When you are directing TV commercials, it is almost certain that at some point, kids will find their way to be the subject in front of your lens. Kids younger than 5 years are the ones that this post is concerned about. They are usually cute and most of the times unpredictable.
Their unpredictability may lead to ‘happy accidents’ but may also drive a production crew to the ground. You have to be ready for it. Following are some tips that might help if you are about to work with kids for the first time.
Select your crew wisely
I can’t stretch this long enough. Maintaining a positive mood during a shot is always a good strategy but it is absolutely necessary when working with kids. Your usual director of photography might be excellent and your usual assistant director a real powerhouse but if you sense that they might not be able to align with the idiosyncrasies of kids, don’t hesitate to pick someone else instead. When you have spent 60+ minutes trying to get a 3-second shot of a kid who will just not do the simplest task, you need a crew that can be super patient, maintain a high moral and is involved with what needs to be done.
Be flexible with your shot breakdown
Kids don't mix well with elaborate camerawork. I can guarantee that they will not hit their marks more than once. Keep things simple and plan your scene breakdown with flexibility in mind. Try to get the required kid-related-action in a few good shots instead of trying to integrate them in an over-complicated sequence. The limited production time might not allow you to get all the planed shots by the end of the day. Be sure that the ones you get are the ones that count.
If possible, use more than one camera
Covering the action with more than one camera can make a huge difference to your final shot count. Kids don't like repeating actions. If you were planning for a close up of a kid playing with a toy after a wide shot of the same action, think again. This close up might never happen. Try to get everything in one go. Light might not be perfect for both camera angles but if you want that extra shot, you should prepare for small compromises.
Don't be afraid of babies.
Contrary to what someone might initially think… babies are easier than kids. They don’t have a mind of their own yet and that’s good. The last thing you want is a bored kid who would do anything else rather than the required action. Instead, babies can be 'tricked' into doing almost everything. So, babies are your friend. They will cooperate in surprising ways.
Get to know them as early as possible
Not all kids are the same. Some love the idea of being among new people and some hate it. If you get a 'difficult' kid and there is nobody to coach it before filming, you need to spend some time with it and its parents before cameras roll. Get to know the kid and let it know you until it feels comfortable. Usually this will not take more than 20 minutes. Those 20 minutes might save you a couple of hours later on. In case you are not a kid’s person, get an assistant director who is, get out of their way and back to your camera.
Don't let them fool you
You might start shooting and feel super lucky because it looks like you are working with a wonder kid. Don't let your guard down. 3-5 year old kids are like time-bombs. usually around the 4 hour mark they have enough and explode. They don't want to be told what to do for more than that. Even if they initially look like they have the best time in the world, they will eventually get bored, tired and nervous. Keep that in mind. Shoot the most demanding action during the first 3 hours of production.
Two are better than one
Ask if the production can provide a backup kid standing by. Some times everything looks perfect until the cameras start recording and everyone realizes there is no way the selected kid is going to deliver what everyone had in mind. Perhaps because it got sick that same day or for some other reason. Things like that happen more frequently than one might think. If possible, have a plan B.
I hope i gave you an idea of what to expect in this type of work. Kids in commercial video sets can be funny but also drive you crazy. Contrary to how it happens in movie sets, there is very limited production time and hardly ever rehearsals. So, keep calm, be prepared and do your best!