The following is a guest post by filmmaker Ryan E. Hoffman.

“Never work with animals or children,” is a phrase that’s somewhat of a cliché in the film world. On my upcoming pilot, we have to do both. Although animals are always tricky, working with kids doesn’t have to be. When I’m not making content, I coach little league baseball. It’s been a great day job for the past ten years, but I never thought I’d be able to apply its lessons to my career in film. This past week, we had to do an action sequence with a six year old boy where he had to run down the hall with a toy shotgun, post up on the wall, then run into the kitchen and shoot me in the neck. Here are five tips that I’ve put together from that experience and my decade plus of practice teaching kids baseball technique.

1. Work around their schedule
We have load-ins, lighting set ups, and the camera crew needs to set up their equipment. Art department sometimes has to build the set on sight, and often times it can be six hours on set before we’re ready to shoot. Problem is, kids don’t know anything about what it takes to make movies, how much work it is, or why it takes so long in between setting up shots. If you have to work with a kid on your set, give them a call time that places their arrival as close to rolling the camera on the first shot as you possibly can. You have their primo attention for two hours. It’s worth it to be completely set up, waiting for 15 minutes for them to arrive, than have them waiting for an hour or two while you set up equipment. Adults understand the concept of patience. Kids do not, or at least, not as well, and you’re more likely to get what you need quicker if you push them through quickly from one department to the next, right up until filming.

2. Monkey See Monkey Do
At their age, kids learn best by watching you do it and imitating you. In baseball, we exaggerate the proper throwing motion, so that they imitate and repeat. Same thing in film. If you want them to do something, it’s your responsibility to step out from behind the camera, and take them through it slowly and clearly. Act it out for them, and they’ll get it. Trying to explain the motion, or emotion is pointless and will only frustrate you.

3. One Voice
If you’re not up to the task of showing what you want done, that’s fine. Pick someone on your staff (your AD, their parents or a special kid handler) that you trust and let them do it. But don’t change your mind and start telling the actor what to do. Tell your handler, and let them act it out for the kid.

If it is you, make sure you let everybody know that you are the only person whose voice is going to the kid. Their attention span cannot handle four or five voices telling them what to do. They’ll forget half of what is said, and will be frustrated about not doing it right. One voice to the child.

4. The Compliment Sandwich
This one is straight from baseball and I’ve found it works, not only with kids, but anyone with whom you find yourself working. When giving direction, see if you can isolate parts of things they did correctly, what you want improved, and then encouragement going forward. For example, “Hey, I really liked how you made the mean face before you turned the corner. This time, make the mean face and show the ChemCorp logo so the camera can see it. I know you can do it. You’re doing awesome.” And so forth.

5. Upbeat and Excited
An addendum to number four; kids will respond to your energy. Everything is great. They’re doing great, even if they’re not. This one seems self-explanatory, but I know how stressful film sets can be. Maintaining a calm, positive demeanor is one of the most important things you can do in order to keep their attention on the task at hand. Remember, you have a shot to do, and having a great, friendly attitude is what’s going to get them to give it to you.

BONUS TIP
Eliminate, “One more time” from your vocabulary. After the third “One more time,” kids stop believing it, and start to think it’s their fault you didn’t get the shot (when it may have been something completely unrelated i.e. boom in the frame, shot not in focus, etc.) and will begin to get discouraged. Instead, try “That was great! Let’s do it again!” Said with the upmost enthusiasm.

Having kids on set can make a big difference in terms of delivering comedic potential. There is something riotously funny about having actual young kids say mean things, or doing something somewhat inappropriate. Perhaps it’s the implicit knowledge that an adult is secretly pulling their strings behind the camera, or a warmness of their innocence that makes their social breach jarring and endearing. My hope is that if you find yourself being considered for, or working on, a job with kids, you’ll be able to communicate effectively, and one or two of these tips help you with your shoot.

Ryan E. Hoffman is a New York City native filmmaker. He has appeared on HBO, NBC, ESPN, and in various independent films as a recurring guest star and character actor. His first film, Venice Love Story, was distributed in Urban Outfitters around the country as part of their Potty Mouth Film Festival in a Box. He is the co-founder of Temple Horses, featured on the front page of Funny or Die. Ryan is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. www.templehorses.com


One Response to “5 Tips for Directing Kids Under 10”  

  1. 1 Amr Toukhy

    Thank you so much for those useful tips,
    I second most of them, it shows that it came from someone who was there (with kids) :)
    I can add one to the list ….
    Never try to film your own kids :)

    Peace,
    Amr