04/10/22 • News & Happenings

The Lightbulb Moment

Guest-starring Cece Bell, creator of El Deafo!

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(L-R) Gilly Fogg and Cece Bell at Kilkenny Animated 2022. Photo Credit: Allen Kiely

When Cece Bell said yes to speaking at this year’s Kilkenny Animated festival, we couldn’t wait to nab her for a guest appearance in The Lightbulb Moment. Usually, the artists we interview for this blog series have experienced or witnessed something hugely influential which they now credit with being the catalyst for their careers in animation.

Cece Bell’s relationship with animation is a little different.
We were already huge fans of Cece’s graphic novel memoir, El Deafo, which tells the story of growing up with hearing loss, when we met with Cece to start work on adapting her book for a 75 min. special for Apple TV+. Cece co-executive produced and co-wrote the scripts for El Deafo and she was involved in every step of the production process.

A few months after its release on Apple TV+, El Deafo has received multiple nominations, a Prix Jeunesse award and a Humanitas prize. El Deafo has touched the hearts of audiences around the world. But how does Cece feel about her first foray into the world of animation? What was it that inspired her to bring El Deafo to life for the screen?

Without further ado, allow us to introduce this month’s VIP guest for a special, extended Lightbulb Moment blog…Cece Bell!!!

Cece – we are dying to know – what was your ‘lightbulb moment’ – that moment when you first realised that you wanted to see El Deafo come to life on the screen?

Honestly, I never even thought about putting El Deafo on the screen until television guru, Will McRobb (Showrunner and Executive Producer), emailed me out of the blue, asking if I had ever considered it. I had been a long-time fan of his Nickelodeon show, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, and seeing his name in my inbox definitely put stars in my eyes! But I was very, very hesitant to adapt the book. It is my life story, and I worried that an adaptation would not measure up to the reception the book has received over the years.

It took a visit to my home in Virginia from Will, and then a visit from Gilly Fogg (Lighthouse Studios) and Claire Finn (Lighthouse Studios), and finally, a visit from Tara Sorensen (Apple TV+) — and their reassurances that they would honor the material — for me to fully embrace the possibility of seeing El Deafo on TV.


Can you describe El Deafo’s journey up until that point?

I started writing and illustrating El Deafo after an intensely frustrating encounter with a grocery store clerk. Up until that moment — and during the moment itself — I had never been able to say the words, “I am deaf.” But it was past time to do so, and my need to just own up to it was the spark that became the book. I worked on El Deafo over a five-year period, and it came out in 2014. The reception was astonishing. It was on the NYT Bestsellers List, and it won a Newbery Honor and an Eisner. Kids went nuts for it! It helped me feel more comfortable about my deafness, and it helped me connect to many other deaf people in the best possible way. And most importantly, I think it helped a lot of kids feel seen, even kids who didn’t have hearing loss but felt different from their peers, in one way or another. Connecting with those kids has been the best part of the journey.

Cece Bell, creator of El Deafo, pictured here at Kilkenny Animated 2022. Photo credit: Allen Kiely

Cece Bell, creator of El Deafo, pictured at Kilkenny Animated 2022. 

What were some of the thoughts that went through your mind when you heard someone wanted to adapt your graphic memoir?

Wouldn’t that be amazing? (It was.) But what if they mess it up? (They didn’t.) Can I keep all the seventies references? (Nope.) Will the fans be disappointed if I can’t keep everything exactly like it is in the book? (Some were.) How much work is this going to be? (Oh my God.) What if I hate the end result? (I didn’t.) Is it crazy to do this project? (Sort of.)

When you started working with Apple TV+ and Lighthouse on El Deafo, did you have any ideas on what you wanted the series to be, and what you did not want it to be?

Yes! I remember having a conversation with Gilly and Claire, adamantly stating that it could not be 3-D animation, neither could it be “shiny” nor “slick.” I really wanted it to reflect the warm, hand-made feel of the book, and to evoke some of the same feelings that the book evokes. I wanted the music to be beautiful in a simple and direct way, and it was also extremely important to me that the audio be from my point of view, much like it is in the book. I wanted it to feel imperfectly perfect. Think Peanuts Christmas Special, and you’ll have a good idea of what I was hoping for. I’m really happy with how it turned out.

Although the series remains true to the art of the memoir, there are a few subtle differences in how some of the characters look in the book and how they look in the series. Why were these changes important? How did it feel when you saw these designs?

One of the big changes was giving the characters hands with digits, as opposed to the “mitten hands” that they have in the book. At first, I flinched, but the reasons for the hands (they’re more emotive, and more nuanced for the sign language moments) were good ones. Honestly, the design differences between the characters in the book and the show are so subtle that they barely register to me now. Lighthouse was really generous in allowing me to submit “draw-overs” any time I felt like their interpretation of a character was too far off, and every single time, my requests were granted. I really appreciated that so much.


Is the animation process something that was familiar to you previously? What were some things you learned about the process that you might not have known about before?

It was only familiar to me as a fan — I really, really love watching animation, especially the older stuff. I learned that it takes a lot of people to create an animated program. I knew about storyboarding but not about animatics, and so seeing animatics for the first time was cool. The big thing I learned is that because of the amount of work that must be done in a small amount of time, the “editing” process is very different from editing in the children’s book world, where you get to edit many, many drafts before signing off on something. It was really challenging to only get to submit two or three rounds of comments per each step of the process, when of course I wanted to just keep tweaking and tweaking and tweaking. I know I drove the folks at LHS nuts, and I hope they have forgiven me!

What’s next for El Deafo, and for her alter ego, Cece Bell?

I occasionally think about doing a second book about El Deafo, one that covers early middle school and might talk about my relationship with music. But I’m not sure if I have the stamina for that! I’m currently working on an alphabet book; a collection of made-up album covers featuring various animals and genres of music. I’m having loads of fun trying to make the best art I possibly can.

Aaaaaaaah! A follow-up to El Deafo? Please let his happen!

Thank you so much, Cece, for joining us at Kilkenny Animated and taking part in this blog.

El Deafo is currently streaming on Apple TV+.

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