Closed Captioning and Subtitling for Filmmakers

Updated May 2015

When we started Subsandcaps, we had you—filmmaker, content creator—in mind. We wanted to make finding closed captioning and subtitling services a better experience by giving you choices and information to make the best decision.

Part of that is understanding what exactly you need for your film.

So let's say you've just completed your film and you're looking at putting it out on the festival circuit or getting it distributed online. One thing you definitely want to consider is adding a closed captioning or subtitling file. Regardless of whether you do it yourself or outsource it, this guide will help you figure out exactly what you need.

Closed Captioning

A closed captioning file will be required for many sites (iTunes is one of the biggest). This is a very special kind of subtitling, so don't make the mistake of thinking that any subtitle file will work. If it doesn't have the right information, it may violate U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines.

FCC guidelines state:
Captioning should reflect as much of the audio as possible. Captioning should feature proper spelling and punctuation.
Captioning should not block important information on the screen. Captioning should run for the entire length of the program.

Additionally: Closed captioning was originally created for broadcast television in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s. Therefore, some of the caption file formats are restrictive in terms of the kind and amount of information they can contain. The most common file format—.cap and .scc—can contain no more than 32 characters per caption line. They also offer few stylistic options.

Foreign Language Subtitling

If you're reading this, there's a good chance that your film's original language is English. But that doesn't mean English is the native language of your potential audience. Our friends at report that 47% of their viewers are not native English speakers. Before running off to find a Norwegian or Esperanto subtitler, keep in mind that some languages may be more important than others for your project. You know your film. And you know what's best for it.

These subtitles can come in a variety of file formats. The most common is .srt. However, you may want to ask about specific characters-per-line limitations specific to the site or media you'll be using. In most cases, subtitles will always be displayed centered, at the bottom of the screen, and in no more than two lines.

Subtitles for the Deaf or Hard of Hearing (SDH)

SDH subtitles contain all the information that captions would but they are created and displayed like traditional foreign language subtitles. This was an invention of the DVD industry in the U.S. as a way of offering a better captioning experience to DVD viewers who chose to turn them on. For all practical purposes an SDH subtitle file that meets the 32-characters-per-line limit can be used as a "caption" file and a subtitle file. You would only need to export out the file in the format required (.cap, .scc, .srt, etc.).

Type Common File Formats Restrictive?
Closed captioning .scc, .cap Yes
Foreign language subtitles .srt, WebVTT, DFXP/TTML No
SDH - Subtitles for the Deaf
and Hard of Hearing
.srt, WebVTT, DFXP/TTML No