In many ways kids make perfect video subjects-they’re lively natural and up front on camera These same qualities, however, can prove the undoing of the unsuspecting videomaker.
Taping children-whether your own progeny or hired talent-requires patience, planning and above all, stamina. This article will reveal the tricks and techniques of the kid vid trade-from birthday parties to TV commercials
A Trio of Tricks
Lets start with how to videotape your own children. It takes work to do it well but these are your kids we’re talking about. So get ready to make some sacrifices (isn’t guilt a wonderful thing?).
There are three main ways to get kids on tape: 1) shoot all the time; 2) choose a particular event-and shoot it in detail; and 3) show the passage of time.
The first method sounds toughest because it means hauling your equipment with you constantly. In reality however, this approach often proves the simplest. Why? Because it requires no planning.
For example shoot all the time and you’ll already have your video camera in hand when Johnny puts his doggie Ruff into his little red wagon and pulls him around.
If you don’t shoot all the time you’ll have to run into the house find a blank tape power up the gear and run back out at which point you find Johnny doing something completely different.
But shoot all the time, and you’ll capture that Johnny-Ruff wagon sequence without breaking a sweat.
The goal: for your kids to ignore you and just be themselves. Shooting all the time works to your advantage here. Strap that camcorder around your neck whenever you appear, and soon your kids won’t even notice it. They won’t “ham it up” and play to the camera.
The down side to shooting everything is all that footage. Of course, you can re-use the tape, but you’ll lose quality. Another potential problem: a plethora of excellent shots, all of which are totally unrelated. Even if you edit them together, the footage will tell only the loosest of stories.
The Main Event
Shooting events is well-suited for telling compact, beginning-middle-end- type stories.
For best results, planning is crucial. Planning need not be formal; create an outline in your head before you roll tape. You know certain things will happen. In a birthday party, kids will show up; kids will eat cake; kids will play games. And these very activities will distract them from your work-providing you with the kind of candid action which makes the most interesting footage.
Work out the best angles for each segment; keep lighting, setting and composition in mind. Prepare cutaway shots-such as the placing of candles in the cake-that can serve as transitions. Anticipate everything you can, but be ready to shoot those wonderful moments you can’t anticipate-like when Ruff jumps onto the table and laps up some ice cream in the middle of the Happy Birthday song.
If you edit in-camera, remember the old adage “less is more.” Don’t let your shots run on forever, especially if nothing’s happening. Leave your audience wanting more. When something does happen, follow the action proceed, then stop. The trick: knowing what to leave out.
A typical birthday video for your daughter Betty might go like this:
1) You start with a close-up of the calendar with the date circled and the notation “Betty’s Birthday!” next to it.
2) Conduct a quick interview with Betty as she waits for her guests to arrive. Even if she answers in monosyllables, her excitement should be obvious in this segment.
3) Outside, cars pull up and small humans carrying gifts get out.
4) Inside, Betty greets her friends.
5) Capture a shot of the cake as Mom decorates it.
6) In a flurry of wrapping paper, Betty opens her presents.
7) Use a close-up of her face as she opens the one you know will be her favorite, a new doll (be careful, she may also want to give you a big hug after this one).
8) Get a wide shot of the brightly decorated table with the kids sitting around it.
9) Try a medium shot that follows the cake, candles flaming, as it comes into the scene.
10) Go for the wide shot, then zoom to a close-up of Betty as the partygoers sing to the birthday girl.
11) Cut to a quick close-up of greedy hands and faces eating cake and ice cream.
12) Then back to a wide shot of Betty saying good-bye to her friends.
13) Fade out with a shot of Betty asleep in her bed, her arms clutching her new doll to her, a beatific smile on her little face. (It is permissible to wipe away a tear at this point.)
You can play a million variations on this theme. The nice thing about an event is that the story just about tells itself. Just don’t try to show too much. Brevity, as they say, is the soul of wit.
The Sands of Video Time
The third approach to taping children uses the passage of time. Showing progression is the key here: start with Johnny on his big wheels or tricycle; move on to his riding the bike with training wheels; and-finally-the big day when he finds his balance and rolls off without them. And a few years hence, you can go back and add John competing in the motocross. how’s that for closure?
You can combine two of these methods to create a video history of your child. Pick one day during the calendar year. Choose an “ordinary” day- not a special occasion like a birthday or a holiday-when little Sam does what he likes best at that point in his life. Maybe we see Sam riding his pony. Maybe he’s at karate class. Maybe both and more. Then, wait a year and repeat. Sam’s interests have most probably changed; at the very least he’s improved his pony riding and karate chopping skills.
Keep this up until Sam’s in high school (or until he rebels and says you can’t) and then edit all the days together for a comprehensive look at Sam through the ages. Show his relatives and you’ll thrill them; show Sam and you’ll embarrass him. Show Sam’s high school friends and Sam may not speak to you till college.
Candid Camera Revisited
The key to getting good video of your kids is for them to ignore you. Once they hit their teens, this is not a problem; they’ll ignore you all the time. But when they’re small, your kids may be self-conscious when you are around, especially when you hold a camcorder. You need to ape Allen Funt’s TV show and become a Candid Camera.
You could use the method we’ve already discussed and carry your camera until the kids lose interest in it. This does take time, however. It could even take days. Anyone who has run into the “pick me up, Daddy, do it again,” syndrome knows that kids don’t always tire of certain amusements easily.
If your time is limited, use the surreptitious approach. Melt into the background. Become invisible. Use techniques mastered by police and surveillance crews everywhere. That’s right! Spy on your kids.
There are tricks to this spying business. First, don’t draw attention to yourself. Pretend to do something else, like read a book.
When outside on a bright day, stay out of the sun. While your kids frolic in the sun, you can hide in the shadows, observing them without fear of being seen. You can also shoot from an open door or window. Try shooting from inside your car before your youngster notices your arrival at his soccer game. Or shoot from a second story window for a bird’s eye view of your subject.
Camcorders with large viewfinders will make the following trick easy: don’t bring the camera to your eye. Leave it at waist-level and start rolling tape. Your subjects won’t know what hit them. Whenever possible, sit down rather than stand. You’ll be less obvious.
If you have a tripod, move as far away as possible and zoom in on your kids. You’ll prove less obtrusive and the shot itself will prove aesthetically pleasing, since the background will probably go out of focus.
The ultimate deception: find a very large book and hollow it out to fit the dimensions of your camcorder. Drill a three-quarter-inch hole for the lens and adjust the focal length for wide angle (zoom out all the way). Start the camcorder rolling and leave the area. Now disregard this last paragraph. You knew I was just kidding, didn’t you?
Many of these techniques provide perspective as well as discretion. When you sit down and shoot-shoot from the hip, so to speak-you’re more likely to be at eye-level with your kids. In effect, you “see” the world as your children do.
When you’re high above your subjects, looking down, you can make the subjects appear small and insignificant. Such changes in perspective can be quite telling.
Another time-honored way to get your kids to ignore you is to give them something better to do. This works out well for you and the kids; the kids like it because they’d rather do anything else than watch you watch them, and you like it because action makes for good video.
Sports activities are particularly good. Any type of sport will do. When Jimmy concentrates on hitting the ball at his Little League game, everything around him naturally fades into the background-including you.
Hobbies requiring similar focus also work well. Have Jasmine put together a jigsaw puzzle or draw with her crayons. Your reward: some great shots.
When all else fails, and you simply cannot persuade the kids to ignore you, then invite them into the videomaking process.
As Jasmine draws, ask her what she’s drawing. Find out what her favorite colors are and why. Will she be an artist when she grows up?
Maybe she isn’t feeling talkative. Then have her sing a nursery rhyme or other favorite song. When you get around to editing all this good stuff someday, this music can serve as the foundation for many other shots. Use Jasmine’s answers to your questions as voiceovers for scenes shot at other times. Edit everything together and you have…the story of her life.
Tips From the Pros
So far we’ve examined only ways to videotape your own kids. These kids know you. They trust you. They want to know what you brought them when you went on that business trip. But what if you had to shoot a commercial for a client, for money, using kids you didn’t know? That’s when things get interesting.
We can separate this group of kids into two camps: professional and amateur talent. If you are lucky enough to work with professional talent, you are in good shape. These little troupers have probably worked since they were in diapers, paying dues to one of the unions like the Screen Actors Guild. You’ll find that they behave less like the kids you know and more like adults in very small packages. Of course, there are always exceptions-that is, pros who act like amateurs.
Amateur child actors typically fall into two groups: children who are currently bucking for professional status (and who will do a good job for you) and fairly normal children. Fairly normal children will live up to their normalcy; they can cause havoc on a professional set. These kids can come direct from next door, or direct from your client. (“This is my nephew, Vince. He can act up a storm.”) They can even come direct from a talent agency run by people with poor judgment. You may have to tape such a child, which means you’ll need to work around the little sweetie.
For prudence’s sake, use these following hints for all kids, professional or otherwise:
Use a stand-in for blocking. It takes a long time to figure out camera positions, prepare the set and get the product to look just right.
Save the child’s energy. Let your little star play outside, read a book or badger the grips while you use a chair or a mannequin in the youngster’s place. If you need movement, use a production assistant in the child’s stead until it’s time to roll tape. When every-thing’s ready, bring in the kid.
If they talk, make it short. A general rule of thumb: the smaller the child, the shorter the speech. Sure, you might run into a two-year-old prodigy who can memorize and sing the entire Oscar Mayer wiener song, but don’t count on it. If they can just sit there and look cute, go with it.
Don’t expect too much. You know child actors are capable of amazing things, because you watch TV. Look at those sitcoms where adult actors play straight men to precocious three year-olds. However, remember these kids fall into the professional category and are therefore by definition incredible. Not to mention that often these kids are also twins.
Get it in two takes. Kids don’t understand why they should have to do anything over and over again. They don’t understand that they bumped the microphone and ruined the audio. As far as they’re concerned, they did it perfectly the first time. They bore very quickly when asked to repeat themselves, providing a less effective performance with each take. Try to get it right on your end-the technical side-on every take. When they get it right, you’ll have a keeper.
Never, ever, say “one more time.” When directing a shoot, you’ve got a million things on your mind. You want the perfect performance, the perfect lighting, the perfect take. To achieve this, you must keep after it, as you go for just the right nuance.
You tell your talent, “Give me one more, just like that.” Adults understand that you’re lying, that you really don’t know when the last take will be. Children are much more literal-minded. If you say, “one more time,” they expect you to stick to it.
Kid Vid for Real
There’s one final aspect of shooting video with kids we’ve yet to explore:
letting them do it themselves.
The very thought might send shivers of fear down your spine. “What, hand this delicate piece of highly technical gear over to my seven-year-old? Are you nuts? Why, he won’t even know what to do with it.”
Isn’t that what you said about your personal computer?
Obviously, you must provide close supervision and instruction. Pass on everything you know about videomaking, from camera angles to lighting techniques. They might not pay much attention (remember, you’ve trained them to ignore you).
In the documentary Hearts of Darkness, director Francis Ford Coppola comments on the future of film, saying that he hopes that someday someone will hand a little girl an 8mm camera and that she’ll prove the cinematic equivalent of Mozart.
You may think your child is too young for video. To take the Mozart analogy further, a young friend once asked Mozart if he would teach him how to write symphonies. Mozart replied that the symphony was a very intricate form requiring great subtlety and skill. He recommended that his friend wait a few years before attempting it. The friend complained that Mozart was much younger than he when Mozart wrote his first symphony.
“Ah, yes,” Mozart replied, “but I never had to ask how.”
Pride and Parents
Making memories with video can be easy, but to get the pictures and sound that will capture who your kids really are, is work. You will know you’ve done your job well on the night of your daughter’s high school graduation, after showing that darling shot of her on her baby blanket, naked as the day she was born.
Your daughter will turn to you, her eyes brimming with tears and say, “You understand that because of this emotional trauma I now have to move out of the state.”
It’s a proud moment for any parent-and you’ll be no exception.
William Ronat, a Videomaker contributing editor, is co-owner of a video production company.