The cinematographer of Echo shared how following the deaf lead character led to some unique problem-solving in the latest Disney+ series, including how to incorporate American Sign Language (ASL) into the visuals.
These are all unique traits that led to the Marvel Cinematic Universe telling a story unlike it had told before. While Echo got some screentime in Hawkeye, she wasn't given the same spotlight her new series offered.
Incorporating ASL into Disney+'s Echo
While speaking exclusively with The Direct, Echo cinematographer Kira Kelly spoke on the unique challenges of crafting the new MCU Disney+ series while properly portraying American Sign Language.
One of those challenges the team faced was figuring out “what is a close-up when you’re shooting ASL?:”
“Yeah, I mean, I would say the most unique one is like the one that Sydney [Freeland], our director, the one that the two of us first sort of focused on at the very beginning of prep was, what is a close up when you're shooting ASL? So we really went through a bunch of tests. And we had an ASL speaking stand-in, and we did a lot of lens tests for it…”
Kelly elaborated on how it’s easy to accidentally shoot “an incomplete sentence” when doing camera moves:
“What we found out... if you start a shot on somebody's hands and then tilt up to their faces, they're signing, that's an incomplete sentence. It's not a full phrase because so much of ASL is not only the hands but it’s facial expressions, and it’s movement. And so you definitely need some space in a frame. So we learned a lot about that quickly."
"We couldn't get so close that we framed out her hands," she shared, but they still needed "to get close enough, like emotionally:"
"And I think just the idea of trying to figure out doing close-ups... we couldn't get so close that we framed out her hands, but wanting to get close enough, like emotionally. So it was really, played with what that line was. Like using slightly wider lenses, maybe a little bit closer to her. And then we… found that if we had a B camera that could do a smaller… tighter profile or something like that, that would be something that could work.”
The filmmaker voiced how they also wanted to be careful not to have all of Maya Lopez’s coverage notably different from everyone else’s:
“But we also wanted to be sensitive to the fact that it's Maya's show, it's Alaqua [Cox's], right? So we never wanted it to be that all of Maya's coverage was wider, and everybody else thought like a traditional television or movie close-up. So we kind of backed off for the most part of the show, on a lot of the close-ups. So they're more like medium closes and things like that. Yeah, so that was a fun new way to think of, like, what a close-up that?”
Traditional filmmaking “depend[s] a lot on the dialogue,” shared Kelly, but in the case of Echo, the team had to embrace that in new ways:
“... In traditional filmmaking, you realize you depend a lot on the dialogue and what people are ending up saying to one another, and this was nice, just to be able to play with leaving hands for expressions, and making sure that those were being read and things like that.”
As for what knowledge and lessons she’ll take with her onto her next projects, there are “so many things:”
“Yeah. Well, I mean, so many things... What's interesting about having a character that's deaf, is, for me, as a cinematographer, one of my biggest goals is… every time I shoot something, I kind of do this to myself, I'll put it on mute, and just be like, 'Has the imagery told the story. Could an audience tell what's going on without hearing the dialogue?'”
Moving pictures “should have their own language and should be able to communicate a story without the support of dialogue,” Kelly explained, which is something that was a core element of Echo’s visual storytelling:
“And I think as a cinematographer, that's one of the greatest—it's moving pictures that should have their own language and should be able to communicate a story without the support of dialogue. Dialogue's lovely. So for this, it's really trying to show what is, like, there's so many moments that we get to be with Maya and in her internal monologue and just kind of have space for that. So for me, a big part of that is taking them to future projects is really allowing space for what characters [are] going through, behind all the communication with somebody else, which was great.”
Another ability she was able to improve is “to really make set pieces” and “fight scenes” into “pivotal parts of storytelling:”
“And then also taking forward in future projects, which is this great ability to really make set pieces and things like fight scenes, like really make them pivotal parts of storytelling. If we go with the, as an example, the episode one fight with Daredevil, you know, that's a fight Sydney [Freeland] was really excited to do a one-er. We were excited to play with that because the reason why she wanted to do a one-er wasn't because it was like a cool thing to do.”
Freeland “wanted to create this space [for] the character arc,” Kelly noted:
“She wanted to create this space [for] the character arc, like, she walks into the factory, having never killed anyone... She took fighting classes... And so it's interesting, she kind of goes into this space, almost like this naive character who hasn't really had life or death stakes before… You see the evolution of her character in that one fight scene. So it's like, not just doing a fight scene for the coolness of having a fight scene, but actually having the character grow. I mean, they evolve or devolve, in that case, into, like, a cold-blooded killer. But yeah, it was fun to play with things like that. There has to be another reason for these big set pieces and fights and all this stuff that's beyond it just being cool. It has to serve the story.”
But what is the most distinctive visual flair in Echo? According to Kelly, she was able “to work with Dan Sasaki at Panavision” to really make sure the final image was exactly what they wanted:
“I had the privilege of being able to work with Dan Sasaki at Panavision to be able to finesse our lenses and make sure that they were still great and had the ability to do great for VFX because we know there's gonna be so much stuff happening to the image afterward, but still have like, their own look.”
She continued, pointing out how they really tried to “lean into a grittier part of it” while also focusing on the “more natural part of her world:”
“And so we use a T-Series that he sweetened for us and then just ended up being beautiful. And I think for, the distinctive look of the show is like really trying to lean into a grittier part of it, but then also just the more natural part of her world. You know, this is Oklahoma… We're not on any sort of other planet. So really leaning into a more grounded vision of it.”
Echo's Successful Use of ASL
While Echo may have some faults, how it managed to portray its deaf lead character is not one of them.
Kira Kelly and her team certainly did a wonderful job incorporating ASL into the series, and it never felt inorganic or out of place in any shots.
A large portion of those who have seen the show only had praise for how it handled Alaqua Cox's Maya Lopez, not only in her deafness but also especially in relation to her Choctaw Nation roots and culture.
Now, the question most are contending with is: when in the world will fans see Maya Lopez again? While a Season 2 of Echo is not confirmed, it feels like it would be organic to include the character in Daredevil: Born Again, which is actively undergoing an extensive rework.
Echo is now streaming on Disney+.