Birthday parties are a lot of fun for kids. But as a videomaking parent, trying to document the hoopla can be less than your idea of a good time… if you’re not prepared.
If you’ve never before videotaped a child’s birthday party, I have good and bad news for you.
The good news is that the script writes itself. Parties haven’t changed much since you were a child; you know what the highlights of the day will be.
Because a birthday party is such a structured situation, your planning will be easier. You know where the kids will sit to open presents, eat cake, and play games-so you can plan your lighting and audio needs ahead of time.
The bad news is that because tradition provides the script, birthday tapes tend to become predictable-a polite way of saying “boring.”
The kids arrive, play games, eat cake, horse around, go home. Fade out. End of tape.
Shoot for Aunt Martha
The story of Junior’s party should do more than record the fact that he’s noticeably taller on his sixth birthday than he was on his fifth. It should entertain Aunt Martha.
You don’t have an Aunt Martha, you say? Oh yes you do. Everyone does.
She’s that person we all know who, without fail, 10 minutes into your vacation, anniversary, or whatever video, suddenly finds it necessary to get a drink of water, retrieve something from the car, or thumb through a magazine. As you plan your shooting, keep Aunt Martha’s short attention span in mind.
Begin At the Beginning
Your assignment is to tell the story of Junior’s birthday. Where does the story begin? The obvious approach would be with the kids arriving for the party.
A more creative intro would be several 10-second clips of Junior filling out the invitations, putting on his little coat, walking down the street clutching his mail, and depositing it in a mailbox.
Don’t miss out on Mom decorating the cake (geta closeup of “Happy Birthday, Junior”) and the whole family blowing up balloons, decorating, and wrapping presents.
If your camera has a fade button, now would be a good time to use it-after one last closeup of Junior’s smiling little face. Later you can audio dub music over this portion of your tape.
Depending on your selection of music and images, Aunt Martha either will be laughing or crying. But she won’t be leaving. Now you can let the kids in.
Let the Party Begin
This is where you have to become ruthless. Junior may be your pride and joy, but every minute of his party isn’t important.
For example, you don’t have to capture him opening every present. If you know someone has gotten him something he’s really wanted, focus in on those chubby little fingers as they fumble with the ribbon, tilt up to get his reaction, and pull back enough to see what the gift is.
You can do this a few times, but it’s better to display many presents on a table after they are opened and shoot them quickly, one by one.
Ask any kid what the best part of a birthday party is and he or she most likely will tell you it’s the cake and ice cream. Zoom in for a closeup of the candles being lit, then slowly pan around the table as everyone sings “Happy Birthday.” With the cake between you and Junior, crouch down to get eye level with him by the time you hear, “Make a wish!”
No cake scene would be complete without Junior cutting and sampling the first piece.
If your guests are willing, a fun way to record the personalities of Junior’s friends is to interview them. By asking simple questions they don’t have to think about, you can get several children on a few minutes of tape.
For younger children, keep it simple: “What’s your name?””How old are you?””When is your birthday?””Are you having a good time?” Try one or two before you line them all up to talk.
If you’ve gone all out and provided entertainment for the party, such as a clown or magician, record the performance and get a lot of reaction shots of the kids. The clown shouldn’t mind. And if he’s good, your tape might be a source for referrals.
The “Game” Game
Games are tricky. You should position yourself on the sidelines to get the best angle of the action and to protect your equipment. I don’t know how much damage a flying beanbag could do to your viewfinder. . . but some things you don’t want to find out.
The best advice for taping kids’ games is to be brief. Rather than tape 15 minutes of musical chairs, tape the game just as you would any story, with a beginning, middle, and end.
Get the first time around the chairs with all the kids playing to establish the nature of the game.
Pause the camera until only half the kids are left, and finish with the final two, as the victorious winner bullies his or her way into the one remaining chair to claim the prize.
And don’t forget a shot of the loser’s long, little face. (Don’t worry. He or she will laugh about it in a few years.)
Resist the urge to keep shooting after the highlights are over. It’s better to leave your audience wishing for more than fidgeting in their chairs. Some shots of the last few guests waving their good-byes, one last closeup of Junior smiling, and it’s time to fade.
Your tape’s running time should be about 20 minutes, tops. Remember Aunt Martha.
A Dozen Do’s and Don’ts for Party Productions
- Have a helper-either your spouse or an older, more responsible child. You can’t light the candles and shoot at the same time.
- Keep the lights up. The kids will be more at ease and your shots will be more natural if the lights aren’t constantly clicking on and off to announce that you are about to shoot.
- Don’t use a monitor. Nothing gets the children out of the action faster. You’ll end up with one or two kids making faces into the camera to the delight of the other 12 who are watching on TV.
- Instruct before you shoot. Your helper can’t always read your mind, and sometimes you’ll have to tell the children what you want them to do. Too much of your voice on the sound track detracts from the action.
- Don’t ask the kids to perform. Most children are entertaining enough just being themselves. Asking them to do something they’re not comfortable with can lead to boring lulls for your tape and embarrassing reruns for the kids.
- Warm up the camera-shy child. A few kids will go to any length, covering their faces or hiding behind chairs whenever the camera seems to be pointed in their direction. Assure them that the focus of your attention is not on them, but on the party itself. Before long they will be more at ease and forget all about you and your camera.
- Get down to kids’ eye level and see the world as the children do. If they sit on the floor to play a game, get down there with them.
- Get lots of emotional impact from closeups. In video, closeups are the exclaination points in your story. Don’t spare them.
- Aim for variety. While Junior is the center of attention, don’t forget the others who helped make the day special. Your child will enjoy the tape more in years to come if he can watch his friends grow up with him.
- Keep safety in mind. Keep lights a safe distance from the action and cords taped down securely. If possible, use batteries to run your camera.
- Kids have short memories. Just because you warned them once about the danger of tripping doesn’t mean they’ll remember once the excitement begins.
- Get in the tape yourself Have your helper take over the camera once in awhile, and join in the party. After all, you want to be remembered, too.
- Enjoy yourself! When videotaping kids, keep your plans flexible. Part of the fun of reliving video memories with your child is remembering the fun you all had making them.
Susan Hunimel, a freelance writer and editor, is co-owner of a video production service. Mother of five, she has videotaped no less than two dozen birthday parties over the past five years.