As a film editor who works with a lot with international clients(some of whom even raise livestock),I often get the question "Can I have this subtitled in [xyz] language?" At which point I usually cringe and say "Sure thing." I cringe not because I don't like doing subtitles, or that I personally have a hard time reading and listening at the same time. I cringe because of the state of subtitling and closed-captioning applications - and the implementation of these functions into our modern-day editing suites. Take for example FCP Studio, where I can live all day long -- but when it comes to subtitling inside little-bitty DVDSP dialog boxes, to be honest, I would rather be out cleaning the barn.
This roundup of Mac titlers is for those of you looking for an alternative, outside the bounds of your NLE or favorite DVD creator, and for folks who would like to find an easy-to-use application for your next (or perhaps first) subtitling or close-captioning project. This review is for someone new to the art, or who just wants to get there without jumping through a lot of lasso hoops. After all, that barn does need a good shoveling!
The Nature of the Beast
Before approaching the merits and demerits of a few particular apps, it's best to go over the basic nature of subtitles and closed captions. In the wild these are different animals, but the apps used to wrangle them are often the same. And at the end of the rodeo, the result is this: viewers see textual notes over bits of footage, for a precise duration of time.
One way to think of subtitling / captioning is to think of the metadata you create when you catalogue photos - this information is not stored inside your photo, but is still available to be displayed along with your photo, for example, in such applications as Adobe Lightroom or Apple's Aperture.
Only this class of metadata is a special case: these types of titles have to be overlaid onto your moving pictures at say 25 frames per second or whatever the case may be. This presents several technological challenges:
- Text (as the simplest format for a subtitle) and digital footage mix like oil and water.
- The text has to match either the audio or the video or both during the display. For example translation subtitles match the audio dialogue, while closed captions match dialog and video events - 'Dog Barks.'
- Titling applications need to be robust enough to work with a myriad of tools - think FCP vs. DVD vs. QuickTime vs. Digital Cinema vs. TV Broadcasting equipment vs. Flash vs. - u name it, it's needed. In addition, there is even strange hardware associated with this activity, like foot-pedals for the speedy entry of titles in high-production situations.
To cope with this varied and often wild set of behaviors, programmers have had to breed different types of wranglers to meet the demands of producers. For example, some tools are better at converting metadata to bitmap overlays that work with NLEs (that's the mixing of oil with the water), and other tools are better at keeping the metadata aside so that titles can be streamed separate from the visuals - think "Late Breaking News" on the bottom of your TV screen.
The jargon for this rodeo goes something like this:
- Hard- titles burned into the video frame, as in Karaoke tracks. Hard is often called "Open captioning." All viewers see the titles, all the time.
- Pre-Rendered - titles burned onto another separate but overlaid track, as is done for translation purposes in DVD applications.
- Soft- titles that are marked-up as text, and are independent of the video track, as with fansubs so commonly found with Anime, or in applications that have to share the soft title with each other before final rendering. Soft is often called "Closed captioning." These are only seen by viewers who choose to see them.
The type of title used (hard, soft, etc.) has ramifications. Quality and portability come to mind. Can you guess which of the type has the best quality? Correct, hard. But can you imagine making 3 versions of your feature film, each with hard-coded subtitles, and them trying to cram it all onto a single-layer DVD? No, but using a tool that can pass 3 language tracks - either hard or pre-rendered - to your NLE or DVD creator that can then mix them with your one movie track, makes it all fit just fine. Make sense so far?
If not, not to worry.The subtext (sic) here is that picking the perfect titler involves knowing a lot about what type of titling jobs are in your future, and what types of software and hardware you are most likely going to be using.
Personally, my current interest is in translation titles only; most of our productions are in Nepali, with English audiences. But if you're budget-minded like I am, you'll want to find just one app that does it all, and that allows you to grow as your client's needs do.
Well, let's see if there is just such a beastlike that in the wild...
When I first started researching titler apps for Mac setups, I was dismayed at the selection. I found only four worthy of note, and compared with the thousands of plug-ins, for say tinting video or making it flip &f lop, that seemed like pretty slim pickin's.But the four I did manage to corral for this review are:
Each has their own unique interface & feature set. This collection is not as much a herd as it is a pack of remotely related beasts!
Call me superficial, but how an app looks and interacts with my mouse is important to me, especially if I am going to spend hours working that beast of burden. There was one clear winner here:
Annotation Edit with its slick controller interface and Leopard-like interface. Click the image to see the full-size image.
Annotation Edit has a slick and professional interface, and is a joy to work with. Within a few minutes I was riding high in the saddle like I had never before fallen off. This interface behaves just as you would expect from any quality Leopard application.
Coming up just slightly from the rear is Miyu, with a clean & simple look and feel that even your kid could handle.
However, the worst icon award (ever) has to go to Miyu, whose icon reminds me of a deer tick biting thru a bit of celluloid.
Tagging along after that would be SubBits, whose interface lies somewhere between almost understandable and not. Help file required, and thankfully provided.
Click image for full-size version
Tied with SubBits for last in the interface department is Belle Nuit; belle de nuit is French for flower, bird, or prostitute depending on where you look, and the Belle Nuit interface is as contradictory as that.
The Belle Nuit Interface: packs it in, but at what cost?
This interface is one that you will either lover or hate; Belle packs in a lot function in just two or three windows. However, the inability to see, let alone edit the subtitles, right over the video preview (as with the latter 3 apps) was a turning point for me. I just don't like using this interface, but there are a lot of reasons why you would...
Reacting to Captivity
But regardless of how an app looks and feels, the important question is "Does it rope the steer at hand?" And the answer for this set of title-stomping bulls is yes; they all get the job done, one way or another, even if it feels like you have just been bareback bronc-ing. But ultimately, putting aside thetechnical kicks of titling - it is a relatively easy process:
- Spot some text in your app at appropriate points on a timeline while watching the visuals.
- Format the text as required - do you prefer yellow text or white text, shadowed or not? Should the titles be centered or left justified? Etc. Etc.
- Export the titles in the appropriate format for your final destination. For example, as tiff overlay frames for your NLE, or as text that is going to eaten by another program in your workflow.
To spot your text, you need to be looking at your footage, and to have an editor that will precisely map strings of text to a timecode (in/out points), based on your timeline. FCP can do that, but without any native automation. Yet for something that sounds so simple I was amazed by how difficult programmers have made this basic task. My first instinct was to exit the bucking chute from the backside when I saw the various representations of spotting timelines in these products. The wildest was in Belle Nuit, which is just eye torturing.
The Belle Nuit Timeline: what is that thing?!?
But despite all the eye pain, Avid users will be pleased to find a timesaver with the included Avid Helper tool. And there is one important thing to note about Belle Nuit: this Swiss army knife of titlers supports more ins and outs then you can Google. (See below.) So let's keep that in the bullpen and go on....
Belle Nuit's Generous List of Export Options
Worse then any of Belle's usability problems, is SubBits stability problems. I kept getting program errors, making it difficult to review this app. There is a beta Version 4 on the developer's website, but at first try, the beta did not seem to help. I can only suggest checking back there later.
Forget titling - SubBits cleans your basement!
But despite SubBit's bucking and kick'in, it has one hidden feature that will give any seasoned FCP editor one wild rodeo ride: SubBits has supplied its 'B template that allows you to create subtitles right on the FCP timeline, instead of the normal workflow of pre-rendering titles and importing as sequences into FCP. Pretty darn slick - just right mouse and select edit 'Bsubtitle.
The SubBits'B feature gives you a smooth ride to working within FCP
Roping down Miyu was simple enough, but I don't see much point with going on about it, as I discovered that the product is no longer supported nor being developed. To say more would be like feeding a dead horse, but what I found interesting about this product is that Miyu was going in the right direction - user friendly wise - but stopped just short of being useful and mainstream. It's a free download and interesting to play with nonetheless.
Doing any titling work with Annotation Edit is grand, functionally speaking, as well as being visually pleasing. As mentioned earlier, the interface is a charm, but the beauty lies in the FCP Studio workflow, where Annotation Edit can roundtrip title work back and forth between itself, FCP, and DVDSP - and it works flawlessly. While spotting and logging, you can even use your Apple Remote! So if you are a FCP editor, then this may be one cowboy boot that fits both feet: editing on the left, and titling on the right.
One other note on this thoroughbred, if you have a large workgroup you can contact the developers about contracting Annotation Studio - which is this product plus workgroup server integration. A large production house doing titles day in and day out would want to check this out.
The Roundup @ the OK (and not so ok) Corral
One last note from this city-slicker subtitler, who sees the whole process of titling using any tool as eye-glazing as soon as I start straying from the familiar green pastures of FCP, DVDSP, and simple translations. Things get a bit hairy and wild once other extra-ordinary workflows are attempted (I can imagine my foot getting stuck in the foot pedal, just like it does in stirrups). I feel weak and want to head for the bunkhouse just thinking about these kinds of tasks, but then I remember the words of the great motivational rancher Jackson Brown: "In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins, not through strength but by perseverance."
Jiggy Gaton is an expat living in Kathmandu Nepal, running a small A/V studio with family and dog. He is an author/cartoonist, filmmaker, and overall geek from way back. Not the kind of geek who would ever be sitting in a Star Trek Captain's chair - more likely to be sitting on the back of a 500cc Royal Enfield Bullet somewhere out in the middle of the Himalayas - but only when he's not behind his Macbook Pro hacking out whatever needs to be done in the studio.
And hey, if you've ever wondered what it's like to run a studio in Kathmandu, check out Jiggy's COW Blog, as well as more great stuff by the rest of the herd.