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How 'Madagascar: A Little Wild' Integrates Deaf Characters and Sign Language

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The lovable foursome Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Melman the Giraffe and Gloria the Hippo return to our screens once again in “Madagascar: A Little Wild,” this time as kids residing in their rescue habitat at the Central Park Zoo. Two additional characters in this series, Dave and Pickles, however, deserve attention. Chimpanzee siblings Dave and Pickles are breaking barriers and are part of a movement changing the landscape of disability representation in children’s television and streaming content.

Dave and Pickles Have a Meaningful Story Arc and Are Not Defined by Disability

Dave, who is Deaf, and his sister, Pickles, communicate using American Sign Language (ASL). They are not defined by this, however. Most importantly, they have meaningful and substantive relationships with the other characters in the show. Additionally, they each have a three-dimensional personality. Dave, for example, has a “quirky, unpredictable personality.”

“Dave and Pickles are super funny and add so much to our habitat,” said Dana Starfield, co-executive producer and story editor. “We wanted to first and foremost create funny, exciting characters who also happen to communicate using ASL. So, they’re there every episode because their hilarity and mischief add dimension — and challenge — for our main characters. But it has the added benefit of modeling ASL and a form of communication that many of our audience members might not be familiar with. More importantly, we want all kids to see themselves represented on TV in multi-dimensional ways, and we love that Dave represents a Deaf character whose chief personality trait is his wit.”

Message repetition is important, and Dave and Pickles are unique in not being one-offs.

“I hope that someday we can get past the idea of creating one-off, ‘a-very-special-episode’ episodes which pay lip service to the idea of inclusion — only to return the following week (or episode), having reverted to their limited cast comprised of characters who all look and sound the same,” said Executive Producer Johanna Stein. “I’d also love to see shows that regularly feature characters with disabilities, but where the disability is not a story point.”

And Dave and Pickles certainly have an arc beyond their disability. While the siblings are supporting characters, they bookend nearly every episode, playing a critical role in the action.

“Without Dave and Pickles, there would be no adventures for the ‘A Little Wild’ gang to go on,” said Delbert Whetter, a Deaf filmmaker who consulted on the series. Whetter also is a board member for RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization that regularly works with major studios and production companies to ensure both authentic portrayals on screen and better hiring practices behind the camera. “We will see how the principal characters of this show must interact with this Deaf and hearing sibling team, which communicates in ASL, in order to fulfill their objectives.”

To ensure an authentic portrayal of Dave and Pickles, Whetter was part of trio of Deaf-led ASL consultants. Whetter’s brother Jevon, a Deaf actor, film producer and ASL dialogue coach, and Justin Maurer, an ASL interpreter who is a “CODA” (a child of deaf adults), rounded out the team.

“As supporting characters, Dave and Pickles have a mind of their own as well as an agenda of their own, which separates them from the principal characters (and sometimes puts them at cross purposes!),” added Jevon Whetter. “The fun dynamics between the chimps and the main characters become so much more hilarious as the show goes on.”

Starfield also spoke to the importance of these characters being more than “just a background actor,” explaining “that represents someone who is ‘othered’ and not part of the peer group represented in a show.”

Ensuring Authentic Representation

In order to ensure authentic ASL, it was important to incorporate Deaf culture into the series. As such, the ASL consultants worked with the DreamWorks team to ensure Dave and Pickles would “react in a way that Deaf people and relatives of deaf people will recognize from their own lives, experiences and culture.”

“Faithfully animating the ASL dialogue used by Dave and Pickles was a starting point for this DreamWorks team, and while it would have been easy for them to stop there, they were just as interested in making sure that the culture, lives, experiences and personalities of both were authentically represented,” Delbert Whetter added. “They wanted to know how Dave would react to certain circumstances, how to incorporate ASL slang or cultural references, and in portraying Dave as a deaf character that has his own voice (albeit expressed in sign).”

As a non-deaf viewer, this author appreciated how viewers can see the expression in Dave and Pickles’ eyes while they are signing.

“We explained to the production team that ASL is not just about ‘using our fingers, hands, and arms,’” Jevon Whetter said. “By using facial expressions, we can change the meaning of a sign. For instance, if we use the sign for ‘Stop’ with an angry face, we will understand that its tone and meaning is meant to be taken seriously. If we use the sign for ‘Stop’ with a giggle or a smile, we see that it is meant in a playful nature.”

“For instance, raised eyebrows can determine whether a line of ASL dialogue is meant as a direct statement or a question,” Delbert Whetter added. “We put a lot of emphasis on body language and facial expressions as it informs the viewers so much about the character’s tone, emotion and motivation.”

As such, when the trio recorded ASL dialogue for the animators to use as reference they ensured their facial expressions were as clear as possible for the animators to follow.

“My favorite moments from this collaboration have been watching performances of the ASL dialogue in this show, when Jevon plays Dave, a deaf chimp, in a way that only a deaf person can, and Justin plays Pickles, a hearing chimp who has a deaf brother, in a way that only a relative of a deaf person can do justice,” Delbert Whetter said. “Some of the funniest moments have been from watching them throw themselves into these roles, drawing on their own personal life experiences to create these hilarious scenes, some of which you will see in these episodes.”

In order to ensure accuracy, it was important for someone with ASL fluency to observe the ASL performance during filming. “ASL performers cannot see themselves on camera while they are performing, so they need someone to warn them if their hands left the frame inadvertently, or if they missed an important ASL nuance that is required for context in a scene, or if their positioning causes a part of their hands to be obscured,” Delbert Whetter explained. “By having someone with ASL fluency behind the camera to provide that guidance, the production team has greater assurance that the animators will get exactly what they need in order to animate the scene successfully with greater efficiency and fewer delays to the production workflow.”

While none of the other animals make animal sounds, Dave makes typical monkey sounds while signing. Delbert Whetter explained that it is a common misconception to portray Deaf characters as making no sounds with their voices.

“Dave would make normal sounds as any animated young chimp character might,” he said. “He should express surprised noises, sounds of joy and laughter, yell in fear or anger, and so on.”

“Almost all Deaf people we know have the ability to use their vocal cords,” Jevon Whetter added. “Sometimes people forget that it is our ears that makes us deaf and our voice is not affected at all. As a matter of fact, some deaf people don’t even realize they are making sounds.”

“It is important when creating Deaf characters to get rid of the tropes that have unfortunately continued to exist when depicting Deaf characters on screen as if they are lost, morose, sad, or missing something in their lives,” Maurer added. “As Dave is a chimpanzee, he would make the same noises that other chimpanzees do.

Maurer added that most Deaf people come from hearing families. “Unfortunately, many families do not learn sign language, which creates communication barriers within the family that persist throughout a Deaf person’s life,” he said. “We wanted Dave’s portrayal to be just as included as the other characters on the show. Pickles is his sibling, interpreter, and partner-in-mischief in the show, and, of course, they communicate with each other using ASL. Important in Deaf culture is also the experience of their hearing relatives, in Pickles’ case, ‘SODA’ (a sibling of a deaf adult or child) culture, and we wanted to make sure both were accurately portrayed.”

These included Pickles interpreting for any spoken lines by other characters, as well as her interaction with her brother. “We wanted it to look and feel as realistic as possible,” Maurer added.

Collaborating to Achieve Success

“We set out to make an inclusive show, and along with representing many different communities comes the responsibility to represent accurately,” said Starfield, who said that trio of ASL consultants “breathed life into Pickles and Dave.”

Supervising Director TJ Sullivan, who worked closely with the trio for each episode, called them “great collaborators.”

“They’re very open to discussing ideas, coming up with suggestions of how we can better portray our characters as individuals, with their own personalities, and trying to figure out the best way to convey an idea, to simplify the signs for the story/animation teams that will most effectively get the idea or humor across,” he said.

“Not only do they translate our scenes with Pickles and Dave for our boards, they also weigh in on episodes from the script stage, right through final animation,” Stein added. “They provide us with extensive notes on the scenes that feature Pickles and Dave, and flag moments that might be problematic; for instance, pointing out when the staging of a scene doesn’t work because Pickles’ back is to Dave, and therefore he wouldn’t be able to see what she is signing to him.”

“It’s been enormously helpful to have this information available to the story and animation teams as reference,” Sullivan added. “It’s helped us to understand the nuances of ASL, and how these characters interact not only with themselves but with the world. The reference material that Delbert, Jevon and Justin give us informs how the artists will stage their scenes, to help keep the characters involved and engaged in what’s happening.”

“I also vividly remember how excited I got when I realized that chimps — because they have prehensile feet — have two sets of signing “hands” — and what a fun, additive element that could be to the show,” Stein added.

Jevon Whetter said there were “exciting challenges” in creating animation for ASL-signing characters “because some animals have paws, hooves, etc.”

“Chimpanzees have opposable thumbs in their feet, which created some really interesting creative situations,” he explained. “ASL is generally used with fingers, but we were able to improvise different animal signing-styles (Animal Sign Language?) that would work well with the use of wings, claws, hooves, etc. We had to be super-creative as we came up with different solutions while remaining true to the script.”

Delbert, Jevon and Justin gave presentations to the entire “A Little Wild” crew about ASL and Deaf culture and shared their personal insights into the lived experience of being a person who is Deaf and/or having a deaf family member.

Prior to this project, Delbert Whetter had more than two decades of experience working on animated feature films, beginning his career on the business affairs side of the animation industry, and eventually, as executive producer.

“My familiarity with the animation production workflow, and how animators work, was very useful in helping to ensure that the ASL dialogue performed in this show is optimized for both dramatic impact and production efficiency,” he said.

While this was Jevon Whetter’s first time working on an animation project, he has worked on several children storytelling video projects as an educator.

“My experience with creating and using basic ASL for very young audiences was very helpful for my work with DreamWorks Animation,” he said. “Given the target demographics for this show, we were fully aware that we needed to use signs that are ‘user-friendly’ and age-appropriate for young viewers, both Deaf and hearing, so they can follow the ASL used in the show and perhaps even learn some signs.”

The Future of Disability-Inclusive Children’s Programming

When it comes to the future of children’s programming, Sullivan is “hopeful.”

“You’re seeing inclusion a lot more, and not just in media,” he said. “For example, the 2020 American Girl doll my daughter just received is hard of hearing, she comes with a hearing aid and an ASL chart.  She was so excited to learn all about her and figure out the ASL. From my experience on the show, I was able to show her a few signs that I’ve learned, which she uses with her doll.”

For Starfield, “representation is key — and particularly representation that takes the form of characters who children can look up to, emulate and admire.”

“What I’d love to see modeled more often: disabled characters who are prominently featured and who a wide audience will be excited to root for because of a well-developed and memorable character,” Starfield added. “Our hope is that a new generation of children with disabilities will see themselves reflected in dynamic ways on the screen, and their peers will be both exposed to and hopefully interested in learning ASL and being partners in communication.”

The team has a message for producers, writers and directors about creating stories with characters with disabilities.

“When it comes to animation, there’s no excuse not to create a show filled with diverse characters,” Stein said. “As animators we are world builders, we are literally creating all of the elements from scratch. Even if you’re not motivated by a sense of responsibility, if you present a world that is populated by the most diverse characters possible — which includes characters with disabilities — your show will reach and be appreciated by a wider audience. I literally can’t think of a reason not to do it.”

“Reach out to the community,” Sullivan added. “It’s challenging but it can be a lot of fun and the more we learn, the better we’ll learn how to communicate and work it into our daily lives.”

“Make the characters memorable and put them in the foreground,” Starfield added.

In order to have the best representation on screen, Starfield says it also is necessary to have authentic hiring behind the camera. “Hire more people with disabilities, and you’ll get stronger characters and stories inclusive of people with disabilities.”

And this has been evident in “A Little Wild,” as the ASL consultants’ advice was not only incorporated but welcomed.

“The show’s representation of ASL and Deaf culture has steadily grown over the course of making these episodes,” Jevon Whetter said. “It became clear that the ‘A Little Wild’ team recognized the value of inclusion and having ASL incorporated into the Madagascar universe. We’re excited about seeing the new creative directions that the show will take as the writers gain further awareness about ASL and Deaf culture.”

Maurer added that the “A Little Wild” team has “been inquisitive, curious, patient, and easy to work with.”

“We continue to learn and improve throughout this process as we work on each episode together, so our process has become much more efficient and innovative over time and continues to be extremely fun.”

And that, Stein says is important.

“When you set out to create stories about characters with disabilities, it’s not just ‘helpful’ to employ artists/writers/consultants/etc., with disabilities in the process… it’s crucial. And I don’t just say that out of a sense of responsibility — though as a creator of kids’ entertainment, I do feel that — I also say that as someone who wants to create stories that are as rich and colorful and truthful as they can be. And when it comes to representation, the way to do that is to build as diverse a team as possible.”

“Madagascar: A Little Wild” debuted on Monday, Sept. 7 on Hulu and Peacock.

Originally published: September 9, 2020
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