The Mentoring Room - Ask the Working Pros

Mentoring Room

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This is a Public Topic geared towards first-time filmmakers. Professional members of The D-Word will come by and answer your questions about documentary filmmaking.

Dièry Prudent

I'm urgently Seeking a Camera/Sound Tech for a doc shoot in Brighton, England August 2, 2011

I'm asking the D-Word community for help locating a skilled videographer with a decent light/camera/sound kit in that area. I'm in search of a pro who'd be willing to shoot this interview on a deferred payment basis. Shooting/sound credit assured. Does anyone know of a jazz-loving professional camera/sound/lights artist who would be up to the task?

The job consists of framing, lighting and sound-recording an hour-long interview on location at the manager's home. The whole job, from setup to strike, can be completed within 2 hours.

If so, they may call me directly anytime at +1 917.975.5940

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best wishes to all,

Dièry Prudent, producer
"Moody's Mood for Love: the Story of a Song"
+1 917 975 5940

Stephanie Caruso

I'm about to meet with a potential subject for my new documentary. Is it necessary that I have him sign a non disclosure agreement? And if so, any suggestions to where I can find an example online?

Anna Fischer

Hi, I am currently subtitling my film, Lucky Express, and I need advice about how to subtitle? Two questions:
1- I have put the translated subtitles as they are sometimes the sentence is finished on the next image. Do I use an elipsis because the sentence is not finished?

He went to the store and bought ...
(and then next image) ... some milk and some bread.

Do I use the elipsis or not? Am very confused!

Question 2:
I have to subtitle my lead character because even though he is speaking English, it is really bad and basic English. So when I correct him, how much can I correct? The tenses? The words?
As long as I stick to the meaning of what he is saying, is it alright to put words into his mouth?
Right now, I have tried to use the exact words he is using even though the English is wrong. My theory is that all people will be able to understand the basic idea of what he is saying, even though the English is wrong.
When I corrected his English too much, later when I was reading the subtitles, I noticed that it was harder for the brain to fully understand the meaning, because what he was saying in English and what I was reading were similar but different.
Does this make sense? Its so hard to explain!
Anyway, is there a basic Rule Book for handling subtitles correctly which I can refer to?
Many thanks,

Ramona Diaz

Ann – for starters see hidden section. These are not rules, just guidelines.

1.1 Basic Text Display Subtitle legibility studies result in the following requirements:

i) Teletext characters should be displayed in double height and mixed (upper and lower) case.

ii) Words within a subtitle should be separated by a single space.

iii)Text should normally be presented in a black box. (See 2.3 Speaker Identification and 2.6 Sound Effects for other background colours).

iv) To aid readability, text can be justified left, centre or right depending on speaker position. (See 1.4 Formatting and 1.5 Line Breaks for examples of justified text).

v) The standard punctuation of printed English should be used. Punctuation gives valuable clues to syntactic structure and must be carefully displayed in order to be effective. One means of enhancing the effectiveness of punctuation is by the use of a single space before exclamation marks and question marks, after commas, colons, semi-colons and mid-subtitle full-stops, on both sides of dashes (but not mid-word hyphens), before opening brackets and inverted commas and after closing brackets and inverted commas.

1.2 Colour

The teletext specification currently used in the UK is limited to the availability of seven different text colours, including white; and eight different background (boxing) colours, including black and white. For normal subtitling purposes, black background should be used. Some early teletext decoders do not display coloured background and instead default to black. Therefore, if coloured background is used, a text colour should be chosen which will remain legible on a black background.

The majority of text/background colour combinations are not satisfactory for subtitling, being insufficiently legible. The most legible text colours on a black background are white, yellow, cyan and green. Use of magenta, red and blue should be avoided.

Of the combinations with coloured background, the most legible are blue on white, white on blue, red on white, white on red, cyan on blue and blue on cyan. Of these, white on red, white on blue and cyan on blue are preferable, because certain older decoders will reduce these combinations to highly legible white on black, or cyan on black.

The principal ways of using colour in television subtitling are discussed in Sections 2.3 Speaker Identification and 2.6 Sound Effects.

1.3 Control Characters

The use of double-height boxed coloured text generally requires six control characters in the teletext line, or eight control characters if coloured background is used. Thus, the maximum space available for subtitle text is only 32 or 34 characters per line.

1.4 Formatting

A maximum subtitle length of two lines is recommended. Three lines may be used if the subtitler is confident that no important picture information will be obscured. (See Section 1.6).

Ideally, each subtitle should also comprise a single complete sentence. Depending on the speed of speech, there are exceptions to this general recommendation, as follows:

a) Real-time subtitling (see Section 4).

b) Short sentences may be combined into a single subtitle if the available reading time is limited (see Section 2.5). Additional reading time is gained in this way because the viewer's gaze needs to be directed to the subtitle area only once, rather than two or three times if two or three short sentences are displayed on consecutive subtitles.

c) Very long sentences which are too long to fit into a single two-line subtitle. There are two procedures for dealing with such cases:

Example (i)

It may be possible to break a long sentence into two or more separate sentences and to display them as consecutive subtitles eg �We have standing orders, and we have procedures which have been handed down to us over the centuries.� becomes:

We have standing orders
and procedures.

They have been handed down to us
over the centuries.

This is especially appropriate for �compound� sentences, ie sentences consisting of more than one main clause, joined by coordinating conjunctions �and�, �but�, �or�;

This procedure is also possible with some �complex� sentences, ie sentences consisting of a main clause and one or more subordinate clauses joined by subordinating conjunctions such as �since�, �when�, �because�, etc or by relative pronouns such as �who�, �that�: �All we wanted was a quiet chat just you and me together, but you seemed to have other ideas.� becomes:

All we wanted was a quiet chat
just you and me together.

But you seemed to have
other ideas.

It is sometimes also possible to break single main clauses effectively into more than one subtitle; eg �I saw a tall, thin, bearded man with the stolen shopping basket disappearing into the crowd.� becomes:

I saw a tall, thin, bearded man
with the stolen shopping basket.

He disappeared into the crowd

Example (ii) If such sentence breaking procedures are inappropriate, it might be necessary to allow a single long sentence to extend over more than one subtitle. In this case, sentences should be segmented at natural linguistic breaks such that each subtitle forms an integrated linguistic unit. Thus, segmentation at clause boundaries is to be preferred. For example:

When I jumped on the bus...

..I saw the man who had taken
the basket from the old lady.

Segmentation at major phrase boundaries can also be accepted as follows:

On two minor occasions
immediately following the war,...

..small numbers of people
were seen crossing the border.

There is considerable evidence from the psycho-linguistic literature that normal reading is organised into word groups corresponding to syntactic clauses and phrases, and that linguistically coherent segmentation of text can significantly improve readability.

Random segmentation such as

On two minor occasions
immediately following the war,...

..numbers of people, etc.

must certainly be avoided.

In the examples given above, sequences of dots (three at the end of a to-be-continued subtitle, and two at the beginning of a continuation) are used to mark the fact that a segmentation is taking place. Many viewers have found this technique helpful.

1.5 Line Breaks

Similar linguistic considerations should guide the subtitler in deciding how to format a single multi-line subtitle. Subtitle lines should end at natural linguistic breaks, ideally at clause or phrase boundaries. However, since the dictates of space within a subtitle are more severe than between subtitles, line breaks may also take place after a verb. For example:

We are aiming to get
a better television service.

Line endings that break up a closely integrated phrase should be avoided where possible. For example:

We are aiming to get a
better television service.


He said it would increase
the number of shareholders.

He said it would increase the
number of shareholders.

Line breaks within a word are especially disruptive to the reading process and should be avoided. Ideal formatting should therefore compromise between linguistic and geometric considerations but with priority given to linguistic considerations.

Line breaks must be carefully considered when using left, right and centre justification for speaker position. Justified subtitles should balance linguistic considerations with eye movement:

Example (i)

Left, right and centre justification can be useful to identify speaker position, especially in cases where there are more than three speakers on screen. In such cases, line breaks should be inserted at linguistically coherent points, taking eye-movement into careful consideration. For example:

We all hope
you are feeling much better.

This is left justified. The eye has least distance to travel from hope to you.

We all hope you are
feeling much better.

This is centre justified. The eye now has least distance to travel from are to feeling.

We all hope you are feeling
much better.

This is right justified. The eye has least distance to travel from feeling to much.

Example (ii)

Problems occur with justification when a short sentence or phrase is followed by a longer one. In this case, there is a risk that the bottom line of the subtitle is read first.

He didn�t tell me you would be here.

He didn�t tell me you would be here.

This could result in only half of the subtitle being read. Allowances would therefore have to be made by breaking the line at a linguistically non-coherent point:

He didn�t tell me you would be here.

Oh. He didn�t tell me
you would be here.

Oh. He didn�t tell me you would be

When the subtitler is forced to make a choice between formatting a subtitle into one long line or breaking it into two short lines, the decision should be made on the basis of the background picture. In general, �long and thin� subtitles are less disruptive of picture content than are �short and fat� subtitles, but this is not always the case.

Furthermore, in dialogue sequences it is often helpful to use horizontal displacement in order to distinguish between different speakers (see Section 2.3). �Short and fat� subtitles permit greater latitude for this technique.

1.6 Positioning Subtitles on the Screen

The normally accepted position for subtitles is towards the bottom of the screen, but in obeying this convention it is most important to avoid obscuring 'on-screen' captions, any part of a speaker's mouth or any other important activity. Certain special programme types carry a lot of information in the lower part of the screen (eg snooker, where most of the activity tends to centre around the black ball) and in such cases top-screen positioning will be a more acceptable standard.

Subtitles should be displayed horizontally in the direction of the appropriate speaker, or source of sound effect (See 2.3 and 2.6).

When consecutive subtitles have boxes of similar size and shape and the second directly over-writes the first, it is useful to position them slightly differently on the screen. This makes it easier for the viewer to perceive that the subtitle has changed.

1.7 Timing and Synchronisation

It is crucial that subtitles are displayed for a sufficient length of time for viewers to read them. The subtitle presentation rate for pre-recorded programmes should not normally exceed 140 words per minute. In exceptional circumstances, for example in the case of add-ons, the higher rate of 180 words per minute is permitted.

Presentation rates will depend upon the programme content. For example, real-time subtitling documentaries where the speaker is not on screen, or chat shows which have a higher text complexity than drama.

A fundamental function of television subtitling is to reduce frustration caused to hearing-impaired viewers by being faced with silent moving mouths. Therefore, all obvious speech should have some form of subtitle accompaniment.

Eye movement research shows that hearing-impaired viewers make use of visual cues from the faces of television speakers in order to direct their gaze to the subtitle area. If no subtitle is present, the resulting �false alarm� causes considerable frustration. Further research into eye movement has shown the following pattern developed by hard of hearing viewers:

i) Change of subtitle detected
ii) Read subtitle
iii) Scan picture until another subtitle change is detected

Therefore, subtitle appearance should coincide with speech onset. Subtitle disappearance should coincide roughly with the end of the corresponding speech segment, since subtitles remaining too long on the screen are likely to be re-read by the viewer, ie another kind of �false alarm�.

The same rules of synchronisation should apply with off-camera speakers and even with off-screen narrators, since viewers with a certain amount of residual hearing make use of auditory cues to direct their attention to the subtitle area.

1.8 Leading and Lagging

The target point for synchronisation should be at naturally occurring pauses in speech-sentence boundaries, or changes of scene. However, there are bound to be cases where this is either impractical or inapplicable. Recent research indicates the following:

i) Monologue Material For hard-of-hearing people viewing programmes which consist mainly of monologue, research has shown that perfect synchronisation is not an absolute necessity and delays of up to six seconds do not affect information retention. The same is true of leading subtitles (providing that the first subtitle of a long speech is in synchrony). It should still be recognised, however, that some viewers use subtitles to support heard speech and will require synchronisation. Therefore, the technique should not be over used.

ii) ii) Dramatic Scenes

iii) For drama and programmes with continuous changes of shot, subtitles which lag behind dialogue or commentary by more than two seconds should be avoided.

1.9 Shot Changes

Besides the general recommendation for subtitle/speech synchronisation, there are certain other aspects of the television picture which influence subtitle timing. Subtitles that are allowed to over-run shot changes can cause considerable perceptual confusion and should be avoided. Eye-movement research shows that camera-cuts in the middle of a subtitle presentation cause the viewer to return to the beginning of a partially read subtitle and to start re-reading. In practice, it is recognised that the frequency and speed of shot changes in many programmes present serious problems for the subtitler. A subtitle should, therefore, be �anchored� over a shot change by at least one second to allow the reader time to adjust to the new picture. Shot changes normally reflect the beginning or end of speech. The subtitler should, therefore, attempt to insert a subtitle on a shot change when this is in synchrony with the speaker.

General rules for dealing with camera-cuts are as follows:

i) Avoid inserting a subtitle less than one second before a camera-cut and removing a subtitle less than one second after a camera-cut.

ii) Attempt to insert a subtitle in exact synchrony with a camera-cut.

iii) A decision to segment a single sentence into more than one subtitle, to be placed around a camera-cut, should depend on whether the sentence can be segmented naturally and on whether the resulting subtitles can be allowed sufficient display time.

Camera fades and pans do not produce the same perceptual effect as camera-cuts, and accordingly need not influence the subtitler in the same way.

Major scene changes can cause the same problems as shot changes within a scene. A particular difficulty arises when a speaker's last line in a scene, especially a vital punch line, is followed instantaneously by a scene change. In this case, the subtitle should be removed before the scene change to avoid visual confusion.

Some film techniques introduce the soundtrack for the next scene before the scene change has occurred. If possible, the subtitler should wait for the scene change before displaying the subtitle. If this is not possible, the subtitle should be clearly labelled to explain the technique.

JOHN: And what have we here?

Anna Fischer

Thanks that was helpful!
Now I still have to get some help on how to translate accurately?
Stick to bad English or translate and correct the English but confuse the reader?
What to do?

Ramona Diaz

That's always tricky. First of all, is he really difficult to understand? Do you really have to subtitle him? I've vowed in the past not to subtitle characters speaking English but because of outside pressures (like broadcasters, distributors), I've had to do it. So I treat it like I would treat other subtitles, I "translate" it so it's grammatically correct. Offensive all around but if you have to do it....

Nefin Dinc


I am planning to apply for a grant to make a documentary and they are asking for "letter of commitment" from the advisors.

Could you tell me where can I find a sample for a letter of commitment?

If I were to create it myself, what should I include in it?

Thank you,

Reid B. Kimball

I would suggest you subtitle exactly as your subject speaks. Documentary films are supposed to be accurate, representing truth. If a deaf person learns that the subtitles were not reflecting actually what was said then you lose credibility. Also, I don't think your subject would appreciate words being put in their mouth.

If your subject is really that hard to understand, then can you not include them in your film? I always vet my subjects for camera presence before I spend the money and time with them.

Ramona, that's a shame you don't want to subtitle your films. I'm hard of hearing to point where I need to wear $6,000 hearing aids. I absolutely must have subtitles for me to watch a film and understand most of it. Then there are people who are completely deaf and they need subtitling too.

Ramona Diaz

My films are close captioned for the hearing impaired. I think that's what you're referring to.

Subtitles are a completely different matter. I subtitle my film if they are not speaking English and it's for b'cast in this country or distributed in English speaking territories. My point about not wanting to put English subtitles on someone already speaking English to begin with is that it is offensive to the person filmed. But sometimes, due to distribution contracts, it has to be done. And if I only choose subjects who are easy to understand (and who will define "easy to understand" to begin with?), then I'm hosed.


I have an hour long timeline in Sony Vegas sub titled with a media generator legacy plug in. About 40 minutes into this hour SV started crashing repeatedly.
I have tried and tested all and any solution that various colleagues have suggested, to no avail.
I have several more hours of of sub titling to do and I am now looking for an alternative method. I need to print to tape and DVd authoring, so my titles cannot be made purely during the DVD authoring.

Any suggestions welcome. My sub titling is from Otjiherero to English and the same to French – two versions.

I will be looking at Subtitling Workshop, but any other ideas?

Thank you in advance,
Rina Sherman

Doug Block

Rina, the Mentoring Room is basically for Enthusiasts who don't have access to most of the discussion topics. Some Professional members drop by here but not that many. Now that you have Professional status, you should move any further questions about sub-titling to the Editing topic.

Bonnie Friedman

Hi everyone,
I have just finished my first doc and now need some advice on the business side. Against my better judgement I took bad advice and did not get cast or crew deal memos and now an intellectual property attorney tells me that broadcasters will require these in addition to other clearances. He says all crew, but not necessarily the cast, but other research tells me all cast and producers only. I want to do what is needed and I would like to only ask people once. So first question is : from whom do I need these deal memos? and second: are there standard forms to use (both pre for next time and post for this one.)
Many thanks,

Doug Block

Bonnie, you'll need what's known as release forms for the key people who are in the film. Anyone who speaks prominently, for sure. It's necessary in order to get Errors & Omissions (E&0) insurance, which broadcasters require.

Crew deal memos are important more in case you get audited by the IRS. I've never needed them for any broadcasters, and I've worked with PBS, HBO, Bravo, IFC and many big international broadcasters.

I should add I'm not an entertainment lawyer, and I highly recommend you consult with one before proceeding.

Bonnie Friedman

Hi again Doug,
forgot to mention that the cast was French. Should I use a french release form, a translated form or both? Where might I find a french standard form? Also I suppose I should get releases from the narrators? I have one for the English version and one for the French version.
thanks again,

Todd Yi

Could anyone recommend a good film lighting workshop in New York? Any suggestions would be really appreciated.

Thank you!!!

Reid B. Kimball

I'm having difficulty scheduling someone I want to interview. They sound enthusiastic about being in the doc. Have said, "provided I have time." Am going to the same conference as them. I've said I'm available "anytime". And they keep saying "if I have time." How do I get them to commit to a time? It's like the person isn't looking at their schedule at all.

Is it better to lead and suggest times than to leave it up to them to tell me what time works?

Jill Woodward

Reid, I would suggest semi-stalking that person during the conference and getting a commitment for maybe the next morning or later that afternoon. They'll probably be wanting to fully participate in the conference and not sure which talks or whatever they can't miss. During down-time they may need to do socializing which can typically only take place during a conference setting. Maybe the morning after the conference ends would work.

Reid B. Kimball

Thanks Jill, good ideas. I'll try suggesting later in the afternoon or evening after the 1st day events. The speaker leaves the morning after, so my opportunities are limited.

Monika Davidsz

Hi there,
I'm fairly new on D-word and a first time documentary maker, originally from Amsterdam. I've started research for a documentary in New York, the result is the following work in progress trailer:
Question, now what? I would like to put together a crew (director, dp, researcher) and produce myself. Any tips where to start, the process is a bit overwhelming.