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Fun Ideas: "Making Family Movies "
Ideas Main

Making Family Movies
By Wes Fessler

5 June 2007


Making family movies is a fun way to create memories that will last for generations. The compact size and ease of use of today’s cameras make it convenient to capture family occasions and activities of all kinds. Camcorders are used in countless ways, but few people take advantage of one of the best—the ability to make “real” movies.

One of the reasons families don’t use their camcorders to make “real” movies is that they don’t know where to begin. It is easy to shoot spontaneous daily events, but when it comes to movies most people don’t know what to do. Making family movies does require some planning, but it is not as complicated as most people think.

The main goal of making a family movie is to have fun. If you are hoping to produce the next blockbuster in your backyard, you may run into a bit of trouble. If your goal is to make a short movie that is fun and entertaining for your family however, the pointers in this article should prove to be helpful. Above all else, make it fun.

Deciding on a Story

The first challenge to making your family movie is to come up with a story. This may seem trivial, but sometimes it can be enough to stop the whole show. If you find yourself having trouble coming up with an idea for a story, just remember to keep it simple and fun. Try to come up with ideas as a family. Your story can be anything from a short spoof of a television commercial to a completely original story. Decide what you want the story to be about first. Once everyone has agreed on the subject, you can work on writing the story.

Determine how long you would like your movie to be. If your movie will be very short (maybe three minutes or less) you can probably get by with several cue cards or even a bit of improvisation. If your movie is longer than this, however, it is probably best to develop a story that can be presented in the form of a screenplay.

When you are writing your story, keep in mind that you will need to turn it into a script for camera presentation. You will need to have a basic knowledge of story writing and screenwriting. There are significant differences between story writing and screenwriting, but common concepts are found in developing any kind of story. The next several paragraphs will describe the basics of story creation and how to turn your concept into a small screenplay.

Story Building

In the most basic form, every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. These can be considered as three distinct sections on a linear timeline. The main character(s) of any story follow this timeline from the beginning (where they make a goal to change something that is a source of conflict for them) to the end (where they either succeed or fail in their goal). In the beginning, middle, and end of the story, there are specific events (or milestones) that must be accomplished in order to make the story work.

In the beginning of every story a writer must orient the audience to the storyline. This is where you need to introduce a setting, the main characters, and the beginning of your plot. Setting includes elements such as the time, location, and atmosphere of your story. The main characters should be described with sufficient detail to make the audience familiar with who they are. Elements of the plot should be described to explain what the main character wants to accomplish in the story.

Important milestones for the beginning:
Describe setting
Introduce main character(s)
Describe circumstances of plot that lead characters to action
Establish the objective (or goal) that your main character(s) want to accomplish
Establish a method (or opportunity) by which the main character(s) will attempt to accomplish their goal

The middle of the story is where the plot unfolds around the main character(s) as they face conflict in achieving their goals. Conflict and challenges mar the character’s efforts until a turning point either provides progress toward or greater resistance from accomplishing their goals. The turning point pushes the action of the characters toward a climactic event that ultimately determines whether they succeed or fail in their goals.

Important milestones for the middle:
Opposition – Establish conflict and challenges that prevent the main character(s) from accomplishing their goals
Turning Point – Create a turning point that either helps the characters toward their goal or hinders them more from accomplishing their goals
Progress – After the character(s) have passed the turning point, progress toward success or failure in their goal will be accelerated
Climax – This is the big event of the story that brings either conclusive success or failure to the character’s main goal


The end of the story is where the writer brings resolution to the plot. The purpose of the end is not only to bring the story to a close, but to bring resolution to the energy that has been built up in the plot as the character(s) have worked to achieve their goal. The climax will determine how the story will be resolved. Consider how things have changed for the characters after the climax and how you wish to portray this in your characters.

Important milestones for the end:
Resolution – Show how the characters are affected by the success or failure in accomplishing their goal. What impact does the result have on the characters? How has it changed them?
Tie up any loose ends – Be sure that all of the events of the story make sense in relation to the end result. Be sure that any secondary plots also come to their conclusion in the end. Don’t leave too many questions in mind of the audience about events that draw away from the main plot.

Fill in the details
Once you have an outline for the beginning, middle, and end of your story and you have considered all of the essential elements that belong in each section, you may be able to complete your story without any additional preparation. If this is not enough information to complete your story, consider brainstorming for ideas to fill the gaps. Take a piece of lined paper and write several ideas about what should happen in your story. Put a single event on each line. When you have run out of ideas, look at your list and see which ones make sense to use in the story. Consider keeping any ideas that make sense and cross out any that don’t. Do this for the beginning, middle, and ending sections of your story, and you should be able to connect your story from start to finish.

Developing characters

A believable story is built around believable characters. To develop believable characters, it is necessary to do some “research” on them. If your characters are real, get bibliographical information or as much information as you can find. If your characters are fictional, you will need to create information about them as if they actually lived in real life. You will want to know your characters even more intimately than a best friend would know them.

One way to develop characters is to do a writing exercise for each one. Get a piece of paper and a pencil and begin to build a foundation for your first character.

First attempt to fill one complete side of the paper with random thoughts about who the character is, and how he or she feels about the world in general. Consider experiences of the character through life and what molds the character into who he/she is. What attitude does your character have? What was the attitude like in the past? What are the best and worst experiences of your characters life? Consider employment, religion, and class. Does your character have any dark secrets that may never be shared? Consider how all of these aspects and more have transformed your character into the person he or she is now.

Bring cohesion to character
On the second side of the paper, take several of your brainstorm ideas and add reasons and explanations for them. Create reasons why events of life have influenced your character for good or bad. How have beliefs, attitudes, and ideals grown stronger or weakened? Why is your character optimistic or pessimistic? What major events have changed your character permanently? Understand the “why’s” as well as the “what’s” that define your character.

Use additional pages if necessary. Make a page like this for all of your characters. You can return to this page for ideas as you write your story or to add additional thoughts about your character as your writing progresses. Creating these pages gives you an inside look at your characters and allows you to write from their perspectives. 

Turning your story into a script

When your storyline makes sense from start to finish, you are ready to bring the characters to life by giving them a voice. In Hollywood this is done by writing a screenplay. A screenplay is an entire story that is prepared for the big screen with a very strict format. Writing a screenplay with the correct format and essential components is beyond the scope of this article and is truly overkill for writing a script for a family movie. It is worthwhile, however to maintain consistency in the format of a script even for home use. With this in mind, a simple format based loosely on screenwriting will be introduced in the following paragraphs. This format is provided as a guide and can be modified to suit your personal preferences and needs.

In order to turn your story into a family movie, you will need a format for your script that is simple and consistent. The following script format is intended to be simple enough to allow you to put your thoughts on paper without the distraction of excess formatting. It is important for you to be able to focus on the settings and dialogue of your characters so that your story can flow in the script. This is in no way intended to be a professional screenplay format, but it should help you to develop a simple script for your family movie.

Family Movie Suggested Script Format:

At the top of every page (except the first page) in the right hand corner type the page number followed by a period.

Sluglines (descriptions that begin each scene)
A slugline is simply a line of text that describes where a scene takes place. Sluglines indicate the beginning of each scene. A slugline should be indicated by capitalized text that is left justified and lined to the left margin. There are three components of a slugline that are identified as follows:
Slugline components

  1. Interior or Exterior(INT. or EXT.) – This indicates whether the scene takes place indoors or outdoors. Use the abbreviation either INT. or EXT. as the first text of the slugline.
  2. Location – Name or briefly describe the location where the scene is taking place. The location is placed two spaces after the interior or exterior text.
  3. Time of Day – The final component of the slugline is a description of the time of day. The time of day is inserted after the location following two spaces, a hyphen, and two additional spaces. You can simply describe the time of day as DAY or NIGHT or you may use more descriptive words such as SUNRISE or LATE EVENING. This description will help you later to record the scene with the type of lighting you originally envisioned for the scene.

Example slugline:


Scene descriptions
A scene description comes after the slugline. This is a short description of what is happening in the scene. Scene descriptions are also left justified and run from the left margin. 

Scene descriptions tell what the characters are doing and/or what is occurring in a story-like format. This allows you to add background information into the scene, but remember you can’t tell your whole story with words. Try to keep scene descriptions limited as much as possible to what you can show in your movie. Use scene descriptions to help you to know how to set up your scene for the movie.

Example scene description:

JOE walks wearily on an abandoned desert road, looking for help.

Character Names
When you are ready to have a character speak, you will want to indicate this by typing the character’s name in all capitals. For the purpose of a family movie it will be fine to use a centered justification for the character names.

Example character name:



The dialogue of your characters will follow the character name, so you are able to tell who is speaking. Dialogue is usually indented on both sides. Everything else in the script is double spaced, but the dialogue follows the character name immediately on the next line(single spaced). This helps to avoid any confusion about who is speaking.

The important concept for dialogue format is to set the dialogue apart from the rest of the script, so it is easily discernible from a glance that someone is speaking. You can indent the dialogue on both sides, use the tab button a couple of times to indent it on one side, or use another method of your choice. The important thing is to make the dialogue distinguishable from the rest of the script.

Example dialogue (with the character name attached):

I knew I should have stopped for gas back there. That was a stupid decision. Now what am I going to do?

Putting script elements together
To put everything together, I will group all of the elements together. I will then show you a full example scene. After that you should find that this script format is not as complicated as it has sounded until now.

Combined Script Elements
Scene Description
Character Name

Example Scene Complete


JOE walks wearily on an abandoned desert road, looking for help.
I knew I should have stopped for gas back there. That was a stupid decision. Now what am I going to do?


This is essentially how the script works. To continue writing the scene, you would add  more scene descriptions and dialogue as necessary. If the scene changed to a new setting(eg. if a car came along and picked Joe up), you would then need to add a new slugline and start the process over again.

Hopefully now you are convinced that the process is not as difficult as it sounded at first. This is a simple script format that will help you to coherently lay out all of your ideas from start to finish. This format won’t get you an invitation to a Hollywood producer’s office, but it will get you through making a family movie just fine.

Settings and Sets

Now that you know what your movie is going to be about, it is time to consider what settings you will film in. Does your movie require you to travel to locations that will meet your needs or can you do most of it at home? Try to make your family movie with just a few settings if you can. Remember the idea is to have fun, so don’t let the settings steal the show. See what you have at home that can fit your needs. It is a good idea to decide what you will use for your sets as a family.

If you have some creative kids in the family you may want to create some of your own sets. You would be amazed at what some wide roll paper, a little tape, and some paints can do for set creation. Use your imagination and see what your family can come up with. You will be surprised how much fun it can be for the whole family to create an artistic setting that will be in your movie.


Do you need costumes for your movie? Finally you will have a use for some of those old Halloween costumes you could never get yourself to throw away. If this is not enough you may have to turn to some of those old clothes in your closet—you know the ones that you never wear. There are likely some relics in there that you can use to add some color to your movie. Only spend money on costumes if there is no other option. If you consult with your family on costumes, you will probably find that they are willing to dress you up in things you would never have thought of by yourself. Give it a try. It’s all about having fun, remember?


It is a good idea to get everyone together to practice what you will do in your movie at least once before doing it for real(unless your movie demands spontaneity). Running through the script together will help you to determine areas that need help and which portions of dialogue need cue cards. It will be much easier on the person shooting the movie if you iron out some of the kinks first.

Shooting style

Have you ever noticed a difference in the visual flow of movies and television shows when compared to home videos? This disparity does not exist by accident. Professionals know what it takes to move a story along or make it drag its legs behind the cart.

Techniques such as changing camera angles and cutting to different characters at various time intervals can build or kill momentum in a movie. You may not be able to garner all of the skills that the professionals have, but if you watch a couple of movies and TV shows while paying attention to the style that is used to get the shots, you can learn a lot about what you would like to do with your movie. Any time you are having doubt about what to do with a scene or shot, you can always flip on the tube for a crash lesson.

Shooting methods

At times you may be confused about how to apply the camera to get the quality of shot you are looking for. There are methods that you can use at home to help you get the shots you want. Here are a few simple ideas that you can use to customize your shots at home.

Tripods can be used for scenes that require a still camera (like long dialogue scenes). They will eliminate wandering and shaking to give you a much more professional look. It is physically impossible to hold a camera in a free arm without some distracting camera movement. When you need a still camera, get out the tripod.
Hand Shooting
There are times when a certain amount of camera movement is desirable. In action scenes it can be best to follow the action with your cameraman on foot. This allows the camera to remain close to the action which gives the audience a feeling of being in the action too. Be sure to use the motion stabilizing function on your camera when you use this technique, or you may get a little more action than you are hoping for.

It is good to use natural lighting when it is available, but you will find that sometimes the light you have is just not enough. Avoid pointing any kind of lighting directly at your actors when possible. This will either cause your cast to squint or flood out what the camera sees. Try hanging white cloth wherever it is feasible behind the camera and pointing your lights at the cloth(away from the scene). This will allow more pleasant and softer light to be reflected back to the scene.

Cueing the shots
Cueing your shots can be done in two ways: with video editing software on your computer, or manually with your camera. If you don’t have access to good software, you will need to make sure to cue your camera manually every time you stop recording. This simply means that you will want to review what was recorded on the camera and stop the action of the last shot where the next one will begin. This is more work than cutting out shots with video editing software, but it can be done quite easily with modern camcorders. Be careful not to record over any of what you have already recorded, however, or you may lose some good footage and have to shoot it again.

For most family movies the microphone on your camera should be sufficient. An external microphone may be something to consider if you are looking for better quality. External microphones help to bring the sound closer to those who are producing it. A wireless type of microphone is usually the best to have. These can be quite expensive though, so it is advisable to try the microphone that is built in to your camera first. If you are not satisfied with it, you can always purchase an external microphone later.

What to avoid

Here are a few things to avoid when shooting your movie:

Don’t film others without permission!
First of all you should know that it is unlawful to film people without their permission. Do all that you can to avoid filming anyone unless you have their express written permission to do so and a lawyer who will defend you to the death.

Don’t zoom in and out too much
Although the zoom function is really neat and fun to play with, it is exceedingly annoying when it is overused in a movie. Use the zoom sparingly.

Beware of background noise
Avoid shooting your film when there are a lot of distracting noises in the background. Sounds that are barely noticed when filming seem to be magnified a hundredfold during playback. Do all that you can to control the sounds that will be captured by your camera’s microphone.

Shooting the movie

Finally you are ready to get that camcorder in action. You have your story, some well developed characters, a script, and the creativity of your family. Even if you have decided to take an idea and improvise, you must surely be eager to get that movie started. No matter what your story will be, I hope there has been something in this article that has been of value to you. Making a family movie is all about having a great time with your family. Now grab your camera and go have some fun!


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