How to Format Your Video Captions
This article was also posted as a guest blog on 3playMedia.
Video is everywhere. It’s on our TVs, laptops, tablets, mobile phones and more! And, more often than not, people are now watching videos in environments where they can’t have the audio on, like subways, libraries, offices, and sometimes in classrooms. Facebook videos now also automatically play without the sound on and open captions are now being used by content creators to grab the attention of the viewer.
The prominent use of open captions is fantastic news to sectors working in disability policy, because this stylistic phenomenon is making videos more accessible to persons who are deaf or hard of hearing. If this trend continues, who knows, maybe in the future, teachers will be able to integrate “silent readings” of videos in the classroom in the same way they have for books.
Since our world is saturated with video everywhere we go, it is even more important that content creators are educated in the style and formatting standard for captioning. In this post, I’m going to go through what you would need to caption and how to best format them.
But first, let’s define a few things.
What are Captions?
Captions are on-screen text that describe what is being said and heard in a video so someone can watch and fully comprehend all action and dialogue within a video without the sound on. But wait, what’s the difference between closed captions, open-captions and subtitles?
Closed captions are on-screen text that describes all sounds (dialogue, sound effects, and music) in the motion picture that you can turn off. Captions were created for viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing. In most popular video players, such as YouTube or Vimeo, you will find a “CC” button which allows you to turn the closed captions (CC) on or off.
Open captions are the same as closed captions, BUT you can’t turn them off; they are burned into the video file. If you are showing a video at an live event without internet access, you will likely need to burn captions into the video to make the video accessible during the live event.
Subtitles are a direct translation of what is said. For example, if you watch a French movie and turn on English subtitles so you can understand the dialogue (if you don’t speak French).
Is captioning required?
In the United States the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that videos must be accessible to persons who are deaf and hard of hearing by means of captioning or closed captions.
If you are subject to the ADA and do not caption, you could be vulnerable to a discrimination lawsuit.
Read more about the legal requirements for closed captioning online video.
My mantra is: when in doubt, always caption.
How would you feel if you couldn’t participate in a video discussion or access educational content because you couldn’t hear and there were no captions? Likely not great. Treat captions and accessibility like a human right, because it is. Captioning does take additional production time. If you don’t have time to caption your own content check out 3Play Media’s pricing for captioning. Their pay as you go plan is very reasonable!
Caption Format & Style
There is not one nationally or internationally standardized practice for formatting captions on videos. In fact, a study conducted at Gallaudet in 2013 shows that “consumers do not recognize features commonly used to represent non-speech information (NSI) (see NSI description below).” Based on Gallaudet’s study and my own experience captioning videos for the federal government and on Premiere Gal video tutorials, here are some formatting and style tips to make your captions easy to comprehend by all viewers.
YouTube automatically places closed captions in the center bottom of the screen. When you edit your videos, make sure there is nothing important in the bottom portion of the screen as closed captions may cover up this important content. The bottom center location is the most common practice for closed captions, but for open captions you have more freedom to on where to place the text. Check out my Premiere Gal tutorial on how to create open captions on the right.
Font & Color
If you want to be more creative with size and font, go for it! Just make sure that it is easy to read. Some colors are are hard to read against certain backgrounds. To make sure that your colors comply with accessibility standards, you can use this color contrast checker.
Stick with Non-Serif Fonts
You can use any font you want as long as it is easy to read. But many practitioners recommend sticking to a Sans Serif font style, like Arial, Calibri, Helvetica, Tahoma or Verdana as they are easier to read in video format than serif fonts. Serif fonts usually have small detailed lines at the end of the characters making it more convoluted and busy to the eye.
Examples of serif fonts are: Garamond, Times New Roman, and Rockwell. That said, an updated study on the effective use of serif vs. sans serif font in video captions has yet to be conducted.
Another school of thought is to make your caption font the same as the font you use in your brand. With closed captions on YouTube or Vimeo, you are bit more restricted to fonts in the software, but if you are creating your own open captions in Premiere Pro or another software that gives you font style customization, I suggest using your open caption font as a way to create consistency in your brand.
A great example of this can be seen in Hillary Clinton’s campaign videos on Facebook. The open caption font seen on the videos is the same as the font used on the logo, website, and all print media.
Remember, most importantly, people just want to be able to understand what is going on in the video when they read the captions. I recommend checking out some of NowThis or BuzzFeed videos on Facebook for ideas on how to get creative with your captioning style for social media videos.
Non-Speech Information (NSI)
NSI is everything that makes up a video’s soundtrack, excluding the spoken dialogue. Non-speech sounds are important because they often contain information about plot, character, and emotion that are not accessible to persons who are deaf if they are not cleared indicated. If sounds are not important to your story, you do not need to caption NSI.
It is important that viewers know who is speaking, whether it is a narrator, journalist, or interviewee. It is also important to indicate on-screen and offscreen speech.
When someone first speaks, introduce them by including their name in all-caps in brackets like so.
[PREMIERE GAL] Hi everybody! How are you doing today?
Dialect, Language, and Emphasis
To indicate an accent or foreign language in your captions, place text in all lower case and put in parenthesis.
- (southern accent) Y’all ready to get started?
- (speaking in French) I love video editing.
(Note: that last one is only necessary when the captions are a translation of the original language.)
If there are words that are emphasized, italicize them if you can (this is not possible with closed captions on YouTube). You can do this with open captions in Premiere Pro. Watch my tutorial on how to use open captions.
I made a music video, so do I need to have captions? Yes, of course! Music captions might look something like this:
- Introducing song: [Celine Dion sings “My Heart Will Go On”]
If you don’t know the title of the song you can just identify the style in brackets: [upbeat pop playing] or [slow violin playing]
If there are lyrics, the DCMP Captioning Key recommends using one musical note icon at the beginning and end of each music lyric caption. Like this:
- ♪ Somebody to love ♪
The most common way to indicate a sound effect on screen is to place the sound or the source of the sound in brackets, like so:
- [dog barking]
- [cell phone ringing]
These are all recommendations that I hope will help you format and gain a better understanding of how to best caption your video content to make it the most accessible to everyone.
Captioning trends will likely change over time as technology adapts and as more studies are conducted. After all, just in the last year, we have already seen new open captioning trends emerge on Facebook!
If you have any updates to this captioning guide or any questions, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.