Computer Editing: Let's Talk Titles

You’ve created the perfect video, great lighting, clean audio and beautiful editing. But be careful. All your hard work can be overshadowed if you are not careful with your titles. Titles, also called CGs (short for character generator), are the words you see on the screen. But adding titles is more than typing words onto your video. Good titles look balanced on screen and add to the message. Bad titles are like an out of tune instrument – they make the whole orchestra sound bad.

When it comes to making great titles, there are a few rules to follow. Just like making good video, it takes a certain amount of planning, knowledge and a lot of experimentation. An eye for composition doesn’t hurt either. Here are some basic concepts you can use to enhance your titles.


Location! Location! Location!

Watch network television tonight and see if there is logo in the bottom corner of the screen. It’s not there by accident. The big guys understand that when it comes to the video screen, every pixel is a precious piece of real estate. In real estate, location is everything. We read from left to right, top to bottom. The bottom right corner of the screen is the last thing you will read. That logo stays imprinted on the mind, and when the friendly folks at Neilson ask you what station you watched, you can remember quite easily.

You can use that same knowledge to your advantage when you build your titles. The corners of the screen are the most powerful place for small informational graphics like logos or names. They also work well because titles placed there are less likely to interfere with the action in your video.

If you want to make a major statement, then place a title in the center of the screen, demanding your audience to take notice. This is where you would typically find the title of a program. Placed in the center of the screen, the title becomes the most important thing on the screen. More important than even the video that plays beneath it.


Play it Safe

There are some places that you really cannot put titles, though. Most CG software now has a safe title reference built in. These lines represent recommended limits to where you place your titles within the viewing area. Any titles outside of the safe title zone risk being unreadable due to the cropping and curvature of the TV screen. Keeping your titles within a safe title area is not an absolute, but you reduce the effectiveness of your titles if they are outside of the safe title zone.

Lastly, the text on the screen has to work with everything else the audience is seeing. Your subject’s name won’t look good superimposed over his face. It has to balance with the video you’re using. If you interview a vet about his WWII memories and he’s on camera left, try putting the title on the right to balance the overall picture.


The Font is the Message

Sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it. This applies to the fonts you use for your titles. Graphic designers can spend years learning about font theory, but you don’t need a master’s degree to understand that the font – the actual shape of the letters – sends a message to the viewer. Does the text look like ancient Greek writing or is it more futuristic? There are thousands of fonts available, and the font you choose will have a direct impact on the final product.

Let’s say you videotaped your town’s winter holiday festivities and want to add a graphic as an introduction. A font that has a cowboy feel wouldn’t make any sense. Unless the theme of the event was Holidays on the Prairie, such a font would just confuse the viewer. Holiday festivities scream for something with a holiday feel. Scripted letters would look nice and would convey the holiday spirit more effectively.

Look to the video itself for clues as to what font to use. The font you use should tie into the theme of the video. Don’t overwhelm your audience with a lot of different fonts either. Stick to just one or two. If you need two separate lines of text to stand out from each other, try making one line bold or italicized rather than changing the font.


Now We’re Styling

The style of a title is the sum of all the specific attributes that give it a particular look. The font plays a crucial role, but so does the color, edge, shadow and framing of the text. These characteristics, or the lack of them, also contribute to the message you are sending. For example, lighter colors tend to be easier to read and seem happier, while darker colors can add a more urgent or even ominous tone to the title.

Color is a great tool to reinforce the theme of the project. Let’s go back to the holiday video title. Should you use black and orange for your text? Of course not. That would be more appropriate for a Halloween project. Holiday colors – like reds, greens and golds – would work better.

Adding color can be a tricky task. Video tends to have problems with certain colors, particularly shades of red. The concentration of chroma/color tends to bleed across the screen. If you must use red, try adding a thick black outline to contain the bleeding. Remember, colors will look brighten on TV then they do on your computer. Make your reds and greens slightly darker than you’d like them to appear on tape. Many titling software applications have a "safe color" mode that will warn you against using a color that will over-saturate the video. Yellow tends to be the easiest color to read (next to white) and is often used for video titles.


What Did That Say?

After learning all of the different ways to present your title, you still need to ask the most important question, what will your title say? First, determine if you need graphics at all. Your titles should be limited to only those that advance the story in some way. Video artists often use titles extensively to add a poetic layer to their work, however graphics with no real purpose tend to irritate the viewer more than anything else.

How long should a title stay on the screen? Rule of thumb says that a title should stay up long enough for the viewer to read it aloud three times. Any shorter is too short. Any longer and your viewers may become distracted by the presence of the title. Obviously, the longer the title the longer it must remain on the screen. A person’s name may remain on the screen for as little as two or three seconds, a graphic spelling out a five-sentence quote may need to stay on the screen for thirty seconds or more. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. If you have the quote that is being read by a narrator, you can take it out after it has been read through just once.


Putting it all Together

Great titles don’t just happen, they take knowledge, planning and a lot of experimentation. Like good video, the better you plan your project the better off you are in editing. Titles are no exception. Remember, your titles are written in video, not in stone. When you’re building your titles, look at them critically. Do they make sense visually? Is your spelling correct? Do they add to the message? Don’t hesitate to experiment with your titles. Try something different. If you go too far and the visuals just don’t work, you can always change them before going to tape.

When it all comes together well, the titles compliment the video and vice versa. This seamless integration of titles and video can make a word worth a thousand pictures.

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