May 28, 2007


The director Timur Bekmambetov turns film subtitling into an art (Alice Rawsthorn, May 27, 2007, International Herald Tribune)

There is nothing conventional about the subtitles in Timur Bekmambetov's movie, "Dnevnoy dozor" (Day Watch), which will introduce American schlock-horror-chopper movie fans to the screaming vampire, shape-shifting lover and other equally implausible characters, after opening in the United States on Friday. (The film opened last year in Russia and will open in many European countries in the autumn.) [...]

We live at a time when most things are neurotically over-designed. We can all think of examples. Over-styled cars. Overcomplicated cellphones. "Come-in-Cape-Canaveral" espresso machines. I could continue, but it's too depressing. Over-design is so rife that it is rare for any area of contemporary life to escape it (and rarer still if it would actually benefit from more design attention) but one example is the subtitling of foreign language films.

Subtitles are almost always badly designed. Illegible typefaces drift on- and off-screen at the wrong moments, lurking so low that the bottoms of the letters are chopped off, and obstructing the audience's view of gripping twists in the plot, or especially beautiful scenes. It doesn't seem to matter how good - or bad - the film is, the size of its budget, the quality of the cinematography, sets, costumes or titles, because the subtitles are still dire. Every other area of movie aesthetics has a proud design history, except subtitling.

"It's not exactly an after-thought, but people tend to do it expediently," said Stuart Comer, curator of film at Tate Modern museum in London. "Subtitling often takes place after the film is completed. It isn't necessarily done by the director, and there is less quality control. That's why it can seem thoughtless."

In fairness to filmmakers, the traditional method of making subtitles wasn't exactly conducive to creativity. After coating each frame of film in paraffin wax, the words of the subtitle were stamped on in a zinc strip. The film was then bathed in bleach, which stripped off everything that wasn't protected by the wax, namely the subtitles. It was an unreliable process that often resulted in the subtitles being out of synch with the narrative, and in spelling mistakes.

Digital technology has since made the process simpler and more flexible, but filmmakers have been slow to take advantage. In the unlikely event that someone compliments a movie's subtitles, it is likelier to be because of their literary qualities, than the design; except for Timur Bekmambetov's films.

Just another good reason to watch his films, day or night.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 28, 2007 5:29 PM
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