Subtitle Appearance Analysis

Part 3: Text Color

“White, of course. What else could it be?”

If you asked different people what color for subtitles they prefer, this is what you’d hear the most: “white”. The second favorite, by quite a big margin, would be yellow, and maybe one or two eccentric individuals would name some quirky color like candy pink or neon blue — and that would be pretty much it.

Indeed, the choice of color — like that of font and font size — might seem straightforward on the surface. But dig deeper, and what you’ll discover is that there’s much more to it than meets the eye. It is probably for a reason that the guys at the BBC often use cyan in their programs...




And that the game developers at Valve went with green in Half-Life: Alyx...




And that Quentin Tarantino chose bright orange for Inglorious Basterds...



Do they know something others don’t? Well, perhaps. So let’s put this third appearance parameter under a microscope and take a proper look.

Understanding Color

Interestingly, and contrary to intuition, there’s a fair bit of subjectivity to how we perceive color. Indeed, what you see as “red” or “yellow” might appear very different to someone else. A great example of that is the photo of a dress that became an internet sensation some years ago over its ambiguous coloring. Remember it? Yes, I’m talking about this one:

It sparked quite a debate back in 2015 — many thought the dress was black-and-blue, others insisted on white-and-gold, while the rest had their own idea. People just couldn’t quite agree on what it actually was, and it became clear that we don’t always see things the same way.

Your own perception of color isn’t set in stone, too — it can change with age, from certain medical conditions, through the use of psychedelics, via special technology like color blind glasses and brain implants, and so on. Moreover, how things appear to you also depends on their visual context — that is, on what surrounds them. For instance, in the image below, the two circles have the exact same color:

Yet, our mind refuses to believe. Such juxtaposition tricks us into seeing a discrepancy.

Now, all that said, there’s also objectivity to color, which makes it possible for me to discuss and give advice on its use in subtitling. It stems from the physical properties of light. Remember how in school you learned about Isaac Newton’s experiments in optics? Okay, maybe not, but one of them consisted in using a prism to disperse a sunbeam into a color spectrum — from red and all the way to violet. What Newton discovered was that white light somehow contained all the colors within itself.


Almost a century later, Thomas Young, another eminent English scholar, proved that light behaves like a wave and that the length of that wave determines the color you see when it reaches your eye. He didn’t have the tools for doing such highly precise measurements back then, but today we know that what we call “violet” corresponds to the wavelength of roughly 400 nanometers, “red” is around 700 nanometers, while all the other visible colors lie in-between these two. Curiously, there are also waves that are too short for us to see (“ultraviolet”) and those that are too long (“infrared”).



A brilliant mind that he was, Young also found out how our eyes’ structure facilitates color recognition. When light finds its way onto the retina, its photosensitive cells catch that light and produce special signals which then go to the brain to give us a sense of sight. Some of those cells, called cones, are responsible for color vision, and there are three types of them, each responsible for registering light of a specific range of wavelengths roughly corresponding to the colors red, green and blue.

They’re emitted by light sources like a lamp or a star and then reflected in different ways by all kinds of surfaces, sometimes finding their way onto our retina.

Color Models

We don't really think about it, but when we mention colors, we don't use

 1. We use not colors but color categories, but we need to be more accurate sometimes (show image with all kinds of red). That's why we need color models.

2. The first color model was RGB, based on how our eyes have three cone types.

3. It's hard to use, so people came up with better ones, including HSL, which film colorisits use.

4. That's what you also use in your subtitling tool.

rgb cones, but choosing colors in rgb is hard (brightness), so people came up with other color models.

<but let me put it in simple terms>

When choosing a color in your subtitling, authoring or editing tool, you see something like this:


This is a visual representation of the RGB color model:

<wiki images>

RGB is used on screen via subpixel colors.

RGB is not comfortable for choosing colors, so

colorists in film industry use HSL

talk about gamuts and staying withing them for viewing devices.

I. Text Color and Readability


Two readability considerations you need to think about when choosing your color: contrast and differentiation. Let's talk about them.


(focus on color and not other attributes!)

When discussing font and font size previously, we briefly talked about their effect on subtitle contrast. But 

While the border play the biggest role in , the color also plays a significant role. A bold, sans serif font with a decent outline doesn’t always guarantee legibility, as in this example with grey subtitles from the video game Portal 2:



<While I can't give you any specific numbers, here are some considerations (use your eyes and common sense):>

Oh boy, where do I start? Contrast in subtitling is a fascinating topic — but an incredibly complex one to cover. This is not only because very little research has been done on it — almost none, in fact — but also because contrast perception depends on a million different things which are so hard to tie together.


Remember how I talked about font's and font size's effect on contrast? Well, color plays even a bigger role.

<image of grey sub in Portal 2>

Oh boy, where do I start? Contrast in subtitling is a fascinating topic — but an incredibly complex one to cover. This is not only because very little research has been done on it — almost none, in fact — but also because contrast perception depends on a million different things.

First of all, the subtitle itself — all of its appearance parameters.

the other appearance parameters. The biggest contributor to good contrast is, by far, the border, but font, font size, color and visual effects also make quite a difference. Here, compare:

<font regular and font bold>

Then, the image beneath. It can be static of moving, plain or detailed, bright or dark, and so on:

<some example of whatever>

Moreover, just like color, contrast is context-dependent. The colors of the image will affect the way your brain interprets the color of subtitle text, and thus will affect contrast:

<optical illusion image>

<some example of the same in subs, maybe with a human shadow — can't use color-picker>

Then, contrast will differ from person to person depending on such things as the size, type and color settings of the display, the font and shadow type selected.

Also, individual differences — varied contrast sensitivity of the viewer (deteriorates with age or eye conditions), and color blindness! Children and the elderly see contrast worse (cite a study).

Finally subtitling is different:

- But we in subtitling have image-to-text saccades (preipheral), so contrast is more important.

- Parts of image show through letter openings.

- There’s background motion.

- Time limitation.

- There's an outline.

- Much bigger font size, so lower contrast is needed.

Pablo: shot's dominant color (?)

Many considerations and no good math at the moment, so difficult to quantify, but luckily Andrew Somers is working on a solution. You need to be mindful of this aspect and keep in mind that it's better to err on the side of higher contrast.

Low contrast = orbicularis oculi fatigue = eye strain.

According to Legge (XVI), low contrast reduces visual span via longer and more saccades/fixations.

(Show an example of a sub that reads good to an average viewer and bad to some other people.)

Talk about cones in eye? (LINK)

Enough color contrast with the border (LINK) and luminance contrast itself.

(the problem is that the existing literature doesn't work, so I have to use conjectures — Legge and web design AAA) because

All kinds of definitions of contrast: luminance vs. color, Weber, Michelson, RMS, etc.

Especially bad in video games (but mostly due to border issues).

Talk about the two calculators and eye problems (color blindness, etc.)

Depends on: font, font size, type and color of border, surrounding colors (image), etc.? (show examples for each).

Talk about semi-transparent (in BBC iPlayer and Sherlock).

Children and the elderly see contrast worse.

Black subtitles (LINK)



Speakers (BBC and teletext) + Video games (South Park: The Fractured But Whole)

Languages (The Handmaiden theatrical release — read on Wiki and/or watch) (e.g. LINK)

burned-in and open subs (or two-language subs)

color for individual words as emphasis (instead of italics — John Wick).

Dialogue and onscreen text

II. Text Color and Aesthetics

Talk to Dominic Glynn from Khan Academy about usage of color for subs. (and about gamuts\grades)


1. Intro (color choices in films are almost never arbitrary — they're carefully chosen in pre-production (costumes, decorations), prod (filmmaker) and post (colorist)).

2. Talk about color schemes.

3. Talk about function of color.

4. Talk about how to find a good color that matches the scheme and the function.

All with examples.

Intolerance film (different colors for different eras)

Memento film (color and b/w) = function + aesthetics

For who? For filmmakers or game devs? Or what?

Films use specific color palettes to set the tone and mood of the film. Talk about how with examples.

(So what you can do is match your color to the palette). LINK

1. Extract a palette from the shot

2. Use a tool to find a matching color

3. Bingo bongo!

Rule: To the extent possible, and unless intended otherwise, the subtitle text's color(s) should fit the image's color scheme and function and not call undue attention to itself.

Color functions:

  • Elicit psychological reactions with the audience

  • Draw focus to significant details (e.g. Gone Girl LINK)

  • Set the tone of the movie

  • Represent character traits

  • Show changes

  • Show arcs in the story (like in video games)

  • evoke a period in time (the Virgin Suicides)

  • foreshadow events

  • no function -- the filmmaker just like the color combo


pastel tones = utopia in Edward Scissorhands = don't use garish

Response to color depends on culture and context.

Monochromatic, analogous, complementary, triadic (=Batman's Joker) color schemes in film.

Do not use discordant colors for subtitles. And the sub shouldn't pull attention from the image even if not discordant.

Don't introduce a new color that's not present in the scheme if you're not part of the production team.

Color temperature.

Sherlock = semi-transparent texting subs (e.g. for super dark scenes).

Video game Hades = diff subtitle colors for diff NPCs.

Visual design


- design/film’s color identity (read on use of color in film)

- differentiation between realites (time/space/dreams) and chapters

- Avoid going against the image (yellow in cold shot, bright in dark shot) (try to find a completely dark shot in a film with dialogue) — should be according to the color scheme of the mise-en-scene (John Wick).

Color psychology


- Avoid negative color associations (depends on country/culture) (Red is considered lucky in China, Denmark and Argentina, while in Chad, Nigeria and Germany it means the opposite. From Wiki.) Color psychology. (!!!)

Color symbolism Wiki

Way too individual and culture-dependent.



- Avoid spoiling the plot with colors (p. 108 in Pablo’s AFM)

III. Color Choice: What To Consider

Viewing Device Type (mobile = glare, cinema = dark room and no glare)

Language (languages with thin strokes suffer from contrast more).

Eye Strain (binge-watching and binge-playing)

Technical limitations (e.g. Line 21 = the 8 colors you can choose from on Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, etc.; DVD = only a bunch of colors; teletext = only a bunch of colors)

Gamuts differ for different devices, so colorists have to use different grades for them (DCP, Vimeo, etc.)

few subs = lower contrast will do; many = need to increase.

yellow is traditional in some places like Australia and Brazil, so that might be the right color to use.

IV. Recommendations




© 2021 MD-Subs

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