Tips for working with children on set.
By Elizabeth Chatelain
This is the second article in a 2-part series about working with child actors. If you haven’t read the first part yet, read it here.
So now you have decided which kids you are going to be working with. The next step is rehearsals and production. In the first rehearsals, I am really just trying to make the child comfortable around me, to trust me. I usually invite the parents at least to this first rehearsal. We talk about what the child likes in school, their family, etc. And I share that about myself with them. I also ask them how they would describe their character, so we are on the same page. In Paper Geese, I introduced Payson, who played the lead character Rowan, to the geese we would be using in the film. They were in my mom’s backyard. Payson immediately responded to them and became more confident in her interactions with me.
Depending on the child actor’s age, I will also play some acting games with them to start. As in the audition, I encourage them to use their imagination to act out a number of different scenarios. If they are old enough (about 8–9 and older) we will also go through the lines on the second rehearsal. We’ll talk about what the character in the story is feeling from scene to scene.
Emotionally mature kids will be able to read the subtext of what is going on in a scene between characters with a little guidance. When I worked on Jenny and Steph in rehearsals, all three of the girls in the main roles grasped this almost immediately. Jenny was twelve, Steph was fourteen and Rose was fifteen. I had them act out the scene using subtext for their lines instead of what was written. And I was shocked that they did it with such ease. They had a profound understanding of what the characters wanted from one another. I find that having at least three or so rehearsals with actors, especially children, is fundamental, unless working with a small child. Again, the goal is to get them comfortable with you, because once all the people and lights are up, it has the potential of being intimidating. That’s another reason why I usually limit the crew to a small number. That way it is more comfortable for the kids.
Working with Children 7 and Younger
When working with my niece, Serenity, who was about four years old at the time, her mother was always in the scene with her (this was a mother/daughter story). She also knew me quite well already. This created a safe space for her. We didn’t do any rehearsals with Serenity before shooting Sundogs, because in her case, it was better that she didn’t think too much about what is going on from one scene to the next. It was best to keep her present and fresh. As a four-year-old, you hit your limit of takes pretty quickly, and in general, the first couple takes are usually the best. I would say this is also true when working with non-professional actors; in later takes they grow more self-conscious, which leads to a feeling of inauthenticity.
The other thing to take into consideration when working with children in films is the time restraints that you have, especially if the production is SAG. You also have to research the child labor laws, which differ from state to state. This is another deterrent that makes filmmakers wary of working with children. Kids can only work a certain number of hours, dependent on age, and if you are shooting during the school year, you must provide them with a tutor. Short films can work with this a little bit more easily — shooting on vacations or during the summer, allotting 5–6 days instead of 3. I found this has also been easier on the crew, even if you have to pay a little more for lodging and meals. Everyone feels more rested and less stressed. Children can easily detect a negative vibe, so you want everyone to be in a good mood if possible.
The last thing I’ll mention is the filmmaker’s communication with the kids on set. You never want them to feel like they are doing another take because they “screwed up” or this will lead to more anxiety and less authentic performances. Make sure to say something positive after every take and give them direction that is just a little “different” rather than “right.” Encourage them as much as you can. Acting is already full of rejection so you want them to know they are doing a great job, which they most likely are. They want to do well as much as you want them to do well. So make sure to communicate with them after every take. The big takeaway here is that in order to have the best performances from kids, make the set a comfortable and safe place in which they feel nurtured and appreciated. They are just as important as anyone on set.
Elizabeth Chatelain is an award-winning writer and director from North Dakota. Her feature screenplay SUNDOGS participated in the Berlinale Script Station, the Hedgebrook Screenwriter’s Lab, and was an Academy Nicholl Fellowship Semi-Finalist, Atlanta Film Festival Screenplay Competition Winner, and Showtime Tony Cox Screenplay Competition Winner. Follow Elizabeth on Instagram @emchatelain and at her website, elizabethchatelain.com.
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