How Children’s Author Cece Bell and ‘El Deafo’ Give Deafness a Starring Role in New Apple TV+ Animated Series
Considering the world is entering its third year in the midst of a pandemic, it’s hard to remember what life was like before. At this point, 2019 feels like ancient history. It could just as well have happened during the Jurassic period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
As a tech journalist who’s covered Apple closely for years, I remember 2019 for the star-studded event the company held in March at Apple Park to announce, among other things, the highly anticipated Apple TV+ streaming service. The glitzy event was the closest I’ve come to covering a red carpet show, only no one was wearing their fanciest designer clothes. It was something to sit in the audience and watch Apple parade A-lister after A-lister on stage to promote their new project: Oprah, Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Aniston, Jason Momoa – even Big Bird was the. Then, as I walked around the press area of the Steve Jobs Theater with people from Apple PR and other reporters, I distinctly remember being alerted at one point that JJ Abrams was standing twenty feet away. He was surrounded by other people, but to this day it’s pretty cool to think I was once near a celebrity.
When TV+ launched in November, it debuted with shows like The morning show, See, Dickinson, For all mankind, and more. And the list has grown considerably since then. One of his most recent titles is the animated series El Deaf, which premiered on January 7. It shows the journey of a young girl named Cece who loses a significant portion of her hearing due to an infection. In its press release announcing the show, Apple described Cece as “[learning] to embrace what makes her extraordinary.
Apple’s trailer for El Deaf is on YouTube.
El Deaf is based on the graphic novel of the same name, written by author and illustrator Cece Bell. The book is somewhat autobiographical, as it reflects Bell’s own childhood experience of being born hearing and then becoming deaf. In a recent interview with me, Bell said the comic book momentum started a decade ago. She felt the need to come to terms with her deafness, as she was reluctant to tell anyone she was deaf or discuss it. Having once been a published children’s author, she thought what better way to confront her feelings than by writing for others. “I felt like the graphic novel would be the perfect format to try to share this story,” she said.
As to how El Deaf came for the small screen, veteran television writer Will McRobb contacted Bell and expressed how much he enjoyed the novel and was interested in developing a television version. Bell was a fan of his earlier work, so she felt comfortable working with him. (Bell and McRobb are both executive producers.)”[It] it all kind of fell into place after that,” she said. “But someone like him had to be [someone] I already had respect for myself to really dive into transforming the book into a show. The decision to make the show animated was also easy, given that the book is in cartoon form. Another reason to animate El Deaf was, of course, the pandemic. With the animation studio located in Ireland, it was easier (and sensible given Covid) to work remotely by circulating notes and hosting virtual meetings. The remote aspect of the production proved particularly helpful during the post-production audio work, which includes Bell’s voiceovers, both of which play a crucial role in the show.
Bell described the audio work as a “very complicated, very delicate” process; she worked closely with engineers to get it right. In order to achieve maximum authenticity, Bell told them to “take a beautiful sound and make it terrible”. The convoluted and tricky part was that Bell had to explain to the engineers what she hears and what it sounds like, then ask them to recreate it. The show’s character voices are deliberately distorted, almost to an unintelligible level, to try to give the audience a sense of what Bell’s world is like. She clarified, however, that what is heard on the show is not literally what she hears – it’s an approximation of what she perceives hear.
“I was so involved [in the sound design], and I read more notes than you would ever want,” Bell said with a laugh.
A poignant point that Cece, the narrator, makes in the pilot episode is that, although she has lost her hearing, she does not have learn American Sign Language. She became deaf in 1975 and explained that deafness and sign language were not as socially accepted back then as they are today. Bell explained how, growing up, she attended a school dedicated to deaf children; in terms of communication, teachers urged students to learn to speak vocally and lip-read rather than learning sign language. Bell had about four and a half years of typical hearing and speech, so she quickly picked up the concepts of lip reading. Sign language was never an option for her, not only because it wasn’t taught, but also because Bell “didn’t want to be typecast,” she said. She considered herself a hearing person and believed that learning sign language would stigmatize her as an officially deaf person. Sign language is inherently performative, and Bell didn’t want to be stared at by his peers. “I just felt like this kid who didn’t want anyone to see me as a different person,” Bell said. “I didn’t want anyone looking at me. That was me when I was a kid, but I don’t think I really understood it [sign language] as I do now.
Bell is finally learning sign language, bit by bit, now that she is an adult. It was not easy for her. “I’m very slow,” she says.
The addition of El Deaf to the TV+ lineup is important not only for attrition – Apple has used its near-infinite war chest to devote considerable resources to building the service’s catalog, with new content appearing all the time – but also for representation . For all the endless talk about subscriber numbers by analysts, the company deserves the greatest credit for being among the few streaming providers selected to tackle the representation of people with disabilities in Hollywood with tenacity and authenticity. Bell’s series joins the ranks of See and CODA, as well as the recently canceled Small voice, as positive manifestations of disability. While disability has historically been portrayed on television and in film as something to be pitied and overcome – too often resulting in a sense of well-being and condescending fodder that the disability community derisively calls “daughter porn”. inspiration” – Apple has instead positioned disability as a matter of – in fact. Namely, that being disabled is not something of a Shakespearean tragedy – it is simply part of who we are as humans. In other words, Apple has taken the same care it takes in supporting accessibility in its products and applied it just as meaningfully to the shows it funds for TV+. Apple is certainly not above criticism, but again, deserves more recognition for its efforts to strengthen the inclusivity of our marginalized communities. This gives TV+ an undervalued differentiator as it competes in the market.
As for Bell’s relationship with Apple, she couldn’t have been more complimentary of her dealings with the company. “Overall it was a great experience,” she said. Bell is “100% committed” to El Deaf every step of the way, saying Apple listened to her and gave her all the support she needed. Executives never questioned, for example, Bell’s insistence that the lead actress be deaf and have life experiences similar to hers. I asked if the aforementioned disability-centric shows were factors in his signing with Apple to El Deaf, and Bell said its deal was done long before things like CODA happened – back when TV+ carried only a fraction of the content currently available. Like apparently everyone on the planet, she loves Ted Lasso, telling me it was the first show she watched. “This [being on Apple TV+] was a happy accident, you know. I ended up in the right place,” she said.
Bell had some kind words to say about Tara Sorensen, who leads the creative development of children’s programming for Apple Worldwide Video. Sorensen, Bell told me, was adamant about El Deaf remain faithful by preserving its authenticity. Bell called Sorensen a “great, great defender of the book from the start”. Bell noted that while there were hiccups along the way — Bell was often the only deaf person in meetings — “everyone was listening and ready to take in the information,” she said. .
The show is still in its infancy, but reviews on El Deaf has been great so far. One of the comments Bell receives most often are notes from people who say they like the show, but felt they had to adjust their TV volume because the show’s distorted sound sounded like their device was broken. She also hears from many parents, who are thrilled that their children see what other children’s lives are like and are exposed to esoteric technologies like hearing aids. Deaf children in particular, she added, are “very excited” to see themselves on TV and personally identify with the experiences of the animated Cece. “It’s been really, really fun [working on the show], and I’m very relieved that people are enjoying it,” Bell said.
Apple posted a YouTube video with special comments from Bell.
The three parts El Deaf can be found now in Apple’s TV app.