Charlie Swinbourne: ‘Sign Safe’ or ‘free’? The answer for Deaf filmmakers lies somewhere in-between

Posted on November 27, 2013

Two weeks ago, Deaf filmmaker Ted Evans (watch his award-winning film The End here) posted a great article on these pages about whether the ‘Sign Safe’ method of making Deaf films, which involves making sure the signs fit within the frame of filming, might be holding Deaf filmmakers back.

Within his piece, he featured a fantastic video showing both how the ‘Sign Safe’ method made a film look, and how a more free version looked, and then asked people to feedback on which method they preferred. 

I was among those who fed back on the video (I hope you all did too!) and for me, there were definitely advantages to the ‘free’ version.

But something kept nagging at me, and a few days later I realised what it was. I emailed Ted at the time. With his permission, now that he has most of his responses, here are my thoughts, in blog form, below. (If you’ve not already fed back, do please do so before reading this blog!)

‘Sign Safe’ or ‘free’? The answer for Deaf filmmakers lies somewhere in-between

A major difference between how Deaf filmmakers and mainstream filmmakers make films is that in mainstream films, directors can depend on sound to convey their dialogue.

As long as their viewers can hear the lines that are spoken, visually, they can do pretty much what they want.

What has led to the ‘Sign Safe’ method of filmmaking, which it can be argued is more restrictive, is the need to make sure the sign language is clear, so that the Deaf audience can understand what the characters are saying.

This means that, as Ted identified, if you compare a hearing film and a Deaf film, the framing of the shots will often look quite different.

In his video, Ted showed how, in Deaf films, shots are often wider, to fit signing hands and their movements in.

There may be less close-ups, less creative shots, and – a key point – less reaction shots, where, crucially, we see how someone feels about what is being said as someone is speaking to them.

For Deaf films to compete with hearing films, it’s key that Deaf filmmakers are able to be more creative than ‘Sign Safe.’ But how far should we go?

What was striking for me, in Ted’s ‘free’ version of the scene, was that even in close-ups, and often in creative shots (from behind people, for example) I could often still understand almost all of what someone was signing. And if I couldn’t quite get it, I could fall back on subtitles to make sure I understood.

So for me, being ‘free’ works really well artisitically, and is something that Deaf filmmakers should definitely be doing.

But there was one thing that jarred, and that was when subtitles were used to fill in the gaps in dialogue during reaction shots, when the camera cuts away from the signer to the person watching (listening) to them.

Now, I’m not saying this can’t ever be done. Or that it’s definitely ‘wrong’, because I think it’s up to the filmmakers themselves, and for the audience to decide.

But what I can say is how it makes me feel, and try and explain why. To do this, I’m going to compare how different groups (hearing and Deaf) follow films. Here goes…

How Deaf people ‘listen’ to a mainstream film

Basically, us Deafies read the subtitles while we see the speaker, and then when the film cuts to the reaction shot (of the person listening to them) we continue reading the subtitles.

There’s continuity – and no interruption from a Deaf point of view.

How a hearing person ‘listens’ to a mainstream film

Let’s run the same scenario with a hearing viewer.

They’re listening to a person speaking (not using subtitles, remember) and when the shot cuts away for the reaction shot, they continue to listen to the dialogue.

Again, there’s no interruption in their following of a scene.

How Deaf people ‘listen’ to Deaf films

But let’s say we do the same thing in a Deaf film – cut away from the signer, using subtitles to cover the reaction shot (and tell us what is being signed in the meantime).

In a way, this is doing what a mainstream film does, right? Except it isn’t. This is where I think it can get jarring, because there’s a crucial difference.

If the Deaf viewer understands BSL, and is actually using BSL to take in what the actors or contributors are saying, then, as the camera cuts to the reaction shot, the signs suddenly disappear – and they’re only left with subtitles to follow it with.

Crucially, while subtitles on a mainstream film match the word structure of a spoken line of dialogue, subtitles on a Deaf film translate a line of dialogue that has a BSL word structure into an English word order – which makes this transition even more disruptive.

This is something I find jarring.

To be honest, it’s not only a sign language issue. More simply, It’s also the fact I’m looking at the actor in a Deaf film for their facial expression and body language too, and so, basically, I’m following their communication visually.

Then, as the screen cuts to the reaction shot, those signs and expressions disappear, and I have to read those words in text form. That sudden switch from visual communication/BSL to subtitles means the flow is interrupted.

Maybe a good way for a hearing person to understand how this feels would be if they were watching a mainstream film that suddenly had the sound suddenly turned off every time there was a reaction shot.

Would a hearing viewer be happy to suddenly have no sound and to have to switch to looking at the subtitles each time the camera cuts away? Or would they find it unsettling?

I’ll say again what I said earlier – there shouldn’t be any ‘rules.’ It’s up to directors to try things out, experiment, and see what feels right when they make their films.

But I think this issue is one we should bear in mind – if BSL is the main language of our film, how far can we use subtitles to cover up any gaps in it?

If we’re desperate for reaction shots, can we find a creative way of including them? Do we make reaction shots quicker than they would be in a mainstream film? Or should we sometimes use subtitles to cover it up, but minimise how often we do so?

I don’t think any deaf viewer would prefer to watch a film that is 100% Sign Safe (if I’m wrong tell us in the comments below) but if we’re choosing between ‘Sign Safe’ or being ‘free’ then the answer, for me, is somewhere in between.

The good thing about all this is that we’re debating it – thanks to Ted. I can’t wait to find out more about the responses he has got, and to find out what other people think about how Deaf films should look.

What do you think? Tell us below.

Charlie Swinbourne is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter. He writes for the Guardian and BBC Online, and as a scriptwriter, penned the films My SongComing Out and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.

The Limping Chicken is the UK’s independent deaf news and deaf blogs website, posting the very latest in deaf opinion, commentary and news, every weekday! Don’t forget to follow the site on Twitter and Facebook, and check out our supporters on the right-hand side of this site or click here.


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