Some video production work requires extensive use of titles, or even language subtitles, in order to convey the meaning of the piece most effectively. I am always amazed at how poorly this step is conceived during pre-production. So I thought I would offer a few tips I have found useful when titling video, both for the web and television formats. (Note: this article does not cover the line-21 standard of closed captioning for the hearing impaired, which makes use of additional technology and delivery mechanisms. For information on CC best practices, I recommend WGBH guidelines, which are considered to be excellent, if not massive overkill.)
- Use simple, sans-serif font styles. This is especially important for TV, and lower quality web video. The serifs can add a good deal to the noisiness of a digitally compressed frame schema. Titles are usually meant to convey additional information during a shot (someone’s name or job title, or a location name, for example). It is good to remember that titles have to be viewed at the same time as accompanying moving imagery, so the plainer your font, the easier it is to read at a glance.
- Keep it short and concise. Long titles detract from the scene, and often become frustrating, when they do not appear long enough on screen for average or below average reading levels. A good rule of thumb is to keep it under 8 words, or approximately 35 characters.
- Use white lettering with a drop shadow. This is essential when lettering over moving video. Moving areas of contrast can cause white letters to disappear, so the drop shadow helps to keep the form of each letter identifiable and somehow anchored, while seemingly floating just above the video.
- Keep positioning in mind. Center-screen titles are usually best served over a dark or black matte, rather than moving video. I break this rule a lot, however. The most essential thing to remember is if your video is destined for TV: Position your titles within the title-safe area of the screen. Older tube TVs still crop the image a fair amount, so unless you want your viewers to only see the top half of your title, keep it in the safe zone. I like to use lower thirds motion backgrounds for titles, because it helps to call attention to important information that might be missed if there is a lot going on in a scene. semi-transparent lower thirds also help to mute the area of the screen where the title appears, which helps it to stand out while not entirely blocking out the primary content beneath it.
- Keep it on screen long enough to read. My rule of thumb is: if it deserves a title, it deserves enough time to be read. I hate that TV now flies through show credits so fast (an so small!) that no one could possibly read a word of it. I try to keep it up twice as long as it takes me to read it, since, as the editor, I am so familiar with the project it no doubt takes me a much shorter time than someone who has never seen the video.
- Use sparingly. This probably goes without saying, but try to make your images and videography tell the bigger story. Use titles to provide context or details that the shot cannot tell, or to save time (i.e. Let the interviewee tell us her story while the title tells us her name).