Can You Read My Lips?

A Succinct And Intelligent Short Film That Conveys The Complexity of Lip-Reading

What is it like to move through time and space without the ability to hear? In a world polluted by noise, it is often impossible – for those who aren’t hard of hearing – to imagine.

This is where Little Moving Pictures come into the scene, a production company who bring little creative gems to life by collaborating with other fabulous folks from a variety of disciplines. They’ve produced a beautiful, tender and insightful short video on the topic of lip-reading, called Can You Read My Lips?

It came into being due to the investigative prowess of documentary film maker David Fine, who stumbled across the work of writer and PhD candidate Rachel Kolb. Upon reading Rachel’s undergraduate essay, “Seeing at the Speed of Sound,” which draws on her lifelong experiences as a deaf person and the complexities of lip-reading, David was so impressed that he contacted her to ask if she wanted to turn it into a short film. Rachel jumped at the chance to turn her writing into a visual form. “I’m a writer; I deal in words as my primary craft,” she tells us. “It was a fascinating challenge to combine written narrative with storyboarding and visual elements.”

Bringing together a variety of perspectives, with Rachel’s voice speaking throughout, the video embeds different stories with an array of approaches to lip-reading. It was with this technique that they hoped to capture the diversity of lip-reading.

“Hearing people tend to know very little about deafness in general, and they tend to take some of their own communicative norms for granted when they converse with others,” Rachel reflects. Juggling their busy schedules with academia and other commitments, the whole project took 2 years to complete. “This gave us more time to consider what we wanted to say and how,” commented David.

To find out more about this wonderful and important little film, we caught up with the director and writer for a chat:

The Plus: Tell us about the story behind the video.
Rachel Kolb:
“Can you read my lips?” is a loaded question because so much of lip-reading relies on factors that are outside of the deaf person’s control: contextual clues, physiognomic features of different individuals’ faces, idiosyncratic mechanisms of how they talk, lighting and environment, or just pure guesswork. Still, in a world that is not always constructed for deaf or hard-of-hearing people, lip-reading can be one (imperfect, but useful) tool among others. I wanted to express those fascinations and challenges of communication in my essay.

TP: What kind of research did you do before shooting commenced?
David Fine:
I spent a lot of time chatting online with Rachel, doing my best to understand how she had learned to speak, to lip read, what makes it harder, easier, etc. I also did a lot of lip-reading – asking people I knew to move their mouths and “say things” without producing sounds. It was nearly impossible at first when someone went full speed, but I started to get a bit better at it, and that process helped me understand the ideas and difficulties Rachel was sharing with me.

RK: My own background research on lip-reading and such was done by the time we started working on this, just because of my role in the process and my work on the original essay. Since I had never done this kind of screen writing before, I did go and watch a few other short artistic films online to try to get a sense of how they handled the balance between verbal narrative and cinematography, including visual and sound production. This actually raised a bit of an accessibility challenge for me – unfortunately, the industry still doesn’t have a strong convention of captioning or subtitling their videos online. I’m hoping this will continue to change.

TP: Rachel, can you tell us about your writing process for this video?
The main tasks for writing this video were twofold: first, extracting ideas and materials from the original essay, and then sorting out the best way to reassemble them into a narrative arc that would make sense visually and allow the visual nature of the film to carry the story alongside the words. We thought a lot about how to make the film immersive. To do this we had each speaker directly address the camera. I was excited with how the production team was able to get so creative with subtitles and with audio design to bridge those hearing and deaf worlds and to introduce viewers to a slice of life they might never have considered.

David and the rest of the writing team, Ryan Bubalo and Brenna Farrell, were all pivotal to the storyline as you see it today. I also had several friends who were willing to offer their feedback, which was a tremendous help. Overall, it was rewarding to tackle a project that put so much weight on the combination of word and image, and on the tension between the visual and the auditory.

TP: What choices did you make for recruiting participants for the project?
We wanted to find a wide range of people with different looks and from different backgrounds. Ultimately the film is about human connection – the importance of connecting with different kinds of people regardless of what roadblocks may stand in between you. It was important in asking people to share their personal stories with us that each one be varied, so pulling people from a variety of walks of life was certainly a goal.

RK: Male, female, young to old, slow and fast talkers, people with and without facial hair… diversity was key. I also wanted to make sure we incorporated some deaf ASL users into this video, to show that dimension of communication and all its possibilities.

TP: What reaction would you like to receive from viewers?
I’d like hearing people to have greater empathy for deaf people, but more broadly, for all people to feel like they can find a way to communicate with anyone else if they really try and value that potential connection.

RK: Empathy. To recognize the challenges of lip-reading for themselves, and to consider their own assumptions about communication. One idea I think about a lot is “meeting people halfway”: deaf and hard-of-hearing people can so often put in such an incredible effort to connect with the hearing world, in various ways like lip-reading, but hearing people don’t always reciprocate. They don’t think about how to communicate inclusively and flexibly.

For deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers, I wanted to be true to the experience of lip-reading, to stir a small flame of recognition and of affirmation. Being true to that community, even while I can only narrate from my own personal perspective, is important to me.

TP: What other projects are upcoming for you both individually and with Little Moving Pictures?
I’m working on a film for ESPN about John Daly and continuing to make music videos.

RK: I have a few other essays in progress. I have also been working on a fiction project, again about questions of communication and human interaction, that is still in its early stages.