Ted Evans: Is the ‘Sign Safe’ way of making Deaf films holding Deaf filmmakers back?

Posted on November 15, 2013

As filmmakers, we all want to improve our films and we want more people to watch them, both hearing and deaf.

We want larger audiences so that we can continue to make films. Otherwise we are making films for a very small minority – which is fine so long as that is what the filmmaker wants but it is not very sustainable for those of us who want to make a career out of making films.

The way sign language has been filmed in the media has always been down to access and rightly so. We call this method of filming ‘Sign Safe’ where the sign language on screen is framed and edited appropriately so that it is clear for the audience to understand.

Programmes like BBC2’s See Hear, which are filmed in a ‘Sign Safe’ way, have been produced for the Deaf community so that they can receive information and stories in British Sign Language. Long may they continue, I believe in accessible programmes for deaf people and it is important that we preserve them.

But when it comes to our short films/dramas we carry this rule over, and as filmmakers, we have found it very frustrating when trying to tell our stories visually. We want to tell stories with deaf characters and sign language users – but not always in the ‘Sign Safe’ way.

Everyone knows that deaf people enjoy watching films and mainstream programmes on the TV. They spend hours a week glued to the screen thanks to subtitles providing the much-needed access to the audible information we don’t hear. These films and programmes are told visually, and don’t have such rules as ‘Sign Safe’.

Yet when we make our (fiction) films we almost lock our shots and film Sign Language the ‘Sign Safe’ way. Why? We watch regular films and we follow and enjoy them immensely, why should we make our films differently?

Maybe with our films we should be allowed more freedom and let the story control how we shoot our films as opposed to an access rule? Or maybe I am wrong and sign language should be an exception? Maybe there is a particular way to film sign language and there are certain rules (I prefer guidelines…) we should follow? Are the old ones out of date?

The ‘Sign Safe’ method produces many problems for us and can be restrictive, as I highlight in this ‘Sign in the Frame’ film.

Are we trying to tell a story clearly in sign language or are we trying to tell a story visually with pictures? What is more important?

Then help Ted out by letting him know what you think. Just email your responses to the following questions to Ted.Evans@hotmail.com.

1) Which version of the scene did you prefer?
The Sign Safe Version [ ]
The No Rules Version [ ]

2) Which is more important to you?
Watching films that are accessible via sign language [ ]
Deaf people/culture being represented in films [ ]

3) Would you be happy to follow some signed dialogue in a film via subtitles?
Yes [ ]
No [ ]

4) If you have any other comments you’d like to add please include them in the email.

To help us analyse the data we receive back from people please state the following.

Your Age: 
10 – 18 [ ]
19 – 30 [ ]
31 – 40 [ ]
41 – 60 [ ]
60+ [ ]

Please let us know if you are:
Deaf [ ] 
Hard of hearing [ ]
Hearing [ ]

Screen shot 2013-11-14 at 16.57.35

Yours sincerely

Ted Evans

(A slightly frustrated filmmaker!)

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