Are yellow serif subtitles more legible?
January 31, 2005 7:16 AM   Subscribe

I went to see a foreign film yesterday and was dismayed that the subtitles were in white. Isn't it a proven fact that subtitles show up better when in yellow? Also, why are subtitles in a sans serif font? I read something sometime ago that printed text should be in a serif font because it's easier on the eyes. Something about the serif thingies allowing your eyes to flow from letter to letter easier than a sans serif font.
posted by NoMich to Media & Arts (26 answers total)
Because sometimes people do not make optimal choices.
posted by skwm at 7:23 AM on January 31, 2005

At least in Northern Europe, practically all subtitles are in black and white/sans serif (I believe some parts of France and maybe Italy/Spain use yellow when they do it - although they prefer dubbing films, which should be punishable under the Geneva convention).
I agree that it's probably an aesthetic choice: when you have the typical widescreen black bars above the image and below, it's less intrusive to use a white lettering on that black background. I think it messes up the photography of the picture less (and I hate yellow subtitles with a passion!).
posted by NekulturnY at 7:30 AM on January 31, 2005

Response by poster: Well dammit, there should be! HA!
Seriously, I was just being curious about these things. I was hoping that maybe there was an industry insider lurking here that could provide their knowledge.
I mean, really, white subtitles when the last 20 minutes or so of the film takes place in a heavy snow fall?
posted by NoMich at 7:34 AM on January 31, 2005

Humans perceive colour (and pretty much everything else) relatively. If you use yellow subtitles the rest of the frame is going to look too blue.

(I can't remember the last time I saw coloured subtitles other than on Teletext)
posted by cillit bang at 7:46 AM on January 31, 2005

Yellow subtitles? This European would walk right out of the cinema ...

Serif font is better for large blocks of text -i.e. it is commonly used in newspapers and books. Sans serif is best for short texts (and thus is typically used for labels in graphs).

White sans serif subtitles, as far as I understand, are the norm because they are the technically correct choice.

(Also: think how yellow serif subtitles would show on TV)
posted by magullo at 7:48 AM on January 31, 2005

Sometimes the subtitles are white because the film has actually been lasered away to scratch in the words, and what you're seeing is just pure light shining through. I'm not sure if this was the case at the film you saw. I've worked on films that were screened at the last minute, so we used a lasering service because it's faster than getting real subtitles made. Also sometimes you'll see it when there are only a few prints of a film made (I guess it's cheaper).
posted by xo at 8:01 AM on January 31, 2005

Response by poster: Serif font is better for large blocks of text -i.e. it is commonly used in newspapers and books. Sans serif is best for short texts (and thus is typically used for labels in graphs).

Thank you.

Yellow just shows up better for me. I must admit that I have problems with an astigmatism and the white text tends to meld into the picture whereas the yellow text doesn't. I've heard this same complaint from many non-astigmatism sufferers though.
posted by NoMich at 8:01 AM on January 31, 2005

What I don't understand is why there isn't a badass computer program that does the subtitles. It could (presumably) figure out the optimal color for the subtitles in each scene so that they are optimally visible without destroying the color palette of the film. Surely, for instance, the white subtitles could be made gray when they're over a white frame.

Maybe we should invent this program and make MILLIONS!
posted by josh at 8:08 AM on January 31, 2005

The best subtitles I've seen (usually at the Toronto International Film Festival, I assume they have a standard subtitler for foriegn films that aren't already subtitled) are white with a black outline and seem to be somewhat adaptive, that is, the black outline becomes thicker when against a white image.

So, josh, there probably is.
posted by Capn at 8:15 AM on January 31, 2005

From my experiences with older (mostly Italian) films, I've also found that films from the 60s and 70s all tend to have white (often hard to read) subtitles. Newer prints of older films sometimes switch to yellow, and DVD/video versions often have yellow (or, on letterboxed versions, enough sense to put the subtitles on the black bar at the bottom).

So I've always assumed it was an issue of when the film was printed. (Is "printed" the right word?)
posted by occhiblu at 8:26 AM on January 31, 2005

White with black outline is ideal. And I dislike DVD subtitles because they are always ugly, thanks to their low resolution. I've seen some that do it right, but it's always very rare.
posted by zsazsa at 8:37 AM on January 31, 2005

I watch tons of subtitled movies and I don't think I've ever seen any in yellow. Sounds hideous to me.
posted by rushmc at 8:51 AM on January 31, 2005

I mean, really, white subtitles when the last 20 minutes or so of the film takes place in a heavy snow fall?

Out of interest, was it The Crimson Rivers?
posted by blag at 8:54 AM on January 31, 2005

There are also differences in the rules for legibility / readablity of type on the printed page versus the screen.

It's a bit different with film because of the enhanced resolution (versus a TV or computer monitor) but the subtitles still exist over an active background, rather than the white paper of book, so san-serifs tend to do better.

On a tangent, I've read that the reason for such substandard close-captioning typography on television is that well-designed typefaces cost money, and it's difficult to justify the cost when you're distributing the font in millions of units. The cost rationale seems harder to apply to film.

In general, if you notice the typeface of the subtitle, it's a poorly designed subtitle.
posted by Jeff Howard at 9:24 AM on January 31, 2005

I mean, really, white subtitles when the last 20 minutes or so of the film takes place in a heavy snow fall?

Out of interest, was it The Crimson Rivers?

My money's on House of Flying Daggers...
posted by Robot Johnny at 9:48 AM on January 31, 2005

Because white sans serif is prettier than yellow serif.
posted by abcde at 9:54 AM on January 31, 2005

There is no readability difference between serif and sans serif typefaces, provided the letter- and line-spacing are correctly designed. I don't have the research book at my hand, but it's been well-enough proven through actual research.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:59 AM on January 31, 2005

I have a lot of trouble beliving that, FFF. Perhaps it is just that as books are traditionally designed serifs work better, but I've tried to read a book done entirely in sans, and no research can salve the sting of that.
posted by dame at 10:17 AM on January 31, 2005

Response by poster: My money's on House of Flying Daggers..

That's it.

I've seen a few DVDs with yellow subtitles and I swear they are much more readible and it is quite non-hideous. The only title that I can think of right now is Shaolin Soccer.
Some people have mentioned white text with black outlines. That would be good. Just something to break the white text away from a white (or light) background.
posted by NoMich at 10:51 AM on January 31, 2005

I once watched a print of "Seven Samurai" with the subtitles entirely in white, sans outlines. So my perception of a lot of the outdoor scenes was "Hmm. Now they're yelling at each other in Japanese... that one guy seems upset... now the other guy is telling him to calm down, or maybe he's just pointing out something that's stuck in the first guy's teeth."

(Of course, it didn't help that the sound quality was for shit, as well. One of these days I need to see that movie in a proper screening.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:56 AM on January 31, 2005

Interesting comment tacked onto an article at Useable Type here which seems to be saying that serif typefaces are more readable than sans providing they are displayed at a high resolution - such as in print or on a screen with anti-aliasing. At low resolution they don't enhance readability.

Which might explain why display fonts on a tv/video source (relatively low resolution) are shown in a sans font?
posted by blag at 11:58 AM on January 31, 2005

I've designed a number of credit rolls for feature films, and you always go for a clean sans-serif without much variation between its thick and thin strokes. Serif fonts are not the best choice for this kind of screen use because they tend to have more gradient between thick and thin strokes, with the thin strokes easily disappearing into the background, especially after a couple of generations of copying.

Thin lines, such as serifs, can also get twitchy as hell in video.
posted by zadcat at 12:07 PM on January 31, 2005

This is why I like watching foreign films on my computer. Media Player Classic has a great subtitle renderer -- I can make it do them in Franklin Gothic or another nice sans-serif font, and give the whole thing a drop shadow.
posted by neckro23 at 1:06 PM on January 31, 2005

There's research backing up the use of sans-serif fonts on the Web. While film may be higher resolution than monitors, it's still lower resolution than print, so using sans-serif for subtitles makes sense to me.
posted by maudlin at 2:01 PM on January 31, 2005

I watch a LOT of movies. The only time I can remember seeing yellow subtitles was this Asian (probably HK) cop movie I rented on video years ago. I remember the subtitles because the box had "With yellow subtitles!" on it in big letters.
posted by SoftRain at 8:48 PM on January 31, 2005

SBS-TV in Australia use yellow with a black border. (Down near the bottom of the page).

The eye responds to different colours in different ways, depending on the colour / brightness / contrast of the surroundings. I would suggest a lot of the reasoning for subtitle colour comes down to the differences between TV & theatre viewing. Big dark theatre, bright screen = white. Smaller, lower contrast, TV in a normally lit room = yellow.

Aside: there's a sports ground near me with a blue LED sign overlooking an intersection. Unreadable in any lighting conditions. Research I've read seems to say that the human eye has a real problem focussing on pure blue. Try it yourself...
posted by Pinback at 11:49 PM on January 31, 2005

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