How To Successfully Direct Child Actors

Working with kids is one of the great challenges for beginning film and TV directors. After all, W.C. Fields said, “Never work with children or animals.” They’re both unpredictable and take real focus and skill. So I asked my friend Rafael Barreiro, a director and producer who’s worked internationally, and now teaches at the university level to give us some basic advice for novice directors. Here’s his thoughts:

While studying to be a film director, numerous times I heard the same advice: “Never work with kids or animals.” The first short film I was hired to direct had six children and a dog. I’m glad to say no one was harmed in the making of the film. It was an experience I truly enjoyed and since then I have directed several films with children as lead actors. Here are some of the techniques I use, which prove to be extremely helpful when working with children on a film set:

1. Control the Pace – Novelty wears off. Don’t give the child a tour of the set and introduce him or her to everyone the moment he or she arrives. Use the child actor’s excitement of being on the set to your advantage. Increase permissions or privileges during the project, such as looking through the viewfinder in the camera or clapping the slate, as you need this excitement rekindled and energy rebooted.

2. Find a Good Youth Wrangler – Don’t skimp here. Hire the best you can afford, not your kids’ babysitter or a friend of the production who likes kids. The Youth Wrangler is worth his or her weight in gold, and needs to know production. With one eye, the YW (Youth Wrangler) keeps in tune with the flow of the production and the AD, and with the other eye, he or she keeps the child not only entertained but also rested and ready for when it is time to bring him or her on the set. Sometimes the YW helps with memorizing lines, but mainly knows how to time whatever the child is doing off set so he or she can smoothly transition to being on the set ready to play the role.

3. Director Communication is Critical – During scenes, no one addresses the actors except the director – especially when it comes to child actors. Talk to the crew ahead of time so they know what’s expected. Prevent the well-meaning crew members that try to make the child welcome on the set and begin with smiles but soon move to congratulating with high fives, making funny jokes, and becoming Mr. Rogers. Besides being distracting, this drains the child’s energy. Save this party spirit for the end of the day.

4. Don’t Forget the Games – Regardless of the age of the talent, spend a few dollars in novelty toys. The child will probably bring his or her phone or game console, but before he or she bakes his or her brain and burns his or her eyeballs with electronics, have the Youth Wrangler pull out a yo-yo, or a Rubik’s cube. Have the YW get a board game started that can easily be interrupted. Set a prize for whoever wins, or can finish a certain brain teaser.

5. Remember the Snack Table – Be aware of craft services! A trip to the snack table often becomes the favorite film set pastime for a child. It’s fun, delicious, and a time bomb. Who wants to deny the “child star” of his or her wishes? You do! If you plan ahead, the YW will manage these visits to prevent full access to all sugar with no restrictions.

Children are masters of role-playing. They are a delight to watch become their characters and play their roles. Only when they know their boundaries they can focus on professional work. So one more piece of advice: Don’t work at getting them to like you by being excessively nice and funny. Be a professional and treat them like one, in return, they will admire you and give you their best performance.
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Rafael Barreiro is an assistant professor at Oral Roberts University and an international television producer. His experience directing children extends from teaching drama in public schools, to coaching child actors for feature films and directing short films. Contact Rafael at [email protected]

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