How to Exploit Children
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It seems like everyone I know in Denver has a kid now.
When I landed, Gemma picked me up at the airport and drove me back to their place for a barbecue with friends. The backyard was lousy with kids.
I had brought along my camera along to get some b-roll for another video we’re working on (more on that next month). Kids playing on a rope swing felt like exactly the sort of thing I should be getting, so I spent half an hour or so chasing them around the yard, collecting footage.
The rest of the weekend was a lot like that: me chasing my friends’ kids with a camera. Their exuberance was a little intoxicating — capturing exactly the kind of fun we try to provide in our live show. At first I was doing it for b-roll, but as I was running around I started to get the sense that maybe I could do something else with all of this.
For the camera nerds, I was shooting on a 5D MK III with a 50mm prime (1.4). 50mm is very cinematic, which is why I love it. Looking at the footage I was getting — raw, shaky handheld shots of kids running, falling in and out of focus — I joked that it looked like a Jason Bourne movie.
And there it was.
The idea in my head was more or less what you see in the video: the two girls being pursued by a government agent (played by a little boy) at the direction of some far-removed adults to give the story a little bit of gravity. Lots of shaky-cam, lots of running.
For this to work it would have to be the right song. Something high-energy, a little edgy. Over It felt just right. So I took some of the shots I got of the girls and set them to the music as test footage. It looked amazing. I wound up leaving some of it in as the opening and “released footage” CNN bits.
As luck would have it I knew we were going to be back in Denver to play a show in late August. Joe was speaking at an iOS developer conference (don’t forget we also make an app), and we had free places to crash, so it seemed as good an excuse as any to show up and play. I started making plans.
My friends Jay and Alex used to be my next-door neighbors. Their little girls, Madeline and Bobbi, are quite possibly the two cutest children ever created. Obnoxiously, impossibly cute. They were made for this. The video wouldn’t work without them.
“Can I borrow the girls when I’m back? I’m making a music video.”
“What’s it about?”
“The Bourne Identity, except with the girls instead of Matt Damon.”
That went better than I had expected.
I had a few rules in mind for the universe of this video. Everything in our story should be real-ish. Real, but not too real. The crime should be plausible, the adults should behave the way you’d expect them to in this kind of story, and the laws of physics should all stay in effect. Anything heightened should come from the kids’ interactions with each other, not from the world around them. An epic fight scene with little kids play-slapping is cute. An adult even pretending to hit a child is not. Little kids having a water pistol shootout is cute, and makes sense for how children might actually attempt to resolve this kind of problem.
What I didn’t want to do was straight parody. The fun works — I think — because we’re watching kids do adult things in kid ways. The projected tone should be serious, even if the behavior obviously isn't. When in doubt, what would South Park do?
We figured it would take two days to shoot. Madeline had just started school so we’d only have them from about 4PM until dinner time. Alex brought the girls downtown to the train station to meet up with me and Patrick, who was acting as producer and script supervisor. We’d picked up squirt guns for the kids, along with matching oversized hoodies — the closest we could get to typical movie-hacker attire. We got the girls into “wardrobe”, grabbed a few test shots for light, and then I tried to explain this whole thing to them.
Kids are smart, man. I told Madeline that we were making a movie, and she was going to be the star. I would tell her to do things, probably a few times, and she would need to listen so that the movie would be good. We’d be pretending to do a bunch of things, and there would be lots of running and playing. She seemed to understand, but for good measure:
“You’ll be the star of a music video, just like Taylor Swift.”
For Mads — who, when confronted with the fact that I live in New York City now, asked if I knew Taylor Swift — this was the exact right comparison to make. Bobbi was an even easier sell; she just did whatever her big sister did, only cuter.
From the first shot through the end of the day, everything went perfectly. We made it through most of our list, and the girls had a blast. Everything else would have to wait until we had our little government agent the next day.
Everything was all set up. We had a friend’s kid all lined up and ready, He was the same age as Madeline and the son of another close friend. An illness in the family kept him home on the first day, which would have been fine. But the second day happened to be his birthday, and trying to schedule everything in one day was too much for his mom, who called and broke the news two hours before our shoot.
“I used to do this job. I know what it’s like to lose an actor on the day of a shoot. I’m really sorry.”
I had a momentary flashback to the problems with making Elevators, but reminded myself that for all of the problems, that video turned out okay. Worst case, I would have built a different story out of the footage we had. What are my options?
Really we just need a little boy to run around and pretend to be a secret agent. But where would we find another little boy on such short notice? And then I remembered that everyone I know in Denver has a kid now. I texted my friend Julie.
“Odd request: any chance I can borrow your kid later today?”
“You’re right, that is odd. He’s out of school at 3.”
I hope it speaks to my character and not her parenting skills that she didn’t ask what I needed him for.
And sure enough, Julie showed up with Evan right after school. He seemed shy, so I gave him a quick bit of direction and a camera test.
“When I tell you to, I want you to touch your ear, and then I’ll tell you to nod.”
Kid nailed it in one take. We lucked out with all three of the kids, but Evan seemed to really enjoy taking direction. By the end of the day he was asking for more takes to get it just right. He’s five.
I was nervous going in, but I really can’t say enough good things about working with these kids. Maybe it’s because all of their scenes were action-only, no dialogue. I don’t know. What I do know is that we got everything in about six hours of filming, and every take was some kind of gold. I was so excited about what we’d shot that I finished most of the first cut on the plane home.
Madeline had one request:
“I want to meet Taylor Swift.”
I told her I’d try, but couldn’t make any promises.
Still, we had one thing left to shoot: the NSA office.
My friend Matt Bischoff has an iOS development company called Lickability that operates out of an office in Midtown. Timing worked out oddly well — shooting on a Saturday meant that the office would mostly be empty, and I wouldn’t be pulling anyone away from work. He agreed to let us use the space, and to join the cast as the NSA analyst.
For the NSA director I knew exactly who to call. Our friend Kaitlin Large is an actor whose credits include Mr Robot. She also hand-lettered our lyric video for Between the Stars and You. I’ve been dying to get her in front of the camera for one of these. The music video gods smiled favorably upon us again, and she happened to be free for a couple of hours.
Our friend Rose joined us again to take care of makeup, and the office’s natural light was perfect for the look I wanted. I dialed the white balance down a little to give the office a blue tint, but other than that no trickery was needed. We grabbed a few assorted interaction and reaction shots and we were ready to go.
Even the Backblaze ad, which I expected to be tricky because it’s the only dialogue in the entire video, was a cakewalk. I expected Kaitlin to be good at this — she’s a professional — but I was very pleasantly surprised with Matt’s performance. They both did such a great job of selling — but not over-selling — the joke.
If Elevators was a story of everything going wrong, Over It is a series of things going right. It seems we learned a few things from the last time. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this video, it’s that you should surround yourself with amazing friends.
And if they start having kids, find a way to monetize them.