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Subtitling

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Subtitles

Subtitles (or captions — we'll use the terms interchangeably on this guide) are blocks of transcribed text that appear at the bottom of a video. Whether you're deaf, struggling with an accent, watching the video in a distracting environment, or just don't have the sound on, subtitles allow you to read the speech and sound of the video.

Subtitles might be 'burnt in' to the video: part of the actual video image and impossible to remove. This is particularly common in videos for social media, where video players don't have support for 'closed' captioning (more of which in the next paragraph). You'll also often see it in television news reports or documentaries, where a speaker's words are being translated for the audience.

Generally preferable to burnt in subtitles are 'closed captions' — captions that are overlaid onto the video, and can be turned on or off. These captions are stored in a separate file to the video itself. They're supported online in more-elaborate media players such as those found on YouTube or Google Drive, and in the University's Panopto lecture captures. The optional subtitles you get on television or on a DVD are closed captions.

Live subtitling

If you're presenting live, be it in an online setting, or potentially even face to face, there are options available for automatic live subtitling. The quality of automatic subtitling is variable, but for those of your audience who need it, it will be better than no subtitles at all.

Zoom

So long as you're logged into it with your York account, Zoom can provide live captions. These need to be enabled by the host during the meeting:

  • Select Live Transcript from the icon menu at the bottom of the screen — a context menu will open
  • Choose "Enable Auto-Transcription" — captions will now appear as you speak.
  • Anyone in the meeting can choose to hide the captions from the Live Transcript icon toggle by choosing "Hide Subtitle". This will only hide the captions for the individual, and will not prevent others in the meeting from seeing them.

If you record your presentation to the cloud, captions will be included so long as 'Audio Transcript' has been enabled in your recording settings.

Captions are not retained when recording to your computer.

PowerPoint and Google Slides

PowerPoint and Google Slides can both provide live subtitles. A quick-and-dirty way to record subtitles for a screencast is to piggyback on a PowerPoint presentation.

Read more about subtitling with PowerPoint...

Generating automatic subtitles after the fact

If you're making a video that has sound, you'll need some subtitles to ensure that your video is as accessible as possible to its audience. Here's some ways of generating closed caption subtitles for a pre-existing video:

Zoom

Zoom can create caption files for cloud recordings. The process is slow (it can be days rather than minutes unless you had live captioning during the session), and accuracy is variable. But the generated file is in a good format (.vtt) and is relatively easy to work with.

YouTube

An easy way to auto-generate subtitles for a video is to upload your video to YouTube. YouTube will generate automatic captions which you can then edit.

Here's a video we uploaded to YouTube: you can use the subtitle options in the cog menu to switch between the automatic captions and a tidied-up version.

You can download your subtitle files from YouTube in the YouTube Studio Video Manager: open the video, go to the "Subtitles" section, hover over the subtitles you want to download and use the vertical dots menu ():

The 'Subtitles' section is accessed from a menu to the left of the video page; the menus with the download links are to the right.

Google Drive

Google Drive uses a similar playback engine to YouTube, so is a great alternative for hosting videos, especially if you're wanting to control access.

If you've got a transcript of your video (as a text file), and the video is stored in Google Drive, you can automatically generate subtitles simply by uploading the transcript.

Transcription tools

There are a number of free subtitling and transcription tools online (usual caveats about free online tools notwithstanding).

However, a less risky way to get a transcript is to simply play the sound of what you're wanting to transcribe through your microphone and into a Google Doc to use the transcription service in Google Docs. It's an inelegant method but it just about works!

If you've got the Office 365 version of Word, you could do the same thing using Home > Voice > Dictate. Again it will only work through the microphone, and the dictation will periodically time out.

Editing subtitles

Whether you've got an automatically generated set of subtitles, or even just a transcript, it's relatively straightforward to edit those captions, or to change that transcript into a subtitle file.

In-application editing

Simple changes to subtitles can usually be done 'in-app': for instance, Zoom and YouTube have tools for editing a hosted video's subtitles.

Downloading caption files

For more involved editing, it may be helpful to download the caption file to work on it outside of the host system before re-uploading. Options for this are usually found in the same location as the other captioning tools.

In Zoom, for instance, you can download generated captions from the relevant Recordings page (although there's no option to re-upload them afterwards).

In YouTube, subtitles can be downloaded via YouTube Studio Video Manager: open the video, go to the "Subtitles" section, hover over the subtitles you want to download and use the vertical dots menu ():

The 'Subtitles' section is accessed from a menu to the left of the video page; the menus with the download links are to the right.

In Google Drive you can download captions from "Manage caption tracks" on the right-click context menu for the file in Drive, or on the three-dots menu () in the file itself. This opens the Captions side-panel, where you can use the three-dots for the caption track you want to download:

The 'Captions' side-panel in a Google Drive video file lists all the captions currently associated with that file. Each has a three-dot menu from which you can download.

Working with subtitle files

There's a load of different file formats for caption files but they're usually pretty straightforward to write and edit. They're all basically text files and so can be edited in a basic text editor like Notepad on Windows or TextEdit on a Mac.

They tend to follow a similar sort of format.

Read more about subtitle formats...

Subtitling principles

Good captioning takes time, even if you have an automatic transcript to work with. And there are certain principles of best practice to consider (although there will often be reason not to follow them directly).

Keep in mind that the main purpose for subtitling is to provide audio information to people who cannot hear the sound. But also consider that reading text from a screen is different to hearing it spoken. While verbatim transcription is generally the best approach, it may be necessary to make some changes so that subtitles are more easily read and digested.

The Worldwide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative has some useful (and relatively brief) guidance on transcription:

Another useful style guide is that used by the BBC for its television subtitles:

Sharing a video with subtitles

Closed caption videos

There are a number of video hosting options for closed caption videos. The most obvious one is YouTube, but if you want more control over who has access to your video you could choose instead to upload it to Google Drive.

Another way of distributing a video with captions is to offer the files for download. VLC Media Player can display captions on a video if it finds a caption file with the same name as the video (not including the file extension) in the same folder location on the computer.

Burning in captions

If you're sharing a video on social media, it may be necessary to burn in captions. At a basic level this can be done with VLC Media Player. For more attractive results you may have to use a video editor, although it's possible to do surprisingly good things with PowerPoint (video can be embedded into a slide, captions animated over the top, and the whole thing exported as a new video).

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