Subtitles, for video content, are pretty much always aligned to the bottom-centre of the video frame. There, it doesn’t interfere much with the visual content, but I can’t think of any other particular reason why it should be there (perhaps there’s some history I’m missing out on). Top-centre alignment is rare (although it seems to be as feasible as bottom-centre) – often only used for translating signs or placing lines of a secondary speaker.
However, a problem I’ve noticed with all the anime that I’ve watched, is that this positioning really draws your focus towards the bottom of the screen, especially if you’re a slow reader like I am. It means that I have to rely more on my peripheral vision to see the actual content, or, as I quite often do, frequently pause the video to give me enough time to look up and see what’s going on. This is perhaps one of the key reasons why I prefer dubs over subs.
And, if anything happens to be aligned top-centre, such as translation notes or secondary speaker lines, it’s much easier to miss if your attention is at the bottom of the video frame. Though this could be easily solved by placing all subtitles at the bottom of the screen and using styling to differentiate the lines.
A more radical idea just came to me though: what if subtitles were centred on the screen? This could make things easier to read by keeping you focused on the content. Semi-transparency could be used to mitigate most the downsides of the text obscuring content, and it’s not hard to do. ASS, the standard subtitle format used these days for anime fansubs, already supports both these features (and a lot more), unlike many other formats such as DVD subtitles, which don’t provide this flexibility and may have made this idea less practical.
Here’s a list of pros & cons of centre aligning subtitles that I could come up with:
- Keeps your focus towards the centre of the screen
- Makes it easier for slow readers to read subtitles whilst watching what’s actually going on in the video
- Generally an easy change to make (see below for a quick guide)
- Subtitle authors have the option of embedding two subtitle tracks or supplying an alternatively styled subtitle file, which means that nothing changes for the viewer unless they want to experiment with centre aligned subtitles
- May be more distracting
- May obscure content unless specifically authored to not do so, either through positional or transparency adjustments
- Adjusting positioning to avoid the above could mean that the viewer has to look around for subtitles at times, though, since the the idea is to draw attention towards the centre of the screen, this probably isn’t much of an issue
- Semi-transparency could make text harder to read
- People aren’t used to it, and hence seems weird
- May require subtitle format to support alignment and semi-transparency settings, though the user usually has the option to specify these for simpler formats like SubRip
- This probably isn’t applicable everywhere – I’m only considering anime fansubs here
Well, it’s easy to do, so why not test it? After doing a quick test, I did find that I could actually read the subtitles without pausing the video like I usually do. It did feel weird though, but I’d imagine that one could get used to it. Here’s a before and after screenie:
The following would probably need some specific attention though, as aligning to the centre doesn’t seem the most appropriate here. (Note that the translation isn’t for the text on screen, rather it’s a translation of what’s being spoken)
I don’t know whether anyone else has thought and tried this before – a very quick web search doesn’t seem to turn up anything, and I’ve certainly never heard of anyone looking into this idea.
So if you read this and am interested, I certainly would love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Personally, this idea seems to be worthy of consideration, and I’d like to try it out more. Or perhaps not everyone has the same issues as I do…
How to Test it Yourself
As my interest here is for anime, I’m only going to provide a rough guide on how to modify a fansubbed video for centre screen subtitles. I’m also going to assume that it is an MKV file with ASS subtitles (and alignments aren’t forced every line etc etc), which is what most fansubbers distribute in.
- First, you need to extract the subtitle stream – you can use MKVExtractGUI for this (or just the mkvextract CLI utility if you computer is anti-Microsoft)
- Open the extracted ASS file with Aegisub
- Visit the Subtitles menu and the Styles Manager option
- On the right, there’s a big list box of all the defined styles, and you’ll need to identify the main one(s) (usually Default) and Edit them. This could be difficult depending on how the styles are set up and may require you to edit multiple styles
- In the Style Editor dialog (that pops up after clicking the Edit button), add semi-transparency by specifying opacity in the Colors frame (it’s the textboxes under the colour buttons). Values range from 0 (opaque) to 255 (transparent) – 96 is a good value to start with for Primary, and perhaps try 128 for Outline and 224 for Shadow
- In the same dialog, set the alignment to be the centre of the screen (5) and then click OK
- Close the Styles Manager dialog and save the file
- Open your video and use the “load subtitle file” option (for MPC, it’s File menu -> Load Subtitle) and select the edited subtitle file
- Hopefully it all works, if not, you may need to go back to Aegisub and try editing other styles
- Watch the video and submit your thoughts in the comment box below. Remember that the last step is always the crucial one