Joe Clark: Media access

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Updated 2001.12.23

DVD subtitling on Macs:
Don’t try this at home

SUMMARY – It is now possible to create your own DVDs on a PowerMac. Apple would like you to believe you are also qualified to subtitle and dub your new DVD. Well, you’re not. Budding desktop cinéastes require a training program to teach them how to do accessible media the right way. But no such training program exists.

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On 2001.01.09, “Steve” announced a raft of new PowerMac G4 models, many of which can now write (or “burn”) CDs and DVDs. For software, you have two choices: Consumer and pro.

  1. iDVD, which lets you drag and drop clips and movies onto a blank DVD of a certain type (Cf. iMovie).
  2. DVD Studio Pro, which attempts to duplicate the capabilities of professional DVD “authoring” systems (Cf. Final Cut Pro).

Wonderful. Power to the people, etc. Like giving people a LaserWriter, etc. The desktop-publishing revolution comes to DVD, etc.

But here in the wilds of the media business, where we concern ourselves with accessibility in all its forms, two very powerful features of DVD Studio Pro get us worried. As with all pro-level authoring equipment, DVD Studio lets you record multiple audio tracks (i.e., dubbing) and add subtitles.

What’s wrong with this picture?

“Good” vs. “good enough”

The conventional wisdom concerning the early days of desktop publishing holds that untrained designers created a lot of ransom notes – pages full of every font they could get their hands on.

I was there at the time, having been a typography queen for the better part of a decade before PostScript was even invented. It isn’t true: The ransom-note effect is urban legend. It is the case that some untalented people remained untalented, while others learned a new craft, and while still others refined their existing graphic-arts skills.

The same thing will happen with desktop movies. Most people will have no talent at all; some will learn new skills; and the elite, who already know how to make a film, will simply get better at it.

The corollary of the ransom-note urban legend runs like this: Tacky graphic design should be held against the perpetrators. In reality, a sign stapled onto telephone poles advertising a yard sale doesn’t have to be “professional.” The intended audience couldn’t tell the difference anyway. You could handwrite it and no one would care.

Same with desktop movies. Crappy homemade DVDs, like crappy homemade videotapes, don’t have to be anything other than crappy if the audience doesn’t expect more than that.

So iDVD and DVD Studio Pro will, predictably, yield lousy, OK, and excellent work, much of which will be perfectly suited to the respective audience. Even those avant-garde intellectual cinéaste types with their dramatic eyeglasses and fondness for impenetrable Atom Egoyan films can and should cut people some slack. Artworks don’t have to be great to be valuable or useful.

However, when it comes to accessibility, things are different.

Don’t try this at home

The rules for making a movie are loosey-goosey. There are a million ways to do it.

The rules for captioning, describing, or subtitling or dubbing a movie are, however, pretty strict, and rely on an uncommon combination of skills and experience.

The problem with DVD Studio Pro is: It lulls you into thinking accessibility is as easy and loose as making a movie itself. I mean, it’s a menu option in the software now!

Pretty strange, huh? I seem to be saying that making a movie is easier than subtitling it. Not quite: There are, however, many more rules involved with accessibility than with moviemaking.

Those rules are often not obvious (they’re completely invisible much of the time: You literally see right through them), just as the rules of typography are extensive but hard to spot if you have no previous knowledge. You cannot figure this out by watching subtitled movies (for example) and trying to duplicate what you see. You stand a better chance of creating a half-decent movie by studying other filmmakers. The issue boils down to degree of constraint, as I’ll explain momentarily.

Understanding the lingo

Now, then. Let’s back up a step. Have a look at the Understanding Media-Access Terminology page. The Big Four access techniques for film are:

  1. Captioning: Rendering the dialogue in the same language’s writing system, with other features to accommodate a deaf audience.
  2. Subtitling: Translating dialogue into another written language.
  3. Dubbing: Translating dialogue into another spoken language.
  4. Audio description: An additional track of narration in the same language as the dialogue describing visual details inaccessible to a blind audience.

So, to produce any of these “submedia,” you need some combination of the following skills:

  1. Essentially perfect literacy, expressed in the ability to accurately transcribe absolutely anything, from Shakespeare to hiphop.
  2. Editing: It is inevitably necessary to rewrite subtitles and captions, but you must retain the sense and flavour of the original within a comfortable reading speed.
  3. Writing: In audio description particularly, you must be able to sum up visual details in written (and ultimately narrated) words with only a few seconds in which to do it.
  4. Multilingualism: The ability to translate, using both spoken and written language. (Even if you’re dubbing a film – transforming one spoken language to another – you need to write an intermediate script in the target language.)
  5. Typography: You need to render titles according to the standards (sometimes slightly modified) of the target language. (You rarely get to mix and match fonts. There are no ransom notes in subtitling or captioning.)
  6. Visual literacy: You’re working with cinema, a medium with its own vocabulary of shots, angles, edits, rhythm, and structure. Everything you do is tied to whatever the filmmakers did. (To a lesser degree, you also need auditory literacy, since you will often be manipulating the soundtrack.)

It is not at all uncommon to find a need for nearly all those skills at once. Did you know that dubbed movies are often captioned, and that subtitled films are often described and captioned? Accessibility techniques are, after all, interlinked.

In effect, in producing accessible media your room for creativity is severely hindered by the source material. You cannot do whatever you want. Cinema is a blank canvas; accessibility is a paint-by-number set. You must deal only the cards you are dealt, and don’t expect to receive a full deck.

Note something else: This isn’t merely my opinion. Subtitling and dubbing have been practiced for nearly a century. Captioning has been widespread since the 1980s (and dates back to the 1940s), while audio description of film and television is nearly 15 years old. While there is room for improvement in the existing practices, the fact remains that there are existing practices. You simply cannot make this up as you go along.

Can’t accessibility be “good enough”?

OK. You’re thinking: If my sexy PowerMac DVD movies can be only OK because I’m just showing them to a few friends, why do I have to give a damn about accessibility? If I want to put some subtitles on for granny who isn’t very good with English, who cares how good they are?

Well, go ahead. You’ll be able to count the number of home users who bother with subtitling (or anything else access-related) on one hand. They’re not the people I’m talking about.

What’s gonna happen is this:

  • Budding filmmakers (think of the hero of Dawson’s Creek, Dawson Leery) are going to shoot their movies on digital video, burn their own DVDs, and attempt to storm the barricades of indie film. Festivals already exhibit movies shot on digital video (which, according to Godfrey Cheshire, are more like television than film); it may be more convenient to submit home DVDs for such festivals. It will certainly seem sexier than providing a digital tape, of which there are many formats.
  • Or indie filmmakers, with existing movies they could barely get released on video, are going to burn their own DVDs. Video is something that does not work online, and likely will not for many years. Besides, DVDs are prized for their picture quality – better even than VHS tapes, let alone QuickTime.
  • Or schools, universities, and government agencies will attempt to bring all levels of production in-house, and will have to provide access features.

Thus, people will use desktop computers to produce physical artworks – just as with desktop publishing. (Web design produces an immaterial artwork.)

Some filmmakers will burn short runs at home, the way musicians burn CD-Rs to send out to labels and radio stations. However, at the next level upward, through this new hardware and software a new DVD master will be available that can be used in commercial manufacturing. (DVD Studio Pro can output to various formats.)

Just as services like Napster,, and Farmclub (read dissection) sprang up ostensibly to distribute unsigned bands, new companies will spring up to distribute indie DVDs.

Suddenly, then, you’re playing with the big kids. You’re putting out DVDs, just as Spielberg is. So you want the same degree of sophistication. (DVDs are all about excellence.) You’re going to hire a graphic artist to design a nice case (or do it yourself – design is “straightforward,” right?), and you’re going to slave away on the director’s commentaries and Easter eggs and the other DVD extras the geeks love so much. (Even the Apple iDVD software makes this kind of pseudo-interactivity easy. And it is easy compared to accessibility.)

And, since you’re so annoyed at the entire concept of DVD region codes (it’s corporate control, man!) that you bought an Apex DVD player just so you could hack the region codes, you’re going to release your disc without one, meaning it will run in any DVD player anywhere.

And then – whoops! almost forgot! – if it’s going to run everywhere, you realize that not everyone speaks English, or can hear or see. Better whip some subtitles onto that thing.

Um... how, exactly? You’re a filmmaker. What do you know about rendering spoken language as written or vice-versa? What do you know about typography, writing, editing? Those aren’t your skills, or you’d be a writer, editor, or a translator or interpreter. There’s no shame in it.

You don’t know the first thing about subtitling, or dubbing, or audio description. But DVD Studio lets you do it anyway.

Take my advice: Don’t.

The knowledge gap

Elsewhere, I described the accessibility problems facing Flash. I wrote, in part:

Taller still is the process of educating developers not only in the need for [accessibility] provisions, but how to execute them properly. That will entail teaching visualist designers to write – a formidable task, through no fault of the designers’ own; if writing were their true means of expression, they wouldn’t be designers. It will entail a mastery of frustratingly obscure and deceptively difficult techniques: Captioning so much as an aspirin commercial is not an easy, self-evident, or straightforwrad task. Audio description of highly experimental audiovisual works like Flash animations (particularly of the Once-Upon-a-Forest or Praystation calibre) has never been attempted; there is no prototype.

There are no publicly-available manuals for captioning, subtitling, ordubbing; there is exactly one set of U.K. guidelines for audio description (links and commentary). As with typography, developing an understanding of these media takes time and a very great deal of exposure. Current Flash authors spend very little time watching accessible media as they are presently known.

The artistic barrier, then, greatly exceeds the issue of technical capability. Even with perfect data structures in Flash and near-universal browser compatibility, Flash authors won’t know what to do.

That was a largely hypothetical call to action, because Flash accessibility is vapourware at the moment. However, as soon as DVD Studio Pro hits the market, suddenly people will be technically equipped to produce subtitles, dubs, and audio descriptions for DVDs.

But there’s no training. They don’t know what to do. And most users will probably not have the money to hire the existing professionals, whose work isn’t always so hot anyway.

Fixing the problem

This story has a moral that is very easy and concise to state:

We need some kind of training program for accessible media. It is the sort of thing that the selfsame companies bringing multimedia to “the masses” ought to fund: Apple, Avid, Macromedia, Adobe.

It isn’t enough to give people a new power. They must also be trained in how to use it.

This training program should take the form of multilingual, accessible DVDs and a printed manual. It is possible to teach captioning, audio description, subtitling, and dubbing. It cannot be done online for reasons of bandwidth. It can, however, be done using the same medium we’ll be training you to make accessible. (Heck, we may use DVD Studio Pro and a G4 to master it! How’s that for product placement? How’s that for “physician, heal thyself”?)

And keep in mind that the indie filmmakers affected by this issue already have a source of training for moviemaking: It’s called film school. Apple puts subtitling and dubbing on the desktop, though, and nobody, not even film-school graduates, knows how to do it. We can fix that.

What’s the next step? I expect we shall have to wait for the first few desktop DVDs with crappy subtitles to emerge, at which point such subtitles will become the new low-water mark. Anyone with the money and capacity to solve the problem will then be able to say “Well, this is what the market accepts” or – more perniciously, ignoring decades of accomplished practice – “There are many ways to do it. Who’s to say homegrown approaches are that bad?“

Or, viewed more optimistically, poor work of that sort will act as proof of the points I’m making here, and we can get a proper training program off the ground.

A final fact: Region 1 DVDs can carry conventional closed-captions. (DVDs from other regions evidently cannot.) Such captions are created and encoded using an entirely different technology from what is used in DVD subtitle generation. You also need a caption decoder, which TV sets tend to have but computers almost never do. (They’re not built into DVD players, either.) Subtitles are not captions, and there are arguments to be made for captioning and subtitling or for captioning or subtitling. DVD Studio Pro ignores closed-captioning entirely.


2001.07.19 – A second review of DVD Studio Pro says the following about the subtitle editor:

For creating subtitles, Apple has included a separate subtitling app that allows you to import a movie and enter subtitle text with matching timecode cues. The subtitle editor exports your text into a subtitle stream that can be imported into DVD Studio Pro.

Though the editor is well designed, we had trouble with subtitle sync drifting a bit. Many users have also complained of crashing when using the subtitle editor. If subtitling is an essential part of your authoring process, you may want to consider a third-party utility.

And that third-party utility would be...?

I have seen one review of DVD Studio Pro that mentions the subtitling/audio facilities: “If multiple languages is something you require, DVD Studio Pro supports both multiple audio streams and subtitles. A friendly pull-down menu lists all the languages available on the DVD standard, making your job of managing multiple languages considerably easier. Multiple camera angles are also supported.”

Well. I guess that sums it up. It’s rather smug, assuming that the stated existence of a feature means the feature is implemented properly and carries no special problems.