Blu-ray
Why Subtitles May Affect Theater Setup
If you're planning on going for a 'CinemaScope' or 'Constant Image Height' widescreen setup, you'll probably be paying much more attention to subtitles than you ever have.
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Che, on a 16:9 screen (top) and 2.35:1 screen. Credit: Blu-ray.com
July 06, 2009 by Arlen Schweiger

If you’re a passive movie watcher, you may not give subtitles much thought.

Chances are you have an older squarish 4:3 aspect ratio screen, or maybe you do your viewing on a more common 16:9 widescreen TV, and when you’ve popped in a DVD that features subtitles you just deal with them—one complaint may be that they’re a little hard to read or follow along with while you’re trying to concentrate on the picture.

For major movie buffs who have dedicated home theater setups to take advantage of the “CinemaScope” or “Constant Image Height” (CIH) format, subtitles can be more than an innocent annoyance when you’re watching movies. Depending on the DVD or Blu-ray disc, and what they’re being played on, you may be missing out on important subtitle information altogether.

CIH setups mainly use vertical stretching and anamorphic lenses (you can also zoom the projector lens) in tandem with a 2.35:1 or 2.40:1 aspect ratio projection screen to enable widescreen viewing of such films without those pesky black bars on the top and bottom of the screen. You know the bars if you’re used to viewing on 4:3 and 16:9 screens. Most disc players and 16:9 TVs let you zoom or crop the image so you can ditch the black bars if you find them distracting, but that’s a whole other issue in terms of the rest of the image you wind up chopping off the sides.

For CIH you get the entire image in all its full 2.35:1 glory, blown up on a wider screen for an impressive presentation the way the director wanted. But if it’s a foreign film, or even a number of U.S. films that have snippets or extended dialogues featuring subtitles (think Jabba the Hut in Return of the Jedi, some of the Lord of the Rings dialogue, kung fu movies and such) there’s a good chance you’ll miss out.

There are three common subtitle placements for standard DVD and high-definition Blu-ray disc transfers that Hollywood has settled into:

  • Within the film frame (like it would be if you were watching in a movie theater)
  • Below the film frame in the bottom black bar space
  • Partially within and partially below the frame

The latter two essentially are direct results of 2.35:1 presentation on screens of other aspect ratios, because the black bar is otherwise empty space, and many people find the text easier to read on a black background.

However, those black bars are lopped off when projectors are optimized for CIH, so either you get the full subtitles, a portion of them, or none at all. For example, House of Flying Daggers is a visually stunning movie, but it’s one of those half-in, half-out subtitle placements that would render it impossible to follow on a 2.35:1 screen, where it should be at its most impressive.

The topic of subtitle placement has always been prominent in the CIH thread on AV Science Forum (AVS), where many home theater builders have taken to this 2.35:1 screen/projector set up because of how cinema-like the viewing is rendered.

Last week the topic fostered more discussion on Blu-ray.com, as someone who’s considered to have an “in” with Sony posted a poll asking people whether they preferred to have the subtitles within the picture frame all the time or not (or whether it mattered at all). Though AVSers and other movie enthusiasts had their say, the 47 percent who wanted it in the frame at all times wasn’t exactly a landslide majority—probably as expected because 16:9 screen aspect ratios are still more common these days.

Read through more of the comments on the Blu-ray.com thread, as well as the AVS CIH thread (and subtitles in movies sticky thread) for more info on what English-language movies are affected (many more than you may think). The example below is from Blu-ray.com, showing the movie Che.

Some disc players are capable of shifting the placement of subtitles on the screen, such as the Samsung HD950 and Oppo Digital upscaling universal players, but the problem is there don’t appear to be any Blu-ray players that do the job yet. So either you skip watching movies with subtitles, or make some adjustments when you’re viewing them.

Tell us how you deal with the subtitle dilemma in comments below.

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Arlen Schweiger - Contributor, Electronic House Magazine
Arlen writes about home technology installations and product news and reviews for electronichouse.com and Electronic House magazine.

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