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.
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
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:
|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
|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
|Climax – This is the big event of the
story that brings either conclusive success or failure to the character’s main
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.
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
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
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
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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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
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
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
Example Scene Complete
|EXT. DESERT ROAD -
|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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
What to avoid
Here are a few things to avoid when shooting your
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
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!