What Grownups Need to Know About What Children Need to Know About Videomaking

You’ve videotaped every occasion from your children’s births to the arrival of the mail. You’ve sampled every camcorder function, learned the ins and outs of editing, and invoked effects from desktop graphics to tabletop volcanos.

What next?

Sharing the wonders of video with children is a great way to ignite young imaginations and jump-start your own. Kids’ roles in family productions needn’t be limited to “Newborn Raisin” or “Girl at Famous Landmark.”


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Children can become great videomakers, and they don’t have to be as old as you think:

If they’ve graduated from plastic drinking cups, they can create their own movies.

Kidvid success relies on just two fundamentals of videomaking-lessons you can teach the children from your experiences: have a story and plan ahead. Other rules can go out the window-or at least to the bottom of the camera bag, to be retrieved when you (and the children) are good and ready.

Ready or Not?

Before you begin, have a talk with yourself. After years of saying “Don’t touch that! ,” do you have the emotional fortitude to see your camera in hands so small or clumsy? Can you give the kids the time it takes?

You needn’t worry. It only takes a few hours, and I’ve yet to see a camera broken. It’s easy, really, to share videomaking with your kids. But it does take more than 15 minutes, and it isn’t well perforned by folks with short fuses. Prepare yourself.

Then gather the troops. But keep the camera in the closet for now. When handed a video camera, most kids think it’s a kaleidoscope. They’ll aim it randomly to see if ordinary things look different. Unassisted, that’s what they’ll probably tape.

So help the children create a story. Without one, they won’t need a video. They’ll understand; they’re story experts. But they might tend to respond with nouns: “Let’s shoot the dog, the ball game, the birds in the tree.” Encourage the children to build on these ideas.

What about the dog? If they shoot the story of its life, maybe they’ll need dog narration through the child’s mouth. Does their dog dig in the yard? Tell about his search for buried treasure.

Anything Goes

You can easily fire up children’s imaginations. For starters,include things they like to do, or even things they don’t.

Thinking in negatives can loosen the creativity: “Four Things You Can’t Do With Peanut Butter,” or “How Not to Kiss Your Sister.” Experiment with comedy. Kids can be funny just standing still. Even if the intent of your child’s humor fails, the effort will be a hoot.

It’s sometimes easier to think of entertaining titles and then create the story, but your kids may not work this way. The stories they develop will also depend on their age.

Younger children like to act out fairy tales and play with funny “how to’s” like “Nine Ways to Eat a Hershey Bar and Three Ways Not To.” Older kids may enjoy spoofing family rituals, making up scary stories, and taping adventures.

Discourage them from thinking about television. Kids always want to tape game shows which seem like so much fun. But that’s not making a video; that’s taping images of a game show and that’s boring. The same applies to acting out shows they’ve seen. Help the kids make their video an original story-one that only they can tell.

After the brainstorm, exclude ideas from the list that lack visual potential or require complicated logistics. Discuss good ideas, and ask the kids to describe scenes and props to support their ideas. When you’ve got a handful of great ideas, choose one. Save the rest for another time.

Camera Call

Before too much serious work on the story, introduce the children to their tool for telling it.

For now, basic functions-record, pause, and zoom-will do the trick. Include the focus ring only if your camcorder lacks automatic focus. Anything else you can pre-set yourself. If the kids are interested, show them more but don’t overwhelm them.

Give them a chance to hold, look through, and move with the camera without recording. Have them record a few moments, but don’t help much. Then review and discuss the tape together. Was the subject of that fast pan recognizable? Was somebody’s head cut off by the framing? Did that zoom start and stop erratically? Playback reveals all.

Although there are generally approved techniques, there isn’t a “right way” to shoot video. Unfocused subjects can set a mood or make a statement. The same is true of jerky zooms and nauseating pans. That they are jerky and nauseating shows how they affect viewers. Just make sure the kids want the effect-and impact.

For additional test recording, show the children how different camera angles give old scenes new perspectives. Let them get down on their knees or lie flat on the floor. Experimentation is the key now. Don’t criticize; skills will come.

The idea is to help the children understand the camera’s limitations and capabilities, and access the latter.

All Together Now

Your young videomakers now have a story and a method to tell it. With that out of the way, you can help them make decisions on the following production details.

Location(s): Don’t pick more than a couple; most videos can be shot at one. I’d advise staying home at first, unless the kids are older and you’re willing to spend extra time driving and hauling stuff. Plan in detail if you do leave home; you won’t want to forget anything important.

Actors and crew: Remember, it’s the child’s movie. If the kids want to be in front of the camera you can fill in for them. But expect them to continue directing you-where to stand, how to shoot, etc. Recruit friends and relatives for cast, extras, and grips.

Costumes and props: Everyone can have a lot of fun with these, but they could also spend a whole day rounding them up and trying them out. Keep it simple. Kids like to pretend.

Editing: If you have a fancy system, it’s tempting to shoot lots of scenes, maybe out of sequence, and edit them together later. But it’s easier to shoot in sequence and keep the first takes. The kids will follow the story, be more spontaneous, and less likely to be frustrated with their performances. Teach them editing next time. At most, rewind to record over a blooper at the end of the last scene before continuing.

Sound: This aspect of the production, on the other hand, might be better saved for later editing. An even narration is difficult to record while shooting and music is a great finishing touch that also must be audio-dubbed. Audio editing also can remove spontaneous laughter, obtrusive verbal directing, or the plane overhead. Try to determine prior to recording what you’ll need, and be prepared to record sound on a separate videotape.

Titles: These can be shot in sequence or inserted later. Drop your technophilia long enpugh to remember that you don’t have to create titles in the circuitry, or even write them on paper. You can spell titles in Cheerios, sing them, or write them in lipstick down a bare arm. Plan titles to complement the story.

Union rules: Can the camera operator climb a tree for a great shot? Be flexible, but make sure the children understand that “40 Things My Parents Don’t Let Me Do-Ever” is not their movie’s unwritten title.

The videomakers will be anxious to start, but hold them down long enough to think about shots the story suggests.

Do we see the pretty girl or the hairy monster first… or a long, creepy walk through a dim hallway? A script is nice, but not necessary. Just take note of important things that will screw up your story if you forget their order or purpose.

Give it a Shot!

Shooting’s the easiest part. Deviate from the plan when it seems warranted. Help, but don’t command.

Advise the children to shoot short takes from different angles instead of long follow shots. Movies are lots of little scenes put together, not one long one. Show them how to pause the camcorder. Encourage them to shoot a long shot, stop for a closeup, then a cutaway or two.

It’s difficult to resist watching the tape right away, but do the post-production work as planned. If you have the patience, dub the work tape and play with sound effects and music so your young videomakers can appreciate the importance of the audio aspect of video.

Finish it right. Let the kids color their own tape labels. Buy blank label stock at stationery stores, or use paper and glue. They may want to make movie posters, too.

Dub videocassette copies for relatives and the child’s friends, they make great gifts and treasured keepsakes. Show the work at the next Brownie meeting or arrange to have the child share it during “Show and Tell” time at school. If you’re inclined, enter it in a children’s video contest. While you’re validating their creativity, you can explore your own.

Joni Sensel, a corporate communicator and freelance writer specializing in kids’ activities and the outdoors, spent two years writing and producing video programs for the Washington-based Weyerhaeuser Co., until she realized that video is a lot more fun if you don’t do it for a living.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.