The Art of Titling

There you are, sitting in a theater, shoving bits of popcorn into your mouth, slurping an ice-cold cola and trying to decipher those pre-movie trivia questions. When the lights dim, the thunderous voice of the movie preview narrator comes on and an amazing shower of ultra-high-tech titles fly by on the silver screen, nearly blowing you out of your seat. "Why don’t my titles look that good?," you ask yourself.

Compositing (layering) packages like After Effects, Maya Fusion, or Alias|Wavefront Composer can vastly expand your palette of effects and allow multiple layer rendering, but they can cost big bucks and carry a steep learning curve. But, contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to buy expensive compositing software to make good-looking titles like those you’ve seen in the movies and on television. Video editing programs like Adobe Premiere, Apple Final Cut Pro and Ulead Media Studio Pro can create some pretty impressive titles on their own. All you need to know to start making professional-looking TV-style titles are just a few principals. This article will teach you some techniques you can try next time you build a title.

A Little Background

Your title’s background, contrary to common thought, should not be the focus of your title. That is why backgrounds are often blurred, have their color set off-balance, are highly contrasted, show signs of apparent film damage (scratches and dust effects) or merely fade in and out between titles.

When building titles, don’t draw too much attention to the background. Think of your background in terms of music. When a band is playing, the singer leads and the volume is higher on the singer than the rest of the instruments. Those instruments are important, but must not detract attention from the singer. Think of the title as the singer and the background as the singer’s supporting musicians.

Creating a background can be one of the most fun steps in building a title, and can make your ordinary title look more professional very quickly. This is the one section of your video that can have multiple effects piled on top of each other and still look good. There are three basic types of effects, use them in any combination to create a title background.

  • Speed: Speeding up or slowing down the background layer of video.
  • Color: Color tinting and tweaking brightness and contrast.
  • Occlusion: Blur, film grain and distortion effects.

    Experiment with your software; see what it has to offer in terms of color and filter effects in these categories. It shouldn’t take long for you to develop some favorites. Some of my favorites in Premiere are Radial Blur, Brightness/Contrast and Color Pass.

    Before applying any text, be aware of your safe title area. The safe area is the section that is visible to the viewer. A frame overlaps most TV screens, cutting off some of the picture. There are actually two safe areas. Action safe has a bit more leeway because even if the action drifts off screen slightly, most of it is probably still in view. Action safe reaches about 7 to 10 percent in from each side. Title safe reaches roughly 15 to 20 percent from each side. There is less tolerance with text because viewers must see each letter in its entirety so they won’t be distracted by a title that falls off-screen.


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    Text Layers

    It’s hard to have too many layers. Rarely is a silver-screen title (aside from those horrid scrolling ending credits) just a single layer of text put up on the screen over a static background or movie clip.

    A general guideline is to not declare any title finished until it has at least three layers of text. These layers are primary text, drop shadow and effect text.

  • Primary Text is the crisp, readable text that attracts the viewers’ eyes.
  • Drop Shadow is the same text made dark gray and blurred, then put behind the primary text, separating it from the background (and giving the illusion that the primary text is raised from the screen).
  • Effect Text is the furthest text layer from the front. It is usually unreadable, but adds depth to the title.

    Let’s start at the top. Primary text should always be legible. Some title sequences are very artistic and seem well done, but are rendered completely useless because they can’t be read. Chose a font that not only is readable, but also suits the production’s mood. You wouldn’t use an Old English font for The Matrix, just as you wouldn’t use an ultra-techno font for Sense and Sensibility. Most titles are white, but again, think of your mood when you choose a font color. Blue implies a cool mood (like outer space). Green implies the use of computers (mostly inferred from those days when computer monitors were monochrome). Yellow and red can represent anger. Black should only be used as a text color in rare cases when the background evenly contrasts against it.

    Drop shadows look nice when using white primary titles. One might deduce by its name that the drop shadow effect was derived from the illusion it yields, that the background is falling away. A drop shadow is simply an identical layer of text to the primary, but much darker, slightly offset and sometimes slightly blurred. This separates the primary text from the background, making it the primary focus of the viewer and also provides contrast so that the text is easier read.

    The third layer, effect text, is relatively new to video titling. It is also an identical layer of text, placed behind the others to provide an effect. The most common effect is a vertical blur. It gives the impression that the text was vertically stretched. This is something that defines the title artist’s style. This is the most fun layer, and your time would be well spent developing it by playing with all of the different filters your editing software offers.

    Titles in Motion

    The third important principal of titling is motion. Very rarely do titles remain statically in place during their life on the screen. Most titles today rush in from the sides, vibrate erratically or slowly slide onto the screen.

    Motion is another key factor in the title artist’s style. Experiment with motion. Try setting multiple key frames to create a custom path and vary the speed and rotation of your title. This will make the motion a little less predictable, and a bit more interesting.

    Title Wrap

    In conclusion, the most important things to remember when titling are taking your time, using as many layers as possible (even if it means rendering the sequence an inordinate number of times, making sure that you stay true to the mood of your production, and giving attention to detail.

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