Standard practices of editing Deaf subjects in documentary video?
October 1, 2023 9:18 AM   Subscribe

I am editing a documentary film in which several Deaf subjects were interviewed (being asked and signing their responses in ASL). What should I know about the ethics / standard practice of how to show or not show signing folks on camera?

With a speaking subject, it would be absolutely standard practice to cut down a long section of interview by cutting away to B-roll (i.e., illustrating with other images what they are discussing), losing irrelevant phrases, eliminating long pauses and repetition, losing some "uhs" and "ums" etc. in the interest of efficiency and generally not making people look like idiots. (Yes, this can be taken to a manipulative extreme; I don't do that.)

Can anyone enlighten me on the rules as they apply to folks who are signing? I'm being told by some (non-Deaf) sources that it is considered disrespectful to cut away at all from a person who is signing, but this was a one-camera shoot, meaning that I basically can't show anything else or even cut anything out within their responses, making them appear boring and longwinded every time they appear on camera. Can anyone with expertise confirm or refute this assertion?

(If it's relevant, the director has chosen to use a speaking interpreter's voiceover for the Deaf subjects' responses rather than subtitles. Is one considered better practice than the other? Does THAT choice make a difference in terms of the ethics of cutting away from the subject?)
posted by catesbie to Human Relations (9 answers total)
I've seen British Sign Language conversations with voiceover in (BBC) TV documentaries several times and it's edited in the way that spoken conversations are but I suspect it's always been a 2+ camera shoot.

I just rewatched bits of the Rose Ayling-Ellis documentary about BSL, she has a couple of conversation in BSL at around the 20min mark (youtube), they've used a two camera set up, and it looks like they've edited the conversation that way. There is no voiceover and there are subtitles. The sounds that both participants make as they converse are kept in. Given the subject matter and the broadcaster, I would assume that this was intended to be best practice or close to it.

This approach - edited, subtitles, include the actual language as it is used - is broadly similar to the one that I've seen in highbrow documentaries where there's an interview taking place a language other than English. It might be helpful to consider what would you do if it was eg Navajo rather than ASL?
posted by plonkee at 9:52 AM on October 1

This is a bit tangential to the point, but as a blind person who is not deaf I would very much prefer voiceover rather than subtitles. In an ideal world you could offer both. I can't speak to the editing issue but I am concerned about your characterization of them as boring and long-winded on camera. It's communication, first of all, and that should not be abridged if it can be avoided. I would be wary of doing so with sign in particular because you presumaly don't know it.
posted by Alensin at 10:28 AM on October 1 [1 favorite]

Deaf person here. Yes, please include subtitles if you can — access is vital. When I, as a Deaf person, run into videos that aren't subtitled, it's frustrating and disheartening. As for cutting out, generally, it's appropriate to cut out when a sentence is finished, and cut back to another portion of the conversation. Cutting out "uhh, um" stutters/hiccups can be tricky, but doable with proper timing. Do you have a Deaf person on the project? They can help figure out logistics for the right timing to cut out/in, as well as eliminate fluff.

Hope that helps, feel free to MeMail me if you have any further questions :)
posted by dubious_dude at 10:53 AM on October 1 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks very much for answers so far. To be clear, my main question concerns the highly visual nature of signing (facial expressions, body language) and whether not seeing a person when they are signing is considered disrespectful in some way, especially given that the voiceover and its tone are not theirs but from a second person. Hence I don’t think Navajo or any spoken language is the right comparison. This is specifically about signing and whether it needs to be seen 100% of the time.

We’ll have a Deaf person checking our work but not actively involved in the project, which is not specifically about Deaf issues but simply includes a couple of interviews with signers. I’m sure the whole thing will be closed captioned in the end.

Alensin, my point is that anybody appearing on camera from the very beginning of their point to the end without interruption will necessarily appear boring and longwinded. With speaking subjects I can cut away and make them sound less so.
posted by catesbie at 11:19 AM on October 1 [1 favorite]

Can you cut from one Deaf interviewee to another—like, are they enough on the same topic that you could have one person saying, e.g., "we got a lot of public interest in Fat Bear Week" and then cut to another person saying "I was a big participant in the Fat Bear Week voting, I checked in every day" and then back to the first person saying "all told we got over a million votes"? I'm not sure about the disrespect question and as a hearing person I wouldn't want to weigh in, but you definitely lose a LOT from ASL when you lose facial expressions. The interpreter would be doing their best to convey what's lost, I'm sure, but for a Deaf person watching with subtitles it would be a less rich experience.
posted by babelfish at 12:09 PM on October 1

Could you do picture-in-picture in scenes when you would normally cut away to show other footage related to what the interviewee is narrating? So that their signing is still on the screen but viewers don't get bored just watching someone talk/sign.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:20 PM on October 1 [5 favorites]

If you’re going to have voice-over and/or subtitles (I’d encourage subtitles), can you push in on the person signing, so you can frankenbite their responses? Or edit in some b-roll to play under the ADR’ed vocals?
posted by Ideefixe at 1:35 PM on October 1

Best answer: Yes, the signing needs to be present on screen. I have edited many videos with ASL - if you looking to condense the duration of the video remember that facial expression and reactions are also very critical and should not be edited out even if it's the only communication.

Generally we made multiple versions to ensure everyone needs was accommodated.

You can use picture in picture or my preference, do a 50/50 split. I love that one because I would vary the split and that kept things dynamic. It was also important to always show full screen any new presenters when they start or any other introduction.
posted by zenon at 8:35 PM on October 1 [5 favorites]

Not a native signer, but an interpreter who learned ASL as a fluent second language - I would echo the voices saying to NOT cut away, or very seriously limit the cuts. It can be super disruptive to the comprehension when your view of a signer is interrupted (moreso on video than in person, weirdly). It just makes the viewer have to work harder/put more concentration towards the comprehension. When you cut away from a speaking person, the auditory channel continues uninterrupted, but cutting away from a signer would be like muting some of a speakers audio and expecting the audience to have to fill in the gaps. If you could work with a d/Deaf person to cut out the truly unimportant filler, that'd probably be less jarring. But ASL does tend to be a language where a simple concept takes a longer time to sign than to speak in English.
posted by carlypennylane at 12:47 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]

« Older Like Duolingo, but for other activities? How to...   |   Is there a standard way of teaching or structuring... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments