Creating Captioned Video

Adding captions to video is easier than it seems, and it's getting easier all the time.  The process consists of 2 or 3 elements:

  • The text of the captions, which should be an accurate transcript of what is said in the video, plus sound effects
  • Timing information, so the right caption shows up at the right time
  • Optional formatting information about where the captions appear on the screen, font, color, etc. 

This article covers the basic steps of adding captions to a video you are creating. In some cases the steps will depend on the video production system you are using.

Why Add Captions?

The main reason to add captions to a video is that deaf and hard of hearing viewers, and some people with learning or language disabilities, need the captions to make sense of the video. Your organization may have a legal requirement to provide captions for videos used in education, staff training, or public outreach. Another advantage of captions for online videos is that they permit your video to be indexed by search engines, making it easier to find.

Video Production Tools

If you are producing video from the beginning, most professional and hobbyist video production programs have a way of adding captions.  Your software's documentation will explain how to do it. Here are some examples of popular low-cost tools with a captioning capability:

  • Windows Movie Maker (free in recent versions of Windows). Add a single "subtitle" to any clip via the "Title and Credits" feature. You can adjust what it looks like and how long it's visible.
  • Sony Vegas lets you add any text to any clip via the Overlay menu item.
  • Adobe Premiere Elements. Add subtitles via "Title ... New Title ... Default Still". You can adjust the location and duration.
  • Apple iMovie (part of iLife). Add captions via the Titles menu; you can adjust the duration and location.

These and several other inexpensive programs add open captions that are always on the screen. Their "pro" versions, generally in the $300 - $1500 range, let you produce closed captions if you need that degree of control.

Free Captioning Software

The National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH offers MAGpie, a free captioning tool for multiple video platforms. It also can be used to produce described video.  SubTitle Workshop is another option.

Adding Captions to Videos for YouTube

YouTube has made captioning easy for people who upload videos, as long as you have a transcript -- the text of what is said.  YouTube takes the transcript and automatically synchronizes it to the video, and it does a good job. (One downside -- you can't caption sound effects.) Here are the instructions for uploading a video and transcript to YouTube. If your video uses a script, the text file of the script will usually need only light editing to work well.

Note: YouTube also has an experimental feature that tries to caption videos that are already online, called ‘Transcribe Audio’.  It's available if the video owner has requested it. However, the accuracy can be pretty low depending on the nature of the audio. Professional narrators or newscasters are best. You can find Transcribe Audio if there is a red 'CC' button in the bottom control bar as you watch a video -- give it a try.

Also note: the only person who can add captions to a YouTube video is the person who originally uploaded the video. If you are using someone else's video as, say, a course requirement, try to make arrangements with the owner. If that won't work, you can use an online captioning service.

Online Captioning Services

An online captioning service can take a YouTube video, add captions to it, and store it on a separate server so viewers can see both the YouTube video and the captions. Current options are, Subtitle Horse, CaptionTube, and Universal Subtitles.All offer online tools that look a lot like the captioning tools for desktop video.

Here's a recent article comparing these 4 tools.

Have a question?

Ask an Expert