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.
On this page
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.
which lets you drag and drop clips and movies onto a blank DVD of a
certain type (Cf. iMovie).
- 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,
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?
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
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
However, when it comes to accessibility, things are
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
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
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:
- Captioning: Rendering the dialogue in the same
language’s writing system, with other features to accommodate
a deaf audience.
- Subtitling: Translating dialogue into another
- Dubbing: Translating dialogue into another
- 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:
- Essentially perfect literacy, expressed in the
ability to accurately transcribe absolutely anything, from
Shakespeare to hiphop.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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
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,
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.
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
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
Just as services like Napster, MP3.com, and Farmclub (read dissection)
sprang up ostensibly to distribute unsigned bands,
new companies will spring up to distribute indie
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
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
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
Take my advice: Don’t.
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
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.
This story has a moral that is very easy and concise to
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
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
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.