A common problem with subtitling an existing video are conflicts between subtitles and on-screen graphics, that is, the video will already have some text or graphics in the area where the subtitles will be—“the lower third [of the picture]”. Subtitles that are placed in this lower third will overlap with these on-screen graphics or text and become an unreadable palimpsest. Inevitably clients not familiar with video editing will ask: “Can you remove the existing graphics and replace them with the subtitles?”
To make a short story even shorter, no. Such texts or graphics are burnt into the picture and cannot be removed because they are “married to the picture,” that is, they are an integral part of the video, not an overlay that can be turned off or removed.
What are the options?
Well, the spectrum of options for dealing with subtitles and on-screen graphics reaches from the good to the bad and the ugly.
The good: ideally the original editor who created the video is still in business and has kept what we call a “textless” version of the video. This is also known as a “generic” or “naked” version, which is the exact same picture and sound edits, only with no graphic overlays. This then allows for a redesign of the screen layout so that the subtitles and on-screen graphics will not collide and overlap with each other. This also presents an opportunity to localize the existing on-screen text/graphics. More importantly, one can then also address a possible overload of text to read when subtitles and on-screen graphics combine to create a text heavy picture.
If getting textless material is not feasible, then the distinctions between good, bad and ugly become somewhat fuzzy and uncertain. Depending on the composition of the on-screen image, it may be possible to put the subtitles on top of the lower thirds when these appear. Single line subtitles might be advisable or necessary to limit the incursion into the picture and avoid obscuring import visual information. But it really depends on the picture the subtitles are being superimposed upon: the background picture might render the subtitles partially or totally illegible—think of a close-up of a broad chested CEO with a white shirt and white subtitles of his important message.
Another option is to provide a solid banner, usually black, to completely mask the existing text and graphics. This provides a background that will make the subtitles pre-eminent and superbly legible, at the cost of covering and censoring all other visual information in the lower third. This may or may not be acceptable depending on what is going on in the picture.
Other alternatives include moving the subtitles to the top of the picture when there is information in the lower third that cannot be sacrificed. Aside from the hairsplitting fact that this is no longer really a subtitle, readability is impacted when subtitles do not appear where the brain and the eye expect them. This is compounded by the fact that with subtitles and on-screen graphics on the screen at the same time, there will hardly be enough time to read everything and we end up at the ugly end of the spectrum.
Clients will ask: “is there really no other, better solution?” There is one answer: Yes, do a voice over. Then your ears can listen and your eyes can read at the same time.
For more information on this topic visit Subtitling Do’s and Don’ts.