Making Some Great Summer Television

Television is a tempting distraction during the lazy hazy crazy days of summer… especially when the kids are lounging about with nothing to do. Rather than succumbing to a smorgasbord of reruns intermixed with situation comedies deemed unworthy of the fall schedule, take control and become your own program creator.

I haven’t met a child yet that doesn’t do a song and dance act when a camera is pointed at them. With the lure of stardom, encourage them to join with some friends and create their own video production. Here are some subject ideas you can suggest:

The neighborhood news: Uncover a scandal on your street… or at least pretend to. Participants can take turns being the reporter, cameraperson, lighting assistant, and interviewee. With just a little extra equipment, you can set up a news desk where the anchor team can sit. And don’t forget to cover the neighborhood sports beat.

A Documentary: This idea may be met with yawns, but there isn’t a child that doesn’t have some particular interest. If you have bugs in your backyard, you may find a budding nature nut in your family. Or if someone can’t unplug from videogames, suggest they do a film about their favorite obsession.

A Mockumentary: For the cynical types that think making a documentary is too boring, suggest a “mockumentary,” where you make fun of a subject in a serious tone. The most famous example of this style likely belongs to the BBC in England, which ran a three-minute segment in 1957 about the Swiss harvesting a bumper crop of… spaghetti! The April Fools joke had many viewers calling the network to learn where they could purchase a spaghetti tree.

Commercial Aspirations: If you’ve got a child that gives you the “hard sell,” put him to work in front of a camera. This project could be completed in only one day; a few minutes on the script and some more time spent gathering the props, and setting up the scene. Remember in your commercial, all products don’t have to work perfectly. In fact, like a mockumentary, you may want to prove that very point.

The Big Feature: If drama is running in your children’s veins, then they may want to try their hand at a movie. Even if the finished product isn’t two hours long, the process has the potential to keep kids busy for weeks. My four worked with some friends to shoot their version of Star Wars – complete with yardstick light sabers and a hockey helmet for Darth Vader’s mask.

By now you’re likely wondering how much this activity is going to cost. Depending on what you already have around the house, it might be free!

The major piece of equipment you require is a video camera. It doesn’t have to be fancy. If you don’t already own one, ask if you can borrow from a friend, rent one for a week, or check for good deals in your local bargain advertising paper. Many people are selling older technology that is still perfectly capable of giving your kids a fun time. (In fact, if the camera is a used model, you won’t have as many worries about its safety.)

You may also want to consider a tripod to hold the camera steady. Not only may it save a camera from being handled roughly, you will find it much easier to watch the finished product if the picture (and your stomach) aren’t rocking about.

Next comes the sound. Most cameras have a built in microphone. Some of these work very well, while others are painfully inadequate. Test yours by having someone talk a few feet away from the front of the camera.

A separate microphone may be a better solution. This option only works if your camera has a microphone jack, as most new ones do. A simple handheld microphone works best for most purposes. However, if you’re determined to make a “movie,” you may want to consider the pin-on lapel style, or a sensitive mike someone can hold and aim at your actors. Some inexpensive models can be found at stores like Radio Shack.

For lighting, it’s best to work outdoors. And if you want to look really professional, use a “bounce board.” A staple in Hollywood, this is simply a sheet of reflective material (like a white-coated piece of cardboard) you can use to bounce sunlight onto your subjects so they are lit more evenly. The lighting assistant holds this out of the camera’s sight, and can follow the actors around as they move.

If you must have “real” lights, check out some quartz halogen work lights from the nearest discount or hardware store. However, due to the heat they emit, make sure they are away from young children and heat sensitive materials.

Costumes, props, and other paraphernalia can be whatever your imagination decides. This creative outlet can be a lot of fun for those who aren’t technically oriented. The preparations for our Star Wars epic took just as long as the actual filming, and offered a great educational experience into the many unseen aspects of moviemaking.

One last consideration is editing your finished project. Some of the ideas, like making a commercial, can be done by simply stopping and starting the camera. Others, especially a drama, may require some “bad takes” to be edited out – but don’t erase them because these outtakes often prove to be the most entertaining part.

The most basic form of editing involves hooking your camera up to a VCR. The best way to do this is to use the separate video and audio jacks found on nearly every videocassette machine. This page gives you the details, along with some links to other basic editing resources.

If you own a digital video (DV) camera, the ultimate editing experience involves a computer. A few years ago, this luxury was only for professionals, but today an $800 computer with something called an IEEE-1394, “i-Link” or “Firewire” port can do some amazing things. If you have an analogue camera, like a VHS or Hi-8, it’s still possible to edit on your computer, but the equipment is more expensive. For complete info on this concept, check this page.

Finally (and probably the most important) is your premiere party. Hand out invitations and get ready to roll the film. Just one warning: I find my kids are willing to watch themselves for hours on end, so you may still have to sit through those summer reruns.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…