They say (whoever this collective “they” is) that in video production you never want to work with two kinds of actors: dogs and kids. Video production takes many moving parts all lining up and working together efficiently. All the parts must be reliable and timely (after all, time is money). Children and animals are typically extremely unreliable. You can’t count on the quality or timeliness of their performance. Dogs are, well, dogs. Even the most experienced and highly trained dog can fall victim to its own animal nature. A new sound or smell can send them off their intended path and towards the craft services table.
Kids get tired, sick, moody, and (worst of all) distracted. But they are humans after all and can still find it within themselves to be professional and deliver a great performance. Sometimes it just takes a little extra work on behalf of the director and crew to get that perfect take and keep things moving. Oddly enough I have had a pretty busy past year of working with child talent on set for our projects at StoryCraft. So, of course, I feel qualified to offer some tips and insight into the process…
Step one to a great working experience with kids on set is to hire great talent. We are “high touch” at StoryCraft and handle every part of the production process ourselves. We don’t work with outside casting directors so we personally audition every actor who comes through the door to be totally thorough in finding exactly what talent we need for the project. So this can be very time consuming. But when casting children it is so worth the extra time.
Always look for kids who have at least one professional acting credit. Actor kids sometimes even have more experience than their adult counterparts. It can still be a numbers game though and you have to churn through dozens of auditions to find a real gem. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find gold in inexperienced actors. For our latest Make it Work project our team put in over 40 hours auditioning dozens and dozens of kids from around Texas before we found our principal talent. Our youngest actress was by total coincidence that she came in to wait for her older sister to audition and turned out to have the perfect look and take on the younger character’s part. Our lead, Anthony, came in with several professional credits under his belt already and nailed the part.
Never expect a kid actor to show up to set with their lines memorized and ready to go. Always play multiple rehearsals to make sure they get their lines down and deliver the exact performance you want to see on set before even getting there.
Even with lots of rehearsal time it can still be challenging directing kids on set. Kids get nervous in front of the camera and under the lights and forget their lines or freeze up (hey, I’ve done it too). You have to be patient and work with them in a compassionate way to calm their nerves and keep them on track. Whatever time you have originally allotted for a shot or scene go ahead and half that to it.
I have found that adults and kids have opposite performance curves. An adult actor’s performance will typically improve over multiple takes where they can receive feedback and make adjustments. Children’s patience dwindles very quickly and their performances will get progressively worse over multiple takes as they get anxious, bored, and start asking “how many more times do I have to do this?” You have to keep them excited and engaged. And you have to do this with candy. I’m sorry, but there is no other way. Always keep a Snickers and a bag of Skittles on hand. When a kid actor starts losing interest or sabotaging takes with funny noises or whatever they are inclined to do then it is time to break out the candy bribery.
Kids don’t have much life experience to draw from in their performance. But this can result in extremely genuine performances. Have you seen Stranger Things yet? Kids can deliver the realest, rawest performances as kid characters because that’s all they know, which is beautiful in a way.
But when you need a kid to act like a loan officer or a doctor you have to find ways to motivate their performance from within using analogies and inspiration at their level. This boy needs to look pissed in this next shot like he just got hit by a bully. “Think about a time your older brother took your Kylo Ren action figure and broke it. How did you feel?” Little things that feel silly can draw out just the right physical actions or inflections in dialogue that a scene calls for when you put things into kid perspective.
As weird as it is, a kid actor on set is your colleague and they should get the same respect you would give any other co-worker. They are young and inexperienced, but they’re not stupid. You may have to “dumb” down a concept or direction for a kid to understand, but that doesn’t mean they can’t comprehend complicated or serious subject matter. Don’t underestimate them. You set the tone. If you’re loose and funny they are going to take your lead and relax and have fun. If you are serious and focused they will follow suit and know it is time to get down to business and not play around.
As difficult as it is to direct children it is equally, if not more, rewarding. It is a chance to work with an actor who is setting off on a long journey of an acting career. You never know when you might be working with the next Ryan Gosling or Emma Watson (or Corey Feldman, but let’s hope not). It’s also refreshing to get a young person’s perspective on the work.
You also get to talk about fun stuff like action figures and Pixar movies when the cameras aren’t rolling as opposed to the rising cost of rent and how much more money your college friends are making in the healthcare sector. So approach directing kids not as a chore, but as a challenge and an opportunity to do great work and help someone grow in their career.