Is it me... or does directing kids give you nerves of steel?

Cartoon 15 Oct 2012 Kid Switch.jpg

We all know casting children isn’t easy. And even if you manage a successful role call they then have to perform on the day, on cue and on time. So why do we bother casting children at all? Well, because according to a Nielson study of 6,000 ads, those featuring children are 9% more likely to be remembered. Plus, no one does adorable like a six-year-old.

But in my experience there are some golden rules that no director should leave home without.

Number one, never let the little divas out of your sight – especially if they’re heading for anything containing an e-number. It’s a real rookie error leaving any chocolate, sweets or fizzy drinks out. I learnt this lesson early with a brand of nutritious chocolate cereal and a child who couldn’t stop eating the product – on or off camera. No-one noticed her newfound addiction until we called her back for another take and she suddenly turned green and did a great Linda Blare impression. Not nice.

And this isn’t my only horror story. On a recent shoot it was stills time and the photographer was snapping away. He was amiable enough – but I sensed something was awry. Looking across our set I spied our little hero. Arms crossed and eyes squinting, he was giving someone the best Clint Eastwood impression I’d ever seen. I traced his eye-line and saw the photographer, giggling with a creative, blissfully unaware of the hell waiting on the other side of the room.

Eager to appease, I took the kid on set myself. But as soon as I left, the boy was in pieces. Now he wouldn’t perform unless his new best friend – me – was on set too! In the end we had to do the whole thing with me lying just out of shot, prostrate, like some giant, living comfort blanket that the child could kick, with great hilarity, whenever he liked. That wasn’t in the contract.

You see, kids are easily spooked. So you need to get down to their level when you speak to them. You also need to keep the number of people on set to a minimum when they’re around. One director, famed for working with kids, went one step further: he used to cover the crew and kit with a blackout poly. I tried a similar stunt on a recent Samsung set. However, as I was working abroad with a crew of roughly a million, the idea was somewhat lost in translation.

Forget Bugsy Malone, children aren’t actors. And no matter how many castings and call-backs you do, your child superstar might wake up on the morning of the shoot and decide they’re going to be an absolute pain for the day. Of course there are stage school kids who’ve been drilled to within an inch of their lives but they’re not always available or affordable. Plus, sometimes it’s the reverse and you need to ‘detrain’ them to get any chance of a natural performance.

When things are going awry on set, sometimes all it takes is a word in mamma’s ear to get back on track. Something as simple as finding out the kid’s sleeping patterns and building the day around their rhythm. Of course casting the mum is a classic failsafe.

Over the years there have been some fantastic adverts featuring children. Like this festive gem from Cadbury or this recent charming ad from Safestore. Entitled ‘I will return’, it features a wonderfully cast little boy giving an inspiring speech to his teddy bear. Brilliant. However, sometimes I think our deployment of children in adverts can come across as contrived, lacking the innocent openness than can make the genre so special – like this classic Clarks ad.

But then again, what do I know? My latest offering isn’t exactly a fly on the wall special, but I was delighted to secure a charming performance from a child who had to do some fairly precise actions on cue, on time and on budget. Check it out below.

Oh and one more piece of advice: no matter how precocious they are, be kind to your child stars – you never know who they might end up becoming….