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6th November 2017
Working with Children: Ten Top Tips from Jon Ayres

We have been working with children in film for over 10 years and, counter to the wider opinion, there is nothing more interesting, fulfilling and fun. From children heading back to school (Next and John Lewis) and the celebration of mums (P&G), to encouraging adults to “Start Today” (Barclaycard) and discussing the benefits of vaccination (Pfizer), children bring innocence, humour and nothing but authenticity to a production. We talk about the Beautiful Truth and that is exactly what you’ll get from a five-year-old!

 There are many elements to consider when working with children. Their safety and protection from commercial exploitation is, of course, at the very top of the list. The UK has a strict licensing process for working with children in film which will help ensure all the boxes are checked ahead of the shoot. The license application process can take up to four weeks so it’s good to think about this early in the production process. The location of the shoot needs to be confirmed before the application is made so the license process dictates much of the production schedule. This, along with a robust Child Protection Policy, ensures you can focus on capturing the best from these young stars.


Here’s our top ten tips for working with children in film.


1: Finding Great Kids

There are plenty of good child-focused casting agencies out there. The majority are good to work with and can help with the licensing process, but don’t be afraid to search through the social networks. Websites such as MumsNet are a great place to offer kids an opportunity to be part of a production. You may also find the less stage school, and more authentic, types via your own research, which can give better results.


2: Casting

During the casting process always try and meet shortlisted children. If time is tight then a short video sent in from a parent is a good alternative but remember, how the child acts with mum or dad is very different to how they will act with an unfamiliar camera crew. Never make a decision on a child based on just a photo (a good rule of thumb for casting generally). Also remember that a child’s performance on the casting day may be very different to their performance on the day of the shoot. More on this later.


3: Parents Know Best

As part of the license process, there are clear rules about how long children of certain ages can be on set and in front of a camera. These rules can be found here. When choosing a time of day to shoot, it is always good to discuss the best time for the child with their parents. Are they best in the morning or afternoon? After breakfast or before lunch? There is a lot of unpredictability when filming with children but the more information that you have, the better the chance for good performances. The parent can often help with this.


4: Keep it Fun

Children are very good at picking up on the atmosphere on set. From the moment a child arrives to the moment they leave, it is important to make the experience comfortable and fun. They will bring the atmosphere onto the camera so if the atmosphere is tense they will shut down, if is relaxed, they will enjoy themselves.


5: Meeting the Team

When a child arrives on set, there are a lot of strange things happening and a lot of strange people. Introduce the team to the child so they understand that they are in a safe place. Perhaps allow them to walk around the studio or show them the camera set up, showing how it works (safely). All these things will take away the strangeness of the situation and will allow the child to enjoy the day.


6: The Sugar-free, Non-electronic Green Room

As with all shoots, there will be a lot of waiting around. The green room experience will often dictate a child’s on-screen performance. The easiest thing to do is to give a bored child an i-Pad or a sugar snack, but avoid this if you can. We all know that the over-excitement of a sugar high can quickly creep over to mania, or a sudden crash to silence. The last thing a child wants is to be dragged away from their favourite computer game: they will arrive on camera, in a electronic disengaged zone, and will probably be distracted and keen to get back. Healthy snacks and lots of fun toys for the younger ones (building blocks etc) will give you the best chance of a good mindset for the performance.


7: Keep Numbers to a Minimum

It is good to keep the number of people in the filming space to a minimum. This allows the set to be quiet, calm and relaxed. If there are lots of people that need to watch the performances then set up a client space in a different part of the location, far enough away to be out of sight and sound proof. This will allow the observers to discuss, and laugh, without disturbing the children. An in-ear feed to the director is a good idea if comms are needed throughout, but, on the whole, leaving the director to do their thing and catching up between takes tends to be the best strategy.


8: Patience

As per tip two, the child may, and probably will, perform totally differently once in front of the camera compared to how they did in their casting. This is fine, don’t panic. The quieter child might suddenly come out of their shell. Have patience and keep calm. It may take 10 minutes before the child feels able to engage and find the task interesting. The best child directors are not those that guarantee a performance from every child, but those who are sensitive and experienced in reading how the child is feeling and then responding in the right way. If the child is not engaging after 10 minutes or is over excited, it may be time to give them a rest off-camera for 30 minutes or so. Perhaps invite them back with a sibling or a friend – this may make them feel more confident. If they are having an off day there is very little you can do but don’t worry, you will only ever get a good performance from 50 per cent, or if you’re lucky 75 per cent,  of the children on the day of shooting. This is something to consider when working out casting numbers.


9: Questions

In any interview you should avoid closed questions where the child only has to give a yes or no answer. With a shy child this is particularly difficult to avoid and as the child warms up there will probably be a LOT of one word answers. A good idea is to ask questions about their parents, friends or siblings in the context of the question. They may not tell you what they did that day, but they’re likely to reel off all the things their brother or sister did. Encourage them to tell you a story. This is especially relevant with younger children who are more likely to understand and feel comfortable with this approach. The main thing is have fun! The more you relax, the more they will.


10: Look after the Parents

Putting your child in front of camera is a traumatic experience. A child’s behaviour and performance can feel like a direct reflection on your parenting skills and a tense parent can greatly influence a child’s mindset. Generally, it is better for a parent to not be in the room with a child while they are on camera and instead ensuring that you have a professional chaperone present at all times. This usually allows the child to be themselves and the parent can watch in the monitoring room and be as tense as they like. Always give the parent encouragement, even if the child clearly doesn’t perform well.

View our latest film The Waiting Room for Barclaycard’s Start Today campaign below:

To see more of the work Connected Pictures has done with some great children, watch the following link