A Brief History of Subtitles

Most TV programs and films, now have the option for Subtitles, in fact it is now very rare not to have the option. But how have they become mainstream?

This blog post explores exactly what Subtitles are and how they came about.

What are Subtitles?

Subtitles are the overlay of text explaining the narrative of film or to that is being shown on the screen.

When were they first used?

According to Wikipedia they were first seen in 1903 as epic, descriptive titles in Edwin S. Porter’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (The technique may have been invented by cartoonist and filmmaker J. Stuart Blackton.)

These were in fact Intertitles, which was descriptive text put in between scenes of silent films, to explain to the audience what is happening.

In 1927 the first sound film was produced, the audience could hear the actors, so the intertitles inserted between scenes disappeared. However many film producers found that making several language versions, or have the film post-synchronized (dubbed) in another language expensive, so still wanted to be able to overlay text onto the film. This became what we now call subtitles, since this technique is comparatively cheap.

On August 14, 1938, the BBC broadcast Arthur Robison’s Der Student von Prag in a subtitled version.

How were they created?

In 1930 a Norwegian inventor called Leif Eriksen, took out a patent for a method of stamping titles directly on to the images on the film strip, first moistening the emulsion layer to soften it.

Later, in 1935, a Hungarian inventor, O. Turchányi, registered a patent for a method whereby the plates were heated to a sufficiently high temperature to melt away the emulsion on the film without the need for a softening bath.

Both of these techniques produced erratic results, sometimes you were unable to see the letters.

In 1932 two separate inventors R. Hruska, in Budapest, and Oscar I. Ertnæs in Oslo took out patents on chemical processes.

It wasn’t until 1988 that a laser process was developed by Denis Auboyer in Paris and by Titra-Film in Paris and Brussels.

In the 1970s two systems were developed using a word processor. The first was based on teletext, the second used a computer-controlled character generator.

Why do we use Subtitles?

Subtitles are primarily used with the deaf and hard of hearing in mind, although many hearing film and television viewers choose to use them.

As well as allowing foreign films or TV programs to be shown in the native language.

 

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