Arts·Seen & Heard

5 things you need to know about shooting videos with sign language

In our new series Seen & Heard, a Deaf and hearing theatre group learn to speak to each other — and the producers had to learn a lot, too.

Our new series Seen & Heard follows a Deaf and hearing theatre group as they learn to speak to each other

Aselin Weng signs to Giacomo "Jack" Volpe while Andre Lai films. (CBC Arts)

Maureen Marovitch is the writer, director and co-producer of our new series Seen & Heard which follows a theatre group of 30 Deaf and hearing people mounting unique theatrical adaptation of The Little Mermaid​. Find out more and stream the full series now. In the article below, she takes us through some of the important lessons she had to learn while filming.

Framing shots featuring Deaf people is different from other documentaries

When you're filming people speaking, you have a whole range of shot frames you can use to capture that: long shot, wide shots, medium shots, close-ups and even extreme-close up. But when you're filming people conversing in sign language, some of those choices no longer work. That's because when signing, the whole upper body is involved in conveying meaning. The hands tell only half the story. It's also the arms, upper body posture and especially what's happening with the signer's eyebrows, mouth, and tongue. If some of those elements aren't in the frame, it might be impossible to decipher what's being signed. So we quickly learned to frame wider than normal — skip the close-ups and extreme close-ups, if we needed to capture what was being signed.

Framing conversations in sign language is very different from framing them in other documentaries

Usually, when people are having a conversation, you can keep your camera aimed at one person even after he or she has stopped speaking to capture their stillness, their reaction or just their look. That's because you are still hearing the other person in the conversation speaking off-camera.

You can't do that when filming sign language conversations. If you don't see the person signing in the frame, the conversation thread is lost. And if you try to swing back and forth between signers, you end up with frenetic camerawork and a case of motion sickness.

Andre Lai and Maureen Marovitch filming and directing. (CBC Arts)

For Seen & Heard, we learned to frame wider, placing both speakers in the frame. Sometimes we moved in for close-ups, but usually only when we suspected (at times, with fingers crossed) that what the other person was saying wasn't as integral and we could live without it...we hoped. Which leads to #3...

Filming without sign language interpreters = relying on the kindness of strangers

In an ideal world, we would have had a sign language interpreter by our side every time we switched on the camera. They would have interpreted every conversation, every joke, every subtlety and let us know if they saw an interesting conversation or scene unfolding across the room while we were busy filming something else.

That was the fantasy version. In reality, we filmed over eight months, with a skeleton crew that oscillated between one to three people per shoot. For most of the filming, we had zero financing. So at $60/hour, hiring an interpreter was far out of reach and had to be saved for very special occasions. Even then, interpreting is mentally exhausting work and most interpreters only worked in maximum stints of three hours. That meant that all the last-minute spontaneous shoots, all the day-long rehearsal shoots — in fact, everything but very precise events — were filmed without a professional interpreter on hand.

So how did we deal with filming in a language we didn't understand? We filmed A LOT. If we were in doubt about what was going on, if people looked animated about something (almost always the case in sign language where big facial movements are the norm!), if it might somehow be important, we generally filmed it — just in case. And thankfully, there were often kind sign-language fluent bystanders who stepped in for on-the-spot bits of interpreting: "They're discussing what they want for lunch" (camera off) vs. "They're panicked about the show next week" (focus and roll!) They often apologized for their mediocre signing, but their help was so appreciated.

Sign language is not easy to learn — unless you practice

Co-producer David Finch and I took an ASL 101 course at the MAB McKay Centre when we first started production. We knew it was very little, very later, but we figured it could only help. And it did. Suddenly the hand movements often saw flash began to have meaning: "like, hate, actor, lights, open, close" all jumped out from the wave of signs around us. But that one course was also just enough to show us how much we didn't know. We knew some nouns and verbs but syntax, sentence structure and grammar are very different from English. There are no verb tenses the way we use them. Facial expressions can totally change the meaning of a sign, and much more. But those ten weeks of ASL classes were still invaluable, if only to give us a taste and understanding of the beauty and complexity of the language.

Jack Volpe and Kimberley Chan being filmed by Andre Lai and recorded by Emilio Ruiloba Roy. (CBC Arts)

A hearing-centric world puts up barriers for Deaf people​

This was probably the biggest thing we learned. It's what makes all that the Seeing Voices Montreal team achieved that much more incredible. During our eight months of filming, we met many smart, talented Deaf individuals. And we realized that doing the things most hearing people take for granted — learning to drive, getting proper medical care, accessing a decent education,  applying for a job — are so much more complicated and at times nearly unattainable compared to what hearing people experience. Imagine applying for a job when you can't call the number in the ad, or how to converse with your interviewer once you're there for an interview? Or what happens if you are taken to hospital after an accident and no one understands you or can tell you what is happening? It's what makes awareness of Deaf realities and the need for greater access to interpreter services for Deaf people so important. We hope that along with entertaining viewers, this series will also help bring some small awareness of what daily life is like for Deaf people.

Stream Seen & Heard now!