- September 30, 2015 -

The Helpline Spots, or How to Work with Children and Enjoy the Hell out of It

The corruption of the famous W.C. Fields line is pretty much ingrained in anyone who works in film production:

"Don’t work with children or animals."

But the thing is about sayings like these, over time they just sort of become unwritten law by default. It’s only when challenged that they’re often exposed as half-truths or downright false. At least that’s been my experience over the past few years shooting TV spots for the Nebraska Family Helpline.

The concept was and is simple, and its genesis came from a strange thought I had one day. I mused that every horrible person in history – Caligula, Stalin, Pol Pot – must’ve started out life as at least a moderately adorable baby. That shocking dichotomy led to the current Helpline campaign called “Future Babies.”

The concept required filming babies (and later, toddlers) in a studio setting, trying to get them at their absolute cutest. This would then contrast with voice over copy that would detail each kid’s “future history,” which would be somewhat bleak. The upshot of the whole thing being, “Raising kids is hard. It’s ok to ask for advice.” Simple, right?

So how do you go about finding, wrangling, pacifying, amusing and eventually filming babies while actually getting them to do what you want them to do?

Well, you turn to your trusty production partners, in this case, the ever-reliable, ever-flexible Great Plains Motion Picture Company. You see, it’s my job to think this stuff up. It’s their job to actually make it happen. Personally, I think my job is easier.

Make it happen, they did.

First they hired a freelance producer who specializes in finding and corralling kids. He’s ex-military. Great experience for efficient rugrat patrol. Headshots started showing up in my inbox within the week. We picked some babies. Some of our own Envoy babies even made it into the mix too.

So we had our kids sorted. Now what?

The next question became how exactly to shoot them. After all, babies don’t exactly take direction. Thankfully, Great Plains had this sorted too with an ingenious device they call an Eyeliner. Basically it’s a periscope-esque mechanism that uses mirrors to let a person being interviewed look directly at the interviewer while still looking directly into the camera. Documentarian Errol Morris is famous for employing this technique, though I believe he calls his “the Interrotron.” (Hardly a soothing name for babies and their mommies.)

Anyway, instead of letting an interview subject see his or her interviewer “in the camera,” for our purposes, the Eyeliner would let our babies see their mommies while looking directly into the camera. That way they’d smile and coo and generally be adorable while we got lots of lovely close-ups of their faces. And it worked! Well, mostly. It actually turns out that very young babies aren’t able to make that connection if mommy isn’t actually in the room with them. But we got some amazing shots. (For this year’s shoot, for which used toddlers, it worked even better.)

The other technical ingredient was overcranking the camera. By shooting at a higher framerate (60 FPS, as I recall, though I could be wrong), you achieve this lovely, subtle slow motion effect when the video is played back at normal speed. This gave our already beautiful babies an ethereal quality that added to the wistful nature of the spots.

On shoot day, the babies and their mommies began showing up with military precision. While one was being filmed, another was going through wardrobe, and so on, and so on. It was evident early on in the day that what could have been a disaster in another production company’s hands was turning out to be, well, a pretty straightforward day at the office. We even wrapped on time.

To be honest, I was never worried about the kids. After all, when you film a baby for half an hour and you only need about nine seconds of cute… you’re gonna get your cute. But the fact that getting those nine seconds was all I had to worry about was down to the planning and professionalism of everyone involved.

A side note: For me, the cherry on top was the audio track, which was produced by the wizards at The Mixing Room. The VO was performed by an accomplished Los Angeles-based actress, who absolutely nailed her part from virtually the first take. The slightly haunting yet uplifting soundtrack was created by another LA denizen, the incomparably talented (and fast!) Steve Horner. Beautiful babies or no, without the right audio, the spots would have fallen flat.

Often in this business, you never really know for sure if a spot is really going to work until you’re in the edit suite. In this case, I pretty much knew that we were going to be ok from the very first time the cameras rolled.

So what’s the moral? Don’t work with children or animals… unless you surround yourself with people who make it look easy.

Anyway, check out the spots.