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The story of Magic Hands, a TV first

Camilla Arnold

Director/Writer/Producer, Magic Hands

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Camilla Arnold is the director of a new CBeebies show 'Magic Hands' which translates poems into British Sign Language. Here she explains how it evolved ,from brainstorming session to post-production and the challenges faced in bringing the pioneering show to our screens.

The seed that became Magic Hands came about through one of our many brainstorming sessions for new programme ideas. We often go around the room and each member of the Media team will offer one or two idea for a news item, or documentary, for example. We had been contemplating ways to breakout into mainstream programming, and wondering what would be the most accessible and engaging way to do so. It was the brainchild of one of the team to focus on poetry and short stories presented for children, and when we wondered what it must be like for hearing children to watch sign language, with pictures and concepts being visualised in 3D, we agreed it must be a little bit like magic. Thus, our hands telling these stories are indeed 'Magic Hands'!

The next step was creating a proposal, and deciding how to pitch it. We made one 'taster' episode which featured a researcher in the Media team, Ashley, presenting a poem from Shakespeare's Macbeth. It is The Witches' Spell, which as you may know, has some quite dark imagery, and in the context of Macbeth is not suitable for children. This was a great opportunity for us to get our heads together and focus on the target audience. They will be both deaf and hearing children, and they will be watching our show for the unique experience of seeing a poem presented in British Sign Language (BSL). We don't want to scare them away - we want to have some fun! So the interpretation shifted ever so slightly to make it more mischievous, more naughty and more giddy. A voice-over was added so hearing children could appreciate the story and the written language, and graphics were added to illustrate how the sign language makes words come to life. Once completed, we decided to aim high, and pitched it to CBeebies. The rest is history.

Once we got the green light, pre production went into full swing. We had a casting to find four different Deaf presenters, and we went through the mammoth task of finding thirty poems that would be suitable for children, and easy enough to clear the copyright on. Our final four presenters: Aimee, Donna, Simon and Ashley from the taster, were chosen from a very impressive shortlist which was not an easy task. The poems were broken down over and over again, re-interpreted, visualised and made appropriate for the audience by our fabulous Deaf consultant Jean St Clair. Sign language does not match English word for word - it is a completely separate language with its own grammar and syntax, so one of our biggest challenges was entirely text based. Then finally, a few pieces of set dressing and props, some deep discussions with our graphic artists and the all important green screen, and we were rolling.

 

Magic Hands presenters Simon Herdman, Donna Mullings, Ashley Kendall and Aimee Campbell-Nottage

Once on set, the new challenge became ensuring all the elements came together seamlessly. There were many different approval processes which had to be cleared with every episode on the shoot. Sound quality in the studio, the presenters had to memorise their poems, the BSL that was choreographed to match, the translation had to be accurate to match the 5 minute timing window each episode had, we had to allow room for captions at the bottom of the screen and the timing of the poem had to allow for an English voice-over, and all movement had to be specifically placed so the graphics team could work their wonders in post production. We couldn't have any overlap of hands in certain areas as the graphics wouldn't be able to be placed correctly. Our director had to be thinking of all these things during filming as we didn't want any delays or re-shoots. It was such a challenge and fortunately we had a great team working really co-operatively.

Post production faced the same challenges - all the timing, as mentioned before, had to be accurate through the editing process, and all sound effects placed to match the graphics had to take into account the voice dubbing necessary. The BBC has very high standards for their technical review, and besides the enormous process that went into each 5 minute episode, we had to, at all times, focus on the audience. We wanted full access to both Deaf and hearing children - we wanted it to be educational as well as fun, and a final product we could really be proud of. It is a landmark achievement for us to be the first mainstream programme for children presented in BSL to appear on CBeebies and we all want to keep going from strength to strength. We cannot thank everybody involved enough - Magic Hands is history in the making!

 

Camilla Arnold is Director/Writer/Producer of Magic Hands.

The first episode of Magic Hands will be aired on the CBeebies Channel at 9.15am on Monday 22 April.

Watch an interview with Camilla and the Magic Hands presenters on the BBC Media Centre website.

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