Alex Vann from Real Arts Workshops (RAW) was delighted to get the call from Heather Wastie from Alarum Productions, to add British Sign Language and subtitles to the film of her wonderful poem ‘Histrionic Water’.
Alex is hearing and signs to level 6 and sometimes does communication support work in education and has previously added BSL to films and live performances. However, when it came to this project he asked his partner in business and in life, Gary O’Dowd, to do the signing. This is because the words of the poem are so expressive and visual that it made sense for a native Deaf BSL user to perform the poem.
Most people who have studied BSL will quickly learn that it isn’t just about doing things with your hands and arms. Rather, it uses the whole body to communicate and in particular facial expressions and it was felt that a Deaf signer would convey this with maximum authenticity.
When it came to translating ‘Histrionic Water’, it was vital to Alex and Gary that a Deaf audience should understand what it meant. It wouldn’t do just to translate the English straight into hand gestures, like others forms of communication, for example Makaton and Sign Supported English. It had to go further and tell the story and almost act it so that a Deaf audience would understand not just the words but the meaning. Alex and Gary worked on translating the poem on paper first, and Gary practiced and practiced until the poem flowed.
Filming was problematic because Gary obviously can’t hear the poem so Alex had to use hand signals and pointing to sections of the poem off camera. Even then – trying to match the timing of the spoken word was near impossible. So they shot it in small sections, in front of a greenscreen, and Alex had the unenviable task of ‘stitching’ the pieces together in video editing software to match the film of the poem. There are some fades between the signed sections because one thing BSL must do is flow – and not jump from one sign to another.
Initial feedback from Deaf audiences is very encouraging:
Alex Vann from RAW said:
We love working in collaborations with other organisations and artists so when Heather got in touch about this project we were very excited. One of our key values as a business is inclusion so making a film Deaf accessible is right up our street. We hope Heather’s film is a huge success and that we get to work together again in future.
Alex Vann is an all round creative. He formed RAW in 1997 out of a University project and restarted it in 2018 after working as a graphic designer for agencies and in-house for many years.