Working with a Deaf Crew

For a while, I worked at a studio where many deaf people worked. They were mainly trainees. One day I was required to go to Studio One, and play the part of a policeman interviewing a deaf suspect, for one of their training productions.

A television studio is a very audio-visual world. Both senses are used in the normal course of things, to make the system by which television programmes are made, work. Deaf people are often very proud, however, and insist that they can do everything that hearing people can do.

For most of the scene, I was at one end of a table, and my interviewee was at the other. Behind her, out of shot, were all my lines, written in big letters on idiot-boards. Behind me were all the suspect’s lines. Holding these boards were deaf crew members. We started shooting the scene. I read my lines off the idiot board presented to me, and my interviewee read hers. This worked fine until we got to the end of the first boards. The next boards were not presented to us. The snag was that the deaf people holding the boards couldn’t tell when we had read to the end of the board they were holding. They couldn’t hear us, you understand. They couldn’t lip read us usefully either, since the lines they could see were on the other crew member’s idiot boards, and these were the lines belonging to the wrong actor. The actor they needed to be able to lip read had his or her back to them. Since they could neither see nor hear what was going on, they had little to keep them alert and interested, and were not as diligent as the director and others might have chosen them to be.

We tried with this system a few times, but the best they could do was show us one board for a while, and then show us the next one when they thought they had been holding one up for what seemed like long enough. This random method was unsuccessful.

Normally, such problems can be sorted relatively quickly. The usual method of communication goes like this: the director sits in the “gallery”, which is out of sight of the studio floor. He can only see what the cameras on the studio floor show him on his monitors. He has two sets of sound information, however. First, he can hear what the actors are saying, because the microphones recording the sound for the programme on the studio floor feed sound signals to speakers in the gallery. Also, he has the chatter of the crew, both on the studio floor, and from the gallery, which comes through a separate sound system, which is relayed through headphones (“cans”) worn by all the studio floor crew, including the organiser of the studio floor: the sergeant major of the studio - the “floor manager”.

So, in the normal course of things, while the programme is being recorded, the pictures from camera three might be going to the tape, and the director might see the pictures offered by camera two, and not like what he sees. He could say into his microphone “Camera Two, pan left a bit please, I want to see the edge of the door in this shot”. The man working camera two would hear this, pan left until the director was satisfied, and then the director could say to his vision mixer, “Coming to two -two!” and the vision mixer (almost always a woman, and usually with a name beginning with H - don’t ask me why) would cut to camera two, and all would be well. This sort of adjustment could be done during the recording process itself, with no need for rehearsal, and a well-seasoned crew could carry this all off very smoothly.

With a deaf crew, things are a bit different. Saying, “Pan left a bit please” into the headphones of a deaf cameraman has little beneficial effect. First, one has to attract the attention of the floor manager. Normally one would just say, “Brian, could you get the policeman to move a bit to his left, please?” and this would work, provided the studio floor manager is called Brian. A deaf floor manager is a different prospect. First, one flashes a light to attract his attention. This works, provided he is looking in the right direction to see the light, and is tremendously alert. Next, the director has to tell an interpreter who is up in the gallery, what he wants. The interpreter then has to go to a camera in the gallery, and sign into that camera what is wanted. On the studio floor is a monitor showing the output of the gallery camera. The floor manager sees this, and if he understands straight away, he can set about the task. If he doesn’t understand, then he needs to go to one of the cameras on the studio floor which is relaying pictures of the crew back to the gallery, and sign “Eh?” into that camera. Once the instruction has been understood, he can then go to the actor and beckon over an interpreter on the floor. He signs to the interpreter what is wanted, and the interpreter says to the actor, “Could you to move a bit to the left, please?”

This is what happens when things are going well. If, for instance, an instruction is given but is then thought to be a bad one, or to have been misunderstood, then no amount of arm waving at the camera in the gallery will attract the attention of the floor manager who is going about doing whatever seems needed. One solution to this problem is to have two interpreters on the floor, one watching the gallery monitor at all times and the other following the floor manager around. While all this is going on, most of the deaf crew is waiting about, knowing nothing of what is going on, minds wandering off the task in hand.

So, to shoot with a deaf crew, one doesn’t just need cameras to shoot the actors, one also needs at least one camera in the gallery, and a couple of extra cameras on the studio floor, plus monitors for these in both places, and at least two interpreters, and some flashing lights for floor and gallery.

Back to me and my idiot boards. I was sitting there, observing the process with some amusement, and after a while it was decided to go for another take, and hope for the best. A new problem was spotted. When one of the idiot-board crew decided it was time to go to the next board (and sometimes they had the boards in the right order), he would let the old board fall to the studio floor. It would fall out of shot, so couldn’t be seen, but it would fall with quite a bit of noise. Unable to hear the noise, the crewmen hadn’t thought that it might be a problem. When the problem was eventually explained to the crew, it came up with something of an unexpected solution to the problem. They sent out for two hearing people whose job it became to take the idiot boards and put them down quietly. Intriguingly enough, the moment of when to pass the idiot-boards to the hearing crewman to put down, was still chosen by the deaf crew member holding the boards, using the dead-reckoning method described above.

I thought the whole process to be hilarious. Indeed, just the sight of a deaf man holding a microphone boom pole, and wearing headphones struck me as fairly amusing. The rest of the people there had been in the studio for four days of this, and they didn’t find it nearly so funny.


Click here to go back to the home page