We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words, but there are times when a picture by itself doesn’t tell the whole story. One way to get words on the TV screen along with your pictures is to use a character generator or titler.

What are some situations where you might need a titler? Sure, there’s the obvious one: the title of your creation, at the beginning of the video. But there are plenty of other uses as well. Say you’re editing a family-reunion video and need to identify the person talking on the screen. You could do this by saying the person’s name in your narration, but this eats up time. With a titler, you can superimpose the person’s name and relation (Uncle John Smith) while Uncle John begins speaking. Viewers are used to reading this information without losing the meaning of the spoken information.

With titles, you can add information that has no visual equivalent. For example, "August 12th, 1997: Dear Diary…"You can arrange this information to take up the full screen, with interesting backgrounds, or you can key or super it (layer it on top of video) so that the words and visual information are on screen at the same time.


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Incorporated into your home editing system, titlers can provide an easy and relatively inexpensive way to improve the quality of your videos. They can also generate backgrounds and play back a sequence of several title screens like those seen on the local cable channel’s bulletin-board service.

Moving Words

Titles can stay in one place on the screen or they can move. A scroll or roll moves lines of copy from the bottom of the screen to the top (as in the opening of the film Star Wars). A crawl makes the text crawl along from right to left (like a news bulletin during a TV show). Some titlers can make text fly just about anywhere you want on the screen.

To smooth their appearance, titles often fade in and fade out, which means they appear transparent at first (with the video visible behind them) then gradually become opaque.

Some titlers come with a downstream key. This device allows you to put the title in last over an effect. For example, on a live basketball-game production, you might have an effect that shows the game action with a smaller picture of the coach on top of it. A titler with a downstream key can layer the game score over the composite picture.

Legibility and Fonts

The control you have over how characters appear on your screen is important. Let’s say you have a title that is all white. If the video you put under this title is all dark, the title will look good. But if the video is changing all the time, with light areas and dark areas, the white letters will be hard to read over the light areas. The solution is to use a titler that lets you put a drop shadow or a dark outline around the titles, so the words will be readable over any background.

You should also consider a titler’s ability to create different type faces, or fonts. Although you may have never thought about it, the way a word looks has an effect on your audience. A cartoonish font will make them think something funny should be happening. A script-type font will give a formal or ceremonial feeling. Some titlers use TrueType or Postscript fonts (used by many desktop computer programs), making the selection very large. Other titlers have a limited number of built-in fonts.

Stand-alone vs. Computer-based

The titling on the 1969 moon landing footage used very primitive block letters. Since then, titlers have become cheaper, more sophisticated and available in several configurations. Some models are machines that stand alone and create titles without extra help. Others are hardware and/or software driven and rely on the processing power of your personal computer. Computer-based titlers often need additional hardware to transfer computer titles to video or to overlay them on top of existing video.

Low End or High End?

Do you need a titler? If you are just starting to edit video, you could print titles out onto paper and shoot them with a camera. This will show you how effective words on the screen can be. But you can’t superimpose your titles this way (unless you use a special-effects generator), and the process could slow down an edit session.

Inexpensive titlers create words that may be a little blocky, but maybe that’s all you need. For professional work, you should buy the highest-quality character generator you can afford. These machines work quickly (time is money) and give you variety (lots of fonts) and control (color, size, etc.).

Stand-alone Titlers

The JVC JX-T66 ($119) is a stand-alone titler that has one font and four character sizes with outline effect. The unit allows you to superimpose, scroll and zoom titles. The keyboard uses a standard QUERTY layout but is palm-sized. The smaller size may not be comfortable if you are typing lots of titles, because the keys are much closer together than a full-size keyboard.

Another stand-alone model offered by JVC is the JX-T88 ($209) which does come with a full-sized keyboard. Like the JX-T66, the unit has only one font with four sizes and eight character/background colors. You can use outlines or put a box around the characters, as well as superimpose or scroll them. The unit allows you to create up to eight still pages or two scrolling pages and store them in memory for later playback.

Videonics’ Titlemaker 3000 ($799) is a popular stand-alone titler that includes 51 fonts in 36 styles and 4 sizes, as well as over 30 different ways to move the titles across the screen. With the Titlemaker 3000, you can make your characters bold, outlined, shadowed or underlined in a choice of 16 million colors.

A stand-alone character generator suitable for professional applications, the K20.ND from Knox Video ($1595) has a built-in genlocking keyer, full-size keyboard and eight-color palette. The unit comes with one complete upper- and lower-case font (Helvetica) and one upper-case font (Eurobold), line-by-line character color and transparent or solid color backgrounds. It can roll titles at four speeds and can save sixty-four pages in memory. For use in live programming (such as news or sports), where the operator needs to continue to create pages while other pages are called up and used "on the air," the unit has a separate preview output.

Computer-based Titlers–Software

At first glance, many computer-based titlers appear to be very inexpensive alternatives to stand-alone titlers. But to use such programs to super titles over video, you also need a genlock/overlay adapter such as TV One’s DeltaScan GL ($495) or DeltaScan-PRO GL ($795). We will look at several software packages, but before you buy anything, check the system requirements to see if you have all the hardware you need.

The Movie Titler from TV One ($95) is a software package that you can load onto your personal computer to create titles using your resident TrueType Windows fonts. With it, you can add shadows in all directions, import, size and position graphics and make your titles crawl and roll.

Some programs are not designed primarily as character-generator software, but nonetheless have functions that you can use to embellish titles. Curtain Call 3.0 from the Zuma Group ($225) is a presentation package that can transform fonts using effects such as shadows, outlines, metallics, 3D extrusions and strobes. You can also use the effects on clip art or shapes.

To create animated 3D logos and titles, there is Flying Fonts Pro from CrystalGraphics ($149). With it, you can add motion to titles by selecting from a menu of predefined motion paths. The program also offers more than 50 textures, such as marble, gold and wood, and allows you to modify 16 predefined bevel styles (to enhance the 3D effect). It renders sequences one frame at a time at resolutions of up to 8,000 by 8,000 pixels and outputs them to professional, frame-accurate videotape machines.

Alpha CG from Innovision Technology ($799), a high-powered, character-generator program, gives you lots of control over your titles. The multiple undo and redo function allows you to change your mind at any time as you build layers of graphics without losing the work you’ve already created. "Click and drag" text and graphics editing lets you resize titles and art by "grabbing" and moving them with your mouse. Alpha CG includes character effects such as texture mapping, variable transparency, text overlap and multicolor and multi-directional gradient fills. The program uses TrueType fonts (with unlimited colors and text attributes) and allows you to create title sizes ranging from five to 999 vertical scanlines (the video picture is made up of 525 scanlines, so your titles can appear nearly twice as high as the screen). Titles have a one-nanosecond effective resolution (the quicker the titles redraw in nanoseconds, the better they look) and 256 level transparency blending and anti-aliasing (anti-aliasing keeps the characters from having a stair-step look).

Computer-based Titlers–Hardware and Hardware/Software

TexTool from Video International ($895) is a DOS-based, plug-in PC card and software that meets full NTSC/RS-170A broadcast specifications. The character generator has nine resident fonts/sizes (35-nanosecond resolution) and a custom 128-color palette (from 256,000 available colors). There are three roll speeds and eight crawl speeds with absolute centering by page or roll. It also includes real-time and calendar display.

In order to genlock the TexTool, you will also need the PixPool, another PC card from Video International. PixPool ($1495) is a 32-bit graphic frame grabber for 16-million-color renditions with resolutions of less than 10 nanoseconds. The card also works as a VCR time base corrector. You can use the PixPool System ($2195 for both PixPool and TexTool cards) as a "bulletin board" display, capable of seven-day scheduling of multiple "shows."

Another plug-in board for PCs, the VideoCG Pro from Compix Media ($1850) is a Windows-based genlock board. Video input/output can be composite and S-video (RGB is optional). Graphics are fully anti-aliased and the software uses a real-time, WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) interface.

The unit has 32,768-color gradation and independent character control, giving you the control to make each letter in a word a different color and font (but please resist this temptation). The software allows you to copy, paste and move characters, lines and pages. The unit has an external key out, downstream key, preview, fade in/out, fade to black and a typewriter effect (in which the characters appear one after another as if someone was typing them onto the screen). The VideoCG software is also available separately for $495 if you already have the necessary hardware.

Knox Video offers the PC40 ($1295), a real-time character generator on a PC card. The unit genlocks automatically to most NTSC video, even off-the-air and non-time-base-corrected sources (such as any VCR without a built-in TBC). The PC40 has 64 pages of memory, seven fonts and 32 colors. You can install up to eight PC40s–each with its own video feed– in a single PC and control them with a single program.

Chyron has long been one of the major players in the world of professional character generators. The company offers the PC-Codi, an ISA board, for $2500. It generates broadcast-quality, anti-aliased text with an effective resolution of 10 nanoseconds. The unit provides sharp straight and curved lines in fonts and logos at any scan-line height. It works with existing Windows-based typefaces (including TrueType, Postscript and Bitstream).

Decisions, Decisions

How much titling power you need depends on your application. If you’re adding information to your daughter’s birthday video, use an inexpensive stand-alone or computer-based titler. If you’re working professionally, move up to a unit that gives you power and control. Are you doing live sports programming for ESPN? Then you need all the bells and whistles, speed and power that you can find.

Don’t underestimate the value of words on your screen. Titles can help the viewer get the whole message that you are trying to convey. And that’s the point of video.

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