Documentary in the Age of Digital Reproduction (2/7)

2. Subtitles

Shidara Koumei
Subtitler, White Line

Documentary Box (DB): Recently there’s been a move towards subtitles that aren’t directly printed onto the film. Could you tell us more about this?

Shidara Koumei (SK): We used to work with a slide projector and mounted slides, then with innovations in technology moved on to roll slides about eight years ago. We adapted a high-speed 35mm camera to work in frames like an animation camera, and shot each title in one cut. Say a film has a thousand titles—by the time you put in things like black slides for the intervals you’ve clicked the shutter closed about two thousand times. Making slides is a lot of work—it’s labor- and cost-intensive, and takes a lot of time. In comparison, the spread of computers means you can send data by e-mail, and if you can write a basic program and know what you want to accomplish and how to do it, there’s no reason you can’t develop your own system.

A friend and I spent about a year and a half developing our system (JS01), and after fixing bugs and adding extra functions we’re at version 6 now. The system we used at Yamagata last year is inexpensive and easy to use, and if you have a notebook computer and a projector you can use it anywhere. If it gets out of sync it’s easy to fix too. It’s a simple set-up—even kids who aren’t familiar with computers just have to press this key, this key and this key—and training consisted of one four-hour lecture and a little brush-up before the first screenings. So you can call it a digital system, but in practice it’s almost entirely analog. Why do I prefer sticking to analog? Because I don’t think that digital by itself is such a good thing. It’s frightening to leave everything to a machine—if it goes haywire there’s no way to stop it.

There are other subtitle projection systems out there. One system links the subtitle projector to the film projector, and the each signal from the film projector cues the subtitle projector to move ahead to the next frame. Then there’s the system used at Cannes, which uses LED diodes on a board. But both of these systems are incredibly expensive.

DB: Has digital technology been introduced into the process of printing subtitles on film?

SK: It’s mostly done with lasers now, instead of the traditional stamp system [Stamp system: The card writer writes each character of the translation onto cards, makes each card into a copper plate, then soaks the film in a chemical solution and uses a machine to stamp each subtitle onto the print.] With lasers, computer data is streamed directly to a gas laser, which writes characters on the print in one stroke, much as with a pen. Some people say the usual gothic typeface is boring, so there are also fonts that simulate handwriting.

DB: Back to the projection system, what happens with subtitles in languages other than Japanese?

SK: We can show subtitles in any language as soon as we have the font. We can do Korean, Chinese, German and French. If the translator’s data arrives with illegible characters, there’s software to fix that problem. Each character has a code behind it, so if you know the character’s number you can figure out what’s gone wrong, if it has an ASCII number and so on. We also have software that replace illegible characters.

DB: We’ve been talking about digital technology in the subtitling process, but what about subtitles for works in digital media?

SK: With video, you save the text as an image, and compress it onto a magnetic optical (MO) disk. You give each title a tag and mix [the titles in] in a studio. DVD, on the other hand, uses a device called an encoder to write subtitles. The two systems are fundamentally different. DVD subtitles done overseas are given an outline before they’re sent out, and there’s also a system that bypasses MO disks to go directly from the text to work with the image. Recently, some places have started using digital cables to project subtitles, which works basically like a telephone. You can pick the language of your subtitles: English, German, Japanese, and so on. In the future, I think that DVD will be the main medium.

DB: As the cost of subtitling goes down, are you afraid you’ll have to increase the number of projects you take on to keep afloat?

SK: Yes (laughs). But cutting costs is also important. There are so many kids who want to get into the field, but right now no one is nurturing new translators. So I’d like to see costs go down, the number of jobs increase and young kids able to get into the field. We had a lot of new translators for Yamagata last year.

It’s the same with filmmakers. There are so many people out there who until yesterday hadn’t thought of themselves as a filmmaker, then all of the sudden they’re being invited off to film festivals abroad. A lot of filmmakers are strapped for cash, but if they want to enter a film in a festival overseas they have to have subtitles. A lot of people ask me “I don’t have any money, but can I get my film subtitled?” So I do their subtitles for near to nothing, which of course means I don’t make any money (laughs).

Earlier, I said that digital was frightening, but a lot of people out there are happy with digital’s inroads. A lot of works are subtitled for people with hearing disabilities, and a few theaters are experimenting with adjustable headphones and with sound systems that convey sound through vibrations in the jaw. Digital technology makes all this possible too.