Digital distirbution is great for the independent producer. Of course, there are some downsides as well. But I’ll cover those in another post soon. For now, let’s focus on the benefits. With the click of a button, you can upload your recent masterpiece for all the world to see. Be it on YouTube, Vimeo, or even iTunes! But if you want to play with the big boys like Netflix or Amazon Prime, then you’re going to have to subtitle your movies. I’m going to tell you how to do that.
In 2010, Netflix was sued for failing to have all of their titles include closed captioning for the hearing impaired. It was found in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. They agreed to have all of their streaming content close captioned by 2014 and they are now in compliance. CNN reports on the legal struggle here.
I’ve worked for a public agency, so I’m familiar with the need to have all of an agency’s materials ADA compliant. While building a website for a transit agency in South Texas I was required to make sure all of the pages fell within contrast and font size requirements. The most difficult task was assuring that all of the online bus schedules could be easily categorized, found and read by an ADA screen reader. Simply having the riders download a PDF wasn’t going to cut it.
In these cases, I understand the need for legal requirements like this. It is a public agency. In the case of Netflix, they are a large company and, seemingly, should be able to easily have the ability to pay for captioning all of their titles. However, it doesn’t always happen the way it “should.” In reality, the big companies like Amazon and Netflix, pass on the requirement to their content producers. That’s us.
Now, if you have a single short film, or maybe even a feature, that you are ready to submit and get picked up by one of these companies, it may seem like a small sacrifice. Take a day or two, or three to barricade yourself in your room and create the subtitles from scratch in Premiere or another piece of editing software. Or you can pay a company like 3PlayMedia to do it for you. They offer captioning for between $3-4.50 a minute. So if you have a 90 minute feature, you may be looking at between $270 – $405 for someone else to caption and subtitle your movie. After subtitling three features and 5 shorts all by my lonesome, I can understand why that price tag may be appealing.
But when I shoot short films for practically nothing, or feature films like Serial Rabbit 3 for only $180, then it can cost me two times the budget of the entire film to have someone else do it. Now, when you consider I have 36 feature films that I would need to subtitle before they go to Amazon Prime, I’d be looking at paying close to $15,000 to have someone caption them all. That’s pretty much the cost of producing all 36 of those films combined.
You might say, well, don’t you have a script? Just use that for the subtitles. Well, that’s great, but those subtitles require files. Text files to be exact. And these text files require precise time codes that detail when a subtitle appears and disappears from the screen.
00:05:35,960 –> 00:05:38,004
Yeah, I don’t think my
boyfriend will let me do
00:05:38,254 –> 00:05:40,298
00:05:40,882 –> 00:05:41,883
You’re kidding, right?
This little line of code must be created for each and every line of dialogue, and sometimes sound effects and music cues. There are also details about positioning, color and font size coded in the text file as well. So it’s not as easy as just applying your script to the video file. And in order to be ADA complaint, or to get your movie onto Netflix or Amazon Prime, you are required to have these closed captioning subtitles accompany your film upload.
That’s why I am not a big fan of regulation. People always cheer for things like the ADA and other government controlled regulation, but it’s not the corporations who are hit, it is the little guy like me. Now in order to get all of my films on Prime or Netflix, I have to shovel out $15,000 in fees, or spend the next six months typing all the subtitles in my editor, exporting them as text files, then transferring them to appropriate formats. If I sell the films to a distributor, that subtitling fee is an amount they will deduct from a minimum guarantee. So it still comes out of my pocket.
This is just another one of those tasks and/or expenses that many in the independent world, like actors, lighting guys, cameramen, or producers, really don’t understand. Typically when you tell a producer you have to subtitle the film, one line at a time, you get a reply like, “Dude, that sucks.” And then they run away as fast as they can.
“So what’s the big deal?” some might say. Well, when a little indie movie like ours can only make between $5,000-$15,000 in its entire lifetime, and that’s if we’re incredibly lucky and the gods smile upon us, we filmmakers really start to feel under-appreciated and disrespected by everyone up and down the food chain.
But that’s just my opinion and something I thought you should be aware of.
So now, with all of that aside, you’ve finally got a deal with Amazon Prime or Netflix and now, to save money, you’re going to subtitle your movie yourself. Great! I’m all about saving that money and sacrificing countless hours of my life (which I will never get back).
So how do you do it? Easy. Just tedious.
- In Premiere, import a new item > Caption.
- Drag the caption to your timeline on top of your video file.
- Make sure your caption window is viewable from Windows>Captions.
- It’s recommended to create a blank caption at the start of your project. This could avoid problems down the road. So from the very first frame of your video, in the caption window, click the + button. This creates a blank caption field.
- Play the video until you reach the next line of dialogue. Pause the playback. Hit + to create a new caption field. Type what the character says. Be sure not to exceed 32 characters per line. This can very by program but to be safe, keep it under 32. Sometimes your subtitle files will be kicked back as invalid if you exceed the number of characters.
- Stretch out, or shrink, the subtitle field on the timeline to appear for the duration you desire.
- Hit play, and find the next line of dialogue. You will notice every time you create a new subtitle field by licking +, that the field is created right behind the last subtitle field. Even if the dialogue is back-to-back, you will still want to move it a tad bit down the timeline, at least a frame or two. This prevents problems later as when you have an end time and a start time at the same frame, some subtitling software gets confused and will kick the file back as invalid.
- Continue this way until you have completed the entire movie, line by line.
- A few things to remember. You may want to include things like (GUNSHOT) or (SCREAMS). You’ll also want to say who is speaking if the line is off camera SAM: I told you no.
Since someone may not be able to hear the dialogue, then they won’t know who is speaking unless they see the person talking on camera. Some people have also warned about using the musical note, so just avoid it all together.
- You can also adjust the placement by using the grid in the top of the caption block. You can also adjust color and alignment of the subtitles. Though after the first scene, you’ll probably care little about which side of the screen the subtitle is on and just want it anywhere. I’ve started to only care about positioning when the subtitle is clashing with on screen credits and titles.
- Once you have finished the entire movie, it is now time to export it. For the proposes of this article, I’ll explain how to get it done for Amazon Prime. Go to File>Export, like you normally would, Export the file as an H.264, in Vimeo or YouTube 1080p (or 720p of you have to). Then, under the caption tab, select Create Sidecar File, from the dropdown menu. Then select the .srt file. Creating any other format will cause Prime to kick it back and cause you to lose your hair figuring out what is wrong.
- Hit Export.
- Once the file is done, you aren’t finished. The files will be saved as an mp4, and as an .srt file. This .srt file will also get kicked back by Prime. So go to 3PlayMedia’s Free Caption and Subtitle Converter here. Open your .srt file in text edit and select all. Then copy. Paste the file into the converter on the page. Select .scc as the Output format and click the “Convert My File. button.” Your browser will automatically download the .scc file. This is the file you will upload to Amazon Prime. Don’t panic if you look at your .scc file and it looks like this (it’s supposed to):
00:05:37:11 9420 94f4 97a1 a84a c1c4 4520 4cc1 d5c7 c8d3 2980 942c 8080 8080 942f
00:05:39:26 9420 94f2 97a1 d9ef 75a7 f2e5 206b e964 64e9 6e67 2c20 f2e9 6768 f4bf 942c 8080 8080 942f
00:05:40:24 9420 9440 97a2 ceef 2c20 4920 e368 e561 f4e5 6420 ef6e 2068 e96d 2061 206d ef6e f468 9476 97a2 6167 ef2c 942c 8080 8080 942f
- Warning: I have noticed that my subtitles will play on Amazon Prime, but the end frame marker of the subtitle is ignored, so the subtitle or closed captioning will stay on screen until the next title starts. To battle this, I have started creating blank subtitle fields when I want to make sure no subtitles are on screen.
- A Side Note: If some of your dialogue was misspoken and you didn’t catch it on set, or you need to fix a little something here or there, this might be a good time to change it. Granted, people who are watching the movie with sound won’t see the correction, but at least the hard of hearing will, and they’ll think your awesome because they don’t hear the mistakes made on set.
I hope this helps you in the creation and export of subtitles for Amazon Prime. I am now in the process of creating subtitles for a DVD for the very first time and when I have successfully completed the task, I will write another article on how to accomplish that task. If I am unsuccessful, I probably won’t, so for your sake, wish me luck!
And in turn, I wish you the best of luck on subtitling your masterpiece!