Intermediate I

Cinematic devices in sign language

Cinematic vocabulary, also known as "visual vernacular" identified by Bernard Bragg, is not only unique to motion images; but also sign language is also noted for its cinematic capabilities.

In integration with syntactic elements, sign language employs cinematic devices in a four-dimensional environment: cuts, angles, and zooms, etc.

These cinematic techniques are commonly and richly used in Ameslan storytelling and poetry. Just as imagery is used in English poetry and novels, visual-manual language takes the opportunity of manipulating imagery in four-dimensional space-time.

Camera Angles

Below are some examples of how angles are used in ASL storytelling, usually using head-tilting and eye-gazing.

Straight Angle Shot or Eye-Level Shot

straight-on angle

The storyteller stands in a straight-on angle as if a camera is set at the eye-level.

Low-angle Shot

low angle in sign language

The storyteller tilts her head up as if a camera tilts up at the character, object or action in the higher space.

High-angle Shot

high angle in sign language

The storyteller tilts her head down as if the camera tilts down or points down on the character, object or action.


Cut, one of the most common cinematic techniques, is an immediate change from one shot to another. Imaginary cuts can be found in sign-language storytelling.

Cuts can be found in novels or written stories, using dialogues, for example. In ASL, role shift is used to switch characters or scenes. E.g. guy on motorcycle looking over shoulder / policeman driving with siren.

This video clip from the Zen parable Moon Cannot be Stolen shows cuts in which the storyteller switched two roles: the Zen master (left side from the viewer) and the thief (right side). The storyteller uses the body-shifting (another form of indexing) to indicate cuts.

Cuts are used to switch scenes or shots (e.g. distance shots (closeup, full scene, etc.) and angles). In the example above, the storyteller switches several times (cuts) between the shot of a motorcycle rider (medium shot) and the shot of a motorcycle on the road (full-scene shot).

Distance shots or shot sizes

A distance shot is part of the cinematic vocabulary in ASL storytelling. Below are some examples of how distance shots are used in ASL.

Distance shot: Full Scene

The storyteller in the opening of the story The Deer and the Leaf briefly describes the full scene of the landscape. It is also the "establishing shot" which gives the viewer a sense of locality.

Distance shot: Multiple distance shots

There are three distance shots (and thus three cuts) in which the storyteller switches from a frame of the deer (a closeup) to a frame of the walking deer (either a closeup of the deer's feet or a medium shot of the walking deer) to a frame of the herd of deer (a full-scene shot).

Distance shot: Closeup

The moving hands refer to the waving or moving grass in the The Deer and the Leaf

Mobile Framing or Following Shot

Mobile framing or following shot is a cinematic technique or device, in which the camera moves. Tracking (e.g. walking on the path, trees moving backward), panning (e.g. ASL word 'heartbeat' from outside toward the heart), tilting (e.g. look from the ground and look upward).

Speed of motion image

Speed is one of the cinematic techniques or devices in ASL storytelling. Below is a couple of examples on how speed is used in ASL.

The video clip above shows an example of the high speed in the first part (two racing cars) and then the slow motion in the second part (the flipping car) and then the normal pace in the end.

Slow Motion

The video clip from the true story Deaf or Dead shows an example of the slow motion used in ASL storytelling. It is similar to what a viewer would see in movies which occasionally use slow motion. The storyteller narrates in a normal pace till the specific part, the "memory held in the subconscious mind for a long, long, long time" in which she changes the normal pace to slow motion. She then resumes with the normal speed after this part.

What is interesting about this part is that the creator not only used the slow motion in ASL but she also used the cinematographic slow motion in video editing. She combined both of them. It is a double slow motion.

Len zoom

Zoom is another one of the cinematic techniques or devices in ASL storytelling. Below shows an example of how zooms are used in ASL.

The little house in this Zen parable Moon Cannot be Stolen is nestled in the valley among the mountains. The house is being zoomed out by the storyteller as she expands her hands (house) by moving it towards her as if a viewer would see a house becoming larger on the screen.

In this video clip above from the heart-penetrating story Deaf or Dead, it shows how the storyteller uses a zoom-out device. It means the memory began to surface or the person sees a vision.

For the zoom-in technique, inverse the direction (e.g. inward instead of outward).

Related posts

Relate post: cinematic vocabulary: an introduction

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Stories, poems, performance arts, etc. in sign language.

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