Doing sound with child actors

2022-03-27 — Updated: 2022-05-27

An entirely different workflow

As of writing this, I am half way through production on the second season of a children’s TV show. Bjørnis.

Every aspect of this production is carefully considered for us to get the best possible performance out of the child actors we work with. This has to be done because nearly every episode, we work with new actors, so we don’t have the luxury of doing extensive casting in pre-production, and sticking with the same two or three kids for every episode of the show. This means we have to have a very child-friendly workflow, that can deliver the footage we need to tell the stories, but without the consistency of known skilled child actors. (This is not to say none of the kids are good at acting, a lot of them are surprisingly great, but they are still kids.) These are some of the compromises we make:

As you can understand, working with children, especially children who are not trained actors, changes the required workflow of a shoot massively.

This is why they say never to work with kids, animals or the weather.

Wiring kids

I’ve found basically no difference in booming around child actors, other than the fact that they can move a bit erratically, so you really need to be paying attention. Giving them a lavalier, however, is a process sometimes, so most my advice will center around this.

First, let’s talk technicals. Elastic band pants seems to be getting more and more popular among kids. Instead of wearing pants that fit properly, they wear pants with an elastic band at the top. This elastic band keeps their pants up just fine, but they cannot support the weight of an A-10 transmitter with batteries in. Especially if they jump around and play in-between takes. Therefore, you will need some kid-sized URSA straps. They are the ones with pink labels. The great thing about these is that you also have a little spot to put excess cable from the LAV-wire. There will be a lot of excess cable, so this is very useful.

Maybe you want to keep in mind that the kids are more likely to require a costume change between indoor and outdoor scenes. In a lot of episodes of this show, Bjørnis, a fire breaks out, and they run outside and call the fire department. That means that they’re not really supposed to put on additional clothes when they go outside, because they run out in a hurry to escape a fire. However, because we’re shooting outside in Norway, the kids usually need to put on a jacket and beanie. This can either be an annoyance or an opportunity, depending on how you prepare. That is because beanies are the greatest thing since Jesus himself. Mounting a LAV under a beanie, on a kid’s forehead works amazingly well. I cannot understate how great this is. It is not unusual for this to sound better than the boom, in my opinion. And that is rare for me to say, because I pretty much always say Boom is King.

The reason for this is that chest placement of LAVs on kids is often not ideal. There are many reasons for this. Children don’t have the convenient dip in the middle of their chest that adults have, so the consealer will show pretty obviously through the shirt, and you risk getting a lot of clothing noise. I’ve found that kids have a tendency to lean on their chest and stomach when standing in front of something. They also bring their hands up to their face a lot, both of which will cover the mic, if it is on their chest. However, if you have no choice, they have short hair, and are not wearing a beanie, then get creative. If they have a front pocket on their shirt, then running the LAV through a tiny hole in the back of the pocket works really great. While I haven’t tried this myself (yet), I’ve worked with mixers that default to cutting a small hole in the back of the t-shirt collar, and feeding the mic around to the front of it. That might work well, too.

How to win friends

The kids will not let you mic them up unless they are comfortable around you. You could hand off the mic to the childcare expert, and I’ve had to do this in some cases, but it’s always best for someone from the sound department to do it. Although maybe you’ll get lucky like we have, and get a childcare expert that is pretty good at wiring up kids.

There are three people on set that all need to become good friends with the kids as quick as possible. The childcare expert, the director, and the one doing the wiring, whether that’s the boom op. or mixer. In that order of importance.

Here are a few tips for making friends with kids on set.

Every deadcat I work with has a name. It’s bad luck to use a nameless deadcat. The first one I worked with is named Rufus and belongs to my best friend, and long-time collaborator Sindre Aalberg. And my Nanoshield deadcat is named Rasmus. Sindre named it, I named his. They’re brothers, in a sense. This lore is always fun to tell the kids. I give it a hug and then I let them meet and hug the deadcat, that’s always a hit. Usually they’ll have a plushie of their own that they’ll want to show, or talk about. Do that. I’ll say that I have another one at home that still needs a name, and we’ll try to come up with funny names together.

This also applies to the URSA strap. Not the names and all that, but let them feel how soft it is while it’s still rolled up. Maybe even let them unroll it themselves. Helps make them more comfortable with putting it on. I usually say that it will be giving them a permanent belly-hug for the day.

Peekaboo is a classic for a reason. It’s not uncommon, if you’re working with siblings, for one of them to decide that it’s awkward to meet new people, especially young adults, like me. This means they might just be silent or only nod or shake their head if you try talking with them. You can break through that barrier over time, but we don’t have much time. We have transmitters to rig. So, I’ve found that if the sibling is more open, then you should play a bit with them. Do it in a way that is showing you’re both having fun, and make sure that the other sibling can see it. It’ll work to demonstrate that you’re a cool person, and that they can play too. Maybe they’ll even get a bit jealous and jump in pretty quickly because they want to play too! That’s wonderful, if you can all play together like that for a bit.

Now, it might feel weird or disingenuous to do this, just to make giving them a mic easier. However, I think greatest consequence of this, way above mic’ing being easier, is that they can relax and have more fun on set. You’ll really be helping them see that being an actor can be really fun and rewarding. That telling stories, playing characters and making movies is a lot more fun than just learning lines, reading scripts, walking where the director says to, and all the other things adults tend to focus on. Which leads me to the next point.

Adults suck

The most annoying thing that adults do, almost universally, and I always have to go around telling them to stop doing is: Scaring the kids. They find it funny or something. I hear this almost every time I go to wire up the kids, and it pisses me off.

“Now he’s going to hear everything you say and do, so you have to be careful!! Haha, noo just kidding, haha.”

That sentence. That damn sentence. Every time. And they always laugh, and think it’s funny. But the kid never does. Sometimes, I’m lucky, and the kid doesn’t really hear it. Other times, I’ve had kids get scared to put the mic on, or flat out refuse, and it has become a 40-50 minute process getting them to be OK with getting wired by the childcare expert, if I promise to never listen to their mic. Firstly, I don’t want to lie. Especially not to kids. I don’t like doing it. Secondly, even if I do promise that, we might have a problem if I ever need to adjust the mic. This is because the kid will go “But you promised not to listen!!”. At worst, the kid will then refuse to wear it again, because I obviously still listened, and we’re back to square one. Or, at best, it will bring down the all-important mood, and remind them of the feeling that they’re being snooped on, and make them harder to work with.

However, telling people what not to do isn’t very helpful without replacing that behavior. I could get parents to stop saying that line, telling them beforehand to not do it. But then they would just get quiet and stare awkwardly. That is definitely much better, but still can induce some unwanted discomfort. Therefore, my solution is to say that they’ll be a secret agent, and that they’ll get their own secret hidden microphone, and that they can send me secret messages. Usually combined with me pretending like I’m whispering into my own LAV and saying some stupid secret message like “Psst, do we have any waffles? I really want waffles!”. Turn it into a game. Make up some silly move that signifies that you heard their secret message. This makes it so much better if you ever have to adjust or check on the mic, because instead of being reminded of something uncomfortable, they’re glad you’re making sure the spy equipment is working.

Have fun!

This may seem like a lot to consider. Heck, I think it’s 2000 words. If only I had this much to say about essay topics in school. Anyway. Don’t let this discourage you from working with kids in film and TV. It’s a very rewarding experience, and now that you can come into it more prepared than I was, it’ll be a lot easier and hopefully very fun. Because that’s really what works best with kids. Having fun. If it is clear to them that you’re having fun on set, then they’ll be much more likely to have fun on set.