As anyone who has been to many festivals or film school screenings can attest, for most independent and student filmmakers, title design is a rushed process at the end of a busy editorial cycle. While it may be easy to type titles and credits into the standard titling tool in a nonlinear editing application, the end result usually looks only a step above the character generators built into consumer home video cameras. Usually the title is the very first image an audience sees in a film, and as we all know, first impressions count the most.
Even if you do not have the resources to create a stunningly animated title sequence, a simple edit of title cards can be effective if they are designed with care. However, to design type effectively usually requires the use a separate program that is intended for the obsessive needs of graphic designers. For video, that program is usually Photoshop (Adobe, $599, www.adobe.com). To take advantage of Photoshop’s design prowess there are a few tricks to ensure that the work will look right on a television monitor.
Designing text for video in a non-video-specific application requires a few extra steps because of the unique way that televisions display images. The following tips use Photoshop as the primary example for the design application, but should work for any bitmap image editing and design application. My examples here are also primarily for NTSC DV/DVD resolution video, although other interlaced resolutions and formats are also applicable.
The first issue to be aware of when using Photoshop to design titles that are destined for video is the difference between computer and television monitors. Each monitor breaks images into tiny pixels that display the image. Computer monitors’ pixels are perfectly square while television pixels are rectangular. Titles and images created on a computer can appear “stretched” when displayed on a television if this difference is not taken into account.
Although some editing programs allow you to specify the pixel shape, or “pixel ratio,” for imported files, a much simpler way to ensure that your Photoshop designs are displayed correctly on video is to create them at a nonstandard size and then resize to them video resolution once you are done. For example, to create titles in Photoshop that will look right when shown on NTSC D1/601-size video, create a new Photoshop document with a width of 720 pixels and height of 540 pixels (Note: It should be 720 x 536 for NTSC MiniDV/DVD). Once you have finished your design, go to the image menu and select “image size.” In there, uncheck the “keep proportion” option and change the image size to 720 x 480, which is the size of DV and DVD video. Although it will look strange in Photoshop now, your file will look correct when seen on a video monitor. Make sure that you keep the original 720 x 540 file, because you will have to use that to make any adjustments.
Beside the issue of pixel shape, the other major issue facing text designers is how to deal with the quirky ways that televisions respond to images with lines that are very thin, colors that are too bright, or sudden contrast between two elements. Designers that are used to the relative freedom of print design may chafe at the number of restrictions that video imposes upon text design, but these restrictions can be easily met if the designer follows a few simple guidelines. First, don’t use a font that has small, thin elements to it because, due to video interlacing, very thin lines may look like they vibrate on a television screen. If you just have to use a font with thin lines, use a larger version of it.
Second, depending on color usage and design, there may be some vibration on the screen at points, with a sharp edge between contrasting colors. To remedy this, a slight blur will help. I’ve found that a slight Gaussian blur set between 0.5 and 1 pixel helps, without noticeable blurring. The point of blurring is not to make text look less sharp, but to make the transition between contrasting colors smoother. Another option you might try is to blur just the edges by hand with the Blur tool.
Video can display a wide range of colors, but it’s best to work with colors that are not too bright. Don’t pick colors at full brightness or saturation. Also, make use of Photoshop’s NTSC video filter that adjusts colors to make them “video legal.”
Lastly, don’t forget about the title and action safe areas of a television. Most televisions do not display all of the video signal, so video text designers need to make sure to stay inside the title safe area. Although Photoshop does not have a built-in title safe area overlay, there are several websites that have Photoshop templates for download. (Try a search on google.com for “title safe Photoshop.”)
Some nonlinear editing programs can import Photoshop files directly (including Final Cut Pro and Premiere) but even if yours cannot, just about every program can import an image format such as JPEG or TIFF. Make sure that your image is in the RGB color space and 72 dpi. Although some video programs will import Photoshop’s layer information, unless you plan on animating your text (a process too complicated to detail here), flatten the layers of your image by going into the layers menu and selecting “flatten layers.” Make sure that you keep a working copy of your file with layers intact so you can still edit it later.
Designing titles in Photoshop is most effective for tiles that are still or have a minimum of animation to them. For title crawls, it is best to use the software that is included in most editing programs. Due to video interlacing, it is difficult to animate text with vertical movement, and it is best left to programs that are designed specifically for title crawls.
These guidelines will help somebody who is familiar with type design in Photoshop or another design program create titles for video. How to be a good designer is a different subject. If you are unaccustomed to the ways of type design, I strongly suggest consulting one of the many available introductory texts. I found Robin Williams’ The Non-Designer’s Design Book (Peachpit Press, $14.95) to be a fine introduction to the art of type design; it includes information on myriad topics, such as kerning and font selection.
If you don’t feel like gaining an impromptu education in type design, try to find a print designer to create your titles. Many designers are interested in moving to designing for video and would appreciate experience on a real project—so they may not ask for much money in return. If you do find a designer who is new to video, start them out by giving them this article so they know how to prepare their work.