Rethinking the Art of Subtitles

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A still from the film, Night Watch

Early on in the 2004 supernatural Russian thriller Night Watch, the protagonist, trying to prevent a witch from casting a spell on his unborn child, yells at the top of his lungs in protest. For English-speaking audiences, the subtitles do more than just translate the literal meaning: the words "no" and "stop" with three exclamation points are shown on different parts of the screen in large, moving letters. In another scene, as a swimming character hears a voice in his head causing his nose to bleed, the words "come to me," appear in red letters that dissolve like blood in the pool.

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"We discussed with the studio [Fox Searchlight] how to make the movie more entertaining for English-speaking audiences," says director Timur Bekmambetov of the first in his three-part epic trilogy. "We thought of the subtitles as another character in the film, another way to tell the story." Times have certainly changed since the frustrating days of unreliable, white-on-white subtitles, randomly unreadable and restricted to art house films.

Over the next week and a half, some 65 films from 34 countries will screen at the Cannes Film Festival, all subtitled in English, French or both. The subtitles that will allow non-native viewers to follow the stories are crucial because no matter how flashy or impressive a movie may be, it's the subtitles that can stifle or showcase its quality. Although many audiences around the world, most of whom see foreign films dubbed, consider them the cinematic equivalent of Brussels sprouts, subtitles remain an unsung yet essential tool of moviegoing. And with technology improvements, more people speaking foreign languages and the modern habit of multi-tasking, the traditional aversion to watching a film while reading it just might be on the wane.

If subtitles "aren't invisible, you fail," says Henri Béhar, subtitler of a wide swath of notable films such as Brokeback Mountain, Boyz in the Hood and Good Will Hunting. "The titles should subtly give people the impression that they are understanding the characters speaking, not reading words on the screen." Trying to translate one language to another in the course of a film has challenges and limitations that apply to dubbing as well as subtitling — unlike literature which has the safety net of footnotes, film subtitlers have to make it work in the moment, all while trying to adapt wordplay and cultural references. "Characters in Boyz in the Hood talked about Amos n' Andy," says Béhar. "Well, in France that wouldn't mean anything. I went with Laurel and Hardy, but of course all the racial and political significance was gone. Sixteen years later, I'm still trying to find a better alternative."

Once in a while, subtitlers do get their due. Jacqueline Cohen, responsible for all of Woody Allen's films since 1989's Alice, says that "whenever Woody comes to town, he always mentions that the reason his films are so successful in France is thanks to the person who does the subtitles." No quick task, considering the talky nature of the prolific filmmaker's almost annual releases. "Action movies average about 700 subtitles — Woody's, between 1,500 to 2,000," says Claude Dupuy, the director of subtitling at LVT Laser Subtitling, which handles more than 600 films per year.

Dupuy, giving a tour of LVT's large facility in Malakoff, a Paris suburb, explains the process of laser engraving pioneered by the company in 1988 that burns translucent holes through the film's coating. Previously, subtitles were the result of applying a protective coating of paraffin wax, then stamping the words onto each frame in a zinc strip. This was followed by a bleach bath that dissolved away all parts of the emulsion not protected by the paraffin (the zinc-stamped subtitles), leaving the words in white on each frame. It was an unreliable, error-prone process.

Behind Dupuy are a several bulky machines, each equipped with a green laser that etches English subtitles one frame per second onto the French drama Lemming. Each frame clicks as it goes through the machine's gate, the same two-line sentence being engraved some 30 times until with a whir it advances to the next subtitle. It's a methodical, precise sequence that will take about 10 hours per print.

But the engraving of the subtitles is the last step in a process that begins weeks earlier. At LVT and other companies, a person watches the film scene by scene, doing what's known as spotting — marking time according to the timecode, the film's official clock — the start and end point of each spoken line of dialogue. Then the subtitler goes to work, balancing the challenge of conveying meaning accurately within the confines of space and the roughly 1.5-second-long display allotted per subtitle. The reality is that despite the reputation of subtitling over dubbing as a form of cultural purity, the eye reads slower than the ear hears, meaning that more than a third of a film's dialogue is sacrificed for what is most essential. The general rule is no more than 45 characters per line, even though widescreen movies could fit longer sentences (says Dupuy, "it shouldn't be like watching tennis").

There are logical rules as well, such as finishing a subtitle when a character stops speaking and not extending it over a cut, which can be disorienting. Good subtitles work with the rhythm of the scene, based on accurate spotting that captures that timing. Whereas now a subtitler can refer to the film on cassette or DVD throughout his or her work, in the old days, they'd see the film just once before writing the subtitles sometimes weeks later based on the spotting list, without a description of the context — a recipe for inaccuracy that probably contributed to dislike of subtitles in the first place.

"Each time you confront another culture," says the director Bekmambetov, whose sequel Day Watch will be released in the U.S. next month, "it gives you the motivation to create something different, to rethink your film in a way." In this Internet-chatting, newscrawl-reading multicultural era, when filmmakers can thematically incorporate subtitles into the story, a corner may have been turned. It's happened before; remember only a few years back when everyone believed that letterboxing was blocking part of the screen? Now it's hard to find DVDs that aren't letterboxed. Still, for subtitling, it might be slow-going: as a response to his trilogy's international appeal, Bekmambetov is planning to shoot the final installment in English.