What Is Involved in Captioning and Subtitling?

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  • Written By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 23 March 2020
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Captioning and subtitling is an often complex task that involves not only translation and dialogue recording, but also a host of technological commands to ensure that words appear on the screen at the right time, in an appropriate size, and in an unobtrusive place. There are usually several phases of captioning and subtitling. Much of the process depends on the context, however. Captions inserted into real-time television broadcasts are usually more rudimentary and rushed than the multi-language subtitles and more comprehensive captions frequently inserted into feature films and DVD releases.

There is a basic difference between captioning and subtitling which affects how each is created and displayed. In most places, the term “captions” refers to words that appear on the screen for the benefit of deaf and hard of hearing viewers. Captions are in the same language as the dialogue. Most of the time, captions also make note of background noises — cars honking, for instance, or doors slamming — and any aural changes, like characters speaking with foreign accents. Their main purpose is to recreate the sound characteristics of the film for viewers who cannot hear well.


Captioning is most common on television. Hard-of-hearing broadcast customers can often subscribe to TV captioning services that display running dialogue at the bottom of the screen during transmissions. News broadcasts and live shows are often transcribed in real time by stenographers. Network shows and pre-recorded features are usually captioned after-the-fact by transcription professionals. The use of voice recognition software is also an increasingly popular way to generate captions.

The majority of television captions are presented as a running stream of text that scrolls across the bottom of viewer’s television screens. There is usually little attention paid to the aesthetics of presentation, as the main goal is to get the needed information to the viewers as quickly as possible. The same is not always true of captions designed for film. In most cases, film-based captions are created with the same care as most subtitles.

Subtitles are designed for viewers who can hear, but who do not understand the language of the dialogue. They are most common in film. TV subtitling is rarer, likely at least in part because of the effort involved.

The first step in any subtitling endeavor is translation. A team of language specialists usually begins a subtitling project by viewing the film in the original language, then translating both the literal meaning of the words and the overall feel of each scene. These translations form an alternate subtitling script.

Next, the subtitling team must decide on the timing and placement of the text. This is usually done with a specialized computer program. Team members must assign each subtitle a specific duration, which varies depending on the speed of the dialogue and the action of specific scenes.

Font choice, color, and contrast are also important parts of the captioning and subtitling process. The words must be big enough that they can be easily seen by the audience, and must also be bright enough that they stand out against the background of the film. In some cases, the size and color needed in the cinema are not the same as those needed for home movie releases. Captioning and subtitling designed to be seen on a movie screen is often quite different, at least in terms of aesthetics, from that designed to be seen on a television or computer screen.


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