Visi­ting the ZFK in Babelsberg

Pro­duc­tion of acces­si­ble media ser­vices for the deaf and more visi­bi­li­ty to the work of deaf filmmakers

Media or digi­tal media can faci­li­ta­te inclu­si­on. They play a key role in peo­p­le being able to par­ti­ci­pa­te in socie­ty. So, what’s the situa­ti­on with ser­vices for the deaf or hard of hea­ring? Simp­le, you might think: after all, sub­tit­les are now available almost ever­y­whe­re on demand - 90 per cent of the con­tent in the public broad­cas­ters’ media­the­ques alo­ne is subtitled. 

But they are not a ful­ly-fled­ged sub­sti­tu­te. Child­ren who can’t yet read are com­ple­te­ly excluded. Moreo­ver, writ­ten lan­guage is more dif­fi­cult to grasp for deaf peo­p­le who­se first lan­guage is sign lan­guage. And hea­ring peo­p­le also know how chal­len­ging it can be to fol­low a film and read the sub­tit­les at the same time. What’s more, one does­n’t have the sound­track that would usual­ly be the­re to sup­port the action. 

Around 80,000 peo­p­le in Ger­ma­ny use sign lan­guage, most of whom are deaf or hard of hea­ring. They need cor­re­spon­ding pro­gram­me con­tent or apps tail­o­red to their needs. Sin­ce 2017, rbb has had sign lan­guage actors appearing in the bot­tom right hand cor­ner of the screen for the dai­ly broad­cast of its Sand­männ­chen pro­gram­me. And when sign lan­guage is used here or in an epi­so­de of the Tat­ort crime series, at a press con­fe­rence of the Ger­man govern­ment or for heu­te jour­nal, this ser­vice has often been coming from one of Germany’s lar­gest pro­vi­ders of simul­ta­neous inter­pre­ting for the deaf: the Zen­trum für Kul­tur und visu­el­le Kom­mu­ni­ka­ti­on der Gehör­lo­sen Berlin/​Brandenburg e.V., or ZFK e.V. for short.

Tat­ort and Sand­männ­chen in sign language

The ZFK e.V. has its stu­di­os loca­ted right on the media city cam­pus. Uwe Schön­feld, board mem­ber and a sign lan­guage inter­pre­ter hims­elf, takes us on a tour of the pre­mi­ses. The walls are ador­ned with old film por­traits and the­re is a wel­co­ming atmo­sphe­re. An epi­so­de of Tat­ort is curr­ent­ly being recor­ded in a stu­dio. The inter­pre­ter has dres­sed for the part and is stan­ding in front of a green screen. Her col­le­ague behind the came­ras is fol­lo­wing the sce­ne on seve­ral screens, with the dia­lo­gue list right in front of him. Ano­ther room is available for 3D recor­dings and one more is now whe­re AI is being deploy­ed to prepa­re the scripts and screen­plays, for exam­p­le, by trans­la­ting the dia­lo­gue for the inter­pre­ters into Ger­man Sign Lan­guage (DGS).

Tho­se who have grown up with DGS as their mother ton­gue are used to dif­fe­rent sen­tence and gram­ma­ti­cal struc­tures. Unli­ke writ­ten Ger­man, for exam­p­le, the lar­ger object always comes befo­re the smal­ler object: for exam­p­le, “eye in the hair” ins­tead of “hair in the eye”. Schön­feld recalls the high num­ber of clicks for Sand­männ­chen and the fan mail from a boy who was only 3 ½ years old. The ZFK has child­ren and young peo­p­le brought in spe­ci­al­ly to do the sign lan­guage inter­pre­ta­ti­on for the youn­ger ones in the audi­ence. A fairy tale, for exam­p­le, would see them some­ti­mes play­ing the king and the nar­ra­tor at the same time and wea­ring the respec­ti­ve cos­tu­mes to make it easier to under­stand the dia­lo­gue and distin­gu­ish bet­ween the dif­fe­rent cha­rac­ters. Care is also taken in adap­ting the inter­pre­ters’ clot­hing to the respec­ti­ve role in films like the Tatorts. 

In-house media pro­duc­tion and apps

Schön­feld quo­tes the mot­to “Not­hing about us wit­hout us” from the UN Con­ven­ti­on on the Rights of Per­sons with Disa­bi­li­ties. “Deaf peo­p­le know the needs of deaf peo­p­le best of all and are the­r­e­fo­re best able to imple­ment them them­sel­ves in an area, for exam­p­le, like the film indus­try. The­re are few things that are so inter­con­nec­ted - cul­tu­re, lan­guage, image. We have deaf lec­tu­r­ers in our edu­ca­ti­on depart­ment who can also app­ly their exper­ti­se here. That is the basis of all our work to bring the dif­fe­rent are­as tog­e­ther. The media sec­tor is one we would par­ti­cu­lar­ly like to expand in this respect,” Schön­feld says. 

The majo­ri­ty of the 50-plus employees at the ZFK are non-hea­ring. The Cent­re also has its own media pro­duc­tion depart­ment along­side con­sul­ting ser­vices, inter­pre­ting ser­vice as well as sign lan­guage awa­re­ness cour­ses. Its team con­sists of pro­fes­sio­nal­ly trai­ned deaf and hea­ring cameramen/​women, edi­tors, actors, jour­na­lists and pro­ject mana­gers who can pro­vi­de ever­y­thing from a sin­gle source - from the over­all con­cept and tex­tu­al modi­fi­ca­ti­ons through to editing and came­ra­work. ZFK also pro­vi­des deaf super­vi­sors for the film indus­try to media­te bet­ween all of the depart­ments during a shoot and give advice to the directors. 

It makes a vast dif­fe­rence whe­ther someone is play­ing a deaf per­son or is actual­ly deaf and can com­mu­ni­ca­te in sign lan­guage. The­re are other are­as whe­re the media or digi­tal media are also more inte­gra­ted into the world of deaf peo­p­le. Video tele­pho­ny has great­ly sim­pli­fied com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on and makes apps acces­si­ble. The ZFK has deve­lo­ped two of them its­elf. The WIS app offers a video inter­pre­ting ser­vice at the touch of a but­ton and the emer­gen­cy call app WIS-Emer­gen­cy helps to send important infor­ma­ti­on to res­cue ser­vices by using an emer­gen­cy call but­ton. The ser­vice, which can be used to con­nect with sign lan­guage inter­pre­ters in a live link-up, is curr­ent­ly in the test phase.

Uwe Schön­feld takes a dim view at the moment of ava­tars as digi­tal­ly ani­ma­ted figu­res. “It may work for them to pro­vi­de stan­dard infor­ma­ti­on, say, at air­ports. Howe­ver, they lack what makes human inter­pre­ters spe­cial when you start tal­king about events or even the trans­la­ti­on of a web­site: it’s not just about the hand ges­tu­res, you also need the face to show emo­ti­ons, facial expres­si­ons and pos­tu­re. It’s a com­plex inter­play which is some­thing ava­tars can’t deli­ver,” Schön­feld explains. The cos­ts for inter­pre­ters are gene­ral­ly high. Not every sign lan­guage inter­pre­ter has a high level of com­pe­tence in Ger­man writ­ten lan­guage, some only trans­la­te lite­ral­ly. Addi­tio­nal sup­port is then nee­ded to obtain good dia­lo­gue lists based on the screen­play. And many things that might be fea­si­ble thanks to the tech­ni­cal resour­ces at the TV sta­ti­ons foun­der due to the asso­cia­ted high costs. 

The Del­la Awards and the 1st Inter­na­tio­nal Film Fes­ti­val for Deaf Filmmakers

The ZFK laun­ched the 1st Inter­na­tio­nal Film Fes­ti­val for Deaf Film­ma­kers and the Del­la Awards to give more visi­bi­li­ty to the work of deaf film­ma­kers. They took place in autumn 2023 at Stu­dio Babels­berg tog­e­ther with an award cerem­o­ny. The Fili­pi­no pro­duc­tion “Tell Her Flag” was named Best Fea­ture Film out of over 2,500 sub­mis­si­ons which had included com­mer­cial films, indie pro­duc­tions and docu­men­ta­ries. Actress Anne Zan­der (who hers­elf works at ZFK) was reco­g­nis­ed for her role in the ZDF dra­ma “You Shall Hear”. Actors Troy Kot­s­ur (Oscar win­ner for Coda) and John Mar­ceau were among the guests coming from Hol­ly­wood, and actress Emma­nu­el­le Labo­rit made the trip to Babels­berg from France. “They are all well-known per­so­na­li­ties, yet each in their own way is a lone wolf in their sec­tor,” Uwe Schön­feld says. The Del­la Awards not only play an important role in pro­mo­ting the visi­bi­li­ty and reco­gni­ti­on of deaf peo­p­le in the film busi­ness, but also con­tri­bu­te to grea­ter net­wor­king within the industry. 

The ZFK its­elf also pro­vi­des fun­ding to sup­port deaf film-makers. Uwe Schön­feld men­ti­ons the plan to offer more in the digi­tal realm - away from ana­lo­gue tele­vi­si­on - and to launch a dedi­ca­ted chan­nel or strea­ming plat­form for the deaf. This would gather film mate­ri­al from all over the world that is not only inten­ded for the nar­row tar­get group of deaf peo­p­le, but also for their mul­ti­pli­ers, par­ents, grand­par­ents, fri­ends or stu­dents of sign lan­guage. The awards are to be held at the stu­di­os every two years, with the next Del­la Awards being pre­sen­ted in autumn 2025. 

About MTH Blog

The media technologies of the future are already being used today – not only in the entertainment sector, but also in a wide variety of industries. Christine Lentz meets up with tech enthusiasts, established companies and researchers for our monthly MediaTech Hub Potsdam blog to tell the stories behind the innovative business models.