The situation: a family reunion. They’d all rather be home wrestling a garden weasel than sitting through the hundredth retelling of how Grandma and Grandpa met over a red snapper.
The problem: you’re producing a video of this event that has to be entertaining and cheap. Martial arts are out of the question. Your only hope of rescuing this snoozefest is good titles.
Fade in audio over black frame: Grandma going on about the Edsel and why fluoride ruined the autoworker’s union. Fade in white serif letters on black:
What the Heck Does That Mean? Productions Presents.
Fade out title. Then, when Grandma begins to speak: It was a Great Big Red Snapper. The title appears just as Grandma says it. Hold on title for a few beats, then fade to black.
Fade in slowly on Uncle Sol nodding slowly as Grandma speaks. Grandma asks if he’s heard this one before. Sol says, "Oh, but I love that story. Please, continue."
Fade in white sans serif subtitle: I can’t believe she’s gonna tell this story again.
Grandma begins to tell it again. Sol continues nodding. Fade in white subtitle: I should’ve Spiked the Tang.
Fade to black. Fade in white cake with Welcome Levines! in red icing. A hand comes into frame and slices a big chunk out of the right corner of the cake. The piece is removed to reveal REUNION ’95 in red rub-on lettering.
The rest is literally a cakewalk.
As this example shows, innovative titling is an effective and relatively inexpensive way of taking raw (and rather dull) footage and spicing it up.
The choice to use an electronic character generator (an electronic keyboard that generates type on the screen), your home computer, press-on lettering, cake icing or sidewalk chalk is up to you–and your wallet. In any case, with a little planning and ingenuity, you can create titles that communicate tone, setting and background information in a visually appealing way.
So what’s out there for the videomaker who wants to explore titlemaking but doesn’t want a degree in electronics or a second mortgage? Let’s go shopping.
Titling, Guerrilla Style
As with most aspects of videomaking, there are many ways to approach the problem of getting titles onto the screen.
If you want interesting title work but don’t want to shell out for Digital Video Effects (DVEs) or a character generator, your best bet is the local mall.
As many gaffers will tell you, a good lighting equipment store is your local Walmart, K-Mart, office supply store or hobby shop. This maxim also holds true for finding supplies to create titles.
A trip to the local Ben Franklin can yield colored art board, index cards, a plethora of ink pens, glues, rub-on lettering, felt letters, stencils, clear plastic gels, colored chalk and even plastic google eyes for a doll.
Tacky sounding? Bob Dylan didn’t think so when he stood in front of a camera holding cue cards with lyrics scrawled on them for his Subterranean Homesick Blues video. Try tossing index cards onto a desk with the credits written on them, or printing the titles on a sheet of paper as the tape rolls. The makers of a Jack Kerouac documentary inked the titles onto a roll of toilet paper, then unraveled them slowly past the lens. Art board with press-on letters–say, white type on black–can be as effective as the titles on Woody Allen’s films.
Placing titles on Plexiglas (because it’s cheaper than glass and more durable) and shooting through it is attractive, particularly if the background has rhythmic movement, such as the ocean or trees blowing. Try a rack focus (going from one end of the focus ratio to the other) to bring the titles suddenly into the frame.
In-camera titles–those you create with your cameras titler, if it has one–are an easy and cost-free option. You can use them to effectively present time and place, or to convey simple ideas without much pizzazz. However, the placement of the titles, type style, color and amount of type tend to be very limited.
For a wide selection of type styles, color and special effects, and a little extra expense ($100-$1000), use a stand-alone electronic character generator (CG).
With a CG, you can create titles with drop shadows, borders and differently spaced lines that move in a variety of directions, from traditional scrolling (rolling up the screen) to slow fades (where the words appear and disappear in an almost hazy, soft focus).
CGs come in many shapes and sizes, with a wide range of quality, features and price points. One guide to help you with your selection is the nanosecond rate (the speed at which the monitor’s electronic beam changes brightness). The sharper the image, the lower the rating in nanoseconds. Thirty-five is the baseline for broadcast-quality titles, so if youre planning on doing broadcast work, use this as your touchstone when selecting a CG.
Let’s Be PC About It
For a more extensive selection of font and effect options, a home computer (PC) is the answer.
With computers, you enter a whole new and complicated world of titling. Terms such as alpha channels, anti-aliasing and keying are suddenly thrust into your vocabulary (see sidebar). Font decisions, color choices, RAM and megabytes all dictate the creative palette from which you can create your titles.
Software such as Strata 3D, Adobe Premiere and Pixar’s Typestry are wonderful packages that can produce amazing titles as well as textures and objects. They also ask a lot from your computers memory configuration, as well as additional hardware add-ons such as a graphics accelerator and/or a video playback board.
But once youve got the necessary hardware, the tools of PC graphic design (together with a few cheap tricks) can be the answer to creating great looking titles on the home computer.
There are a lot of great type creation software packages you can use. Some, such as Macromedia’s Fontagrapher, require a knowledge of typography, while others, such as QuarkXpress and Adobe Illustrator, ask only that you be able to type.
For image manipulation, texture creation and special effects, you can use a powerful 3D paint program such as Fractal Design Painter or Adobe Photoshop. With the help of software plug-ins (additional third-party programs that add features to the original package), these amazing programs give you the tools to render any texture or style you can imagine–without hassling with genlocks (the synchronizing of two video signals) or twenty patch cords.
One plug-in that works with a number of software packages, Kai’s Power Tools 2.0, has a seemingly endless supply of textures, fractal designs (colorful designs that form repetitive patterns–very cool stuff), gradients (the blending of colors in a pattern) and special effects such as spherizing. It also comes with a program called Quickshow that lets you fade in and out titles in any sequence you want for as little or long as you want.
Presentation software such as Apple’s HyperCard (for the Macintosh) allows you to create full-motion animation. Though you must create the "scripts" to run a program of titles or animation, HyperCard is very easy to learn and comes with a set of transitional tools such as multiple direction wipes, fades, curtain openings and even venetian blinds.
To record titles from your PC to video, youll have to change the video signal from computer format to standard NTSC television format. If you own a PowerMac AV system, this is easy–just plug a pair of RCA cables or an S-video cable from the back of the computer into the back of your VCR, and youre ready to go.
Of course, not everyone wants (or can afford) to work with an AV PowerMac. If you have an IBM-compatible computer, or maybe a lesser Macintosh that doesnt come out of the box with NTSC video capability, you can get around this problem by purchasing an encoder. This handy little device will change your computers video output to a form that your video equipment–camcorder, VCR, monitor, etc.–can understand.
If youd like to really get fancy with your titles, you can buy a genlock card instead. This card (which includes an encoder) will allow you to merge an NTSC signal with a computer video signal, so that you can write your computer-generated titles over a background of videotaped images. (For a sampling of encoders and genlocks available for both Mac and PC platforms, consult our March 1995 Desktop Video Buyers Guide.)
But none of these tools are of much value if you are not producing titles that your audience can read.
Tools Don’t Make The Title
Font style, color, composition, motion, pacing and background all affect your titles’ readability. So when youre making these decisions, make thoughtful choices. Ask yourself what would be a visually appealing choice that will compliment the tone of your video production.
In all of your choices, try to match the style of the titles with the style of your video. For example, letters stenciled on an AK-47 for a wedding video could be just the right touch if the newlyweds happened to be NRA chapter presidents.
Heres an example from Hollywood: since the subject matter of the feature film Sneakers is computer cryptography (creating and breaking security codes), the opening begins with nonsensical titles in a bold white font; the words appear as though someone is typing them on a computer screen. A few seconds pass before the letters rearrange themselves to form a real name (as if breaking a code). Thus "Fort Red Border" becomes "Robert Redford."
A recent trend in print typography is to challenge the reader’s deciphering capabilities by using illegible fonts obscured by photos and miscellaneous art (Wired magazine, for example). In some instances, this approach works. However, for video, since viewers cannot ponder a title unless they hit pause (which defeats the whole purpose of video), illegible and obscured type will only incite them to do something more constructive than watching a video with illegible titles.
Don’t let this be your mistake. When faced with forty or fifty thousand font styles, the temptation is to overindulge. Fonts are like ice cream flavors; there are millions available, but trying them all at once will make you and the viewer sick. Using ten different font styles for one title conveys a multitude of negative messages such as "confusion," "disorder", "ugly", and "rank amateur with a CG." But if that’s the mood you want to create, by all means, overindulge.
Fonts breakdown into two styles: serif and sans serif. This is a Serif font. This is a Sans Serif font. The difference is in the end strokes of each letter (Sans is French for "without," as in "without a curling end stroke.") Serif fonts are easy on the eye and usually convey warmth. Sans serif type is bold and direct–great for subtitles and in-your-face titles. They can also be cold and unforgiving.
Once you’ve decided which font is most appropriate for the style of your video, be consistent with its usage. If one title is Garamond Condensed, all the titles should be Garamond Condensed. Subtitles should never change font style unless you are using the style change as a humorous or dramatic tool.
In addition to selecting a font style complimentary to your video, you should choose the colors for your titles with the same amount of care. Day-glo colors can connote a feeling of garish energy or pop culture. They may suggest aggressiveness or playfulness. Muted pastels hearken to a more pastoral, gentle tone. They suggest subtlety.
Besides the psychological connotations, keep in mind the readability of your color selections. Red or other bright, saturated colors tend to bleed over the type and create a fuzzy look, so avoid them. On the other hand, dark gray fonts will get lost on a black background. Your colors should blend, but make sure the viewer can see them clearly. A blue sky with white fonts and a drop shadow to make the white pop out is a nice blend.
While your titles should be distinguishable from the background, they should not compete with the background. If the background is busy, keep the titles a solid color. If the background moves, keep the type out of the line of movement.
When selecting background images, be creative. If you’re doing a production on National Parks, use tree bark as background. If it’s a wedding, why not use lace or a shot of the bride’s bouquet? Experiment with shadows on a sidewalk or clouds. You live in a world made up of textures and patterns, all free for your use.
Just as you are careful in font, color and background selections, consider the visual message you will convey with the composition of the titles within the frame. In the feature film Speed, the titles appear in an angle inside an elevator shaft. Each title wipes clean every time we descend past a steel girder, only to be replaced by a new one. The viewer senses motion and action–as the film’s name implies–and has a visual cue to a plot element.
Consider your own titles. Will they appear over moving images? You can center them if the images are pure location with plenty of screen readability, like the Grand Canyon or a freeway.
Titles can appear in a fixed location for stability of composition or in different spots for a more playful sequence.
The rate at which titles appear affects the tone you set for your production. Titles that slowly fade in and out may carry the message "this is a serious/scary/mysterious production." Sudden cuts can give the feeling of urgency or even intentional sloppiness. But no matter how quickly or slowly your titles appear, be sure to leave them on screen long enough for the viewer to see them. A general rule is that a viewer should be able to read a title three times slowly before it leaves the screen.
The same applies to blocks of text. If it scrolls, use the Star Wars rule: take your time.
All of these considerations are useless without knowing your safe title area. This is the area where titles won’t be cut off the screen. Use the "eyeball" principle: if it looks good on your viewfinder, screen or computer monitor, bring the titles in another three-quarters of an inch (roughly ten percent) all the way around.
One good thing about titling for video is that the aspect ratio (the dimensions of your screen–TVs are generally 3:4) is usually the same for you as it is for your viewers. This also comes in handy when you generate titles on a computer screen–it usually shares the same aspect ratio (or close to it) as a TV screen.
Titles can be as fun to make as the production footage, particularly if you get to make fun of your Grandmother’s story about meeting Grandpa. In which case, you might want to make the subtitles transparent 4 point type–to stay in good with the family.
Creating Your Identity
Since you’re knee-deep into titling techniques, why not create a great looking logo for your production company (even if you dont actually have one)? After all, it’s the first thing on the screen. It’s got to be great.
To create my fictitious production company ID (or logo if you prefer), I used three pieces of software: Adobe Illustrator to generate the type, Adobe Photoshop to create effects such as drop shadows and a lens flare, and the Photoshop plug-in Kai’s Power Tools to create textures and a gradient. The machine I used was a Power Macintosh 7100/66 AV with 40 Megabytes of RAM and a 500 megabyte hard drive.
- Step one: choosing a font in Illustrator. I first typed in the name of my fictitious production company, Event Horizon, and viewed it in several serif and sans serif font styles. After deciding on a font, Veljovic Book, and a color (black, since I’d create a texture later), I made minor adjustments in letter space (kerning). I used the "Free Distort" option to change the perspective of the type. After turning the type into outlines, I saved it as a color Macintosh file for importing.
- Step two: importing type into Photoshop. Aside from importing my title, I also created a screen that would work in the 3:4 ratio (in this case 5" x 7"). I also created another layer to separate type from background texture.
- Step three: using the Kai’s Power Tools plug-in. Selecting Texture Explorer from the Kai’s Power Tools plug-in, I searched for a texture that would simulate a sky with clouds. Sure enough, "Sky with Yellow Clouds" was my choice.
- Step four: using Kai’s Gradient Explorer. I did the same thing–searched for a gradient that would simulate a sunrise on a horizontal plane. Lo and behold, "Red Ray Dawn." Using the magic wand tool, I highlighted my black letters, which then allowed me to key in my gradient design.
- Step five: adding the finishing touches. With my sky background and keyed-in gradient title, I created a horizon using a black bar with another red bar on top of it. You’ll notice I used red (break those rules!)–this is because I want the red to appear slightly fuzzy on the horizon. Also, the eighteen percent black in the red dulls it nicely. The drop shadow and the blurring of the red horizon line were done using alpha channels and feathering.
The type for the word "Productions" is Copperplate 29ab and was generated in Photoshop. Again, using alpha channels, I applied a feather to the bottom of the title to have it fade gently to black.
- Step six: I used the Photoshop filter "Lens Flare" set at the 105mm prime with a level of 108 percent. Once finished, I merged the layers and saved the file as a PICT file (you can also save it as a JPEG) so I could run it with my Kai’s Quickshow program.
Because I knew ahead of time the concept for my ID design, the whole process took about an hour. However, I could’ve easily spent a day trying different textures and gradients and shadowing effects.
Annoying Titling Travesties
You’ve seen them. You’ve probably done them. Now you’re going to hear all about them: titling travesties (subtitle: titles that close eyes and doors).
Mistakes fall into many categories, and each has its own special way of annoying the viewer. Let’s begin with my favorite: ignoring the safe title area. The title of your production is Weddings Are My Life, but all we see is dings Are My Li. I’m annoyed just thinking about it. Remember that you’re likely to lose anywhere from 5 to 15 percent of your image around the screen–known as the home cut-off. Allow for the extra space, particularly if you’re running titles close to the edges or using subtitles.
Next to nonsensical titles, the other major no-no guaranteed to annoy is the pacing of vital information. It’s no big deal to the viewer if the production credits scream past or blip for a few seconds, but we the viewers better know what the name of the production is, where it’s taking place (if listed) and what the circumstances are (if you have a scrolling intro) if its on the screen long enough for our brains to make sense of it. Read it three times, slowly. If you can, chances are your viewers can, too.
However, beware the title that sits on the screen for half an hour. There is no better cue for your viewers to crack wise about the duration of the title hold and how that must be a precursor for the rest of the video. Ouch.
Fonts. I’d like to say enough said, but I realize the temptation is strong. Don’t play mix and match with your fonts. Bouncing around styles and colors will only confuse. Also, be aware of your style choice as it relates to the content. While you’re at it–stay away from busy background textures that cause a moiré pattern (an image that appears to throb) on your screen.
If you’re going to use objects arranged to spell words, make sure the viewer is able to identify the word at a glance and the object. Why the object? Because we the viewers will assume the object has bearing on the content (that’s why it’s used for titles), but if we can’t make it out, we’ll miss the meaning (and be annoyed that we’re missing something).
These are the major mistakes with titling. Of course, there are others, such as illegible handwriting, misspellings and color bleeds, but then I’d just get too annoyed talking about them all.
- The alpha channel:
- the computer’s way of taking two images and combining them in a variety of effects such as motion blurring or feathering (where the titles fade out slowly at the top or bottom of the font). The degree of transparency for your titles is controlled in the alpha channel, and with it you can create amazing and often subtle titling effects.
- similar to alpha channels in that you combine two sources of video using a specific color (often blue) as your transparent image. This is often used to show dramatic special effects, such as Superman making tall leaps in a single bound. It’s a great tool for creating motion within a title, such as red flames inside the word Scorch.
- what you want your type to be. It means the blurring of pixels around the perimeter of a font to give it a smooth edge rather than the dreaded "jaggies."