Subtitling on zero budget

Accessible subtitling is critical for disabled users, and increasingly essential for all users, due to the popularity muting sound while consuming social video. Producing subtitles is not difficult, and can be done for free. This guide helps explain how subtitling works and takes you through the process of creating a subtitle file at zero cost. Video is not finished until it has been subtitled or captioned.

What does a subtitle file look like?

A subtitle file connects speech in the video with text. Depending on the intent of the Caption Writer, other elements of the video may also be conveyed. Subtitles can be stored in many different digital files. The simplest is SubRip (.srt) which is accepted by Facebook and Youtube as well as semi – professional applications like Adobe Premiere Pro CC

What you need:

  • a transcript of your video
  • a video player that will display ‘Audio time units’ – i.e. time in HH:MM:SS;mS and which you are familiar with
  • a text editor (notepad will do if you are desperate)

SRT formatting is exceptionally simple. This makes it suitable for hand coding into a plain text file. The format is simply this:

  • Subtitle index (starts at zero increments +1 per subtitle)
  • Start time –> end time (h:mm:ss;ms)
  • Subtitle content (as plain text, hard line breaks are honoured on screen)
  • Blank line to terminate this subtitle
1
00:20:41,150 --> 00:20:45,109
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 
Lets open up this tricky passage of scripture. 

2 
00:20:45,110 -->  00:20:50,001
The wise ones, Magi, brought gifts to the infant Christ of 
Gold Frankinsense and myrh

There is a very readable guide at Wikipedia about the format and also some formatting permitted by convention in many SRT clients

Step 1: Obtaining a transcript of your video

  • The simplest strategy is just to type one. I recommend not trying to type your transcript in SRT format to start with. Instead transcribe it into natural chunks. If you are very familiar with what was said, you may find that transcribing chunks from the end of the video and moving ‘backwards’ towards the beginning gets you a more accurate transcript.
    • This technique is great if you have poor internet upload speed, or are constrained to keep the content of the video on your local machine – for example in the developing world
    • Hand coding also works well if you have poor quality sound in the video
  • An alternative method is to use an AI speech recognition service. There are several with adequate free plans for a lot of work:
    • At the time of writing Otter.ai works well providing you give it clean audio. Helpfully Otter can handle multiple speakers competently.

Step 2: Splitting your transcript for best effect

Subtitling for effective communication is an art. You can’t expect to just split every n words. That creates very poor intelligibility. You want to help the viewer through the video. Your role is important and should not be rushed. Here’s an example

Christmas has come and gone and also the new year.
And if we are honest,

we would probably have to admit that most of us,
if not all of us have been feeling rather exhausted.

We do it every year, the mad rush to buy the presents before
the shop closeson Christmas Eve;.

Step 3: Adding timings

Now there is nothing to do but some hard work. In the absence of any other tools you need VLC the excellent free video player to play the video out. You need an VLC extension ‘Time’ which allows you to put the time in an useful format on screen in ms.

Simply go down the file adding in the time stamps and index numbers

Step 4: Finalise

Now name the file *.srt perhaps video-date.srt and you are good to go.

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