Titling Tips, Tricks, and Tools
Posted Mar 9, 2005

From font selection and placement to backgrounds and motion, videography titling is more art than science.

Most of the effort put into creating memorable event videos comes from shooting the event and then editing that video afterwards, but there are many other skill sets that discerning videographers need to master in order to produce the best video possible. On the flip side, videographers must always keep in mind that each additional hour they spend working on a video reduces the amount of money they earn per hour, so it's important that they learn to work efficiently and prioritize their tasks. These truisms hold especially true when looking at the subset of editing video known as titling.

For the purposes of this article, "titling" refers to all uses of text in videos besides subtitles and closed captions. Subtitles (for DVD, anyway) generally involve working within specific parameters in the DVD spec; though often referred to as titles, closed captions—because they're often intended to make videos accessible to the deaf—are subject to numerous rules and regulations that set them apart from the "titles" used more generically in videos, as in films, to tell viewers what and whom they're seeing or about to see, and who's responsible for its creation. This type of titling, on the other hand, doesn't come with spec-related or legal restrictions so much as recommended practices. Determining video titles' readability and viewer appeal is really more subjective than objective, so rules of thumb tend to be sparse.

This lack of hard and fast rules can result in much consternation for videographers trying to create effective titles. How do I make my text pop off the screen? How much motion is too much motion? How can I make my title-creation process more efficient? These are just some of the questions that will be addressed in this article, followed by an overview of the capabilities of some of the built-in and plug-in titling tools on the market.

The Tale Titles Tell
In event videos, titles are used in everything from the opening credits to setting the scene and smoothing transitions during the video to the closing credits. "The main thing I use titling for is to establish what the event is," says Ed Wardyga, owner of Keepsake Video and KVI Media, which are based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island (www.kvimedia.com). "Generally, it's fairly simple: the name of the event, who produced it, and the date. We do that for every event, but rarely do we go beyond that for the opening credits."

Fellow videographer Ken Ehrhart, owner of Summit Productions of Albuquerque, New Mexico (www.summitvid.com), follows a similar model for his videos' introductions, but also relies heavily on titling as a way to transition from one scene to the next. "Coming out of the pre-ceremony coverage, I'll generally have a slightly more formal feel," says Ehrhart. "Sometimes it will say something as simple as ‘The honor of your presence is requested,' which dissolves into footage of the ceremony," he continues. "Coming out of the ceremony, I'll tend to have the bride and groom drive away into that CG that says ‘Here comes the reception.'"

Wardyga also takes advantage of titling to create a comprehensive credits roll, which is a big bonus for the types of events he specializes in. "My specialty is what I call stage productions: dance recitals, plays, variety shows, music/choral concerts—basically anything that's conducted on-stage and where I can sell 25-1,000 videos," he explains. In the credits for his videos, he says, "we generally list everybody that participates in the event. To ease this, the school doing the play has to submit to me their program in electronic form. Then I just do a copy and paste into the titler software." Wardyga includes any special thanks, production staff credits, and a full list of participants' names. "We get a lot of comments that people are surprised we did that, but they really appreciate it," he says.

First, the Font
After you've decided what they will be used for, it's time to start building your titles, and the first step in this process is finding a font. "I love the typography section in the Veer [Visual Elements] catalog," says Michael Vitti. Vitti is an event photographer and NYC FCP UG (a.k.a. New York City Final Cut Pro User Group) leader with a special interest in typography and typographer motion graphics applications. "The Linotype Web site [www.linotype.com] is a great resource for new fonts. Identifont.com has these really cool fonts that are free. You can't go really big with them, but they're free." [For a more comprehensive list of reputable online type foundries and search engines, check out the sidebar "Finding that Perfect Font Online."]

If you can't find just the right font at these sites, you can always make your own. "In [Adobe] Illustrator when you vectorize the type, you can then change it," Vitti says. "If you're really into it, there's an opportunity for you to make your own typography. It's very time-intensive."

But what good are expansive font resources or the ability to make your own font without any idea of what fonts would work best for your project? "For opening screens, I use a font that matches what the production is," explains Wardyga. "If it's a Shakespeare play, I'll use an Olde English lettering or script." One of Wardyga's current favorite fonts for social events is Black Chance. For Ken Ehrhart, selecting a font is an exercise in spontaneity. "What I do is very much a feel thing with the fonts that I choose," he says. "I don't have any rules of thumb. I don't do things by the book." One of his current favorites is Century Gothic.

In general, serif fonts are not recommended. When you're working in the NTSC format, "two-pixel or smaller lines like serifs will vibrate or strobe," says Vitti. "The reason is that NTSC has alternating lines. If you're doing NTSC, use thick type. You've got to have something more than three pixels or it's going to hum." Vitti goes on to suggest an alternative solution to this problem: match the rate of your scrolling titles to that of the alternating lines of NTSC. This means synching to the 60 fields per second of NTSC, although he recommends that videographers experiment with this number first before making it a permanent fixture of their productions. Plus, this technique will only work for title rolls that scroll down. "There's also another shortcut: if you do see this oscillation, apply a vertical blur," he recommends. "What's really important here is that you test it on an NTSC monitor and judge for yourself to make sure that it looks as good as possible." In the end, though, "for NTSC, it's best to avoid [serif fonts] for title rolls," he says. "I'll use a serif font if that's what the client wants, but I'll make it bigger."

Choosing the appropriate size of fonts has long been a challenge for Ehrhart. "I'm constantly struggling to find out what's an acceptable size," he says. "I've always tended towards the too big." This tendency is not just some arbitrary inclination towards big type; Ehrhart says the problem has come about because the size of televisions has increased dramatically in the last ten years. "In the '80s, if you had a 25-inch TV, it was huge. Back in the day, my fonts tended to be much, much bigger because they had to be," he says. "Today I'm leaning more and more towards a more cinematic approach to my titling. People are used to seeing stuff in letterbox, and they're used to seeing smaller fonts on bigger screens."

The best way to determine if your fonts are too big or small is to preview your video on both a small and a large TV monitor. "You just have to consider what the reader will have to read the type off of," says Vitti.

Location, Location, Location…
Once you've decided on an appropriate font selection, the next task is to figure out where best to place your title. Wardyga hails consistency and inconspicuousness as two hallmarks of effective title placement. "I try to be consistent with the placement so if I'm going to do it more than once in the video, it will always be in the same place," he says. "If the video is running, I'll try to put titles in an inconspicuous place. I'll do a lower third-type thing," which typically places the titles below the edge of the stage when Wardyga is doing a full-stage shot. "They're on the screen, but they're not blocking anything," he says.

Ehrhart sees titling placement as an opportunity to control a viewer's attention. "There are times when I'm going to let the viewer be the director and look where they want to look. There are times when I'm going to give them a specific place to look," he explains. "You have to give your audience different things to look at in different parts of the screen or they'll look away."

Then there's the question of what to put behind these titles, especially if you're talking about opening or ending credits. "99.9% of the time it's over a black background," says Ehrhart. "I don't usually do them over a moving video; for me, it's just too much stuff going on at one time."

Some videographers, though, refuse to rely on monochromatic backgrounds to serve as the backplate for their titles. "I never ever use a solid color background. It's always over a still image or a moving background," Wardyga says. "Something that fades to black and rolls credits over it is just boring. If there's something in the background, people will tend to watch it more."

As for end credits, Wardyga says he always runs them over a still image of the last scene of his video. Through his experience doing this, he's found two tricks that work well for setting the title apart from the image. "When putting titling up on any kind of a background, it looks better and is much easier to read if, number one, you slightly blur the background," he says, "and number two, if you're using bright lettering, to darken the image somewhat." He credits these two tricks for enabling his titles to "pop out at you rather than being a part of the image," he says. "A lot of people don't do that."

But when you're dealing with titles that will be placed over moving video, more extreme measures may be necessary. "With monochromatic and static image background, you know what your text's going to need to offset chromatically," Vitti explains. "With moving video, you never know what will be behind it." He recommends using a drop shadow or creating a static image backplate behind titles so that you have a known quantity that you're working over.

Wardyga suggests blurring the outline of the letters themselves when working over video. "If I have a lot of movement in the background I'll put a lot of blurred outline around the title. It's probably 50% of the width of the letter, which makes it stand out tremendously."

In his work as a broacast video editor, Vitti has spent a lot of time adding titles to prerecorded newscasts. "Generally they're full of their own titles, so I have to create titles that go over titles," he says. "I'll create either a very strong glow or a drop shadow that almost blocks out what's beneath it. Or I'll create a solid that comes to together and then a title pops up over it. It's all about readability."

MTV or Minimalism?
When it comes to adding motion, there are two schools of thought that speak out against the hyperkinetic scrolls, pans, and zooms of MTV and its ilk that have become so prevalent in contemporary video productions. "I've found that if you want to be heard, don't shout. Whisper," says Ehrhart. "I don't want my fonts and titles to be shouting at people. If they're simple, in my mind that draws people into them more rather than having them flying all over the screen." Ehrhart uses simple motion paths to animate his text with small, incremental movements. He admits that, compared to other videographers, his work as a whole unfolds at a much slower pace. "I want you to have time to read and absorb and understand what I'm doing," he says. "I've gone the route of flying things all over the place while working in TV news. I've also gone the more Ken Burns, minimalist way as well. I've simply found a look that I like and continue to develop."

Considering that time is money, the other school of thought behind movement minimalism warns against videographers spending copious amounts of time on the minutiae of their videos. "People are too hung up on this artistic thing where they try to make their production fancy or pretty," laments Wardyga. "The problem is that they're not charging for the time that they're putting into it. My thing is to give people what they want, price it accordingly, and not go beyond that." This argument holds especially true when considering adding 3D motion to your titles. "If I spent additional time doing fancy 3D titles, I'm not getting any extra money to do that," Wardyga says. But he takes exception to this rule, citing the "one-off project where you know you're going to sell a lot of product." At events such as cheerleading competitions, where Wardyga has sold more than 400 videos, "you've got a little bit bigger budget to work with." Plus, he adds, if you make the video look a little fancier, the people who watch it will be more likely to remember your work.

Ehrhart, on the other hand, is fairly adamant in his opposition to the inclusion of 3D motion in event videos. "It doesn't have a place in wedding and event-type videos," he argues. "Even in corporate videos, I'm trying to get info across to my viewers, not show off the capabilities of my technology." [For a brief discussion of the differences between titling for wedding and corporate videos, see the sidebar, "Titling for Business."]

Easing the Flow
Since titles tend to be used in the same instances from one project to the next, designing a titling template can be a great timesaver. "I tend to have groups of templates that I will use depending on the circumstances and what project I'm editing," says Ehrhart. "I don't have a cookie-cutter approach to editing, but I do have a certain look that I'm comfortable with."

Ehrhart goes on to describe his titling templates as constantly evolving. "I do modify my templates every other project," he explains. "I'll play around with fonts and how I'm animating them." For any changes to his templates that are to become permanent, Ehrhart often spends four or five months developing a new titling style.

Wardyga, on the other hand, doesn't use templates, he says, for two reasons: first, because he typically doesn't do anything the same way twice, and second, because he doesn't see the need for templates as a time-saving tool. "I don't have a template simply because creating titles is so easy to do," he says. He clicks and drags titles from a text file into the title box in his titling tool. Then he plays with the size and look of the letters, adds a little motion, and he's done. "It literally takes seconds, so there's no need to set up any type of a template," he says. He does save all of the titles that he creates just in case he does want to reuse one, but he doesn't make it a common practice to repurpose titles, unless it's for consistency's sake. "For doing multiple events of the same type, I'll save the title just to use it in the second version," he says. But after he's through with a project, its title style "is gone because I'm not going to use the same one next year."

Regardless of whether or not you use templates, Vitti has a suggestion for anyone working in DV who goes outside of their NLE's built-in capabilities to build their titles. "If you're creating titles outside of [your NLE], then you should import them as uncompressed animation files. If you export as DV files and bring them into whatever NLE you're using, your titles will suffer," he says. "The DV codec is highly compressed and creates very soft edges. Depending on how your NLE handles footage when it ingests it, it might make them even softer. They're certainly not going to look better."

Readability is Fundamental
To ensure title readability, Wardyga recommends one tip above all else. "The main thing that I usually tell people is to play it back on an average TV monitor. Look at it. Does it look good? Can you read it? Is it moving too fast? If it satisfies you, then it's good," he says. He goes on to recommend that, especially when starting out, you also gather opinions from friends and family, who can often give a better approximation of your audience than you can conjure up in your mind. "Eventually you'll grab the whole idea behind creating something that's decent-looking," he says. "And after doing it a number of times, you'll be able to tell just by looking at it whether or not it's going to be readable."

In the end, Ehrhart says, "Titling is not something that can be taught in a 30-minute seminar—or in an article. It's something that you can only give people a start to," he continues. "There are a lot of wrong ways, but there also isn't one right way to develop titles."

Sidebar 1
Finding That Perfect Font Online
Here are some useful resources for titling fonts for video projects:


Sidebar 2
Titling for Business
While event videographers continue to be associated closely with the capturing of personal events, an increasing number of them have come to realize how lucrative video production for corporate clients can be. But do business and corporate projects demand an approach to titling that differs substantially from the techniques that work effectively in wedding and special event videography? "In a business-type video, I'm trying to put out information," says Ehrhart. "I need to stimulate learning more than I do in a wedding video."

Often this learning is facilitated by adding titles, but not fonts. "What is going to dictate my use of titles is what information am I trying to convey and what is the pacing to this video," says Ehrhart. In business-oriented projects, Ehrhart says, "I tend to stick pretty much with Century Gothic and occasionally Roman or Class Garamond."

In general, business videos benefit when they contain fewer fonts, but more total titles than are typically used in wedding videos, according to Ehrhart. "But it's a little harder to put down in concrete that this is how you do that since [business videos] are a completely different pacing from a wedding video, or a bar mitzvah, or even a tribute video," says Ehrhart. 

Sidebar 3
Tools of the Titling Trade
As with most tasks in the digital video post-production workflow, there are a number of software applications that specialize in building titles, like Inscriber's TitleMotion and Boris FX's Graffiti. But at what point should videographers consider moving outside of the cozy confines of their NLE and into an application-specific plug-in or dedicated titling tool? Let's begin to answer that question by taking a look at some of the capabilities that major NLEs already feature.

Sony Pictures' Vegas has long been known for the acuity of its feature set, and that holds true for its titling as well, according to Dave Hill, director of engineering for media software at Sony Pictures. "Vegas is capable of producing very clean titles from many sources, and scaling/motion applied within Vegas is of very high quality," he says. "Besides the built-in titler and Boris Graffiti LTD"—a lite version of Boris Graffiti that's bundled with Vegas—"Vegas can use .SWF files as well as a wide variety of image and image sequence formats (including alpha channels)."

Vegas isn't the only NLE that has a direct relationship with Boris FX; Final Cut Pro bundles Calligraphy, which is Boris FX's character generator. But this character generator isn't a full-fledged titling app; all it does is assist with the creation of the text itself. Adding motion to your titles in FCP is handled by LiveType. Unlike some other titling applications, LiveType condenses the effects put on titles into a single keyframe; many others rely on stacks of effects of keyframes. With a single click, editors can see all of the parameters associated with a keyframe. LiveType also eases the application of effects to individual elements; you can even randomize the timing of effects.

Pinnacle Systems offers the base version of its TitleDeko Pro titling plug-in within its prosumer NLE, Liquid Edition; the full version comes standard with Pinnacle's broadcast solutions. The base version features all of the capabilities needed to do title rolls and more basic 2D motion; it does offer 3D text, but not 3D motion. The full Pro edition "includes additional things such as spell checking, custom typefaces, and type on a curve," says Andrew Baum, senior product manager at Pinnacle. "We're by no means trying to sell a titler separately. We're looking to sell it as a component of a larger solution that offers our editors all the things they need in one application without having to go to another application."

Considering the positioning and pricing of Adobe's Digital Video Collection vis-a-vis the company's individual video tools, it's safe to say that Adobe expects its Premiere Pro users also to have access to After Effects. "After Effects 6.5 provides new text animation tools that are available through adjustable presets," says Ron Nydam, senior product manager for Premiere Pro. "These animations include color shifts, character-based animations, motion path dynamics, and other features that create titles that are high quality but do not carry the painful animation and rendering burdens as if they had to be individually crafted outside of After Effects." But this doesn't mean that Premiere Pro users are required to use After Effects to create titles. "Premiere Pro offers a fully functional titler for stills, rolls, and crawls," Nydam adds. Premiere's built-in titler features full alpha-channel support, although it does not offer 3D text or motion; that's left up to After Effects.

Premiere's native titler has a non-native background. In earlier generations of the program, Premiere bundled the base version of Inscriber's titling plug-in TitleMotion. "A lot of those [users] ended up upgrading to the full TitleMotion package," says Joel St. Denis, product manager at Inscriber. So "Adobe purchased some of our technology, and when Premiere Pro came along, they no longer bundled any titling product." Instead, Adobe incorporated Inscriber's technology into Premiere's code. "The character generation you find in Premiere today is Inscriber-technology driven," he says. Adobe isn't alone working with Inscriber; discreet, Media100, and Canopus have all at one time or another bundled a form of TitleMotion with their respective NLEs.

Inscriber has distributed lite versions of its titling application for years in the hopes that it would drive customers to purchase the full version of TitleMotion Pro (retails for $495, TitleMotion retails for $295). "The biggest reason that people go to TitleMotion Pro is to gain advantage of some of the more than 200 predesigned templates and graphic elements that are included [with the full version]," says St. Denis. "You don't have to be an artist to create some nice graphics." Going Pro offers users an additional 100 templates and 250 predesigned text titles over sticking with the bundled version of TitleMotion. "TitleMotion is not a full compositing tool like After Effects, but it does allow you to create your own little effects without having to know the complexity of programs like that," he explains. "The whole idea of TitleMotion has always been nice, clean, crisp titles made quickly. Nothing on the market comes close to us when it comes to rendering speed," St. Denis claims.

Boris FX's Graffiti, a rival titling plug-in, also touts its predesigned elements as a major selling point for its users. Graffiti users "can do a lot of stuff really easily," says Anne Renehan, director of marketing and communications for Boris FX, because the program "comes with a lot of presets. You can really quickly create 3D effects without even really having to master the system. People start off tweaking the presets, and as they get better they can start creating things from scratch." Graffiti, which lists for $245 as a plug-in for Vegas, Premiere, FCP, and Ulead MediaStudio Pro, features vector-based text. "You can scale things really large," says Renehan. "A lot of the titling solutions that come built into NLEs are not vector-based. So if you start flying text towards you, you'll start getting pixellation." She goes on to cite Graffiti's ability to create "elegant animated paths" as another distinguishing factor that separates it from the built-in abilities of many NLEs. "Most of the built-in titlers let you format text and do simple animation, but it wouldn't let you do animated text on a curvy line that then zooms off the page," she says. Graffiti also ships with a utility called Keyframer, which you can install on as many machines as you want. Keyframer offers the same functionality as Graffiti when it comes to building titles except that it won't render them. In other words, you can install this program, build your titles, save the settings file, and then open that file up in the plug-in to render it.

The question then becomes, is it worth investing a few hundred dollars in an application-specific plug-in? "What I've heard is that the subsampling capabilities of programs like Graffiti are much better than those onboard most NLEs," says videographer Michael Vitti. "They generate sharper text and smoother motion."

Whatever the advantages of the specialized tools, Ed Wardyga is one videographer who pays close attention to titling and generally gets the job done without venturing outside his NLE. "I edit using Canopus DVStorm2, and I use their built-in titler. I really don't need anything more sophisticated than that," says Wardyga. "It gives me enough options so that I can do some fanciness. I've got other packages from both Boris FX and Inscriber but I don't need them." Of course, Wardyga is also someone who chooses to stay away from higher-level features like 3D motion, which many built-in titlers simply can't handle. That said, "I use it simply because it's there, it's part of the package, and I don't have to go and load up anything else," says Wardyga. Both Graffiti and TitleMotion solve some of the workflow issues by being sold as plug-ins for specific NLEs, in that users can then open the programs with a single button within their NLE. But even though he admits that the titler he uses is somewhat limited, Wardyga says still doesn't see the need for these beefier programs. "It's not 100% perfect, but 99% of the time it's all I need," he says.