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The NHWS Replication Guide: Creating subtitles

By Eliot Hochberg (, April 2, 2003

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The project I am using as an example in this series is an extension of the one covered in the last NHWS series. Robert Benson, a budding writer/director, wanted to make a run of DVDs to use for self-promotion. He had created a short film, “The Bad Father.” Based on his budget, we decided that 500 discs would be an appropriate number to produce. Because this would be my first replication project, I offered Robert some additional features in order to take full advantage of the opportunity. The first of these features was subtitling. Robert, however, made a slightly unusual request to have subtitles in Japanese. This was because much of the audience in his genre, horror/comedy, are apparently Japanese speakers. I don’t speak or read Japanese, but I felt that we could take a stab at it and see if it would work.

Obviously, the first step was to find a someone fluent in both Japanese and English. Robert was able to find an associate, Yomuki Shoji, who was willing to do the translation. There are probably more efficient ways to do this, but the methodology she used was as follows: Robert gave her a copy of the script for the film, which was in Microsoft Word. Using a two-column format, Yomuki divided up the lines from the film into small parts, at a length for each line she expected would fit on screen, on the left-hand side. She then put the Japanese translation on the right-hand side, using what I believe was a Windows Unicode Japanese TrueType font.

In order to use the Japanese text provided to me, I switched to Japanese fonts found on the Mac. The Windows font did not appear correctly in Word for OS X. However, once swapped, the text was accurate; the characters mapped properly. I then removed the English and saved this file as a text file, hoping that I could just import the file and work with it. However, that didn’t work. I believe you can do this if you include the timecode in a special format, but I didn’t include the necessary information. Instead, I ended up copying and pasting from the Word file into the subtitle editor.

The next step was to use the subtitle editor provided with DVD Studio Pro to create the actual subtitles. In order to do this, you must first decide where you want the subtitles to appear, what border you want around the text, what background you want for your preview, and most importantly, what file you will use as a basis for your subtitles.

This last portion is extremely important and leads to an issue that you might not come across unless you are doing subtitles. I had originally made my subtitles and then found that despite the fact that they worked in preview mode in DVDSP (which, as I have written before in earlier articles, is a very ineffective way to tell if things are working), the subtitles would not appear on burned discs or would appear at strange times.

It took a very long time to discover the problem; it was not covered in Apple’s DVDSP manual. I just barely noticed it in Martin Sitter’s DVD Studio Pro for Macintosh Visual QuickPro Guide. The issue was that in NTSC, the subtitle editor requires that your footage use non-drop frame timecode.

NTSC video uses either drop-frame or non-drop time code. There are better explanations out there, but in a nutshell, most NTSC video is shot at 29.97 frames per second. This leads to a problem with keeping frames accurately time-synchronised, and so two timecode schemes were developed. Drop-frame drops out a frame’s worth of time every time the difference between the number of frames shown and the amount of time passed equals exactly one frame. This makes drop-frame timecode a more accurate description of how much time has elapsed in a video. On the other hand, non-drop timecode doesn’t really count time; it keeps track of frames. This leads it to give a numerical result which progressively does not reflect how much time has actually passed. However, it is easier to process, since it simply counts the frames as they go by, instead of making calculations to keep the time reading accurate. However, if you go to frame 30 min: 30 sec: 15 frames, that will always be the same point in the footage. It just won’t be the same time.

Of course, since most broadcast quality footage requires drop-frame timecode because of its proper timecode synchronicity, that’s what Final Cut Pro defaults to. But the subtitle editor requires non-drop timecode. This means that all of your elements must use the same type of timecode, including any audio tracks. I took the precaution of converting all of my video to non-drop timecode just to be safe, but this step should only be necessary for any content that appears when the subtitles are an option. This also means that you would have to redo your chapter markers if you had already done them with drop frame timecode. You can tell if your footage is encoded in drop-frame timecode if it has a semi-colon like this: 00:30:15;12. Non-drop timecode uses a colon: 00:30:15:12. In Final Cut Pro it is fairly easy to change the timecode standard. Simply select the sequence you want to change the timecode of, then go to Sequence:Settings (Command-0). Select timeline options and uncheck the box marked “Drop Frame.” Now export your audio and video using this setting, and everything should work.

A tip I got from the Visual QuickPro Guide is to use a lower-resolution file to keep your computer from having to process a huge file while creating your subtitles. However, I have an 800MHz G4 with 1GB RAM and Mac OS X, and didn’t have any problems with a 17-minute full-resolution file. As far as the positioning of the subtitles, somewhat by trial and error I selected 370 for my top X distance, 50 for my left and right distances, and 30 for my bottom distance. The next time I do subtitles, I think I’ll render out my video with the text safe areas showing. That way, I won’t have to guess when I set my borders; I’ll be able to tell in the preview. You may want to root around to find other possibilities.

These numbers keep my subtitles within the text-safe area without interfering too much with the footage. I noticed online that many folks wonder how to do two different subtitles; say, one at the top and one at the bottom. First off, it’s important to note that really, you can only have one subtitle at a time. You can’t even have video overlay buttons at the same time as subtitles. Well, you kind of can, but you can’t use the subtitle editor to do it. What you can do, though, is make it appear as though there are two. To do this, you must set your top X distance to something small, like 30, and then put your first subtitle in. Then include enough returns to get the other subtitle at the bottom. It takes discipline to make sure you always have the right number of returns, but this is the best way to do it with these tools.

I selected a text border of 3 pixels. I recommend selecting some border and in a contrasting color. Otherwise, your subtitle will sometimes blend in with the footage behind it. I haven’t tested it, but I believe the subtitles use NTSC-safe colors. You may want to double check this for yourself.

Once you have selected your options for your file, the subtitle editor will open the actual subtitling window. There is clearly an art to placing subtitles, and I don’t know how well I’ve done, but according to the translator, my placement of the subtitles was readable and not distracting. This, I believe, is your ultimate goal. Since I had the dialogue divided up by line, it was fairly easy to put the text where it seemed to go in the footage. The way the subtitle editor handles this is to give you a default length every time you add a new subtitle element. You can then change its timing as you see fit. I found that the default seemed to be the right amount of time for one line of text. But in certain areas where I could pretty much tell what the Japanese text said, I did make adjustments as necessary. I erred on the side of putting text up before words were spoken whenever I could. This way, the reader could keep up with the action.

I used the Pro W6 and Pro W8 Japanese fonts that came with Mac OS X. I believe they install by default in OS X 10.1 or greater. I used W8 for the title, and made it bold. Then I used W6 at different sizes for the other titles and the main text. I did not use different colors because I feared performance issues. I can’t recall where, but I saw somewhere that this could be an issue. One thing I did that I thought was pretty slick was to put the text in italics when the speaker was off screen. Overall, the process took about 5 hours to place text for a 17-minute film. Not for the faint-hearted.

Once I had all of the text in place, I then exported the file. This is done through the File:Compile Project function. I named my file and saved it. I then could import it into DVDSP.

I have seen a lot of discussion about how to handle subtitles in DVDSP. It turns out that when it comes to expert features, DVDSP can be very inconsistent, and its manual can leave out a lot of information. Let me explain the way I set up my subtitles, which seems to work. First, I created an opening script which sets the subtitle stream to 62:

setSubtitleStream 62

I have to admit, I forget my exact reasoning, but basically I think this dealt with an issue that setting the stream to 64 failed to address. The point of this setting is to tell the disc to use a blank subtitle stream by default. Then, every time I play the main film, I check a variable toggle to see if someone used the Extras Menu to select the subtitle.

if A == 1 then setSubtitleStream 0
if A == 0 then setSubtitleStream 64

This script appears as a prescript to the main movie. Using a stream of 64 here works fine, but does not appear to work if the extras menu isn’t used.

I did not use the subtitle menu for my buttons in the Extras menu. Instead, I have my buttons access a script. Depending on what is selected, A is set to 1 or 0. I simply put that in the script, and when the movie plays, it displays the subtitle appropriately.

One of the main reasons I selected this method as opposed to the blank subtitle method (creating a blank subtitle, then using it as the default) is that most DVD players appear to have a command to turn subtitles off. With the blank subtitle, the remote control for the DVD player would actually show two blank subtitles, which I felt was inelegant.

It turns out that I also had commentary tracks for the disc. I found that the best DVDs I have seen are the ones developed for MGM. They are the most consistent, of the highest quality and have a menu system that makes the most sense. When they have both commentary and subtitles, they put them all on one menu. When you go to this menu, none of the items show as selected. You select what you want – say, the subtitle – and then the menu switches to show which audio track you have on. The same works the opposite way around. The system is smart enough to remember what is currently selected. I wanted to emulate this functionality. Unfortunately (and this will be covered in a later article), this requires the Return function, which does not work in DVDSP. Therefore, I had to develop an alternate strategy.

What I did was make it so that if you ever went back to the extras menu, the audio and subtitles would be set to the defaults. So, if you have the subtitle on and want a commentary track on, you go to the main menu, go to the extras menu, select your audio track, and then the subtitles menu comes up, with “Subtitles off” highlighted. If you hit select, you are brought to the Main menu with “Play” highlighted. In this way, I was able to work around the lack of a Return function.

One last note: You can’t have chapter points or compression markers that overlap subtitles. Make sure you leave some space for chapter markers when you build your subtitles. DVDSP 1.5.1 is pretty good at letting you know when there is a conflict between chapters and subtitles. You can tell there’s a problem when the title of an element is in italics.

I hope this helps those of you trying to work with subtitles. I know I haven’t addressed every concern, but I think this method works. Next time, we’ll discuss alternate audio tracks.

The New Hollywood Workshop is dedicated to using Macintosh computers and software to do what the big boys do. Want an example? Check out Duality, a short made completely with Macintosh products.

Eliot Hochberg is a Web developer with over seven years’ experience. Apple’s new professional tools are just the ticket for a sole proprietor like Eliot to go to the next level. Right now, he’s seeking DVD duplication services that support DVD Studio Pro. If your company does, let us know. We’ll list you in future articles.

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