Usually only on screen for a few seconds, there’s much more to a lower third than meets the eye. A combination of text and graphical elements, it is simply another way to provide an audience with information. When used properly, a lower third should supplement the main visuals, giving the viewer added context. Whether it’s a name, place, or some other tidbit of information, the lower third is a powerful filmmaking tool.
When to Use a Lower Third
Naturally, you can use text to communicate nearly anything, including a name, job title, the time, weather, location, etc. The decision you need to make is whether to include the information via a lower third or not.
Let’s say, as an example, that you’re working on a documentary and you’re cutting together soundbites from an interview. Does the interview subject’s name add anything to your story? Perhaps they’re an expert discussing a very specific aspect of their industry. In this case, a lower third could be very useful, maybe even necessary.
Remember that there are a variety of ways to communicate the identity of an interview subject. During production you can ask the interviewee for an introduction, which you can include as a soundbite in your final edit. Or, you could use a visual to communicate the identity, such as a shot of a name tag or a nameplate sitting on a desk.
However, there can be times where you don’t have a soundbite or visual to use. Other times you just want to add additional information to form a more complete picture of what you’re trying to communicate. This is where the lower third serves as a great tool.
What Makes a Lower Third Suck?
If you’ve ever worked with lower thirds then you know that you can’t just take any template and slap it over your video. There are a variety of factors that play into making things work. Whether you’re trying to decide on using a lower third template or creating your own from scratch, it’s important to think of the project as a whole.
For instance, are you working with a particular brand? If so, do they have a strict style guide, or are they giving you total creative freedom to create your own graphics? How does the lower third fit in with the rest of the graphics, if any? If certain graphics already exist for the project, it might be best to base your design off of those. Big networks like the Public Broadcasting Service have their own style guides.
When creating your own graphics from scratch, you’ll need to think about the various elements of a lower third and figure out how to make them work for your project, all the while keeping a close eye on the entire project. Ignore either of these and you might end up with lower thirds that just plain SUCK.
Here are some things to avoid when developing lower thirds so they don’t suck:
- Random fonts that don’t match any other aspect of the film or video
- Poor contrast between the lower third and the background
- Random color scheme
- Poor placement on the screen (e.g. covering a person’s mouth in a close-up; hugging too close to the screen’s edge; etc.)
- Distracting animation or graphics
Let’s take a closer look at the individual elements that make up a lower third.
The Elements of a Lower Third
When done right, the varying elements of a lower third should come together harmoniously to properly supplement the message of the images on screen. These assets can include any combination of typography, shapes, logos, images, motion graphics, and even video assets.
As you would imagine, a plethora of design options is available when working with so many different assets. The choices for each element are vast, including font, color, size, position, and movement, just to name a few. With all of these options, you can make a lower third very complicated or extremely simple.
Naturally, one of the most important features of a lower third is the typography. Remember, the key to creating a good lower third is to think of your project as a whole. The content matter and tone of your video will help guide your design choices when it comes to typography.
Again, if you’re working with an existing brand the choices may be obvious. Look to their existing assets, if available. These can include fonts, color schemes, and other design elements from which to pull ideas and inspiration.
Let’s use the Public Broadcasting Service as an example. PBS has a specific visual identity, and we can take a closer look at that identity in their style guide. They use a custom typeface called PBS Explorer, which they discuss in their style guide:
“The new typeface for PBS is one that’s infused with the spirit of the explorer. And, like PBS itself, it’s familiar and approachable. The PBS Explorer typeface is based on an enduring font called ‘Interstate,’ a classic font designed by Tobias Frere-Jones. It was inspired by the alphabet used by the United States Federal Highway Administration across all highway signage. This font seemed like a natural starting place for an explorer—who likes to search, who savors adventure and who often finds the journey as its own reward. Originally designed for signage, the typeface naturally translates to print and display applications. In this package, it also has been optimized for broadcast and internet use. Clear, flexible and extremely legible, the typeface is designed for distinct visibility and clarity across a range of media and applications. It communicates program and other information quickly, clearly and effectively. Aside from its functionality, the PBS Explorer typeface has a lot of personality. It’s a modern sans serif font with a uniquely American character.”
They further describe their typeface and brand as contemporary, relevant, and inviting.
Clearly, a lot of thought went into choosing this particular font. You can see how it is indeed a perfect fit for the PBS brand, and how it matches their visual identity.
The PBS style guide gives further instruction on how to use lower thirds, particularly for promoting upcoming shows. Check out the typographic specifications below. They include specifications for a Header, Show Title, Show Time, Episode Title, and Station Logo.
Logos & Shapes
If you take a closer look at the PBS lower third, you’ll notice additional graphic elements that are working in conjunction with the text to create a cohesive aesthetic. These include the main logo, local station logos, as well as various shapes. The logos obviously help brand the content, while the shapes help the typography and logos stand out.
This particular lower third has the main PBS logo on the left, with the local affiliate station logo residing to the right. The Show Title has a rectangle just behind it, helping the main text to pop. The Show Time is just to the right of the title, with its own background rectangle. The differing colors help the viewer easily separate the two assets at first glance, and the rectangles help them stand out from the background.
As I mentioned several times before, color can help draw a viewer’s eye. Using a color that compliments the background visual will help draw attention to an asset while not distracting from the content. Using contrasting colors between the typographic and background elements will also help your text stand out. This will give you additional control over your viewer’s attention. A good example of this is the Show Title and Show Time text I mentioned before. The PBS style guide includes in-depth specifications for four different color schemes—Green, Orange, Magenta and Blue. For each color scheme they provide Hex Codes and RGB information for every asset used in the lower third. This is a perfect example of how you can precisely use varying color schemes to not only brand your graphics, but to also draw a viewer’s attention. If a color scheme doesn’t exist, use the color picker tool to match colors.
Size and Position
Just because it’s called a lower third doesn’t mean you have to keep it in the lower third of the screen. This just happens to be the most common place you’ll find them as it is often the most aesthetically pleasing. This is mainly due to the Rule of Thirds.
For example, if you have an interview subject on screen, you want their eyeline to be in the upper third of the screen. Putting a name title in the lower third will help add symmetry and balance to the image.
However, depending on the background visual that your graphic is covering, the lower third of the screen might not be the ideal spot. If the text stands out better against a different area of your screen, by all means move it.
For instance, let’s say you want to add a name graphic over an interview subject, but the shot is an extreme closeup of the subject’s face. This may cause you to adjust the size and/or position of your lower third. You may even need to strip the lower third down to just the text if certain assets are covering up too much of the subject.
If you’re working in the broadcast realm, don’t forget to use your Title Safe guides.
In addition to all of the design options available for each lower third element, you can also throw in the animation factor. This is a visual medium after all, so why not add some movement to your lower thirds? Make your animation as simple or complex as you’d like by animating the lower third elements individually or together. Animate your typography by characters, words or lines. Customize the duration and style of how the elements animate in and out of frame.
Be careful though, as this is one of those areas where you can go overboard and add features just for the sake of adding them. You can quickly get lost down a rabbit hole of designing animations for your lower thirds and before you know it, you’ve missed your deadline. Really think if animation adds anything. You want a lower graphic that will get your viewer’s attention but not distract from the story.
PBS provides several animation styles with their branding assets. This includes keyable logo animations that can be used in a variety of different ways, as bugs, intros, outros, and lower thirds. To use with a lower third, simply adjust the size and position of the animated element and then add the necessary text.
Also, when animating text and graphic elements, you need to decide on how long to keep a lower third on screen. A good rule of thumb is to have it up long enough for the viewer to read every word twice.
Tips for Creating Lower Thirds That Don’t Suck
So we’ve given you some ideas on what to keep in mind when creating lower thirds. But the reality is, sometimes you just get a creatively block and just don’t know where to start. Here are a few ideas to get you going.
Keep It Simple
You don’t necessarily need a style guide, fancy animation, and logos to create meaningful lower thirds. Sometimes the best solution is the simplest.
Earlier this year, HBO released the critically acclaimed documentary “The Defiant Ones,” which gathered some of the most powerful artists from every genre of music to tell of their experiences working with hip-hop moguls Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. Directed by “Book of Eli” co-director Allen Hughes, it was a project over 4 years in the making that cost millions to produce, on one of the most powerful cable networks on the planet. The lower thirds of this multi-million dollar, high-profile project had no graphics. No movement. No rainbow-like color palette. They used a simple sans-serif font, in white or black (depending on the background), wherever it made sense.
You’ll also notice that not everyone has a title under their name. When you’re a world-renown celebrity, all you need is the name. But, even then, sometimes more context is needed, even if the person is known.
What’s good enough for HBO, should be good enough for you. (Be sure to read our interview with executive producer, writer, and lead editor on that project, Doug Pray).
Creating your own lower third can be as simple or as complex as you’d like it to be. Simply adding text to help communicate an idea is easy and efficient. On the other hand, designing a look to correspond with a brand or visual identity can be a bit more tricky.
Don’t, however, feel like you have to start from scratch. Templates are a great place for ideas and inspiration. You can find free assets available where everything is plug and play—all you need to do is simply change various assets to fit your content. Use these tools as is, modify them to fit your project, or just view them as inspiration to create your own lower thirds. Whatever the situation, templates are useful.
One of the problems with using templates is that you usually have to evaluate them on their own, not together with a given project, so it can be hard to tell whether the template that you are looking at online is going to fit well with your project’s style. So a good start might be to find a few different projects that have similar aesthetics to yours, and see what their titles look like. Use them as a starting point as you either develop your own or modify a template.
Once you’ve created a look that you’re happy with, you can save out your own template for future use. The Essential Graphics Panel in Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects is a great place to not only find existing templates, but to also save out your own. Creating your own library of lower third templates can make life in the future much easier.
If you’re really passionate and looking to create your own visual identity, think about creating your own style guide. This can be particularly useful if you work with any other artists on your own team or freelancers.
Hire a Pro Designer
You’ve heard it a million times: filmmaking is a collaborative art form. Extend that collaboration all the way to your titles. If you have the budget, hire a professional designer to create your titles and lower thirds. And you don’t necessarily need to pay a lot. There are lots of freelance designers on sites like Dribbble, Upwork, Fiverr, and Behance who would love the opportunity to add documentary film work to their portfolio. (Note: Fiverr may be a great source of inexpensive work, but there is also controversy surrounding their business model that allows designers to bid as low as $5. Determine for yourself if it’s worth it.)
Look for someone who has a portfolio demonstrating a strong understanding of color science and font usage.
As you see, you can spend a lot of time and effort creating and working with lower thirds. With a variety of elements with which to work, the possibilities are quite vast. But remember, while a lot of elements can be utilized, you don’t have to include all of them to create a functioning lower third. When in doubt, keep it simple. Don’t feel like you have to spend time creating ideal color schemes and brainstorming animation styles. Often times a simple combination of white text will do the job just fine.