Directing Child Actors

Preview post for NoFilmSchool

As a filmmaker I've frequently heard one thing after directing a shoot with a child actor, particularly if things did not go well that day.

"You know what they say, never work with kids or animals."

I think we have all probably heard this a couple times after a rough shoot. I can't speak much for animals, but I actually really like working with kids on set. They have such powerful imaginations and bring a new life...as long as things go well.

Over the years I've directed kid actors for brands like LEGO, Syfy, Green Giant, Little Remedies and have learned so much along the way about how to get the best performances out of children. Hopefully through my years of experience, my advice can prevent some future headaches and misery that come along with directing kids on set. For this post, I will mostly be relating back to a music video I directed that can be seen below.

FIND THE RIGHT KID

Seem obvious? Sure, but this obvious step never gets the attention it deserves. For some reason filmmakers tend to take child actors less seriously and apply that same attitude to the casting process. Usually we just grab the closest kid we know and hope for the best without giving it too much thought. Sometimes if you work with a talent agency you get a series of headshots and just pick the kid who has the right look. Although this seems normal enough, this is where the trouble begins. So how do you find the right kid?

Anytime I cast any talent (child or adult) I always ask to see their reel and most recent work. If they don’t have something strong to show, ask them to film a personality reel or audition for your project. This might seem like a lot of work for them, but it’s really telling of how they (and their parents) will be to deal with on set. Prompt parents who take this request seriously will most likely be the most pleasant to work with and more willing to help wrangle their child should the need arise. If at all possible, hold auditions to see how they perform, comfort level, and how well they listen. Give more attention and scrutiny to casting children than you would a normal role.

This music video was a little different, we were able to skip the whole casting process and use a band member’s son. Did we have a back up incase things didn’t go as planned? Of course. Because his parents were invested in the outcome of the music video, they were able to work with him at home, help guide him on set, and had 6 years of being raised by genre and nostalgia fans making him the perfect fit for this project.

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MANAGE EXPECTATIONS

Although this can be applied to almost any situation, I believe this is the root cause to the “never work with kids or animals” saying. Kids do not think or act the same way as adults, so don’t expect them to on set. They take much longer to settle in and get comfortable to a new environment and around new people. Don’t rush them. Make sure you build in more time in the schedule than you think you’ll need when shooting with kids. They usually require a lot more direction and clarification on what to do and need frequent breaks. Don’t create the same schedule you would for adults. You’re setting yourself up for failure, stress on set, and risking upsetting your young talent.

Beyond logistic, you have to also know what kind of emotional range your talent has and never try to push them past that unless you want a phony performance. Once you identify your young actor’s strengths, play to those and adapt the script so it feels more natural for them. Constantly set them up for success and realize that with children you will never get the performance you have in your head, so be willing to adjust to their needs. Want them to cry and scream in a believable way? Probably not going to happen, so think of some other acceptable ways that scene could play out and have those ideas ready.

Plenty of setups got scrapped before shooting because it became clear that I was asking too much from our talent, but fortunately we were able to think of alternative and acceptable options for our scenes. I had planned a couple long takes that, without proper rehearsal time, is unrealistic to expect from a child.

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BUILD A RELATIONSHIP

Watch the behind the scenes of ET: The Extra Terrestrial (or any Spielberg movie) if you want to watch a master work. He is goofy, playful, and knows how to interact as a friend and never belittling to children. Completely inspired by Spielberg, I have discovered my own methodology for building a friendship with each young actor I work with.

When they arrive on set, I always drop everything I am doing to spend time with them, talk with them, try to make them laugh, and anything else I can do to let them know that I am a friend and will protect them through the production process. As soon as you can gain a young actor’s trust, they will be more likely to listen to you and less likely to get overwhelmed and upset on location. Kids can be very emotional in new and scary environments, let them know they have a friend and a team mate.

On the music video shoot I directed an amazing 6 year old kid in the lead role. People on set were understandably worried. “Hopefully this kid doesn’t lose steam halfway through the day and give up on us.” However, I had a lot of faith in this kid because I had time to develop a friendship with him. The day before the shoot I was able to meet him without a crew around in our location to go over every scene. This was invaluable to our shooting day. He came in comfortable, excited, and ready to go! Because we had a rehearsal the night before, he didn’t need as much time to warm up to me or this scary new place. He and I worked as a team on each scene. He would give me his input and I let him try anything he wanted as long as I knew we got at least one take of what I wanted. I was someone he liked, trusted, and would listen to. (Watch the “making of” video below)

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POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT

Like every shoot, you will want multiple takes of the same shot, rework scenes, and make technical errors causing you to do another take. Most children don’t realize that adults can make mistakes. So what happens when they have to do the same thing over and over again? They begin to start thinking “what did I do wrong?” and “I’m not doing this good enough.” It is extremely important that you explain the process before you shoot and always accept the blame for any mistake that happens so they don’t assign it to themselves.

After every take, tell them they did a great job before you give notes and then give notes in a way that doesn’t make them feel like they did something wrong. “That was great! What do you think about acting a little more scared this time? Do you think that would be good?” Try to avoid any sort of negative framing of a sentence. “No, this time I need you act a little more scared.” This might seem like small details but it will go a long way in always making sure your talent is emotionally protected.

What I always try to do is let them know what I am doing upfront so they don’t end up unintentionally assigning blame to themselves. “Hey, we’re going to do this scene probably 3 or 4 times and I’m going to have you do some different stuff because I don’t know what I want yet.” By doing that, you’re relieving the burden of performing perfectly from them and will reduce the stress caused by multiple takes.

Anytime you have to shoot another take because of a technical error, make sure you let them know! If not, they will continue to think they are doing something wrong. I will also frequently blame myself or DP for “messing up” if I want another take from a child and try to sneak in a note before we start again. As much as I love the DPs I work with, I am willing to throw them under the bus to a child so our day can run smoothly. Sorry, guys.

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Ultimately remember that as a director, you set the tone on set. If you want to work with kids or have kids in your scene, remember to keep things light and fun. Kids are like sponges and will soak up whatever vibe they can sense in the air. Be their friend, set them up for success, and have fun being on set!

How to Get Your Film ACCEPTED into Film Festivals!

If you want to hear me talk about it, watch the video above!

Entering your film into festivals can be a long and emotionally draining journey. As filmmakers, we pour our heart and soul into our films and by submitting them into festivals we find ourselves in a very vulnerable place. Getting the Congratulations! email from a festival is an amazing feeling that can make your entire day if not your week! However, getting the Thanks for submitting but we had a lot of really good submissions this year email from a festival can be just as devastating. I feel sorry for my wife every time I received one of those emails while we we out trying to have fun as a family and one email ruined the good vibes of the day. So in honor of my short film Mayfield finally getting released online after a long year in the festival circuit, I'm going to share some of the things I've learned from being accepted into 20+ festivals and winning multiple awards. 

For reference, you can watch Mayfield online for free here - www.zachdaulton.com/mayfield

Before we get started keep one thing in mind, getting accepted into film festivals doesn't make your film good and being rejected doesn't mean your film is bad. Whether you have finished your film already or getting ready to shoot one with film festivals in mind, just remember there is an art to submitting to film festivals. 

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1. have something to say

Film festivals aren't a place for mindless entertainment or (for the most part) a showcase of production value. Festivals are looking to include films that make them wonder, question, laugh, cry, or inspire. Find your voice and have something important to say. It doesn’t have to be important to everyone, it just has to be important to you. If you're not evoking some sort of emotional response from the audience, your film probably isn't personal enough. The last thing you want is for your film to be forgettable and lukewarm. If a festival judge HATES your film that's ok because you evoked an emotional response. Sometimes it can be hard to read judges notes like this:

"...the constant repetitive tone of discouragement made it slow and lacking in dramatic development or reversals"

"There are passages that are repetitive and slow with lengthy visual pauses punctuated by a somber music score. Although, painful to watch at times, the sparse dreamlike dynamic somehow works." 

No matter how harsh these criticisms might feel, nothing can top the feeling of someone actually connecting with your film on a deeper level and feeling that energy during a screening. Or another filmmaker coming up to you at a festival to tell you how you've moved them, inspired them, and made them reflect on their own life through your film

Saying something personal with your film puts you in a vulnerable position and open you up to heartache, but comes with greater rewards.

2. keep it short

This is a very bold and hypocritical statement coming from someone who made a 20 minute short film, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong! I'm going to dance a fine line here so let me put it as simply as I can. Make your film as long as it needs to be, but as short as possible. Over and over again I kept getting advice to cut my film down to 8-12min from people who hadn't even seen it yet because that's the sweet spot for festivals. While that might be the ideal length for a film festival, is it the right length for your film? Film festivals program long shorts all the time, but they have to be really good because you're taking up slots they could fill with multiple filmmakers. If your 20min film takes up four 5min slots, the festival is potentially losing more filmmakers that could be promoting their festival. Multiple festivals reached out to me and let me know that they liked my film and wanted to program it, they just couldn't find a slot for it because of its length. 

If you haven't shot your film yet and are planning to enter festivals, make sure your script is dense and everything on the page is important. If you have shot your film already, don't sacrifice it's quality in the edit just so you can try to get into festivals. Make sure you are self aware and get second opinions from filmmakers you trust. Even though my film is 20min long, before that it was 26min. I cut it down as much as I felt comfortable with in the edit without sacrificing what I wanted to say.

3. Enter a lot of the right festivals Early

Like most filmmakers, I wanted to get into the Holy Grail of film festivals...Sundance. Guess what? I didn't. You're most likely not going to get accepted into Sundance either and that's perfectly ok because their acceptance rate is less than 1% of submissions. Even 2016's academy award winning short film Stutterer wasn't accepted into Sundance when it was submitted, although I would much rather have an Oscar. This is why you need to enter a lot of different festivals of all sizes.

Big festivals can get thousands of quality short film submissions, but some of the small to mid level festivals don't have such stiff competition but are still great festivals to be a part of! Smaller festivals also give you a better chance of winning awards and sometimes prizes. 

Entering festivals can get pretty expensive usually running anywhere from $20-$60 per festival, so that's why you need to hit the Earlybird Deadline anytime you can! Not only are you going to pay less on your entry fee, but you have a better chance of getting accepted into the festival because it's much easier to build a schedule around your film than it is to squeeze your film into an existing line up. But you also need to make sure your film is the right fit for the festival.

A lot of people are under the assumption that to get your film into a festival it has to be pretentious and depressing, but that simply isn't true! No matter what your film is about or what genre it is, there is a film festival out there for you so don't get caught up in only entering the big ones. Seek out festivals that would be a good fit for your film.

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4. Share something interesting about your film

Made your short film on a micro budget with limited to no crew? Yep, so did almost every other filmmaker submitting into that festival. Film festival programers like to be wowed or at least intrigued. For my short film, we built two of our sets inside the garage of our lead actor's house (the dressing room and bathroom). We also wrote about building those sets in an article for NoFilmSchool.com you can read here. Not only does this get the programer excited to see your film, but they also have something to promote your film (aka their festival) on their social media platforms. It never hurts to supply the festival with more things to share with their audience (behind the scenes photos, poster art, trailers, articles, etc).

Quick Tips

  • Avoid Cliches - Does your film start with an alarm clock going off? Was someone dead the entire time? Is it the apocalypse? In the book How Not to Make a Short Film: Secrets from a Sundance Programmer, Roberta Marie Munroe gives a long list of cliches that festival programers see.
  • Have good sound - People are more willing to forgive a film that is ugly over one they can't hear at all.
  • Don't give your actors material they can't handle - Find the weaknesses and strengths of your actors before filming, and give them material that will seem natural for them.
  • Use FilmFreeway - By far the easiest and best site to use when submitting films to festivals. 

Just always remember, make the film you would want to see and if people don't like it, so what? Festival programers aren't the ultimate authority on the value of your film.

Here are some festivals I love and are definitely worth the entry fee!

Blackbird Film Festival - Most festivals suffer from a lack of volunteers, but not Blackbird! They have a team of interns that work very hard to make the festival a hit. They treat the filmmakers very well and have a great little town in Cortland, NY.

The Colony Short Film Festival - Festival coordinators were really nice, had a great venue with a good crowd, and actually gives out trophies! 

River Bend Film Festival - A ton of quality films, workshops, and talks with industry people. 

Full Bloom Film Festival - Probably the most pleasant festival I have communicated with! Rarely does a festival offer to pay for lodging, but Full Bloom knows how to take care of their filmmakers!

10 Essential Tips For Shooting a MUSIC FESTIVAL!!!

10 Essential Tips For Shooting a MUSIC FESTIVAL!!!

Over the past few years I've found myself shooting A LOT of footage in the music industry. Usually its for one specific artist at a time but the past couple summers have been pretty busy filming music festivals. Here are my essential tips on shooting a festival based on my experiences and what I have learned as a filmmaker.