more of our videos incorporate on-screen text – often when there’s no voiceover. So all of this needs to be factored in, when costing up additional languages. Because it directly affects the animation assets, the interpretation of the language used and sometimes most crucially, the length of the video itself. Imagine if an insurance company came to us and explained their primary function is providing legal protection. We then go on to produce an amazing script and sublime video. And they’re so pleased with the final result, they want to share it with their offices and clients in Germany. No problem at all, we’ll just quickly change that. Out of curiosity, what is the German word for their industry? Oh, it’s Guiness Book of World Records’ longest German word in everyday use: Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften.

…great. That won’t be a hassle to amend in the slightest. I’ll just go tell the animation team.