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Evolution of subtitles in television and film

Since film was developed, filmmakers and distributors have been developing methods to make movies, television shows, and instructional videos available to audiences in multiple languages. One of the most reliable localization methods is the use of subtitles, text versions of the audio translation that are projected onto the screen alongside the moving pictures and original audio. Quicker and less expensive than audio dubbing, subtitles are still an incredibly popular way to make video content understandable to audiences across the world, and the methods for creating them have developed alongside advancements in film and video technology.

The Silent Film Era – Intertitles

The direct ancestors of the modern film and television subtitle are the intertitles that were used in silent films. Intertitles were full-screen pieces of written dialogue or exposition that were filmed and then inserted between scenes. Before the creation of technology that would allow text to be added directly to a film reel, this method allowed filmmakers to explain to the audience what was happening in their audio-less movies. Intertitles made localizing films incredibly easy – new intertitles in different languages could be created and inserted into the film, or a speaker in the theater could translate dialogue aloud for the audience.

Talkies and the First Subtitles

When Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer became the first movie to feature actual recorded dialogue, the need for intertitles disappeared. But “talkies” presented a new problem – now that movies all had integrated audio, how could they be translated into other languages? While “dubbing” audio into a different language was an option, the process for doing so was complex and often prohibitively expensive. As such, distributors and studios started using the much simpler and more cost effective method of adding translated text, or “subtitles,” onto the film print itself.

Several different methods for adding subtitles to film were created. These methods ranged from syncing a separate length of film with the movie and projecting them both at the same time, to stamping the emulsion layer, and even in some cases burning the subtitles directly onto the film. The results of these early methods were sometimes erratic, but they still created an easy way for films to be seen and appreciated by viewers around the world.

Subtitling for Television

After talkies, the next great movie innovation came from television. Many of the subtitling methods that worked in cinemas did not translate into television’s smaller format, which would condense the text to a size too small and blurry to be properly read. With the creation of broadcast television, new methods of integrating subtitles with existing film and broadcasting both electronically were needed.

One of the first methods to be developed involved typing the subtitle text on paper, photographing it, and then scanning the negatives into a machine where the film and the text could be matched together. Eventually, advances in technology streamlined this process to the point where a punch card feeding system could be used, taking away the need to photograph and scan the subtitles. This allowed subtitles for television to be created much faster, though the system was still sometimes unreliable, with the punch cards occasionally jamming or feeding too quickly.

The technology that allowed for the electronic broadcasting of caption boxes was created around the same time. While caption box generators were more reliable, they were also more expensive and cumbersome to use, making them inefficient for subtitling large amounts of material.

The Modern Digital Subtitle

New technologies for subtitling continued to be created over the course of the 20th century, making the process quicker, less expensive, and more reliable than the earlier methods. These advancements included such developments as laser-printed subtitles, which replaced the older methods of stamping or burning the emulsion layer of a film print.

Eventually, developments in subtitling technology led to the creation of the modern digital subtitle. Digital subtitles can be added directly into a video file (hard subtitles), included as a part of a video file that can be turned on and off at the player’s whims (soft subtitles), or included in a separate file that can be played at the same time as a video file through a player such as VLC (external subtitles),

Because of the formatting flexibility and the ease with which they can be created (unlike old methods, they don’t require expensive equipment and know-how), digital subtitles have opened up a new world for making video material available in multiple languages cheaply and effectively. The services of subtitling companies are no longer something that only major studios can afford. Now business videos, educational tutorials, and even indie movie projects can easily be made available to an international audience.