A titler will do more than just put text on the screen–it can also give your productions a more professional look.
I had to make some difficult decisions as I put this month’s column together on choosing a titler for your
editing system. I knew some of you would want answers to questions about what titlers do, how they work
and how they can help your videos look more professional. Others of you may know what titlers do, but
not how to choose the best to serve you. You’d like guidance to help you find a titler to match your system,
your budget and your videomaking style.
Despite the threat from a popular clich, (“You can’t please all the people all the time,”) I’m
going to give each of you something to improve your understanding of titlers, and how you go about
buying one for your system.
What is a titler, and what does it do?
A titler is an electronic device that lets you generate text and arrange it on the screen in your videos.
Some people also call it a character generator.
It usually has a typewriter-style keyboard, which you use to enter and format the text you want to
see on the screen. You can often generate letters in a range of sizes, font styles and colors. You can
superimpose text over a moving video image, or a colored background.
The titler stores your text on an electronic “page” of memory. Each page is usually broken down
into lines of text. Exactly how many words can fit on a page depends on the size and position of the letters
on each line. The number of different pages you can store at one time depends on the amount of memory
inside the titler or character generator.
Titlers come in two forms. One is a stand-alone box whose sole purpose is to generate text for
videos like yours. The other is a computer-based software package that you install on a personal computer.
It uses the computer’s hardware to generate titles you can add to your videos.
Which are better–stand-alone or computer-based titlers?
The right answer depends on your needs as a videomaker.
For most situations, stand-alone models work very well. Most have enough flexibility and features
to be useful on many projects. They’re also the easiest way to add titling capabilities to an edit system, and
often the least expensive.
If you want the most flexible and creative titling solution, consider getting a titling software
package instead of a stand-alone box. To use these programs, you need a compatible computer system, and
possibly some additional hardware to get the text out of the computer and into your videos.
The cost of the computer and related hardware may make this option more expensive than a stand-
alone model. If you already have a computer, however, a software-based solution may cost the same or
even less than a stand-alone box.
Are titlers and titling programs difficult to operate?
Overall, titlers and computer titling software are not especially imposing breeds. If you can operate
either an electronic typewriter, or a word processing program on a computer, you can probably master a
stand-alone titler without much stress.
Learning the features of a computer-based titling program, however, may take more time. Expect
to spend a few hours in the evening or on a weekend learning to get the most from these systems. Knowing
how to use a mouse and get around a computer will help speed things up.
What are some important titler features to look for?
- Resolution: If you know anything about computer monitors, you know companies
rate them in terms of resolution, or the quality and sharpness of their image. They do the same for video
Instead of dragging you through the complete technical explanation of titler resolution and how
it’s measured, just understand that we measure titler precision in units called nanoseconds. The lower the
nanosecond specification, the more precise and crisp the text you’ll see on the screen. And better looking
text gives your videos a more professional look.
If the titler’s horizontal resolution is rated in pixels, higher numbers mean you’ll get sharper text
- Anti-aliasing: “Jaggies,” or lines and curves that have visible stairsteps
instead of smooth shapes, are a by-product of digitally generated images or text. Many software-based
titling programs offer anti-aliasing to counteract this phenomenon.
Anti-aliasing fills in the stairsteps with a color halfway between the text and background colors.
This blends the edges of the text into the background image, smoothing out the stair-stepped lines and
curves. The result: much cleaner text that makes your video look one step closer to professionally
- Colors: Today’s titlers generate text in more than plain white. Many
offer a wide range of colors, with most supporting a minimum of sixteen. Better models may have
anywhere from 256 to 4 million different color possibilities for on-screen text. Software-based titlers also
let you color text using graduated blends from one color to another.
- Typefaces or fonts: In addition to offering a wide range of colors,
many titlers support multiple fonts. Fonts are the groups of letters or characters that you can type on the
screen. They come in different styles and families. A large variety of fonts will give you more creative
editing and titling options. Titlers also offer variable sizing of these fonts, both on each text line and on the
screen in general.
Stand-alone models typically offer three or four different sizes, and some allow you to mix
different font sizes on a line. Software titlers usually support infinite variations in text size regardless of
screen or line position.
- Special Effects: “Drop shadow” is the most common special effect found on
titlers. It simulates a light source by creating a small shadow behind and to the side of the text. The effect
gives a three-dimensional look, and helps the text stand out from the background image. It’s one of the
most common special effects, and one of the most valuable to have on a titler. You’ll most often find drop
shadow on computer-based titling packages.
Another popular effect is the outline, which draws a colored edge around the outside of each
character. You can often choose the color of the edge, so you can create interesting color combinations
between the text and the outline.
Crawls and rolls are two special animation effects most titlers offer. Crawls move text
horizontally, rolls move it vertically. Titlers usually offer different speeds for rolls and crawls.
Some titlers can dissolve, wipe or pop text on and off the screen, too. Dissolves slowly blend the
text in and out. Wipes use geometric patterns to reveal and hide the text. Popping text simulates the look of
a typewriter by revealing one character at a time.
- Storage: Each titler will offer some sort of long- or short-term page
storage. Typically, stand-alone models will only hold text in memory as long as the unit stays switched on,
or possibly a few days beyond that. Most support between 10 and 15 pages of text in memory.
Because of the computer’s mass storage ability, titling software packages can store much more
information, and for a longer period of time. Instead of keeping text in volatile temporary memory,
software packages store text pages on hard disk until you delete them. The maximum number of storable
pages depends on the size of your computer’s hard disk drive. Even a modest drive will store several
thousand text pages.
Can a titler make my videos look more professional?
Over the roughly forty or so years that we’ve watched television, we’ve been conditioned to recognize
on-screen text as a sign of a professionally produced program.
Sometimes the text tells us the title of a program, or the names of the actors playing in it. Other
times, it provides information that relates to what’s happening on the screen. In a televised football game,
for example, we expect to see the score, along with an occasional player or team statistic. In news
broadcasts, we look for the names of people talking on the screen to identify them and evaluate what
By adding a titler to your video editing system, you can use on-screen text the same way the pros
do. Instead of just showing the video of your last vacation, you can use text to tell the audience more about
each place you visited. Put the name of the city or country in the lower left corner of the screen for a few
seconds at the beginning of each segment. Later, put the names of people you talked to, or of interesting
places you saw.
If you’re making a training video for a company, consider emphasizing important points or ideas
by putting text on the screen that matches what the host or narrator says. This technique reinforces a point
by telling it to the audience in more than one way.
If you’re condensing the great highlights from a son or daughter’s sporting events, you can use a
titler to add text that tells the audience when and where each event took place, and perhaps even the final
score of each game.
Will any titler work with my current editing setup?
When it comes to interfacing with an editing system, titlers are fairly simple creatures. Stand-alone
and computer-based models both share two basic interface connectors: a Video In and Video Out jack.
If you want to superimpose titles over moving video, you’ll need to connect a video source,
usually a VCR or camcorder, to the Video In jack on the titler. To record images with titles superimposed,
you’ll need another VCR or camcorder to function as a record or edit deck. Connect the Video Out from
the titler to the Video In on the record deck. As long as you have one source VCR and another VCR to
record the on-screen text, you have what you need to record titles over moving video.
If you don’t have an additional VCR to use as a source player, you can generate titles over a
colored background and insert edit them into your videos. If you choose this method, you don’t need to
worry about connecting the Video In jack on the titler.
Note: when buying a stand-alone titler, people often overlook the need for an additional monitor
for text entry and formatting. Many titlers support one monitor for arranging text on the screen, (often
called the “edit” monitor), and another for the actual video signal, (called the “program” monitor).
If you have a monitor with more than one video input, you might be able to get by without
purchasing a separate edit monitor. If you don’t have a multi-input monitor, you’ll need to get an additional
one for editing the text.
Can I change the text I put on a tape after I’ve recorded it?
Text from a titler becomes permanent once you recorded it on videotape. That means you can’t easily
remove or replace it. Should you need to change titles after they’ve been recorded, you can use a video
insert edit to cover the old titles with new ones.
To do this, you’ll need the footage you used when you originally edited the titles on the tape. If
you don’t have the original footage to work with, try using a colored background instead.
What are some models I might consider purchasing?
If you’re in the market for a low budget titling solution and want a stand-alone model, check out the
Ambico V-6350 ($300), a cheap but versatile basic CG. It offers a 10-page memory and many text
movement options including wipes, rolls and crawls. The similarly priced Sima ColorWriter ($300) boasts
a slightly-larger 12-page memory and 14 special effects, including popping and zooming text in or out.
If you’ve got an IBM PC compatible or clone, software programs like Flying Fonts from Crystal
Graphics ($195), or Pixar’s Typestry 2 ($299) may meet your titling needs. Flying Fonts lets you adjust
font size and position text in small increments in real time. It also comes with 12 fonts.
If you have the money to spend but don’t have a computer, Videonics offers the PowerScript
($2500), which is a surprisingly capable unit for the money. With a resolution of less than 18 nanoseconds,
it’s performance stands well above many consumer-level titlers. It also supports Adobe Type 1 fonts,
which you can download to the titler from a desktop computer. This makes your font choices literally
endless. It also can color text in any of four million colors, which is more than any other stand-alone
For those of you with computers and the desire to work with high-end titling packages, you have a
number of interesting options. Mac owners can check out Avid Technology’s Bola32 ($995), which
includes a whopping 70 Type 1 fonts. IBM users should consider InnoVision Technology’s PrimeTime
($400), and Video International’s PC Titler ($995).
Amiga owners shouldn’t fret, either. InnoVision offers Montage ($400) and Montage 24 ($500),
both of which offer eight installed fonts, and real-time scaling. Montage 24 also offers 4 million
A good source for more information on stand-alone models is the Titler Buyers guide in the
October 1995 issue of Videomaker. For more information on software titling solutions, check
out the desktop video buyer’s guide in Videomaker’s March 95 issue.
When choosing a titler, make sure to get one that can grow with your needs. As you experiment with
new ways to use text in your videos, it helps to have a titler that can help you explore, instead of hinder
Also, pay attention to how you see text used on television. Studying how the pros use titlers will
help you make better use of the one you ultimately choose to buy.