11. Signing the story


The signer should feel comfortable with his/her lines as well as with the camera (and the camera-person!) to be able to sign with confidence and conviction, from the heart. 

For many productions the preferred set-up is for the signer to directly address the camera. A signer can sit or stand; if s/he is to walk around, movements should be carefully choreographed, to allow the cameraperson to shoot the scene without losing track of the signer or the sign language. 

The signer will usually sign a text in short segments or paragraphs, of a length that can be memorised and reproduced all at once. 

A sign language monitor or consultant should be available during the filming to cue the signer and to check the sign language. 

A cueing system (autocuer, cuecards, etc.) can be used, but should not interfere with the fluency and the power of the signer and the sign language. 

If more than one signer is to be filmed simultaneously, use of space and interactivity should be carefully choreographed, and the visibility of all signers monitored.


If all these preparations have been made, you should be able to manage the actual filming quite efficiently – an absolute requirement if the studio, cameras, lights, and often the people operating them have to be paid for by the hour or the day.

Sign from the heart 

For many productions, it is important that the signer signs a text, exactly as it was decided on by the translator/text-writer team. At the same time, the signer should seem to be signing 'from the heart': the signing must seem natural and spontaneous. A viewer will notice it when the signer is trying hard to remember what comes next, but also when a signed text has been 'overlearned' and is being signed 'by rote'. 
Some signers can memorise all their lines and sign an entire story or text at a time. This is most likely when the signer is quite free in his/her use of sign language, e.g. in the case of an original sign language story. 

Short paragraphs 

When the signer has to follow a script quite closely, most signers sign the text in short paragraphs or sections. After a paragraph has been filmed, the next paragraph can be rehearsed and recorded. If fairly short shots are later to be pasted into longer shots, the beginning and ending position of the signer should be the same in successive shots (e.g.: the signer begins and ends each shot in a neutral position, or begins each shot in the ending position of the previous shot).

Cueing systems  

If a text is too long or too complicated to be memorised, the signer can use a cueing system. Experienced signers use different cueing systems: 
  • cue cards with keywords or glosses; 
  • an auto-cuer with the text in English, in keywords, in glosses, or in some individual notation system;
  • a shadow-signer: someone who is standing very close to the camera, so that the signer can see him/her without breaking eye-contact with the camera;
  • if the signer is hearing: an audio-recording of the text or a reader in the studio to read the text that is to be signed; 
  • if available: the pictures or other visuals that will be used to illustrate the video; 
  • if a signer is to be superimposed on a film or video: a monitor with the film or video, played in mirror image. The signer can use the images on the monitor to pace and cue him/herself with respect to use of space, eye-gaze, expression, etc. 

Sit, stand, walk

Signers can sit, stand, or walk around while they sign their lines. What is most appropriate will depend on the script and the personal preferences of the signer(s). If a signer is to be superimposed on a video, the signer is usually filmed standing up, in a fixed position. 
Signers who walk around will have to follow a script, so that the camera-person will know exactly what to shoot, where to focus the camera, etc.. 

Sign to the camera  

If there is only one signer, most viewers prefer the signer to sign directly to the camera, pretending that the camera / viewer is the communication partner. With two signers in dialog, many viewers still prefer the signers to address the camera instead of each other. 


Interaction with visuals and props, or even with the viewer, is appreciated by viewers; this can be done by means of body-position, eye-gaze, localisation, pointing, etc. 


Most signers can use various 'registers' or 'styles' when signing, e.g. a 'high, abstract' style, versus a 'concrete, more iconic' style, serious or humorous, for children or for adults, highly expressive or neutral. 
Signers should sign in a register (signing speed, style, expressiveness) that matches the content of the video and the target group. If a signer is signing a story with several characters, each character should have his/her own register, so viewers will be able to identify the character.
If a video is to be recorded in more than one session, there shouldn't be any major changes in the signer's register between sessions - unless of course this is required by the script. 

Signing speed & pace 

Since there is no real interactivity with the viewer, and since the signer has no way of knowing how well viewers understand what is being signed, signers should sign slightly more slowly in front of the camera than they would do in an interactive situation; and for some productions / target groups, much more slowly. 
If the signer is to be superimposed over a mainstream video or TV programme, the signer should synchronise his/her signing with the actors and actions in the main screen. 

Easy or boring? 

Viewers who are not experienced sign language users (e.g. children, or Deaf people who have learned sign language at a later age) prefer a signer who signs very clearly, directly to the camera, in fairly predictable shots. Their main request is that the signers sign in a way that is easy to understand. 
In countries where Deaf people have access to a lot of TV and video programmes in sign language, viewers may find this way of signing to be too predictable and therefore, boring. They may prefer a faster pace, more varied signing, more gimmicks: less emphasis on the signer being easy to understand, more emphasis on visual interest and pace.


During the filming, the signer must be assisted by a sign language monitor or consultant - preferably a native signer - who knows the target group and the production's subject well. The sign language monitor checks the sign language used by the signer for format and content, and is often the intermediary between the signer, the camera, and other technical persons. 


After each shot has been recorded, the team will replay the recording to check for: 
  • correct sign language use (e.g. correct vocabulary, syntax);
  • correct content (nothing forgotten, confused, added); 
  • correct eye-contact, eye-line; 
  • correct signing speed, pace; 
  • continuity in localisation, expression; 
  • correct register; 
  • no cut-offs; 
  • good visibility of the signs (lighting, background, glare, reflections, scenery, etc.).
When a shot meets the criteria, the scene, shot, and take-number are entered in the production log, together with the beginning and ending time codes. The signer will then practice the next paragraph, sign it in front of the camera, etc.


From GSL to SLN

For the Signing Books user tests with children in the Netherlands, a translation into the Sign Language of the Netherlands (SLN) was needed of Hans im Glück, a German Sign Language production for Deaf children. The signed text of the German video was first translated into printed Dutch. 
Then, the printed Dutch was translated into SLN by a Deaf/hearing team. The German Sign Language was used during the translation process for support (some sentences and paragraphs were easier to understand in German Sign Language than in printed Dutch), for inspiration, and for comparison. 
The text was then signed in front of the camera by the hearing native signer, with the Deaf team member acting as sign language monitor and shadow-signer. 
Since there wasn't enough time for the signer to learn the text by heart, it was decided to use an audio-tape during the filming to cue the signer. The tape was a recording of the signer reading the Dutch text. 
The tape proved helpful, because fairly long shots could be recorded in one take, and the entire story (20 minutes of signing) could be recorded in half a day. It was, however, an emergency measure. The audiotape influenced the signer's role which became that of an interpreter, instead of that of a story-teller. In some instances the audio-tape interfered with the signer's pace and concentration.