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One of DVDs Most Poorly Executed Features: Subtitles

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How many of us really care? But it does matter. And when it matters it can really matter. Most of us probably spend our time just trying to turn them off when they come on unexpectedly. But Subtitles do matter. And this oft neglected feature of DVD can make or break the viewing experience of your favorite foreign film when you finally get your widescreen HDTV display. And for the hearing-impaired, it can make or break a purchase decision every time. Let's explore the world of subtitles...

Are they even there?

To many in the hearing-impaired community, or those who speak a language other than that of the audio on the DVD, the inclusion of subtitles on DVD is one of its greatest advantages over previous forms of pre-recorded video. Yes, Closed Captioning has been possible (and is often provided) for VHS, laserdisc, and even DVD. But Closed Captioning isn't the end-all and be-all alternative to bona fide subtitles.

For one, Closed Captioning is something that gets decoded by the TV set itself, and is not part of a DVD menu system or DVD playback in any way; its flexibility in terms is much more limited. Closed Captioning is most often presented in a crude font style that is difficult to read and plastered over the image area in a black-band on the lower region of the screen. It would not even be an option for someone with a dedicated display that lacked a tuner and Closed Captioning decoding hardware (like a front-projector in a home-theater).

With subtitling on DVD, the font-style, font size, font color, and screen placement of subtitles is all determined by the DVD producer. This usually results in a subtitle that is much easier to read and less offensive than conventional closed captioning.

Ok, so for the sake of the hearing impaired and language diversity, and to finally get to figure out what the lyrics were to that song on the music-video DVD you bought, I think we can all agree that just having subtitles IS important. (Heck, I remember once when I was trying to spell a word and couldn't get to the dictionary...I just popped in a DVD in which I remembered I had heard it spoken, and turned on the subtitles and Voila!...Subtitles saved the day!)

Ok, I've got subtitles, but are they hard-coded on my DVD image?

This is where DVD breaks away from conventional analog video mediums. Closed Captioning was the analog fix to providing some form of "user selectable" subtitle. But it's a digital world now, and we can do what we want.

As most people are readily familiar, DVD can be encoded with electronic subtitles that can be disabled or enabled at the discretion of the viewer. Multiple subtitle tracks can be recorded using very little digital real estate on the disc. Sure, maybe only one language of full-bit-rate DTS 5.1 ES will fit on that special edition, but to make up for it we could put 8 or 10 different languages via subtitles if we wanted. This is good.

But that's not what's always happening. I've noticed several DVDs produced from old masters originally intended for laserdisc which had the subtitles hard-coded into the video image this old fashioned way. The Japanese Classic "RAN" (the only DVD version present at the time of this writing) is a perfect example. Well...this is a foreign film after all. And I think that most of the Region 1 buying crowd will be happy those subtitles are there and wouldn't want to turn them off anyway. But this is still a dangerous precedent for several reasons...

What About Subtitles on a 16:9 Display vs. a 4:3 display?

Problem. Or at least could be if those subtitles are hard-coded. Many widescreen films with hard-coded subtitles have recorded the subtitles below the picture area in the black area of the bottom letterboxing bar. Makes good sense for 4:3 TV watchers. Those nasty subtitles don't get in the way of the image and are easier to read. Bravo! But what Happens when you get your cool new 16:9 HDTV and you blow your widescreen movie up to fill the screen (to prevent screen burn) ?

Yep. Problem. Those subtitles aren't there anymore. This is why I can't watch the DVD of RAN on my 16:9 TV...unless I wanted to watch the widescreen movie letterboxed and windowboxed in the middle of my set. Sorry but that's just too pathetic. If those subtitles were electronic, no DVD player would make sure they ended up in the 16:9 area sothat I could read them. Thank goodness RAN is soon to be remastered (16:9!) with electronic subtitles done properly.

What about the future...Subtitles displayed YOUR way.

Even with electronically generated subtitles the DVD producer picks the color, font style, font size, and placement for the subtitles, then your DVD player just follows the instructions. Well...what about giving that DVD player some of your own instructions? There's no reason why someone couldn't design a DVD player (or PCHT system with the right software) that could let you, the viewer, override the discs instructions and modify the subtitle characteristics to suit your own taste. You think yellow is easier to read? No Problem. Set your DVD player subtitle color selection to yellow. You want your subtitles bigger since you have such a small screen on your portable DVD player for the plane ride? No problem. Pick a bigger size. When you get back home and hook your portable DVD player back up to your 100" projection system, you can reduce the size of those subtitles appropriately.

Want to get radical? You know how now they're showing subtitles at the opera and in some art-movie houses on a dedicated screen? Well...why not have the option to have those DVD subtitles...all jazzed up according to your particular taste...outputted via a discrete video "subtitle" output on your DVD player to your dedicated Subtitle display sitting below your projection screen leaving your movie image undisturbed? Why not give me the option? Boy...I could make designing a DVD player fun!


It ought to be obvious that subtitles are an important DVD feature for the hearing-impaired community and those who speak languages other than that of the DVD soundtrack (sure, you can't cover every language, but it still makes sense to at least hit English, Spanish, and French with most Region 1 titles). Closed Captioning just can't do the job. It's also important that subtitles be electronically encoded, especially for non-anamorphic discs, as any subtitles hard-coded in the lower region of the 4:3 frame will likely be cut off by a 16:9 HDTV in the home-theater room. Also, by electronically encoding subtitles, our options are open to what cool subtitle features future DVD-playback hardware will give us. Pick your color, pick your size! The same size font (relative to image size and viewing distance) that is easily readable on a 19" TV is not necessarily optimal on a 100" projection screen. You know what I mean?

Studios...Give us subtitles and do it right!