Captioning and Subtitling Terms to Know

Rashida Beal
Feb 24, 2023
Captioning and Subtitling Terms to Know
Captioning and Subtitling Terms to Know

If you’ve ever seen a movie, YouTube video, or television show with captions or subtitles, then you know how important they can be in providing access to content for the deaf and hard of hearing. But do you really understand what those terms mean? Did you know that there are actually differences between subtitles and closed captions? Read this article to find out more about captioning and subtitling terms so that you can better understand the world of media accessibility.

Subtitles: What are They and What Kinds are There?

Subtitles can often be a confusing topic for people who do not recognize the exact differences between the different varieties of subtitles (and you might be surprised to learn that there are actually quite a few).

In a nutshell, subtitles are sets of text that appear on the screen during the showing of a video that has sound or audio file.

People are most likely familiar with subtitles that serve one of two purposes: they are aimed to help deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals or the translation of audio in a foreign language in the video.

For folks that are hard of hearing, it is harder for them to hear the audio from videos, so they rely on captions and subtitles to provide the necessary information for them to understand what is being said due to factors such as background noises, sound effects, layered music, or individuals not speaking clearly or over one another. Subtitles also make content more accessible by allowing viewers to see what is being said on-screen in their own language.

However, you may not be familiar with the distinction between the two most commonly utilized subtitles. Those are open subtitles and closed subtitles.

Open Subtitles vs. Closed Subtitles

There is one major difference between open and closed subtitles that differentiates the two.

Open subtitles are burned onto a video and cannot be turned on or off but rather displayed on a video as an image. In other words, open subtitles are essentially a permanent caption that has been added to a video.

However, closed subtitles (also known as teletext subtitles) are most commonly recognizable for television viewers, as they are sent as a stream of characters encoded in the broadcast feed through television signals. Users are able to turn them off or on at will. Some closed captions are even customizable, with users being able to choose their own font, font size, and font color. This increases the accessibility of closed subtitles even further.

Closed subtitles are most associated with foreign programs, and translate foreign languages for international audiences. For example, if a movie is in French but a person who only speaks Japanese wants to watch the movie, they can turn on the movie in French while viewing the Japanese subtitles. This will allow them to understand what is going on on the screen, even if they do not understand the audio. The display of closed subtitles can be turned on or off when desired and, if applicable, different languages can be selected.

There is some debate between whether open or closed subtitles should be the norm, but both are valued by individuals in the United States and worldwide for their ability to bring people together over different media. Open and closed subtitles both increase the accessibility of content, ensuring that people can view things and access resources they could previously not get to.

What is the Difference Between Closed Subtitles and Closed Captions?

So you now know the difference between open and closed subtitles. Still, more confusion can be had when trying to distinguish between closed captions and closed subtitles - because yes, there is a difference between the two. Some may use these terms interchangeably, but they actually are two different things.

Closed captions are similar to subtitles in that they do offer the same accessibility for folks that are deaf, hard of hearing, or wanting to watch content in a different language. However, rather than the subtitles being burned on, they are instead accessible through a decoder.

Television closed captions for broadcast have been typically encoded into Line 21 and actually broadcast separately to the video feed, which is why you may sometimes notice that captions for live video feeds are on a delay. Closed captions are frequently used for news broadcasts, sports games, and other live broadcasts.

Pop-Up Subtitles Vs Roll-up Subtitles Vs Paint-On Subtitles

The way subtitles are presented also plays a role in which terminology is used to refer to them. There are three different ways to display subtitles: pop-on subtitles, roll-up subtitles, and paint-on subtitles. Depending on whether a content is livestreamed or prerecorded, as well as the length of content and type of content, a different type of subtitle display method might be used.

Pop-on subtitles are the type of subtitles that users have traditionally become accustomed to. They are displayed on the screen during a movie, TV show, or video, and appear at the bottom of the screen in a set position. Once one line of text is over and the character finishes speaking that portion of the text, a new subtitle appears on the screen.

Roll-up subtitles, on the other hand, do not display in a set position. Though they do display at the bottom of the screen, they scroll, and can display up to as many as three or four lines at a time. This way, subtitle readers can take in more information as it comes in. Roll-up subtitles are usually used for live content; if you’ve ever watched a livestream on Twitch or even just sat down to watch your local news, you’ve probably seen roll-up subtitles.

The last type of subtitles, and probably the least used, are paint-on subtitles. Like roll-up subtitles, paint-on subtitles are often used for livestreams and other events that require live coverage. The subtitles appear from left to right as they are written, appearing to be “painted onto the screen as they appear.

Foreign Subtitles

We have already discussed subtitles that display translated languages from the video content to the desired language of the viewer. For example, a native English speaker might be able to view a movie in Chinese by viewing the English subtitles, which will allow them to then understand the content on-screen. These foreign subtitles are defined as subtitles which are in a different language to the source video.

There are times when foreign subtitles are made open subtitles by the creators of that content, as it will include either multiple languages or a language that does not exist outside of the context of the content. These subtitles, being open, cannot be turned off by the viewer. For example, subtitles in Elvish will appear when the characters are speaking that language during the Lord of the Rings movies. Without subtitles, no one would understand what these characters are saying - so the subtitles are not optional but instead a necessity.

Narrative Captions

Another form of closed captioning is the inclusion of narrative captions. Narrative captions are most often used frequently in documentaries. Narrative captions, much like foreign captions, are another form of open captions burned onto the video content and cannot be removed.

Narrative captions are burned into video content and cannot be removed because they provide outline important information, names, dates or titles in a movie or program that may be missed if just said by an outside narrator. For example, a narrative caption might delve into a person’s backstory, events after the documentary, or provide further information about the events of the documentary during it. Sometimes, narrative captions are displayed before a movie and after; other times, they are displayed during or a mix of the three.

Closed Captioning Technical Terms

Once you understand the fundamentals of closed captioning and subtitling, you can understand that they are, in fact, not the same thing. But regardless of whether you’re writing subtitles or closed captions, there are terms you’ll need to know relating to timing and formatting. These technical terms will help you understand how closed captioning and subtitles work, and how they align so perfectly with the content you’re watching or listening to.

Reading Speed

When creating closed captions, there are a lot of things subtitlers need to keep in mind so that those watching the content on their video players or televisions will have a good experience. For example, when creating closed captions, you'll need to set a good reading speed. The reading speed is defined as the rate at which the text displays on the screen, compared to the actual length of the text. If the words aren't on the screen long enough, viewers won't be able to read them; if they are on the screen for too long, then they will miss out on the next phrase that is said on screen.

Sync, Sync Points And Timecodes

You’ll also need to ensure that the closed captions or subtitles are in sync with the video file and audio file. Sync means to align the audio element with a visual element and text, ensuring that the text on-screen displays what is being said at that given moment. To ensure that the audio, video, and text are in sync, closed captioners create a sync point. This is just a reference point to which they refer back to to ensure that everything is aligned properly. In order to set a sync point and determine whether a video file, audio file, and text file are running together as they should be, captioners look at a useful type of closed caption information called timecodes. Timecodes are a specific time code given to a certain point at a video to help creators keep track of where it is and come back to it later. Sync points are time coded reference points in the video.


In addition to the above time-related terminology, there’s another important sync-related term to know: offset. Offset is known as the process of moving subtitles to achieve a better sync; in other words, if you notice that a subtitle is out of place, you will need to offset it for it to be in the right place to align with the speaker’s dialogue. When you offset a subtitle, you do not change the length of time for which the subtitle is displayed, nor do you change the reading speed; instead, you simply move the subtitle’s location relative to the video and audio files.

Encoding Vs Burning Subtitles

Once you’ve finished writing your subtitles, you need to somehow attach them to your video content. You can either encode or burn subtitles into a video. Burning subtitles into a video makes them unattachable; you will no longer be able to view the video without the subtitles at the bottom. Encoding the subtitles, on the other hand, adds them as a separate but attached file that can be toggled on or off at the viewer’s will. For most purposes, it’s a better idea to encode subtitles; but for necessary information like that included in narrative captions, burning subtitles might be necessary.

Add Subtitles To Your Videos With Maestra Studio

If you’re new to closed captioning and subtitling, there are a lot of new terms you’ll come across and have to familiarize yourself with. Thankfully, you can use digital tools like Maestra Studio to make adding subtitles simple and fast without having to learn all of the complex lingo or go through a complex process of converting tons of files! Instead of taking months to learn all of the closed captioning and subtitling accessibility best practices, let us take care of the hard work for you with the Maestra Studio tool.

To use Maestra Studio, just upload your video or audio file - and our tool will immediately provide you with synced subtitles that you’re free to edit in any way you like! You can even convert your subtitles into different languages. Using our rich-text editor, ensuring that all of your subtitles and closed captions are pitch-perfect is quick and effortless. Give Maestra Studio a try for free today!

Rashida Beal
Feb 24, 2023

Keep reading

Even more stories from Maestra

View all
How To Dictate A Video On Word

How To Dictate A Video On Word

Do you have a video project that you need to transcribe quickly but don't have the time or energy to manually...

Rashida Beal Rashida Beal
How To Transcribe A Video Recording In Minutes

How To Transcribe A Video Recording In Minutes

When it comes to recording and transcribing audio or video footage for content, the task can seem daunting....

Rashida Beal Rashida Beal
How to Get the Transcript of a Vimeo Video

How to Get the Transcript of a Vimeo Video

In addition to YouTube, Vimeo is a highly popular platform for high-quality video content. The platform...

Rashida Beal Rashida Beal