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What Are Supertitles?

Brunhild holds a silly cue card - cue cards are the alternate way to communicate with your audience


Just The Facts

Supertitles are dialogue the audience can read while watching an event.

With supertitles the audience can simultaneously read what's being said or sung without taking their eyes off the performers.  This is because the text is displayed above or next to the performers.

This is distinct from subtitles where the text is displayed below the performance and often on a seat-back close to the spectator.

Supertitles can be projected (surtitles) or electronic.  Surtitles use video projectors or slides and slide projectors.  Electronic supertitles are typically electronic signboards made up of thousands of Light Emitting Diodes (called LEDs).

There are variations on supertitles which use video or computer monitors.

ScriptSign is an electronic supertitling system.


A Bit Of History

Serious theater and opera goers have always studied the script or libretto in anticipation of a performance.  Many would follow along during the performance -- often annoying others in the audience with a flashlight.

Supertitles got their start when opera companies discovered they could increase attendance and engage dozing spouses by projecting the text above the stage.  The first supertitles were simply slides projected from the back of the hall on a piece of white painted plywood.  Black text on a white background worked best.  The glare from that white background was awful, but the audience loved having the captions.


HARK! is projected from the back of the hall
Projected Supertitles (Surtitles) Came First

Lots of clever people tried to make the projected supertitles (surtitles) less intrusive.  Some tried to get rid the annoying light beam from the back of the hall with rear screen projection, but it took so much space that it got in the way of lighting and sets.  Others improved on the painted plywood screens by using special lenticular screens which don't scatter as much light.  Still others invented elaborate projectors to fade captions on and off instead of simply flashing them up.

But surtitles still had some nasty drawbacks.  The projectors where hot noisy behemoths which required special slides.  Making one slide for each supertitle is a costly process.  A slide set for a single show has hundreds of slides.  Once a slide set was made it could become a creative straight jacket.  Any sort of change -- a new interpretation, different translation or alternate script -- means new slides.  Changing the slide set is an expensive and slow process.

Countless audiences are inadvertently amused by an out of sequence, upside down, or backwards slide.

And slide projectors are useless for spontaneous events which aren't scripted far in advance.

These problems and the advent of powerful video projectors made the next jump in surtitling technology.  The balky slide projector and costly slides were replaced with a video projector and one of the many presentation software packages -- such as PowerPoint.®  As a bonus, stenographers and typists could caption spontaneous events by simply projecting their computer screen as they typed.

But the video projectors are also expensive, hot, and noisy and horribly inefficient.  LCD projectors lose nearly 50% of the light because the pixels are so small and the wire traces between them are so large.  DLP projectors lose 10% to 30% due to spaces between the mirrors.  All that lost light translates into heat and very expensive light sources.  And there still is the problem of light scattering and the distraction of light beaming from the back of the hall.

LED sign says HARK!
Electronic Store Signs Arrive

While some tried to perfect projected supertitles, others looked for more promising technologies.  There had to be a way to get away from all that light in the background of the projected captions.  Their goal was a bright clear caption on a black backgound -- and no scattered light.

The Metropolitan Opera in New York decided borrow from laptop technology and subtitle with individual screens on the back of each seat. A costly technology that requires the patron to look away from the stage and refocus on the close-by subtitle.

Others explored the new Light Emitting Diode (LED) technology which was making a splashy showing as a replacement for light bulbs in marquee signs -- particularly in Times Square, New York, and Las Vegas, Nevada.

There were three drawbacks to LED signboards.  At first only red LEDs were available, it took gobs of data to control each of the thousands of LEDs on the sign, and the big signboards were not designed to be moved.

It didn't take long for green and amber LEDs to become common and fortunately the green worked pretty well for supertitling.  LED technology today can generate red, blue, green and white, but still has problems getting a consistent shade or brightness.  In fact, LED manufacturers charge a premium for brightness and color matched LEDs or LEDs from the same manufacturing lot.  Fortunately color consistency isn't a very big problem for supertitle text.

A more vexing problem is to manage all the data necessary to control thousands of LEDs.  Some solutions used two huge 40 wire cables and special computer cards to cue captions -- but the cue master could never be more than 200 feet from the sign.  Others tried to stick a computer inside the signboard and use a very nearby keyboard and monitor for cueing.  Still others experimented with using a second computer with remote control software to control a computer in the sign.

Other problems are mechanical.  Most of the people making electronic signs started out making common illuminated signs.  These signs are no more than a light box with a colorful transparency providing the message.  The light box just keeps the light in and the elements out.  It doesn't need to be very strong for a fixed installation on a store front or mall.  As a result they're made with the same sort of sheet aluminum used for rain gutters, although occasionally the sign maker would use a light weight extrusion.  Suffice it to say that most electronic signs are equally flimsy.

Where Script Sign Comes In

A bunch of us got frustrated with the supertitling systems we'd used.

We'd heard that without supertitles at least 5% of the opera audience would quit.  But, the projected supertitles (surtitles) were simply too intrusive.  It was like a locomotive headlight looming above the audience.

The creative side was frustrated with the rigidity of the caption slides -- and never hesitated to let the production folks know it.  And we had some choice words for the balky projectors and washed out text.

Electronic supertitles looked like the perfect solution.  Fortunately, our opera association agreed and our first electronic supertitle system arrived.  In pieces.

No kidding.

The whole thing had shaken apart during shipping.  It took the sign maker weeks to get the signboard to work.

The signboard case flexed and wobbled when we tried to hoist it in place.  The fans whined like angry mosquitoes.

To make a long story short, we largely redesigned the signboard.

Since then we've gone through sign boards from at least three different sign makers.  We could get them to work, but none would have worked for long if we hadn't gotten pretty good at rebuilding and tweaking sign boards.

We wanted a supertitle system which was simple to install.  One easy to replace control cable.  Durable connectors.  A solid frame.  And quiet!


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