Let’s explore why watching movies with subtitles can help you become a better student of film and, as a result, a stronger filmmaker.
Don’t tell anyone, but I think I’ve unlocked a new way to watch movies. Unlike your traditional cinema experience, or simply watching a film at home on your couch (or perhaps on a laptop in bed), you can watch a movie and read the script simultaneously.
Want to know this new script-reading, movie-watching secret way? One word, three syllables: subtitles.
I know, I know, many people already watch movies with subtitles for a variety of reasons—including those who are deaf or hard of hearing. However, having lived with roommates who are deaf and hard of hearing, and friends who prefer them on to help catch all the soft-spoken lines of dialogue, I can say that subtitles are fantastic from a filmmaking perspective.
Now, if you’re already a filmmaker, you might find it somewhat elementary for me to discuss the idea of putting on the subtitles. However, given all of the events that occurred throughout 2020, you may not remember that at the start of that turbulent year, subtitles were one of the talking points of pre-pandemic life because of Parasite‘s Oscar win.
At the time, and still, two years later, no other foreign-language movie had ever won what is regarded as the top Oscar. Even President 45 weighed in with “What the hell was that all about?!”
On social media, Parasite‘s win welcomed a fray of awful takes from users suggesting that they want to watch a film, not read a film. As such, it prompted a great snippet from Parasite director Bong Joon-ho,
Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.
– Director Bong Joon-ho
Fast forward just two years, and perhaps we could say the disdain from western viewers for subtitles has somewhat dimmed, as Steve O’Brien notes for Yahoo in his article “Why 2021 was the year pop culture finally overcame the subtitle.”
Just twenty-one months on from that triumph, the idea of a film from South Korea becoming one of the biggest cultural talking points of the year, doesn’t seem nearly so absurd.
Squid Game (South Korea), Money Heist (Spain), Lupin (France), and Who Killed Sara? (Mexico) are now among Netflix’s most popular TV shows. For the streamer’s German-language sci-fi thriller Dark, more than 50% of its audience is international . . .
What’s remarkable now is that Gen Z-ers are almost four times more likely than those aged between 56 and 75 to plump for subtitles over dubbing, despite those in the older bracket being twice as likely to be deaf or hard of hearing.
Many point to TikTok and Instagram, which regularly marries images with text, to explain younger people’s ease with subtitles.
– Steve O’Brien
While it’s nice to see more people watching foreign films with subtitles, let’s explore why you too should be watching English-speaking movies with subtitles turned on.
Focus on the Dialogue
As previously mentioned, the first and foremost way that watching films with subtitles is excellent is the most direct reason—it forces you to follow along with the dialogue.
There’s a lot more to good screenwriting than just dialogue, and subtitles aren’t going to give you the vast majority of what’s included in a script or screenplay. Let’s get that out of the way.
To truly learn to screenwrite, I recommend that you pick up several of the numerous book format screenplays from Amazon, or at least download the free offerings online.
But dialogue is one of the most essential parts of any script and, truth be told, it’s often the hardest to do well. That’s because screenwriters tend to write in ways that people don’t usually talk about, whether with excessive exposition or awkwardness.
I love watching movies with subtitles because it forces you to focus on what’s being said by each character and why. You can see the awkwardness on-screen, at times, as some of the text stands out for being unnecessary or redundant, yet might flow just fine in the scene.
Follow Along for the Beats
The following way subtitles help teach you about writing and filmmaking is that it also forces you to focus on breaking a scene down beat by beat. While writing a project or reading a script, you don’t feel how a scene works just by looking at dialogue and narration.
However, once on set and when watching a final version of a scene, you’ll quickly notice that there are lots of moments with no dialogue or direction. These are called beats, and they’re tough to teach—much less describe.
The best way to learn these beats is to focus on catching them as they happen organically in scenes. And with the subtitles on, it becomes much more apparent which parts of the scenes are meant to be providing context with dialogue versus which pieces are meant to be dialogue and direction free.
How Does Music Play into the Scene?
This is a subtle subtitle feature that, while not a huge game-changer, is one I quite appreciate. Specifically for hearing-impaired audiences who might not usually get to enjoy this, music in film can be a real game-changer for how a scene or movie is watched. And, with subtitles on, you get to appreciate the how and why of what’s going on.
For example, if you’re watching a horror movie and a big reveal is about to happen, you might not notice that background music has been laid under the dialogue as a normal watcher. However, with subtitles, you’ll often get a little note saying “foreboding music builds” (or something like that) to let hearing impaired audiences know that the tension is heightening—an excellent resource for looking at the editing process.
There are also plenty of examples of where songs in films are chosen not just for how they sound in a scene or montage, but also for what they say. Many subtitles are aware of this and will include lines from the song with musical notations around them to let the audience know that these words are coming from the song, which might mirror elements of the narrative.
Adding Subtitles to Your Own Projects
Finally, wrapping up our reasons why you should be watching films with subtitles, we also have to include links and resources for using and adding subtitles to your projects.
Here are some additional filmmaking articles for you:
Cover image via Warner Bros.