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are usually a film's after-thoughts. Big mistake. Their placement and duration are crucial to the understanding of a film. Shortening or lengthening a word by 2 to 3 characters can make or break the rhythm of a scene and support or sabotage its meaning. I am aware of only two essays on this subject: David MacDougall's splendid "Subtitling Ethnographic Films" in his great book entitled TRANSCULTURAL CINEMA, and the following set of practical observations. Feel free to forward the PDF file to any filmmaker contemplating the use of subs and inters. Click below to download. For Mac, Option+Click; for PC, right click.

Download Subtitles and Superimpositions as PDF file


Peter Thompson
Revised 4/06/01




The goal of subtitles is to be "invisible" as text because they are feltto be speech.

This goal is difficult to achieve because subtitles are texts that are read by the viewer while the viewer is to some degree disengaged from both the film's visuals and audio. Given this wrenching-away from the bodily presence of the film, the makers of subtitles–think of them as texts-for-audience performance–are faced with continual and shifting positioning along the spectrum between translation exactitudeand translation impression.

Positioning along that spectrum depends to some degree upon the length of the film:

• Short films can more readily employ exactitude without risking audience fatigue.

• Longer films, with their correspondingly larger number of written texts-for-audience performance, risk audience fatigue and eventual audience withdrawal. Withdrawal leads to active resentment. Choosing to subtitle impressionistically will often diminish the number of words viewers must read. The maker of a long film requiring subtitles must pull herself away from her loyalty to the content of the film in order to advocate for the audience by placing the film appropriately along that spectrum between exactitude and impression.



Subtitles are an intrusion into the visual space of a film. The tendency, therefore, is to place them at the bottom border of TV-safe in order to keep the filmic space clear. The elements that determine if this placement is correct have to do with how many subtitles the audience will read, and over what length of time, and how fast the subtitles replace each other. Given a long, subtitle-heavy film, it is often best to aid the audience by placing subtitles higher upon the screen in order to diminish the eye-jump distance from TV-safe to center-frame. This distance, over the course of a long film, risks fatiguing the audience to the extent that they stop reading the subtitles altogether, or, conversely, see little of the film except the texts.


The ideal is to place the subtitle at the precise moment that a person begins to speak, and to pull it from the screen at the precise moment they cease speaking. Complications such as short utterances, fast utterances, multiple utterances, gestures and sound within the environment, however, often make this ideal impractical.

In solving these placement and exit problems, the filmmaker can be aided by cinematic perceptual synaesthesia. Example: if the last moment of utterance is too soon to end a subtitle because the viewer needs more time to actually read the text, look for a gesture that often accompanies the cessation of utterance and then time the subtitle to exit at the end of that gesture because the gesture will often be felt as both a continuation of and a substitution for the voice if not too much time has elapsed between the cessation of the voice and the cessation of the gesture. In brief:

• Align subtitle to gesture, whenever possible.

• Align the exit of a subtitle with the end of the voice utterance. If reading comprehension will suffer because of this coordination, then attempt to coordinate the exit by means of a gesture from the person who had just spoken. When words are aligned to gesture, time the exit of the subtitle to the dramatic closure of the gesture. Remember that the exit must then be coordinated rhythmically with any incoming subtitle.

• Sometimes subtitle duration can be linked to gaze–when the head turns or the eye blinks is often a good place to end the subtitle.

• When separating two subtitles by a dissolve, cut the exiting subtitle before the dissolve, otherwise the viewer will be reading the text which is stable and will likely miss the dissolve that is visually unstable and ephemeral but absolutely critical to understanding its usage as film grammar (usually, the passage of time). By the same amount of time that the exiting subtitle is cut before the dissolve, add that amount of time to the entering subtitle for rhythm match. This kind of situation also begs for a stylistic punctuation indicator such as a dash at the tail of the exiting subtitle and a balancing dash at the head of the entering subtitle. Once instituted, this style should be maintained throughout the film.

• When one character asks another to repeat what they have just said, and that is something that has already been said and subtitled, it is often effective to subtitle the second utterance, too, because it will give more time for the first to be digested and there is often a more complete dramatic gesture that accompanies the second utterance.

• It is often best if there is blank space between utterances by two or more people in order to avoid confusion. If, however, you are highlighting the utterance of one character by means of a subtitle color that is stylistically known to "belong" to that person, then the lines can but up against each other with little or no confusion.

• If a subtitle comes at the end of a shot, it is often wiser to keep that subtitle on the screen and extended to the very end of that shot and then cut both subtitle and shot by the change to the second shot rather than risk a competing subtitle exit rhythm being placed so close to the end of the shot.

• If a word in a foreign language is either known or close to the word in the language of the subtitles, that word must be placed in a word-order where it can synch with the spoken utterance. For example, if the Spanish word "chiaro" is spoken at the end of a sentence, then the English word "clear" should be the last word of that sentence.

• It is better if the title or subtitle is terminated before panning or cutting. Said differently, use the commencement of a pan as the signal for the termination of a subtitle.

• When there are recognizable words or names in the foreign language, place them visually in the sentence closest to the time that the viewer while reading will hear that word or name.

• The smaller the amount of punctuation, the better. The audience often feels the trajectory of a sentence and does not have to be aided by a lot of punctuation. Take the use of periods, for example. Periods tend to fall at the lower right corner of the frame; accordingly, they are extremely active visually. Because of the structure of the English language, we understand where a sentence is going–otherwise we would not be able to interrupt each other. An audience similarly understands when a sentence has finished without the use of conclusing punctuation. Their use is often not worth the visual intrusion into the diagetic film-space.



• In general, it is most effective to align the duration of the subtitle to the duration of the breath of ritual utterance. If the utterance is long with more than one phrase, extend the duration of the subtitles so there is no visual blank space between them. Assign blank space to the inhale.

• If the pace of ritual utterance is fast, you might decide that a double or triple line subtitle template is best in order to signal, by means of that visual presentation style, that ritual space has been entered and therefore to demarcate it from the rest of the film. If this style usage is chosen, it must be extended to any other ritual situations throughout the film.


• It is common practice to wait for one beat before laying a superimposition over a new scene. The rightness of that superimposition placement is increased if it is in synch with a beginning of a spoken utterance or other noticeable sound from the film’s diagetic sound environment.

• For a superimposition to be added to a shot in which a subtitle is already on the screen, it is often rhythmically best if both elements exit the screen together.