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Posted Fri Jul 10, 2009 at 12:00 PM PDT by

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By Joshua Zyber

In lieu of our regularly-scheduled Q&A, I'd like to use this week's column to make a special plea to our readers on the subject of subtitle placement on Blu-ray discs. Several weeks ago, I wrote a tutorial on 2.35:1 Constant Image Height projection. In that article, I described the challenges posed by foreign language movies for which the studio has placed subtitles in the disc's lower letterbox bar, as in this example from 'House of Flying Daggers'.

House of Flying Daggers. Scope movie with subtitles in the letterbox bar.

When a disc authored in this fashion is viewed on a 2.35:1 projection screen, any subtitles in the letterbox bar are cut off.

House of Flying Daggers. Scope movie with subtitles cut off on a CIH screen.

This makes the movie unwatchable on the screen. Some studios are good about keeping all subtitles within the active movie image, just as they would be projected in a real movie theater. Others routinely shift the subtitles down into the letterbox bar. The biggest offenders in this regard are Sony, Warner, and sometimes Fox.

Now we, the public, may have a chance to affect real change on this issue. The forum is currently hosting a poll on the subject. A representative for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has been monitoring the poll and will report the results to those in the studio that might be able to change their policy for future releases. The poll options are:

  1. Place all subtitles inside the active picture all the time.
  2. I prefer what SPE currently does which is, one line in the active picture and one line below.
  3. It makes no difference to me, as either way is fine.

A vote for Option #1 will ensure that all subtitles are viewable on all types of video display for all viewers. Options 2 and 3 will effectively maintain the status quo, in which foreign language movies remain unwatchable to a portion of the Blu-ray audience.

The Sony representative has made it clear that the studio will not add extra subtitle tracks with alternate positions to a disc. Nor are they currently able to program their discs to allow moveable subtitles. There will be no option to vote for, "I'd like to be able to move the subtitles at will." This is an either/or scenario for the studio. Either the subtitles stay as they are, or they get moved into the picture. Sony will not consider any other alternatives.

Please consider this issue carefully before voting. This may seem like a trivial matter to many readers. Constant Image Height projection is still a niche market. Nevertheless, this problem is very serious for some viewers. If you're on the fence about this or don't care one way or the other, please think about the ramifications of your vote. A vote of "It makes no difference to me" will be read in the column of Sony not doing anything to fix this problem. Apathy and indifference will not help those for whom subtitle placement has significant impact on the home theater experience.

What If It Were Your Screen?

Even you aren't a Constant Image Height projection viewer, and believe that subtitle placement doesn't affect you directly, please try to imagine the frustration you would feel if asked to watch a foreign language movie with half the subtitles missing from your screen.

For example, here's a still from the DVD edition of the Japanese movie 'Gamera: Guardian of the Universe', which has an aspect ratio very close to that of a 16:9 HDTV. However, the DVD was authored in non-anamorphic letterbox format. Its subtitles have been encoded partially in the letterbox bar.

Gamera. 1.85:1 movie with subtitles in the letterbox bar.

Here's what that disc looks like on a standard 16:9 HDTV screen:

Gamera. 1.85:1 movie with subtitles cut off on a 16:9 screen.

Would you be able to comprehend the movie with half the subtitles illegible? No, the movie is now effectively unwatchable.

Can you see how so seemingly-trivial an issue as subtitle placement could cause so many headaches?

Don't Subtitles Clutter a Movie?

Some Blu-ray viewers may believe that subtitles "clutter" a movie image, and are less distracting when placed in the letterbox bar. I very strongly disagree. Please consider these points:

When you watch a foreign language film in a real movie theater, are the subtitles ever projected below the screen? Of course not. Subtitles are part of the movie and should be contained within the active movie image.

More importantly, when subtitles are located below the image, they draw the viewer's eyes further away from the movie and make it difficult to concentrate on the movie and subtitles at the same time. The black bars should be a dead space that the viewer can tune out. If subtitles are placed there, it draws attention to the fact that we're watching video on a TV, and detracts from the cinematic experience that the home theater hobby is meant to achieve.

This problem affects not just movies fully in a foreign language, but also any movies with selected dialogue passages in a foreign (or alien, if a sci-fi picture) language. How much fun would it be to watch a 'Star Trek' movie without being able to tell what the Klingons are saying? Sometimes, even location identifiers and other on-screen text obviously meant to be part of the film are moved out of the picture.

Why Don't We Just Watch in 16:9 Mode?

Currently, the only way to watch 2.35:1 movies on a 2.35:1 screen when the subtitles have been authored in the letterbox bar is to shrink the movie image down to 16:9 mode.

House of Flying Daggers. Scope movie with subtitles in the letterbox bar.

Perhaps you might wonder what's the big deal about that? Can't we make do?

To that, I ask how much you'd enjoy watching that copy of 'Gamera' windowboxed in the center of a 16:9 HDTV screen?

Gamera. 1.85:1 subtitled movie windowboxed on a 16:9 screen.

This is a 25% reduction in image size, and a needless waste of screen space, just to be able to read subtitles that should be in the picture in the first place.

Now imagine if this were a movie 95% in your native language, but with one or two subtitled scenes. How would you like to watch an entire movie windowboxed into a small portion of the screen just because a couple of scenes are subtitled? That's exactly the scenario that's being forced on 2.35:1 Constant Image Height viewers now.

This is simply not what the home theater experience is supposed to be about. How can we recreate the atmosphere of watching movies in a theater if we have to shrink the picture down to a small portion of the available screen, that it would otherwise fit if not for the subtitles?

Here's that same frame from 'House of Flying Daggers' as seen on a foreign DVD edition that has its subtitles positioned just high enough to be legible on a 2.35:1 screen.

House of Flying Daggers. Scope movie with subtitles in the movie image.

This is clearly the better scenario. The 2.35:1 movie is properly presented on a 2.35:1 screen, with all required subtitles visible (if just barely in this case). And all it takes to fix this problem is a few button presses while the disc is being authored. Making this change will cause no extra expense for the studio, and will have no negative impact to any viewers. There's simply no good reason not to author all discs this way.

Subtitles in the Movie Image Work For Everyone

Some studios already place all subtitles in the movie picture on DVD and Blu-ray now. Here's a scene from Universal's release of 'Fearless'.

Fearless. Scope movie with all subtitles in the active image.

Ask yourself whether this has ever bothered you. Had you ever even noticed until it was pointed out to you?

Subtitles placed inside the movie picture are 100% compatible with all displays for all viewers. Subtitles in the letterbox bar are lost on Constant Image Height projection screens.

Whether or not it makes a difference to you right now, please have consideration for the needs of others. This poll is an opportunity to enact a change that will make the home theater hobby better. Please don't waste this important opportunity just because you may not think that it affects you at this particular moment in time. Please give some thought to how such a seemingly simple, arbitrary decision can have profound repercussions for others that share your hobby.

Vote for Option #1. Ask Sony to move subtitles into the active movie picture. Thank you.

Check back soon for another round of Q&A. Keep those questions coming.

Joshua Zyber's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners or employees.

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