Working with subtitles

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I’m a big fan of subtitles, and find that it’s useful in making sure that I don’t miss any dialog, or so I can watch a video without audio. Below are some of the slightly more unusual tasks I’ve done when working with subtitles. NOTE: This is for .MP4 files. It may work with other formats, but I’ve not tested it. For .MKV files, it’s recommended to use MKVToolNix, and maybe this guide.

Adding a subtitle to a video

This guide was initially going to document how to force subtitles to be on/off by default, however, after testing again, I’m not able to reproduce the problem. It could be an old setting with VLC, or it could be confusion with the .MKV format (which does seem to play subtitles by default). Either way, here are the ways of manually adding a simple subtitle file (SubRip/srt) to an mp4 video.



ffmpeg -i video.mp4 -i -c copy -c:s mov_text video_with_subtitle.mp4

Simple disposition

We can also use the new disposition flag. We can change this from default to forced, if that helps.

ffmpeg -i video.mp4 -i -c copy -disposition:s:0 default video_with_subtitle.mp4


This is the command that I thought stopped it playing by default:

fmpeg -i video.mp4 -i -c:v copy -c:a copy -c:s mov_text -metadata:s:s:0 language=eng -disposition:s:0 default video_with_subtitle.mp4

Using youtube-dl

One of the main ways that I like to save videos is by using youtube-dl. This has a few options for subtitles:

List subtitles

youtube-dl --list-subs URL

Embed one (or more) subtitles

youtube-dl --sub-lang LANGS --embed-subs URL

Embed all subtitles

youtube-dl --all-subs --embed-subs URL

Embed auto subtitles

For YouTube, but may work with other video sites too

youtube-dl --write-auto-sub --embed-subs URL

Saving the subtitles as a separate file

youtube-dl --write-sub --sub-lang LANGS URL

Downloading the subtitles in different formats.

e.g., BBC iPlayer only uses ttml, which ffmpeg can’t read. Options are srt, ass, vtt, or lrc.

youtube-dl --convert-subtitles srt --embed-subs URL

Download a subtitle only

e.g., Not downloading the video, only the subtitle(s).

youtube-dl --write-sub --sub-lang LANGS --skip-download URL

The complete list of commands can be found on their README page.

Netflix and Amazon Prime Video

When downloading from Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, the best tool I’ve come across is AnyStream. This is made by RedFox - the same people that make CloneCD and CloneDVD (in case you’ve come across these in the past). The trial period is very generous too:

The free 21-day trial version of AnyStream is limited to approximately 10 downloads. You have a quota of 10 downloads. Whenever some of it is used up, it will refill at a rate of 1 download every day. This amounts to a maximum of 31 downloads over the trial period of 21 days.

The best VPN I’ve found that actually works with these services to get content from other countries is ExpressVPN. This has a 30 day moneyback guarantee in case you’re not able to stream from another location, which you can initiate by contacting their helpful support staff.

AnyStream can be used to download subtitles too. If the subtitles are in a different language character set (e.g., Japanese), then the subtitles will be in a format called VobSub (A .sub and a .idx file, .sub being the picture, and .idx containing info on size, colour, position and timing). See this for more information. This is a graphical representation of the characters, and not text itself. You can confirm which subtitle format your video is using with ffmpeg:

ffmpeg -i video.mp4


Stream #0:2(eng): Subtitle: mov_text (tx3g / 0x67337874), 0 kb/s (default)
 handler_name    : SubtitleHandler


Stream #0:2(jpn): Subtitle: dvd_subtitle (mp4s / 0x7334706D), 1920x1080, 10 kb/s (default)
 creation_time   : 2021-06-19T00:22:31.000000Z
 handler_name    : 日本語

Extracting subtitles

The simplest way of extracting subtitles is to identify which stream they’re in (using the code above). If it’s text, then you can extract the subtitles by running:

ffmpeg -i video_with_subtitle.mp4 -map 0:s:0

Change the stream as needed if there are multiple subtitles. See here for some examples.

The subtitles may also be in different formats, especially those in Japanese/Chinese. See this page for more.

If they’re in the dvd_stream format (VobSub). then we’ll need to use different software to extract them. The best option I’ve found is using YAMB and this guide.

Then to convert these from VobSub to Srt, you’ll want a tool called Subtitle Edit, which does OCR recognition. For non-Latin, select the Tesseract 5.00 Alpha OCR method.

Then you can run this new srt file though a translation program. Results will vary greatly, and getting subtitles elsewhere is by far the better option, but for obscure shows that are only in a foreign language, then this may be your best bet.

subtitles, ffmpeg, youtube-dl, AnyStream, ExpressVPN, Netflix, Amazon
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