Many films and TV shows benefit from subtitling, but only when it’s done right.
That’s why there are agencies that specialize in subtitling and related services — since this is a detail-oriented task, not just anyone can do it successfully.
In order to give audiences an enjoyable (and accurate!) viewing experience, subtitling experts pay attention to the little things that result in effective subtitles.
The Appearance of the Words Matters
For subtitling to work, the words on the screen have to be legible to the audience.
One of the most important aspects of this basic requirement is making sure that the color used for the text stands out from the background. If the letters blend into the scenery, viewers can end up confused and distracted by the hidden text.
This is not always an easy detail to figure out, since scenes change color so often. Many subtitling experts find that white or yellow are the best colors to use in most cases, especially when the letters are outlined in black. The outline is there to help keep the subtitles legible when the background of the program is the same color as the letters.
Subtitling movies and shows also requires paying attention to the font style. The font needs to be easy for the audience to read quickly, making fancy or cursive text an uncommon choice.
In most cases, sans-serif fonts are considered the easiest to read on the screen. The specific typeface used will vary from project to project, and will sometimes need to be widened, narrowed or otherwise altered to be as legible as possible. The choice of font may complement the tone of the film or show, but the primary concern should always be legibility.
The Importance of Proper Line Length
Subtitling experts must take into account how long each line on the screen can be. When there is a lot of dialogue, it can be difficult to determine the proper line length, and how soon the next one should appear.
Misjudging the length and pacing of each line can cause the audience to fall behind the spoken dialogue, creating confusion. Of course, extensive dialogue cannot simply be left out by the subtitling professional, so it is crucial to figure out a compromise that allows the audience to follow the story properly through even the densest dialogue.
Timing Is Everything
A final consideration is the timing of the words on the screen. Not surprisingly, bad timing can ruin a program for the audience.
When the subtitles appear on the screen too early, viewers may be confused until they get to the appropriate scene. It may not be obvious who’s speaking, or visual references may be missing.
Worse, subtitles that jump the gun can reveal surprises before they’re meant to. By the time the action on screen catches up to the subtitles, any suspense that may have been building will likely be destroyed.
Similarly, subtitles that show up too late can leave audiences bewildered.
When the subtitles lag behind the action, viewers will watch an exchange of dialogue (or even a whole scene!) without knowing what is happening, until the subtitles finally appear. Once they do, the show may have already moved on to the next scene, starting the cycle all over again. As you can imagine, such mistakes can easily ruin the viewing experience.
This is why hiring subtitling experts is recommended. The task involves more than simply typing up the script and trying to match the lines with the action. Good subtitling requires putting lots of thought into the font, line length and timing. Subtitling experts consider all the details, which allows your film or television project to unfold at the proper pace.