Directing Children & Non-Actors

– Posted in: Directing Performance

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Does the Thought of Directing Children & Non-Actors Keep You Awake at Night?

It doesn’t need to.

In this post I’m going to show you what to look for in an untrained actor, as well as how you can use three proven techniques while directing children & non-actors in truly believable performances.

You will see a big difference in your performances if you adopt even one of these techniques. They work – I promise!

Even if you don’t need these techniques right now. Someday you will. So, bookmark this page and share it with your friends. The info is gold and not because I wrote it, but because others before me have passed it down.

I was inspired to write this post in response to a question from Bogna, a Digital Film Farm email subscriber.

Here’s Bogna’s question .

” In my upcoming movie, I need to use a child actress for a short role. My own daughter can play it, she is 5 yrs old, I plan to invite the adult actors she will be playing with over, so she can get used to them. But I don’t really know how to prepare her to play a very sick, tired child so it won’t look too theatrical.”

So, the bottom line issue here is, “I don’t really know how to prepare her to play a very sick, tired child so it won’t look too theatrical.”

The “too theatrical” is the scary part.

These performances tend to be “too big”, “over-the-top” and indicating attitude instead of anchored in truth. The words and gestures may resemble truth but the inflection and specifics aren’t authentic. The audience picks up on this inauthenticity and they stop believing.

The audience comes to a movie with a “Willing Suspension of Disbelief.” If there are too many inauthentic moments the viewer becomes increasingly less willing to suspend disbelief. Ultimately they just can’t stay with your story.

The directors job is to make sure everything is believable.

Inauthentic performances can be fixed in one of at least three ways.

  1. Cast for Authenticity
  2. Focus on Creating Real Situations
  3. Let Good Coverage Save the Day

The common denominator is they take “acting” out of the equation. By acting I mean, “to portray a character in a situation very different from themselves and in a world very different from the world they live in.”

This is what professionally trained actors are trained to do. They have tools that help them discover and embrace character traits while truthfully portray them in imaginary situations very different from who they are. That’s what they do. Some do it exceptionally well and have a wide “acting range.” Others, not so much.

So when you’re directing children & non-actors you will need to provide some of these tools and you must understand most untrained actors have no range.

This brings me to the first technique.

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#1 Cast for Authenticity 

This is a kind of a “no-brainer” but it’s worth noting.

Look for a person who already embodies the character traits you’re looking for. The right person doesn’t need to have an “acting-range”, they already own the character traits. They only need to be themselves. These people might not even consider themselves an actors and might need some coaxing but if you take it slow you might find some magic.

Finding these people takes looking past acting resumes and instead looking at characteristics and backgrounds. Look beyond casting sessions and go where these “characters” live and hangout.  Consider posting casting notice for non-actors and describe the types you’re looking for.

Or, consider hand picking them from small crowds.

Really, I’ve done this. Some directors actually specialize in finding new talent this way. As they say, “good filmmaking is 90% casting.”

The right person can lead to an amazingly authentic performance.

Once you find this individual it’s time to employ a combination of the other two techniques.

#2 Focus on Creating Real Situationspsa 2 shot2

Let’s go back to Bogna’s question about working with her daughter play a role where she’s sick. This is not a stretch and within her range – right?  The issue is her daughter might think she needs to “act.” She doesn’t.

The good thing about kids is they have active imaginations and they’re usually coachable.

Now let’s assume her daughter is coachable and not a lead character. In this case you don’t need a believable performance. Think about that for a minute. It sounds absurd, but it’s true. What you need are “believable moments.” With the right coverage you can create in the edit room.

The Biggest Mistake you can make, is to ask a non-actor to ACT! 

Especially children, their ability to role play comes naturally. Many a child has given Oscar worthy “sick performance” when it was time to go to school – right?  But, ask them to ”ACT” sick for the camera and they become theatrical. They indicate overt stereotypical,overly dramatic expressions of being sick that kills the scene’s authenticity.

Here’s the trick.

When working with a non-actor, don’t make a big deal about it. The key is to keep it simple, fun and informal.

Make it a game.

Here’s a game you might play with a child who needs to play sick.

  • Ask her to sit and imagine she doesn’t feel well. Ask her to just imagine and not to change her posture for effect. 
  • Ask her to describe her symptoms.
  • Ask her about her stomach, her head, her arms etc.
  • Ask her about her breathing. Is it deep or shallow? Fast or slow?  
  • Ask her what kind of a sickness she has. Or better yet, you guess what she has and she can tell you if you’re right.

Don’t give her any feedback on what she’s doing with her body or voice. All feedback at this stage will likely take her out of her imagination.

Leigh gaged2You don’t want her thinking. You want her feeling.” 

As she’s playing the game notice how her body looks. Has she taken on any of the symptoms without even realizing it. She probably has. 

Once she’s done this, take a turn yourself. Go through the same steps, try not to indicate a symptom but instead describe them. Notice your body. You will likely begin to feel something and when that happens surrender to the feeling. Don’t think – just feel. 

Let your daughter (child actor) guess what sickness you have. 

Do this until the game becomes familiar and comfortable for the child. Then, maybe switch it up and try the exercise with an emotion instead of a sickness. Pick mad, sad, excited, happy or scared. Pick something appropriate for a particular scene and repeat the game.

Using these techniques will keep it fun and it will help you guide her once onset.  If you’re working with an adult, you might make it less of a game and more of a exploration.

Don’t call it emotional prep. It’s just exploration. For some “emotional prep” will weird them out and become counter productive.

Just explore!

Together you can discuss the unfolding situation and explore how the character they are playing might feel. Ask them about their character’s situation and the consequence of their actions or failure to act. Once they get in touch with the consequence and connect with the emotion of the situation, have them describe how they feel. Ask them to use their own words. Remember and even write down what they say.  You can use their words to help re-anchor them when it’s time for them to go on-camera.

Once you’ve done this a few times you might want to record it on your phone camera. Take this slow. Keep in mind, bringing in a camera to early may turn this into a performance instead of a game. If the child or non-actor slips into trying to act for the camera they will have a difficult time going back to feeling and imagining.

For a non-actor “performing’ can be like falling into a rut. Once you’re in it, it’s hard to get out. Better to never create the rut.  

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Ok, Lets go back to Bogna’s daughter. It’s shoot day and time to go on camera for real. The extra excitement usually brings up a little fear. This is good. Children like all of us will retreat to what’s safe when scared.

Use it. Channel the extra energy into something physical.

You might want to have a sofa or a comfortable chair and a blanket near by. Let her cuddle up with the blanket, observe and get acclimated to the environment from a safe place. The blanket will bring her comfort when she’s fearful. This also creates the proper environment.

Quietly, begin the game. 

Once she’s snuggled in her blanket whisper in her ear, “how do you feel honey?” Say this while you feel her head.

Keep checking in with her over the next ten minutes.

With a little luck she’ll slip right into the game and the rest of the crew will say “poor little thing, she really doesn’t feel well.” That’s when you know you’ve nailed it. You’ve faked out the crew and that means you’ll convince the audience. 

Great job!

You’re on your way to creating a believable scene.

  • You’ve cast a non-actor who isn’t going to be asked to “act” outside their “range”
  • You’ve worked with them to explore the scene’s situation, real consequences and connected emotions.
  • You’ve taken your time to make this fun and unthreatening.

If you rush a non-actor and expect them to “get it” like a trained actor, you’re asking for trouble.

Now it’s time to let the camera and the edit do the work. Shooting the right coverage is essential when directing children & non-actors.

A good actor can carry a scene in a single shot if needed, but a non-actor almost always needs the edit room magic to sustain a truthful performance. And truth is all that matters. If the audience doesn’t believe that what they’re watching is authentic the entire scene is sunk. If numerous scenes lack truth, your audience will loose their ability to suspend disbelief and your movie will bomb.

So lets look at the third technique.

#3 Let Good Coverage Save the DayRocky chair 1

Don’t make your non-actor carry the heavy load. Off load some of the work to your production team and other cast members. Use movie magic!

Here are some possibilities:

  • Let the art department create the atmosphere. A bunch of used tissue, a blanket, a thermometer in the mouth and the right make-up can make an expressionless face look sick.
  • Use empathetic reaction shots from the stronger cast members.
  • Error on the side of too little rather performance rather then on too much. It’s an amazing what an expressionless face can become when edited into the right sequence of shots.
  • Shoot the majority of the scene from another’s point of view
  • Shoot over her shoulder. This keeps her in the shot, but relies on the other actor and juxtaposition and editing to sell the moment.
  • Shoot a wide shot and let the environment speak. 
  • Shoot an extreme close shot (eyes only).
  • Shoot close up shots of things that are part of her (sick) world.
  • Shoot her reaction shots as expressionless. Have her actively looking at something or thinking about something. No acting! 
  • Minimize lines and consider getting them off camera as a voice over. She may be more comfortable doing her lines with the camera off ? This also affords you the opportunity to manipulate the way she sounds. She could slightly plug her nose with some tissues and use other tricks to make her sound weak and tired. 

“Free 60 Minute Directing Actors Mini Course” 

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Movie magic is about knowing how to create the illusion of truth by putting separate pieces together and making them look like one event. This is a craft with proven techniques developed by the masters before us. This means we have a lot of pre-existing tools at out disposal. Starting from scratch and ignoring proven methods that have developed over many years wastes both time and energy. Don’t do it. Learn, practice and build upon these methods.

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Happy Filmmaking!