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What are continuity lists? Do they help with subtitling? (Yes!)

They’re known by many different names – the “Continuity List;” the “Combined Continuity, Dialogue and Spotting List;” the “Combined Continuity and Spotting List;” or just simply the “List.” They’re primarily a legal document used to establish the copyright of a film or TV show. But continuity lists can also be more than that – in particular, they’re a very useful tool for captioning and subtitling translation.

This blog post will explain what a continuity list is exactly, and how to leverage it for your subtitles localization project.

[Average read time: 3 minutes]

First, what is a continuity list?

Combined Continuity and Spotting Lists (known as CCSL) are a delivery requirement for any broadcast productions and for most independent productions. They’re basically a document that a production company has deliver to studios or releasing companies alongside their final, edited TV show or movie. This document has enough information to do two things:

  1. Describe the final, edited content well enough that it can be used to establish copyright. That means that the continuity list describes each shot in the video, any movement in the shot, which characters are in the shot, what they say and to whom, whether there’s any music playing or any sound effects audible, and anything else that’s useful to identify the content. Ideally, this document could be used in a court of law as a faithful representation of the final show – effectively, as a stand-in.
  2. Provide information for lip-sync and video dubbing, captions and subtitles.

It’s easier to understand if you see it – following is a sample CCSL of a fictional, 30-second film:


Note that the left column contains very detailed descriptions of each scene, including noting the camera shots (“MCS” for Medium Close-Up Shot, for example). This is the kind of detail that is useful for establishing copyright, as well as identifying the film in legal proceedings.

The right column contains the in and out times for each line of dialogue, as well as the duration and speaker name. Note that the section in yellow looks a lot like a subtitle or caption file. This isn’t in a perfect format to use as a starter for either of these services, mainly because the format doesn’t conform to a usable tab-delimited standard. However, it’s a good start, and an experienced subtitles editor can usually convert this column of a CCSL into a usable captions file. This is why it’s good to ask productions if they have a CCSL or any spotting documentation – if they do, it can save some time and money during the subtitle workflow. Note that the spotting list can also be converted into a lip-sync dubbing script (again, with some elbow grease and know-how), which can then be translated.

What kind of productions will have them?

Since this is primarily a broadcast requirement, usually only entertainment content, TV shows and feature films produced in the United States by studios, or which have studio or broadcast distribution, will have a CCSL. Many independent films and short films, as well as some student films and web series, will have them as well, though in those cases it really depends on whether or not the producers put them together. Sometimes marketing productions will have them, but that’s very unusual, though marketing productions usually have timed scripts available, since the TV commercials and radio spots they produce have to be created with broadcast restrictions in mind. They’re not usually available for corporate or e-Learning productions, even when they contain e-Learning scenarios and short instructional films.

What if I get something that looks like a CCSL?

As mentioned, there are several different options – some productions will produce only the continuity list element (the left column of the sample above), while others will only have a spotting list (effectively, the content in the right column, or the SL from the acronym CCSL). This latter deliverable is ideal, of course. Some productions will have deliverables that aren’t as helpful – for example, most productions have an as-shot script, which is just the script updated so that it matches the final cut, but without any time-coding information which could be leveraged for captioning, subtitling or dubbing.

Test your workflow before starting the localization project

As with any translation & localization project, you must make sure to test your conversion workflow – in this case, the workflow from CCSL to a usable caption & subtitle format. Why? Because CCSL formats weren’t created to be used for digital media deliverables, and most CCSL vendors use their own template for each document. That’s right – this means that some CCSL files require more conversion work than do others. Likewise, we’ve seen CCSL’s that were scans with inaccessible text – very little you can leverage from there. But either way, the takeaways from this post should be: 1) if you’re working on a creative production, always ask if the production company has the continuity list, or a spotting list, or a combined list; and 2) make sure you test it before assuming that you can use it as a base for your audio and video translation project. And make sure you do this early on in the localization timeline – as we’ve said before, planning ahead is the only way to ensure that projects are done on time, on budget, and on scope.

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