Small-gauge film titling – done more professionally with today’s technology

Film title according to the recipe described here, macro photo of a Super 8 still image

In classic analog home movies times, titles were hand-painted, set with magnetic letters or with rub-on letters on paper. This was part of the handmade charm of small gauge film and of course still has its place. However, if you are aiming for more professional-looking film titles that are indistinguishable from those in Super 8 commercial film prints, you can now achieve this relatively easily with a computer and a flat screen tv. Here’s a hands-on guide.

The jittery type of magnetic and rub-on letters, and the low contrast of black-and-white titles printed on paper, were part of the aesthetic charm of analog amateur film. Paper has only a fraction of the contrast ratio of film, about 6 versus 12-13 f-stops. Therefore, laser-printed film titles aren’t ideal either: instead of white type on a black background, for example, they typically result in light gray type on a dark gray background, often with visible paper textures.

Today, better results can be achieved when shooting 8mm or 16mm film titles from a flat screen tv. Here’s a hands-on guide:

Technology needed

  • Most simple configuration: A personal computer connected to an (HD or 4K) flat-screen TV.
  • Alternatively, and better: a laptop with HDMI output connected to the flat screen TV.
  • An 8mm or 16mm film camera with manual exposure and single frame shooting via a remote shutter release and (preferably) a zoom lens.

Typesetting the titles

Word processing programs such as Word aren’t as good for typesetting as desktop publishing programs such as Adobe InDesign and Adobe Illustrator or the freely available open source program Scribus (available for Windows, Mac and Linux). Desktop publishing programs support microtypographical subtleties (such as kerning between two letters), while word processing programs usually don’t. An good basic introduction to typography can be found in Laura Martin’s blog posting “Typography Elements Everyone Needs to Understand“: . Another tip: when it comes to type, don’t use the Helvetica knock-off Arial, which is awful from a typographer’s point of view, or, even worse, the Comic Sans font, but instead use Helvetica Neue, Franklin Gothic, or the open source font Roboto, for example. Or you intentionally go up against the rules of good taste.

Page configuration in 'Scribus'
Page configuration in Scribus

Here’s how to do it with Scribus: On program startup, create a document in landscape format with the same aspect ratio as the film image, such as 28x21cm for Super 8 (with its frame size of 5.6×4.2mm). Then draw a text frame, typeset the title, and export the document as an image (via the menu item FileExportSave as Image). Select PNG, a lossless-quality image format, as the output format and choose the size so that the vertical number of pixels will be optimal for your flat screen tv. For example, if you have a Full-HD tv, it would be 1080 vertical pixels (or 1440×1080 pixels for a Super 8-equivalent image). For a 4K tv, double these numbers.

By the way, in this example we’re creating static titles. For animated titles, use the titling module of a video editing or animation program instead, and export a sequence of single PNG images.

If your titles have constant timing (for example: 3 seconds for each text panel), it will be sufficient to only export one image per title and remember the number of required frames for each of them (in the above case: 54 frames for a film running at 18fps). If each title has its own invidiual timing, it will be better to copy the image files in such a way that they correspond 1:1 to the single frames in the film you are shooting. So for example copy the image file of the first title 54 times in a row; if the second title should only be displayed for two seconds, copy it 36 times etc. Also consider that the naming of the files should preserve their intended sequence.

Configuring the screen

Set the screen to its maximum brightness and contrast, and – in the case you’re shooting color film – to the same color temperature as your film stock (i.e. 5600 Kelvin for daylight film, 3200 Kelvin for tungsten film).

Today’s 4K tvs with HDR (‘High Dynamic Range’) support are optimal and provide maximum contrast and resolution that’s even suitable for 16mm film titling. But good results can be achieved with older HD tv sets, too.

The screen must be in a completely darkened room.

Configuring the computer software

Put the exported PNG images, in correct order, in a folder and view them with a program that can display them full screen (i.e. without menus and text overlays) in pixel-perfect 1:1 view. Under Windows a suitable free program is Irfanview, under MacOS the included Preview utility, under Linux the image viewer geeqie.


Correct exposure will be the biggest challenge: for example, a conventional exposure metering of black-on-white text titles would end up underexposing the white background as medium gray. White-on-black text titles would conversely result in the black background being overexposed as dark gray. Ideally, black should be underexposed and white simultaneously overexposed. However, this only works with extremely high-contrast and high-brightness flat screen displays.

In my practical experience, the best result can be achieved with the following trick: shoot a sample title as a series of bracketed exposure with a digital camera that has a fully manual exposure program, view them on your computer screen, pick the best-exposed digital image, note its aperture setting and set the aperture of the film camera accordingly.

To do this, set the digital camera to JPEG capture and its default image profile. Set its ISO to the same value as the film you are shooting, its shutter speed to 1/40 for 18 frames per second and to 1/50 for 24 frames per second. If the image is still too dark when you have the digital camera’s aperture wide open, then either your flat screen is not bright enough, or the film stock you are shooting on is not light sensitive enough. However, with 100 and 160 ISO films (including Kodak Tri-X) and a nine-year-old HD flat-panel TV, I encountered no issues in real life.

Shoot a series of images at bracketed f-stops with the digital camera, view the images on your computer, and select the photo where black has not yet faded to dark gray and white is still bright. Set the f-stop with which this photo was shot on your film camera as well – in manual exposure mode, of course.

Setting up the camera

For a 40-50 inch flat screen, mount the camera about 2.5-3 meters (9-10 ft.) away from the screen. Make sure that the camera is exactly parallel to the screen, on the sturdiest tripod you have. Place the laptop (or PC keyboard) directly next to the camera. Frame and zoom the camera in such a way that no edges of the tv screen will be visible in the film; take into account that the camera viewfinder does not show you the full final (8 or 16mm) image completely. Focus by maximally zooming in on a test image on the flat screen and zooming out again to the desired framing. Darken the room.

Rule of thumb: Best position the camera at a greater distance from the screen and shoot with a telephoto focal length than putting the camera close to the screen and shooting wide-angle.

Super 8 title, macro photo of a single frame


Shoot the titles frame by frame, rather than with the camera running. (With the camera running, you won’t be able to avoid asynchronicity between the filmed images and the images changing on the display, which will result in ugly ghosting and half-exposed film frames. This means: use the keyboard on the PC or laptop to advance to your next computer image, press the single-frame shutter release on the film camera, go to the next computer image and press the single-frame release again, etc. – unless all your titles have identical lengths so that a fixed number of single-frame shutter releases can be used for each computer image.

If you fill an entire Super 8 cartridge with nothing but titles, you will need to release the shutter about 3600 times. With cable releases, this is a physically tiring but doable job – for which you will be rewarded with compelling results.

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