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Directing in Sign Language

BLOG POST • May 11, 2014

Press / By The Dispatcher

Sharing an interview with Matt over at Shoot Magazine about his process for directing a short documentary on Patrick Boudreault, a deaf professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley. This film was honored by the Webby Awards and shortlisted at the One Screen festival for branded content.

Shoot Magazine by Robert Goldrich


This short introduces us to Patrick Boudreault, a linguistics professor from the University of California at Berkeley, who has a most eloquent and insightful voice which he conveys through sign language (with subtitles for the viewing audience). Speaking with his hands, Boudreault takes us on a walk to the Mechanics Monument in San Francisco, created by deaf sculptor Douglas Tilden in 1899. The monument survived the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and is an enduring, powerful symbol for the deaf community, of which Boudreault is a member.

He relates that whether spoken or through signing, language is “a fluid thing inside your head. So maybe the only place a universal language happens is in our minds, not our hands or mouths.” His mini lesson on linguistics is inspiring and opens a new world of possibilities as to how we view language and connecting with one another.


Titled The Universal Language is in Our Minds, this short film directed by Matt Checkowski of branded content/production company The Department of the 4th Dimension (The D4D) is one of several in the second season of Onward California Stories, a branded web documentary series for the University of California, focusing on different luminaries —faculty and alumni— from schools throughout the UC system. These thought leaders and innovators impart their wisdom and expertise.


Video: The Universal Language Is In Our Minds


Checkowski not only directed but also developed the series as chief creative officer of The D4D, working in collaboration with the UC’s Office of the President. Of the short featuring Boudreault, Checkowski reflected, “Patrick’s story immediately jumped out to the group as we were going through the casting process. ‘A deaf professor of linguistics’ was such an intriguing introduction. In my first chat with Patrick, that we did over Skype with a sign language translator, I asked him the idiotic question ‘What’s it like being deaf your whole life?’ and he put me in place with a smile and, ‘I have no idea. What’s it like hearing your whole life?’ It was absolutely, exactly, the thing I needed in order to begin to understand an approach and a tone of voice for the episode.


“It was important to both Patrick and myself,” continued Checkowski that his story not be about empathy… We thought it was much more interesting to have a discussion about language and its role in forging communities. We all have our own personal histories that shape how we navigate this world, from our languages, to our prejudices, to our simple preferences, to physical attributes. Patrick, just as anyone else, has a story that gives him a unique perspective, especially considering his lifelong passion for language. What makes his story special is how he’s imagining the world a few steps into the future, and I think we were all really excited to be able to share that with an audience.”

Checkowski added that from a filmmaking perspective, “directing through a translator is always a challenge that requires a certain amount of mental calibration early on. We did all of our homework beforehand and both Patrick and I had a sense of where we wanted to go with the episode. Once we both got used to each other on set, it flowed like anything else we do; the best moments are intuitive and oftentimes not about words but the gaps in between. It was a great lesson in ‘listening’ with your eyes.”


From a brand standpoint, the overall series aims to capture the “Onward” mantra. The shorts reflect the UC mission statement which is to “Ignite the Ambition of California.” Checkowski observed, “I think you’d be hard pressed to find a more unique embodiment of that than Patrick.”

Check out more of the award-winning Onward California series.

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