Never work with children and animals. So goes the old adage: yet, in advertising, a charming performance from a kid can provide a magic formula for success. Just ask John Lewis.
The British retailer has ‘won Christmas’ for the past decade or so with a series of appealing ads that rely largely on a little kid who captures the public’s heart. Dougal Wilson has directed no less than four of them, and also created Tiny Dancer, another ad for John Lewis, for its insurance arm, which features a clumsy yet determined girl dancing around her living room while her younger brother looks on.
For Wilson, the key to getting a great performance from a child lies in advance planning of what they are required to do, plus careful casting.
“Usually I try and cast in as many places as possible,” he says. “Because when they’re a child, they could be from anywhere, they haven’t really established their career as such. So you just see as many as you can.
“I attend callbacks and try and break the part down quite mechanically,” he continues. “The parts I’ve done with kids haven’t involved dialogue and performance so much, they’ve all been visual narratives, so when dealing with children I try and keep the direction as simple as possible.
“Often it can be really quite mechanical: like ‘turn your head to the camera’, ‘open your mouth slightly’, ‘frown’. I often have the storyboard worked out prior to casting, so I know what I want them to do. So I tend not to send them off on big improvised scenes, although I do that occasionally. I tend to break it down into smaller components that really let you see the child’s expressions.”
While these directions might seem quite removed from a wider narrative, Wilson knows that the child’s expression will be vital in telling the story, particularly in an ad, where so much has to be articulated in a very short time.
“When you do that in a casting, you really get a sense of whether you’re going to get the right things out of someone because you break it into these little bits,” says Wilson. “A child may come along who looks awesome, but then when you break it into the bits you know you’ll need for an edit, you realise that somehow they’re just not communicating, and they feel a little absent from the narrative.
“If you watch a lot of those John Lewis adverts, there’s a few funny frowns in them, just because I think that’s quite communicative and I like it when children’s performances are quite precise on film.
“Often the face is the most important part,” he continues. “The classic example of that is the kid in the first John Lewis Christmas ad I did, the boy waiting, and looking like he’s really impatient for Christmas. His face was perfect for that, though really the performance is just doing one thing most of the time.”
Wilson cites another example, this time in the 2016 John Lewis Christmas ad, starring Buster the boxer dog, where he had planned the little girl’s reactions to the dog meticulously in advance. “There was a really nice moment when the dog goes past her and beats her to the trampoline, and she does this ‘what?’ face, and I knew that was going to be a really important moment in the story, because I’d storyboarded it.
“In real life, obviously it doesn’t always work like that, people don’t go around doing big expressions every time they feel an emotion, but on film you want that to be communicated.
“I’m sure it’s a very different process in, say, a feature film, because there’s a lot longer to develop a character, the narrative is developed over a much longer period of time,” he continues. “But for 60 seconds to two minutes, that’s what I’ve found works.”
While planning is crucial for Wilson, moments of spontaneity can also deliver gold too, especially when a child is naturally funny. “I do find kids funny,” he says. “One of the funniest I think is the kid in the Tiny Dancer commercial, her brother, who’s on the staircase, breaks the fourth wall and looks to camera. That wasn’t scripted, it was something he did by accident, and we were all ‘don’t look at the camera!’. Then ‘actually, it’s quite funny’. He’s just very funny.”
Perhaps another reason kids appeal so much in ads is the fact that we can all ultimately remember being young ourselves. Beyond his work for John Lewis, a group of kids also appeared in Wilson’s video for The Temper Trap’s song Love Lost. The promo featured the kids on a cross-country run, an activity that will likely bring out painful memories for many adults.
“I found that funny because maybe we can all identify, we can all identify with the confusion and bewilderment of being a child,” says Wilson. “We know that ultimately they’ll grow up and laugh at the experience but there’s something funny about gently mocking how we didn’t really know what was going on when we were kids. Especially when shouted at by a belligerent teacher.”
As for what’s in it for kids, appearing in an ad or music video can sometimes prove to be a springboard into a wider acting career. “Some kids are very into acting,” says Wilson. “Like a lot of kids in that Temper Trap video were very interesting kids who’d come from theatre schools, some in London and some in Liverpool.
“It’s a bit of a myth that theatre school children are a certain type,” he continues, “these days you get all sorts of kids going to theatre school, it’s not just precocious, over-exhibitionist types. It’s kids who are genuinely interested in acting. So if a commercial can give them a good experience in film acting, then that’s good.”