Directing Child Actors

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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!