Subtitles in letterbox area
June 17, 2008 11:03 AM   Subscribe

Why are movie subtitles almost never put into the black letterbox areas, outside the picture?

This question really nags me. On most consumer screens, most movies will be letterboxed to a degree. Unless they're hard-subbed into the picture, what reason is there not to use that space for subtitles?

All DVDs use soft-subbing, where the text is overlaid onto the picture by the player software. And soft-subbing is the preferred approach for compressed video too, whether packaged into a single file like MKVs, or with separate subtitle files like .srt.

Can't players detect the screen's aspect ratio and determine the best placement of the subtitles, out of the picture if possible? Why don't any of the popular media players (VLC, Perian, Mplayer, MPC, Quicktime) do this?
posted by snarfois to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
(I should add, in full-screen mode, of course. When video plays in a window, naturally there's no letterboxing.)
posted by snarfois at 11:04 AM on June 17, 2008


My understanding is that frames of widescreen (let's say 16:9, for the sake of argument) video, are actually 16:9, rather than 4:3 with black bars at the top and bottom of the frame-- the letterboxing is the unused portion of the display. Thus there's no "picture" at the bottom on which to overlay the subtitles.
posted by dersins at 11:14 AM on June 17, 2008


It makes sense with the rise of widescreen monitors, because there's no standard of how much room is available in the letterboxing.

Also, unless I am getting my facts mixed up, it's because the movie is displayed in the aspect ratio it's shot in. They don't shoot in 1:1 (or 4:3), so the letterboxing isn't actually part of the image. So they can't really write onto it.

But I agree. It would be a great thing to take advantage of.
posted by sjuhawk31 at 11:15 AM on June 17, 2008


My understanding, of course, could be completely wrong. I'm sure someone will be along shortly to berate me if that's the case.
posted by dersins at 11:15 AM on June 17, 2008


From seeing a lot of foreign films i am not sure how effective this would be...For some people is already hard to read subtitles and pay attention to movies (not everyone but a lot of people do complain about this) if the subtitles are out of the screen it becomes even more difficult to pay attention to the text and the movies at the same time...(In fact i believe this is the reason most comics have bubbles coming out of the person's mouth instead of having the text somewhere off the action...
posted by The1andonly at 11:17 AM on June 17, 2008


Can't players detect the screen's aspect ratio and determine the best placement of the subtitles, out of the picture if possible?

Short answer: no.

Subtitles are multiplexed with the video and audio when the DVD is created. The player can only (a) detect whether the player itself is set for 4x3 or 16x9 and turn on the appropriate 4x3 or 16x9 stream accordingly (if indeed there are separate streams - usually there's a single "one size fits all" which is cheaper to produce), and (b) turn them on or off. The player does not have the ability to reposition subtitles which have already been multiplexed into the video stream.

Unless they're hard-subbed into the picture, what reason is there not to use that space for subtitles?

Where subtitles are placed on a letterboxed feature at the subtitle/ DVD creation phase is at the request of the client - different studios have different rules. Some want them to be in the matte, some want two line subtitles to be 1 in picture and 1 in matte, and others want them to be in picture. Like all the other peculiarities of the functioning of a DVD, they're just decisions that the studios make which, to consumer, must seem understandably arbitrary.
posted by forallmankind at 11:44 AM on June 17, 2008


I bet that they can't easily embed two locations, on the picture and outside it. I'll also bet the answer to your second question is no, the subtitle rendering filter doesn't have any idea what display you're using to view the movie.

Having a display that speaks back to the signal provider ("hi! I can take WidthxHeight, KTHXBYE!") is a relatively recent invention in the computer world. Television specs are much more conservative and sluggish to change. (That NTSC spec is a f---ing mess.)

So, it could happen but it hast probably because no one really cares very much.
posted by cmiller at 11:44 AM on June 17, 2008


Beyond the technical issues, I would think that the constant focus-jumping from the image down to the text in the black space and back up to the image, would become extremely irritating and/or tiring. It's bad enough with the subtitles overlaying the image, and that's a relatively small amount of focus-jumping.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:06 PM on June 17, 2008


So, I'm starting to see why this is not common with typical DVD player software and commercial DVDs (combination of technical limitations and long-standing studio conventions), but it's less clear to me why the current crop of media player software can't or don't want to offer this ability. The software knows the display's screen resolution and the movie's aspect ratio, and many open source media players already override some of the studios' more consumer-unfriendly settings (e.g. VLC skipping UOPs). I admit I don't understand the multiplexing process very well, so maybe it'd be impossible with commercial DVDs. But that still leaves non-studio subtitles (e.g. fansubs), which have no such constraints, yet still always overlap the picture.

I certainly don't buy @The1andonly's argument that it'd make the subtitles harder to follow. I've enjoyed subtitled movies my whole life, and it still bothers me when there's a lot of interference behind the text, or worse, if the text is obscuring vital or beautiful details in the picture. I can't believe this doesn't seem to bother more film buffs.
posted by snarfois at 12:09 PM on June 17, 2008


KMPlayer allows subtitle positioning. It specifically has a "Over/Under Video Image" option. I assume it works for DVD softsubs as well.
posted by Gyan at 12:12 PM on June 17, 2008


I certainly don't buy @The1andonly's argument that it'd make the subtitles harder to follow. I've enjoyed subtitled movies my whole life, and it still bothers me when there's a lot of interference behind the text, or worse, if the text is obscuring vital or beautiful details in the picture. I can't believe this doesn't seem to bother more film buffs

It bothers a lot of people! But having to visually cross over a line into non-movie space would likely be even more distracting. Ideally, you're barely aware that you're reading when watching a subtitled movie -- I don't know that my brain would be able to pull that trick where I feel as if I'm just absorbing meaning while listening if I had to take my eyes off of the image.
posted by desuetude at 12:31 PM on June 17, 2008


DVD's store subtitles as a group of "subpictures" which are essentially a stream of 16 color bitmap images with transparent backgrounds that then overlays the video.

Its not a stream of data read and rendered by the player (which is why each DVD you have can end up with a different look to the subtitles)

More here
posted by bitdamaged at 12:57 PM on June 17, 2008


I should also note that my understanding was that one of the reasons for using this method was to allow those adding subtitles to be very judicious with how they overlay the text over the movie so that the text doesn't obscure the background video.

Its unfortunate that the studios don't really take advantage of this.
posted by bitdamaged at 1:08 PM on June 17, 2008


Why don't any of the popular media players (VLC, Perian, Mplayer, MPC, Quicktime) do this?

Its 100% doable, but why would the people who make these media players bother with such an odd request? It may make perfect sense to you, but sounds silly to me. I cant imagine there's a large demand for moving subtitles around to arbitrary positions. Expecting the VLC or whoever developers to create this feature, debug it, etc is probably asking too much.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:47 PM on June 17, 2008


Media Player Classic allows you to move around the subtitles however you'd like. I think this only works for SRT subs, though, not the IDX/SUB kind extracted from DVDs.

As far as DVD subtitles go, bitdamaged has it. It's just an overlay.
posted by neckro23 at 1:48 PM on June 17, 2008


Digging around VLC's labyrinthine settings, I found a "Force subtitle position" field. Through trial and error I found negative values move a DVD's subtitles down, but no matter how what value you enter, it doesn't go completely outside the picture. The furthest it goes is top line in, bottom line out, if there are 2 lines on screen. It doesn't seem to affect SRT subtitles or softsubs in AVIs or MKVs. So, pretty useless.

@damn dirty ape: I guess part of my question is why it would seem silly to most people. @desuetude acknowledges that subtitles overlapping the picture bothers a lot of people. I agree nobody wants to fiddle with arbitrary subtitle positioning like I just had to do in VLC, but how difficult would it be to guess a good value based on the knowledge of the screen resolution and the video's resolution?

Rhetorical question time, I guess.
posted by snarfois at 1:59 PM on June 17, 2008


Its extremely easy to implement, but then you are altering the way a movie is meant to be played. I'm sure you wouldnt want an image viewer to change how your picture is viewed just because it "thinks it's way is better".

Having to resize my player to show subtitles is a hassle and a waste of screen space if I'm in windowed mode.
posted by wongcorgi at 2:20 PM on June 17, 2008


DVD's store subtitles as a group of "subpictures" which are essentially a stream of 16 color bitmap images with transparent backgrounds that then overlays the video.

Actually, 4 color -- and one of those colors is transparency. The subtitle images should be thought of as 2-bit GIF pictures. They're not stored as text, and not rendered by the player. The font, and the color, and the placement, are all set when the DVD is mastered. When the DVD is played, they're just pixels.

The fact that they are bitmaps is the reason you could "follow the white rabbit" on the first Matrix DVD.
posted by Class Goat at 2:41 PM on June 17, 2008


the1andonly - right on the money. I'm from Norway, and therefore grew up with subtitles (no overdubs in our country, thank god). I don't "READ" subtitles. They are however an integral part of the movie. I've watched many non-english speaking movies with tiny subtitles out of screen, and it's very distracting. Sometimes I come across english speaking movies with this setup too, and even though I don't need the subs, I find myself constantly watching text/movie/text. Suddenly I'm "READING". It's not a good idea to separate them.
posted by SurrenderMonkey at 3:07 PM on June 17, 2008


it's less clear to me why the current crop of media player software can't or don't want to offer this ability [...] VLC

VLC's subtitle support is somewhat lacking*, I assume because they have finite developer time and it is focused elsewhere. This is probably why the setting is not present.

Also, what you want might be complicated to implement, depending on how the program is written.

*For example, in situations with both background and foreground sounds one can create a background subtitle at the top of the screen and a foreground subtitle at the bottom of the screen, with special subtitle syntax. VLC ignores the syntax and draws both subtitles on top of one another.
posted by Mike1024 at 3:14 PM on June 17, 2008


Short answer: no.

Longer answer: yes.

XBOX Media Center has been able to do this for years.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:00 PM on June 17, 2008


« Older what is the inner voice that Gilbert speaks of in...   |   LaGuardia-Tribeca Express? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.