Make compelling home videos, not just boring, uninspired raw footage.
Children and grandchildren may be the most common of all family video subjects. This can be trying for viewers of your programs because the only topics less interesting than other people's pets are other people's kids. "How come?" you might ask. The fact that videos themselves are often boring is one reason. You can happily watch your beloved sprouts even if they're not doing anything in particular, but other viewers prefer videos that actually deliver real content.
How do you satisfy them? By remembering that you aren't simply documenting your children. Instead, you're creating programs about them, using the same techniques that you'd apply to any other video project. These techniques are the topic of the day. We'll find good subjects to capture and strategies for taping them. Then we'll discuss some easy techniques for directing the shoot and editing the footage. To keep the subject matter a manageable size, we'll assume that "children" means under the age of 12 and that the video projects will result in family keepsakes.
Again, the idea is to create programs about your kids, instead of just recording footage of them. Follow these quick and simple recipes and your viewers will stun you by begging for more.
Holidays, Outings and Vacations
Children are more natural (and interesting) when they're too involved in some event to stand and stare at the camera. Holidays are obvious candidates. Birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's Day these are times when you have the camcorder out anyway, ready to capture any action that presents itself.
But instead of just grabbing footage, think of child-centered holiday topics. If Sis and Junior make their own Valentine crafts, document the process, and then follow them around when they present them to loved ones. If appropriate, assign a child a Thanksgiving side dish or dessert and then tape them as they cook and proudly serve it. For winter festivities, forget the usual present opening and tape the children wrapping gifts instead - a process that can engage their natural ingenuity. While they're working, you might interview them about who each gift is for and what the gift is (after all, the video won't be shown until the gifts are no longer a secret).
Family outings and vacations are other classic video venues. Here too, invent video-friendly things for kids to do. For instance, after a motor trip, you might tape a child explaining the route and following it on a map shown in insert shots. When you edit, you can use excerpts to carry viewers from one locale to the next. Or, at a scenic overlook, have a child read the points of interest off the inevitable display card at the site. Don't forget to get well-composed shots of the views mentioned. In editing, you can segue from a live shot of the child at the display to the scenic views, but with the child's description continuing on the sound track. (Get a good shot of the display board to use as inserts where needed. Because it's a static shot, you can reuse it as often as needed.) We could list more examples, but the concept is plain; when practical, make children contributors to the program as well as subjects of it.
Sports and Stage Activities
The next biggest subject group is activities, particularly performances and sports. Covering young Ellie's soccer game can yield great material; and don't forget to include specially-shot footage of her ball-handling with both feet and head. Here's a hint for easy recognition. Get a beauty shot of your child in uniform, with number prominent. By editing this in ahead of the game action, you'll make it easier for viewers to recognize and follow your champion athlete in long shots.
Performances are obvious candidates for videos, whether school plays, concerts, or dance or instrumental recitals. Most of these events keep you stuck in one seat in the auditorium, so practice some strategies for getting better angles of your young artist. If there are two performances, shoot both of them, reserving the second for closeups of your child. Later, you can cut these into the wide shot of the show, retaining the original audio as the master sound track. You can frequently fake multiple camera angles of instrumental performances by using video from different parts of the show and cutting them together as if it is one performance. Be careful when doing this with singing, however, since lip-syncing is important.
If it's a solo gig, like a piano recital, see if you can't get those closeups at a rehearsal or a second performance after the concert's over and the audience has gone. Closeups of keyboards or moving violin bows can then be cut in as needed. If you're good enough to match the lighting, you can even shoot these close shots at home or in a rehearsal hall but that much work takes us beyond the sphere of home video hints.
Needless to say, capturing events means having your gear ready. Your batteries should be charged and your tapes should be opened, labeled and set to go.
You don't have to depend on holidays, trips, games or performances to create video opportunities. You can create your own programs anytime. Interviews, like the package-wrapping show we've mentioned, are naturals with children. Tape them while they talk about a science project, a camping trip or any other topic that's on their mind.
Instead of having kids sit for the camera like adult interviewees, make sure they have something to do as they talk. "Tell" is always easier as "show-and-tell." Demonstrating a science project is an obvious activity, and still photos, which the subject shows to the camera, can accompany trips. (Get full-frame shots of these pictures later, that can be cut into the edited show.)
Here's a project that's a bit more work, but the rewards are worth it: The Family News Desk. The idea is to make your child a newscaster delivering the six o'clock report (for sending to school, grandma or wherever).
The breakfast table in a brightly-lit kitchen makes a simple news set (though you can have your children create a more elaborate imitation of a real one). To prepare, help your young Peter Jennings jot down some quick topic notes in order and place the sheet on the table where it's easily read. For fun, use a felt marker to letter on cardboard "Good evening! This is the Evening News with Felicity Feldspar." Prop this beside the camera as a cue card. Children love it when you mimic real production procedures, like counting 5-4-3-2-1 and throwing a hand cue to begin.
The possibilities are endless, but the idea is simple make video projects with your kids instead of relying on events to deliver subjects.
Directing and Editing
You've noticed that we harp on cutaways, those lifesaving shots that let you scissor out the dull parts, then conceal the edit by placing a cutaway between the remaining parts.
Cutaways can be inserts, like details of maps, full shots of still pictures or details of the projects on display. They can also be true cutaways. That is, shots of other parts of the event, like an interviewer's reactions or another family member in the scene. Finally, don't forget color shots wider views of the environment that give viewers a better idea of the locale. Of course, color shots work a lot better at the Acme Alligator Farm than they do in your kitchen newsroom.
The next best advice for directing a kiddie shoot is roll long takes - loooooooong takes. Kids can be unpredictable, and they can't be expected to perform like little members of the Screen Actors' Guild. So, keep the camera rolling through mistakes, repetitions and just plain dull stuff, because you never know when a priceless moment will come along. If you've done your work on cutaways, you'll be able to excerpt just those wonderful passages and replace the long, boring stretches with quick cutaways.
While on the subject of shooting long, always roll tape as much as 10 seconds before the action you want to cover, and keep on rolling another 10 seconds after it ends. You never know what you might want to use in assembling the show and with Mini DV tape prices dropping, your costs can be as low as 10 cents a minute.
Consider using stills to punctuate your work. Having a finger-paint project end with a freeze-frame of a proud and happy face makes a great wrap-up.
Also, many DV camcorders can record still shots as well. Newer megapixel CCDs take excellent stills and save them to a memory card.
We're out of time before we've even scratched the surface, but if we've sparked your imagination in making programs with children, then we've done our job.