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.

 

Transcription and Subtitles

Subtitles

There are lots of reasons why a television programme or film that you are watching has subtitles.

It might be a World film or foreign language film that has been translated and subtitled. It might be a mainstream programme that is subtitled for the hearing impaired and even a specialist programme, where participants speak in heavily accented or dialectal English.

YouTube, the world’s most popular video-sharing website where almost 5 billion videos are watched on YouTube every single day [1], offers an auto-captioning service. The captions are created by generated by machine-learning algorithms, and so the accuracy and the quality of the captions vary. [2]

“Automatic captions are available in English, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.”

Subtitle Fail

There are obviously going to be times when subtitles fail, due to human error or lack of sophisticated algorithms.

Human error – whether that be spelling, unfamiliarity with the subject, mishearing or lack of concentration – can lead to a subtitle fail. This is especially amusing when subtitles are used to capture a sound, an action or an emotion, where dialogue is not involved. [3]

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Other fails happen where the subtitles don’t match what is happening on the screen. This occurs when the typist is not checking that the subtitles matches the action.

Famous characters or franchises can suffer at the hands of subtitling when then typist is unfamiliar with the person, character, plot, subject or series.

sergei lavrov
Talking about Sergei Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs for Russia [5]
hedwig
Harry Potter’s owl, Hedwig [4]
benedict
Benedict Cumberbatch, also known as Sherlock Holmes [6]
 Here is a selection of screen shots from movie subtitle fails.

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 Sensible Subtitles

Fingertips Typing Services uses a workforce of experienced and accurate typists to offer a subtitling service for a wide variety of media:

We have worked on subtitling projects for a variety of media and production companies, who commission television shows, films and projects.

 

Visit Fingertips Typing Services today to see how we help you subtitle your media project.

Written by: Debbie Rowe, Typist for Fingertips Typing

 

Resources

[1] http://fortunelords.com/27-mind-blowing-youtube-facts-figures-and-statistics-backed-by-data/

[2] https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/6373554

[3] http://distractify.com/entertainment/2015/07/21/subtitle-fails-1259459194

[4] http://www.buzzfeed.com/lukelewis/subtitles-that-are-no-help-whatsoever#.gheBbO1Oz

[5] https://twitter.com/HuffPostUK/status/441878583586213888/photo/1

[6]  https://twitter.com/farmfeatures/status/446377082395066368/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

[7] http://whatculture.com/film/25-hilarious-movie-subtitle-errors?page=4

[8] https://brickwall.uk.com/

[9] http://thinktmb.com/

[10] https://www.linkedin.com/in/lulu-belliveau-0b268514

[11] http://www.storynamics.com/