Exclusive: Rebecca-Anne Withey interviews the director of the ASL version of Let it Go, Jules Dameron

Posted on February 10, 2015

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Jules and Jason

There is no denying that the Disney film Frozen has taken the world by storm. And its iconic song, Let it Go, has enjoyed tremendous success.

With over 265 million views on You Tube and an academy award for best original song, it has been translated into 42 languages.

And now, thanks to the Deaf Professional Arts Network, the National Technical Institute for the deaf and Film Director, Jules Dameron, we can enjoy a stunning performance of the song in American Sign Language.

Shot in coastal central California amidst mountains and beaches, the video employs the talents of deaf artists Amber Zion and Jason Listman to capture the true essence of the song and they do so – beautifully.

Working together with an all-deaf crew, it’s no exaggeration when I say these guys have produced something truly spectacular. I’m gushing, I know.

But as someone who has worked in signed song for 10 years now, I can honestly say this production surpasses anything I have ever seen.

Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t feel like a ‘typical’ signed song video. Its outdoors, for one thing which already makes it different.

It’s grand and expansive, unlike the studio shoots we’re so used to seeing. But even more significant for me is the way that it feels and looks like part of a dramatic production.

The artists aren’t just signers, translating the lyrics. They are the song itself. By becoming its characters and embodying the music, they convey the story with each movement they make.

Every last detail from the hair and make up to the structure of the signs has been carefully considered to match the vision of the song.

And it is this commitment to acting out the song’s meaning as opposed to merely interpreting the lyrics that demonstrates to me the recipe for signed song success.

It isn’t any wonder that the video gained over 70,000 views in less than a week.

So of course, wanting to know more about the brains behind the project, I got in touch with Jules Dameron. It didn’t take me long to discover that Let it Go wasn’t her first venture from narrative fiction into music videos.

On the music scene she has worked with internationally renowned deaf rapper Sean Forbes, Hollywood actress Marlee Matlin, Sean Berdy of Switched at Birth and my personal favourite, professional deaf actress Amber Zion.

Chatting to Jules herself has been truly insightful. I was reassured to find a working professional who also believes that signed song can be both visually stunning and entirely accessible.

Providing captions and signed translations does not mean we have to scrimp on style. And it is this sense of artistic freedom and creativity that I feel will encourage not only other film makers but future generations of sign singers too.

For way too long in England we have questioned the value of signed song and its place in our deaf community. We have assumed it belongs mostly to hearing people learning to sign or to those who ‘aren’t really Deaf.’

And by doing so we have settled for accepting less than average versions of signed songs as the ‘norm’ without pushing the boundaries of our artistic talents and seeing what actually can be created.

Jules’ version of Let it Go has proved once and for all that signed song can be an art form for deaf people to be proud of – and – most importantly, part of.

Using deaf artists of the highest standard and a crew of very talented deaf professionals, she has invited us all to experience and enjoy a song that the rest of the world has already fallen in love with. And if that isn’t beautiful accessibility, I don’t know what is.

Read on for an exclusive interview with Jules herself as well as behind the scenes images of the Let it Go shoot.

REBECCA: Firstly, how did the transition from directing regular dramatic shoots to musical ones come about? Were there any unexpected challenges? And if you had to choose – which would you prefer to direct, drama or music?

JULES: Truth be told, I started doing music videos because they were easier and quicker to be released. No need for a complicated process with sound in post-production, and I could just focus on the visuals more.

Jules studying Amber

Jules studying Amber

While I work on narrative fiction stories, I like to fill my down time with music videos. They’re just a joy and fun to work with.

The first unexpected challenge when I first started doing music videos was the fact that I basically had to come up with a visual concept from scratch, rather than just filming a performance of a song.

In the beginning, I was overwhelmed with that, but then after I got the hang of it, I was able to apply what I learned in directing narrative fictions to this process.

I enjoy all kinds of directing— as long as I get to work directly with a performer and seeing them bring their best performance, I’m as happy as a clam. I do enjoy working with narrative fictions mainly, but music videos are definitely loads of fun!

REBECCA: Before your very first music video shoot, what was your exposure to signed songs? Had you seen lots of performances or videos? Who or what inspired you?

Jules and Jason

Jules and Jason

JULES: I had seen some of Rosa Lee Timm’s stuff, and I adored her. She had that quality where I could actually sign along with her, particularly “She Drives Me Crazy” and “It Feels So Good.”

I think, honestly, I didn’t think about music videos all that much. I just treated them like fiction narratives (as you can tell, I’m sure!) But I think it was really after I started making more sign language music videos that I started to fall in love with watching them online.

At that time, we didn’t have that many to begin with. We still don’t have enough, but we’ve got many more now than ever.

REBECCA: On a personal note, what’s your relationship with music? Are there any artists or bands you would LOVE to direct for?

JULES: I have always loved music ever since I was little. My entire family, they’re all musicians, basically. I’m the only filmmaker in my family.

Backshot of Jules

Backshot of Jules

I think I ended up directing films because it was a medium that I could work with and we all could share that creative performance spirit.

I’ve always been obsessed with Billy Joel’s work, and so many songs from movie musicals. Like “Moulin Rouge” or “Les Miserables.” I’ve always been in love with musicals. I would love to work with Bruno Mars, actually. I just love his performance spirit.

REBECCA: Putting your directors cap on… In your eyes, what is it that makes a good sign song performer? What do you look for when casting / focus on when rehearsing?

JULES: Good question. I am absolutely adamant that the performer her/himself has an incredible work ethic and is highly collaborative.

Amber, Arleta Meeker, Shannon Rusnak and Jules

Amber, Arleta Meeker, Shannon Rusnak and Jules

Those are the top qualities I look for whenever I look for a performer or work with one. Those qualities define the project, ultimately. I look for someone who has the guts to commit to showing emotion in a performance and is willing to learn and keep practicing in rehearsal for a great amount of time.

Basically a great performance is 95% homework/rehearsal and 5% making sure your energy is spot-on while being filmed or being on stage. I don’t think many people realize that when they get into it for the first time.

Having the ability to show emotion is a very tough ability to develop for anyone, but once it’s there, then the entire performance pays off and is highly rewarding.

REBECCA: Most people want to know how the artists keep in time with the music – what methods do you use to support them with this? And when editing how do you ensure the sound is matched perfectly in sync with the performance (especially with a 100% deaf crew and cast!)

JULES: This is a very interesting area that people don’t realize.

Quinn Cooke, Jules and Ruan Du Plessis

Quinn Cooke, Jules and Ruan Du Plessis

Basically, since I’m the director of this project, I felt the need to memorize the song as much as I could, timing-wise, and make sure that my performers are on time.

So when I watch them sign a lyric, I make sure the timing of the lyric itself matches with the time I memorized, musically.

A lot of music performing for deaf people involves time memorization. No easy feat, to be sure. I edited this, and I can only hear if I use heavy-duty amplified headphones, so I used those to help me match the timing of the edit.

The sing-a-long karaoke version of “Let it Go” online was a big help to help us figure out exactly where the words were said, so we worked on that.

I know how important it is to be on time with the lyrics, because otherwise, we’d just be a novelty act, just signing words, without the marriage to the song.

REBECCA: Your ASL version of Let it Go has gone viral! How did the idea for this come about? What thoughts were behind selecting your performers/location and aspects of pre production?

JULES: Nick Zerlentes, a good friend of mine, and I just became obsessed together with the song, we actually started translating it into ASL on our own, and we thought it’d be great to make it into a project.

At around the same time, Amber Zion fell in love with it too, and told me that she wanted to do it. Jason Listman was a new friend of mine and Nick’s, and we thought it’d be a great idea to have everyone work together on it.

I wanted to incorporate both genders in this project because I thought it’d welcome young boys to feel included in this song, as well.

At that time, I decided that we needed to contribute to the deaf community by making sure we have a 100% deaf cast and crew in the making of this project. What other better song to do it than this?

REBECCA: In your own view, how is signed song received in the US? Are people generally supportive / enthusiastic about it? What sort of feedback have you received?

JULES: One thing’s for sure, ASL is highly widespread in the US now. It’s become an extremely popular trend and we hope that it continues to stay in the mainstream.

People are very supportive of sign language in general. When it comes to deaf people, it’s a different situation.

We are now focusing on letting the deaf people make their own communication choices, at the same time, we are accepting each other’s differences.

Each deaf person has an entirely different way of communicating due to the fact that each parent raises them differently.

We know that sign language is highly accessible, since it’s a visual form of communication, and we hope that this awareness continues to stay strong and allow deaf people everywhere to have access to language.

REBECCA: As you may or may not know, one area of criticism for signed song artists over here is whether they are using British Sign Language appropriately. Is this the same for ASL? Is there anything the artists are particularly sensitive about when translating the lyrics?

JULES: Yes, it’s all the same issues, both ways. In my professional opinion, if the performer loves the song, and does it well, with emotion and thought behind it, that’s all that truly matters.

There is something to be said about doing a proper grammar and structure to ASL, which I have a huge respect for, but then there’s the creative process as well, which allows you to break rules all the time.

REBECCA: And finally… do you have any plans for forthcoming music videos and are you coming to England any time soon ?

JULES: Nothing planned yet! And I’d LOVE to come to England. Anyone over there want to make a music video? I’m down!

Form an orderly queue, folks!

Rebecca-Anne Withey is an actress, sign singer and tutor of performing arts. A black country girl at heart, she now resides in Derby where she works in both performance art and holistic therapies. She writes on varied topics close to her heart in the hope that they may serve to inspire others.

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