However, child actors are an important part of many stories and can have the most memorable performances on screen. If you are producing a film that has to cast child actors, you will need to pay special attention to labor laws in your filming region. Even if you are making a non-union production, make sure to follow these rules — if you don’t, lawsuits might follow.
In this article, you will find detailed advice on labor laws, work permits, and how to work with children while on set. Let’s go into it!
Child Labor Laws for Film Production
Strict rules dictate how long a child actor can work, and these differ widely from state to state. You can find updated laws listed on the US Department of Labour website. These rules also change based on the child actor’s age.
Generally, children can be on set for longer periods of time, and the strictest limitation is around the number of hours they can be actually working. You get more work hours with children if you are filming on non-school days, and all children need at least 12 hours of turnover time from one workday to the next.
For example, in California, the age rules and max work hours are as follows:
- under 6 months old – 20 minutes
- 6 months to 2 years old – 2 hours
- 2 years to 6 years old – 3 hours
- 6 years to 9 years old – 4-6 hours
- 9 years and 16 years old – 5-7 hours
- 16 years and 17 years old – 6-10 hours
This can be complicated to create a schedule around, especially if you work with a group of child actors. But the rules are there with the child’s best interests in mind. It also helps you create a realistic schedule based on what a child actor can actually do because, unlike adults, children run out of energy and focus quickly.
If you are working with child actors, your first step should be to check out the entertainment labor laws in your filming region. Some states and countries have no child labor laws in place, but make sure you are still following general guidelines.
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Child Work Permits
As well as there being strict rules on work hours, all minors on set must have a permit to work. Your actor might already have one if they have been working regularly in the industry. If not, their parent/guardian will need to apply for one on their behalf. Additionally, depending on your region, you might also need to get an extra permit to work with children.
You can apply for a work permit if you look up your local department of labor. As mentioned, this differs per state. For example, a California permit costs $198, takes approx 45 days to receive, and is needed for all performers under 18 years. You can also apply for a temporary permit that lasts for 10 days. Since it takes a long time to receive a permit, it makes sense to start the casting process earlier when making a film with child actors.
Working with child actors can also not interfere with their education. In California, it is required that you hire a studio teacher whenever there is a child on set. The studio teacher is responsible for the safety, education, and welfare of minors. If you’re shooting with six or more children, you may also want to hire a minors coordinator for extra supervision on set.
Once again, the specific laws on how long a child needs education onset vary per state. In California, all minors need a work permit and access to at least three hours of school during their workday. The hours can vary depending on the child’s age, as do their meal breaks and recreation time. The studio teacher will make sure that the child actors are in makeup and wardrobe on time. They will also make sure they have meal breaks and enough rest. In many ways, hiring a studio teacher can be a great help to you in production.
Some states, such as Georgia, also require a Child Labor Coordinator to be present with the child on set at all times. You should check to see if that’s required in the region you will be filming in.
When working with child actors, extra attention needs to be given to ensure your set is childproof. This includes making sure all crew are aware when there is a child on location (no swearing, and all conversation should be child-friendly). You also need to make sure that children are not put in shocking or stressful situations. For example, if shooting a horror film, you need to make sure that they understand that there is no real danger. Never push your child actor, and remember they are children, less capable of doing what adult actors do. Most of all, safety always comes first, and all locations should complete a risk assessment
Tip: We have a free risk assessment checklist template you can download in our 12 Essentials of Film Pre-Production Paperwork Bundle
Casting Child Actors
Of course, the very first step to working with a child actor is actually casting one. Try not to make the mistake of not taking a child’s audition seriously, and if you can, hire a casting director. Treat the audition like any other, have the actor read lines, or if they are very young, have them copy you saying lines. Depending on the role, you might want to play games with them and see how they respond to taking direction. It helps to record each audition to watch back later and see how the actor looks on screen.
Remember, it’s not all about what a child looks like. Importantly, they need to take the acting seriously and be able to perform on camera. You also want to make sure you get along well with the child actor’s parents/guardians as they will likely be on set. The parents shouldn’t be present in the casting room as children can become too self-conscious. How the parents react in the audition will give an indication of how they will be on set.
Producing Child Actors
Organizing a set with child actors will take a little extra planning. During pre-production, make sure to learn the labor laws based on your filming location. Try to group all of your child actor scenes together, and be realistic on how long it will take to film each scene. If you are uncertain, try to give extra time per any scene with a child actor present. Risk assessments are also critical if working with young children on set.
Make sure that any questions from parents/guardians are answered before filming. Make sure that the parents have both seen and understand how to read the daily call sheet. Have a clear plan on wrap time and what will happen throughout the day. Let the child bring toys with them or school work if there is a studio teacher present. If there are long setups, they will probably need some form of entertainment between scenes. Young children should never be left alone on set, so allocate someone to look after them if parents are not present.
During filming, make sure that there is access to kid-friendly snacks (with not too much sugar) and drinks. Young children will need to go to the bathroom more regularly than adults, so a bathroom close to the location is helpful. If there are many kids on set, try to have an allocated play area. When there is a meal break, make sure to include the kids and their parents in the meals.
Stage parents can sometimes be a problem, usually because they want some involvement in the production. If needed, make sure that they have someone to talk to and ask questions on set. You might want to have an area off location where parents can comfortably wait. Perhaps one of the worst things that can happen is if a parent starts to give unwanted directions to the child on set — that’s why it’s important to have a comfortable and dedicated space for the parents to wait while the child’s scene(s) are being shot.
In some states, you will need to open a Coogan account to pay your child actor. This allows 15% of the child actor’s gross income to be placed into a locked savings account until they turn 18. Setting up a Coogan account is a requirement in California, Louisiana, and New York.
Directing Child Actors
Directing children on a film set can be a challenge sometimes. There is no guarantee that they will learn their lines, hit their mark, or behave on set. As a director, this might be a whole new skill to learn, especially if you are not used to being around kids. There are, however, some general tips that you can use that will make your job easier. (This, of course, depends on the age of the child; directing three-year-olds will be different than a thirteen-year-old.)
Ideally, you should have met up with your child actor(s) prior to filming, but this is not always possible. When they first get to set, make sure to give them all of your attention. If possible, build a relationship, play some games and talk to them while the crew is setting up. You might want to give them a tour of the set, show them the camera, and most importantly, let your child actors get used to being on set and around the crew. A smaller crew will be easier for young actors to work around. As such, you might want to reduce the number of people in the room when filming your child actor’s scenes. (this is called a “skeleton crew”)
Some filmmakers advise that child actors learn lines only while on set and not with parents at home. This is because some parents might accidentally direct their children and have them essentially “memorize” a flawed performance. Unless the child is very young, try not to have parents directly on set while shooting is happening — they can be in another room but not watching the child actor. As a director, your focus should be on the actors. If the parents want too much involvement, have someone else keep them company and answer their questions.
A popular way of working with children is to kneel down and talk to them at their eye level. Make sure to listen to your child actor’s questions, it’s likely they will have a lot of input and hopefully take an interest in the role. Children also respond very well to praise, always let them know that they are going a good job. Importantly, don’t get impatient or angry; kids are perceptive to emotions. A worse-case scenario is that your child actor refuses to act. If a child isn’t performing well, take a break and change the strategy. For additional tips, you may find this helpful: 8 psychologist-backed tips for improving communication with kids
Lastly, remember that you won’t be able to have as many re-takes with child actors. Repetition can exhaust young children; always be aware of how much time you have left to work with them. During breaks, let them play with toys and make sure they get praise when they do a good job. Very young children might struggle to learn lines, at which point you can try having them repeat lines back after you and mimic your behavior.
Tips For Directing Child Actors
- Make sure they are comfortable on set
- Introduce them to the crew, make them feel involved
- Let them ask questions, and allow their input
- Give praise when a good job is done
- Keep calm. If there is a problem, take a break
- Talk with them at eye-level
- Avoid too many retakes
Working with child actors will require additional planning for permits and scheduling. But by following these rules, you can protect both you and your child actor. These laws are in place to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and safely on set (which unfortunately hasn’t always happened in the film industry). When you next have a child actor on set, even if it’s only for one day, make sure to follow the rules in your filming region.
Oh, and one last tip: don’t forget to have fun! Children love playing. Chances are that the more you tap into that sense of joy and play in the child, the more fun they will have.
And the more fun you will have too. 😉
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