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When speaking to new clients unfamiliar with video post-production and subtitle editing, we are frequently asked: “How do you determine where to place the subtitles?” The usual and simple answer is: “Right on the lower title safe line.” Which almost always prompts a predictable follow-up question: “What is title safe?”

The image for this blog entry show light blue lines on a black screen indicating what are known in video editing, not just subtitle editing, as the “title safe” and “action safe” boundaries. The inner-most rectangle is title safe. Title safety is a broadcast standard that developed in the days of cathode ray TV sets. Pretty much every brand of television cropped the picture more or less. With some TVs you actually were getting more picture than with others.

Moreover, as these cathode ray tubes aged, the image on screen would fish-eye, causing the picture edges to get cropped even further. This was a concern for advertisers with “call now” numbers on screen, so title safety became defined, in layman’s lingo, as “that area within which something must appear in order to guarantee visibility on even the worst TV in the world.”

Action safety is a similar concept, except that it outlines that area within which an action must occur on screen if it is going to be noticeable to the human eye. The suspense of a crime film, for example, would diminish if we couldn’t see small actions such as gangsters darting hands into trench coat pockets when Bogart enters the room.

These concerns have become technically outdated because modern computer screen and flat screen TVs have standardized picture sizes and won’t fish-eye. However, we always urge clients to consider title safety when subtitle editing as an accepted aesthetic standard to which image-reading at large has become accustomed. Especially for subtitles, we usually do not want to mash them below where the eye is apt to travel as it scans the screen. Nor do we want to put words in someone’s mouth by placing them so high into the picture that they will literally cover the mouth of a talking head. So subtitles typically end up in what is called “the lower third [of the picture],” with title safe being the lower boundary for subtitle editing.

Another reason to respect the bounds of title safety is the fact that no one can know what will happen to a video over the course of its life. Once it leaves our hands—and your hands—someone somewhere might make a center-cropped dub of this video, play it on a very small screen, or put it on a web player with pop-up controls that cover up the lower edge of the picture. What sometimes happens is that clients of clients of clients call us up and ask, “How come I can’t read this?” When we keep subtitles in title safety, they stand a better chance of remaining legible even after generations of potential abuse.

For more information on this topic visit Subtitling Do’s and Don’ts.

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