Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen

December 1, 2011

Last year, I was called upon to explain how, exactly, I capture the life of my family on camera (I was not asked how I capture the life of my family in words, presumably because WORDS ARE HARD and the art of writing a mysterious and even magical enterprise. I would have said, however, that, to capture family life in words, one just hunkers down and observes and then describes what one sees. Which doesn’t necessarily produce good writing, but still. One might also get one’s self a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, and a thesaurus, which can help, a little.) ANYWAY. They – they being Intel Canada – wanted to know specifically about technologically capturing family life, and about capturing it for the holidays.

I said this:

Capturing the most narratively interesting moments of family life is only slightly less complicated than filming meerkats, not least because small children are less predictable than meerkats. Capturing the movements of children on film during the holidays is considerably more complicated than filming meerkats, because during the holidays children tend to be jacked up on candy canes and Santa, and meerkats, to the best of my knowledge, don’t get all that excited about either of those things. But it’s not impossible, and well worth the effort, because although meerkats are awesome, they are not nearly as funny and adorable and documentary-worthy as your own children. You can make an awesome photo collage or montage or video that captures the awesomeness of your family during the holidays, and you should.

I remain convinced of the above – the meerkat thing, and the you should totally do this thing – so I am offering, again, my entirely inexpert advice on how to do it. So, herewith, and humbly, some tips from me on how get adequately amazing footage of your family, whether on digital film or video or sketchpad, and use it to craft some remarkable holiday memories. (Or, Tips For Being An Awesome Documentary Filmmaker/Photographer/Auteur And Creating The Best Family Holiday Video/Photo Album/Virtual –Slideshow-For-Your-Mom-Blog EVER, Even If You Have No Idea What You’re Doing At All, Really. Or, Failing That, How To Get Just Enough On Film So That You Don’t Forget What Your Kids Look Like.) (Read all the way to the bottom! There is music! And PRIZES! And other feel-good things!)

1. Have your equipment ready.

How many times has your toddler stumbled into the room wearing a diaper, a Santa hat and a pair of your heels? Just once? Did you have a camera or video device ready to capture the moment? Nope? You must be me. I try to keep my camera fully charged and in a central location in our house over the holidays, so that I can reach it quickly when the kids do something that seems worthy of the front of a Christmas card. Same goes for my video camera, and my iPhone (which substitutes for camera and video equipment in a pinch, and which actually stays tucked in a pocket or – yes – in my bra at all times.) I also keep my camera set to my preferred indoor setting – even though I prefer to shoot manually whenever possible, if I’ve only got a forty second window to capture Jasper in high heels, I’m perfectly happy to use the most efficient automatic setting rather than have him disappear while I fiddle with the f-stop. (If you are like me, and forget where your real camera is, just pull the iPhone out of your bra and get whatever footage you can. You can always fiddle with it later – as I did, in the picture at right, which is heavily LoMobbed and Pikniked.)

2. Spend some time reflecting on who your children are and what it means to ‘capture’ them.

If you were a photographer of horses, you wouldn’t approach taking pictures of horses from the standpoint of getting horses to pose for horse portraits. Not that that couldn’t be awesome, but still: you’d follow horses into the field and snap them trotting and cantering and loitering by fences. You’d try to get pictures of horses being horses, not Sears Portrait Studio models. (Meerkats, on the other hand, will sit for Sears Portraits, but that’s only tangentially relevant here.) You want to bring the same spirit to taking pictures or video of your children: you want to capture them as the children that they are. Are they happiest frolicking in snow? Baking and eating cookies? Snuggling by the fire? Wielding chainsaws? All of the above? Aim to get photographs and video of those things, as opposed to stiff portraits by the mantle or the Christmas tree.

3. Talk to your children about the kinds of pictures they’d like to be in, or the videos they’d like to make. Like, just ask them.

Yes, really. You should try this. I promise you that you will get some weird and wonderful suggestions – my children suggest things like ‘Emilia’s Super Happy Music Show’ and ‘Jasper The Tutu Dancer With Superpowers’ – and that your children will participate enthusiastically. And that the results will be amazing, or, at least, really, really funny.

And loud.

4. Think beyond conventional holiday images and scenes.

If you follow the two tips above, you’re already well on your way to doing this, but it bears underlining: anybody can get a picture of their kids in front of the Christmas tree, or take a video of the school holiday pageant. It’s almost a certainty that you will shoot those things. But unless the tree catches fire as you’re snapping the photo, or your child falls off the stage at the pageant while the camera is rolling, these are unlikely to be the images and clips that you will pull out every year and marvel (and/or laugh) at. Look for other, different opportunities to get really interesting photos and video footage: bring your camera along as you and the kids deliver holiday cookies to the folks at the seniors’ home; take some video while the build a snowman (and if you have to toss a surreptitious snowball into the mix to get them scuffling, then don’t hesitate to do so, because scuffling makes for good video); take pictures of them wrapping gifts (you might consider urging them to wrap each other) (this is what happened in the photo at right) or creating a very ugly gingerbread house. Ugly gingerbread houses are funny.

5. But if you’re really attached to conventional holiday images, embrace that.

Take a ton pictures of the Christmas tree and make a cool montage (try Piknik for making great collages and slideshows out of pictures), or get creative with them in an editing suite (again, Piknik is great for this, and most of its applications are free). Take that video of the holiday pageant, but then run clips of it through an application like VintageMaker (an iPhone app that can turn your small people into little Buster Keatons), or edit in funny remarks in subtitles. Or just take your Santa-phobic baby to the mall and keep your camera handy. Creativity is easy with the right technology, and a willingness to take liberties with your children’s dignity.

6. Don’t be afraid of staging.

That random, rogue snowball toss that I mentioned above? I totally wasn’t joking. Set the scenes that you want to capture! Don’t just wait for your kids to start a snowball fight: initiate one yourself! And then back away and pull out the video camera and let the digital film roll. Later, after you’ve set the whole thing to Wagner’s Flight Of The Valkyries, you’ll thank me, and also congratulate yourself on your cinematic genius.

7. Be prepared to bribe your children.

Look, I’m not condoning bribery in general. I’m just saying that there will be some moments over the activity-dense holidays when you will want to get something on camera and your children will be resistant and – because that perfect snowfall isn’t going to last all day – you might need to offer them a little, you know, incentive to get them to agree to stand still or to speak into the video camera or whatever. I recommend candy canes, or cash. This is art. You do what is necessary.

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    { 3 comments }

    Lisa December 5, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    “And then back away and pull out the video camera and let the digital film roll.”

    And this is why I have so few photos & videos: I don’t want to back away and miss the doing. Or I do have some really cute pics & videos and they are still on my camera because I don’t want to take the time to process them.

    I really need to find a way to get more family pics. I realize the ONLY photos we have of all of us is our annual anniversary photo. The in-laws babysit for us and they take our pic. That is it. I have plenty of my kid and my kid & my husband, but few of all of us, less of her & me. Need to fix that!

    las artes December 15, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    The one thing about me is I will always own my mistakes, which leads me to the bathtub scene. I knew the next day after filming it that I made a big mistake. It was me getting caught up in the moment, drinking wine, and forgetting the cameras were there. I have been dreading this episode for eight months. As a mother, this was not one of my smartest moments on TV. Even though I do not allow my children to watch the show, it doesn’t mean their friends don’t. This was one of those moments that I had to sit my kids down and tell them that mommy made a mistake and did something on TV that was in bad taste. I have a great communication line with my kids and have taught them that everyone makes mistakes, and as long as you own up to your mistakes, you will learn from them.

    Cathy Tibbles December 19, 2011 at 2:55 am

    These are GREAT tips. Also, I might add (coming from one who just sat there in the front pew at the Christmas pageant with a dead cell phone) ask other audience members to share! :)

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