Imps! exploring graphic subtitles & British Sign Language


Imps! is a visual experience with limited dialogue & narration. This allows advanced graphic subtitling and possibly sign language support.

The Imps! DVD release will include subtitling options such as alternative fonts and the use of cartoon 'speech bubbles' which help to identify the speaker.

To include signed support properly it must be designed in at the storyboard and character development stage.

Subtitles and decorative caption cards in the manner of the Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin silent films can transcribe narration.

British Sign Language (BSL) is under consideration. Characters in Imps! are drawn from different myths and cultures without any common language, so signed communication feels appropriate. BSL requires four fingers and occasional use of the thumbs - which means that the imps and souls need all these digits. Our characters cannot conform to the common animation convention of three fingers plus thumb, used to reduce the work load and render the fingers individually larger on cartoons since Mickey Mouse.
Mickey Mouse model sheet, hand from Disney's 'Gulliver Mickey' 1934. ©Disney

Use of BSL requires planning at storyboard stage. Many signs require that the body is seen from waist up, so no conventional close-ups on a 'talking-head' if the 'talker' is to express themselves using signing. Props such as pitch-forks will be an obstacle, as will signing at points of stress when the protagonists might otherwise be holding on for grim 'life'.

The idea to support British Sign Language came while watching late night signed repeats and realising that it is straightforward to create picture-in-picture signer's images in After Effects or Final Cut video editing software. It seems wrong to create two versions - with and without signing support - especially for a children's programme that would be unsuitable for late night broadcast. The Tony Hart 'Vision On' television series which featured Aardman's 'Morph' claymation was originally produced with deaf children in mind, so there is worthy precedent.

Implementing British Sign Language would make the animation fully accessible to deaf children who can sign BSL. Imps! will retain a sound track but this will not be essential to comprehension. While the imps will be fluent, new souls may need to be taught a phrase or two each episode which could prove useful to young deaf children and since children are so naturally quick to learn some of it may be absorbed by non-deaf children and help to reduce the mysteries of BSL and promote better communication in the playground. A child that can learn the names of over a hundred Pokemon can learn some sign language. It could even catch on as a 'secret' classroom code behind the teacher's back... which may spur more teachers to learn BSL.

Support for BSL would add an extra dimension and challenge to the project. It also opens the doors to specialist funding and distribution channels. Signing support has to be done properly so that Imps! can be defended against accusations of cynical targeting of funding or of patronising the deaf community. Imps! has the potential to raise the profile of BSL and if the context proves in any way controversial that can increase the publicity. Deaf organisations are welcome to disown Imps! while exploiting any media interest to put forward their own agenda.

As a personal motivation my mother had Alzheimer's. In assisting with her bank account I found that she supported one charity through direct debit - The National Deaf Children's Society.       

Jed Gibbs


Links to British Sign Language and Deaf Organisations

with thanks to Liz Thornhill,
Communication Support at
Southampton City College
for all her help.


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