Starring Babies

FilmInFocus' Scott Macaulay examines the often elaborate steps a filmmaker must take to have a baby (real or otherwise) in their movie.

“Never work with animals or children.” – W. C. Fields

Children were a frequent target of the famously misanthropic American comedian W. C. Fields, but when it comes to filmmaking and babies, he may have had a point.

In the U.S. film industry, actors work six-hour stretches without a food break. They can be forced to perform at the crack of dawn or in the dead of night. They are expected to have rehearsed, to know their lines, and to perfectly repeat their performances with the same emotional nuances again and again for dozens of takes. Babies can do none of these things. Comments first assistant director Jonathan Starch (Cadillac Records, Law and Order: Criminal Intent), “Usually productions run screaming from babies. Bringing them into crowded environments with all the lights, you just don’t know how they’re going to react.” Indeed, the unpredictable nature of babies requires special handling — and sometimes outright trickery — by the filmmakers. In the end, though, it’s usually worth it. While babies can’t perform with the skill of trained actors, they also never give inauthentic performances. They are hilariously, infuriatingly, lovably natural.

Filmmakers who need babies for their films will usually start by calling a casting director specializing in children. New York-based Adele Sharf has found babies for Macy’s and Babies R Us commercials, for soap operas and for features like the upcoming Sex and the City 2. She has been casting babies since the early ‘80s, first with the casting agency Little Stars and now with her Adele’s Kids. Explains Sharf about her entry to the business, “My daughter is a redhead. I read a newspaper article in 1981 about how hot redheads were. I went on some casting calls with her, and I soon decided that no one knew more about babies than I did. I have three kids, and I know developmentally what children do at each stage of their lives. Filmmakers would ask for six-month-old babies who could walk, or new walkers at age two! Many times they’d have no clue about a baby’s real attention span. So I opened my own office. I found myself getting more and more bookings as I was able to zero in on what people would want and then offer my tried and true expertise.”

Sharf continues, “When babies are used in feature films, the filmmakers almost always choose identical twins. They can alternate them — when one is napping or is getting cranky, the babies can be switched.”

Actors have agents, publicists and managers, but how does a baby land a part? Says Sharf, “They audition just like everybody else. Babies are usually cast at the last minute. Two or three weeks before [the baby is needed] parents will mail us photos. I don’t advertise — generally children come to me through word of mouth. The first thing we look for is looks. They must be attractive and with no birthmarks.  Quite often you can tell from a photo if the baby is comfortable being photographed. We need bright sparkling eyes that react to camera with enthusiasm and comfort. If they don’t love the camera, the camera won’t love them.  Then, based on the picture we will schedule an appointment in our office. We’ll see how the baby reacts to being held by a stranger. Just because a baby is personable in a relative’s arms doesn’t mean they’ll be that way when being held by a stranger.”

Indeed, baby chemistry is important. Writer-director Katherine Dieckmann’s debut feature, A Good Baby, was all about the relationship that develops between a young drifter played by Henry Thomas and an abandoned baby. The baby was supposed to be a girl, but Dieckmann wound up casting a pair of twin boys in the part. “We had to recast them,” Dieckmann laughs. “Henry had zero chemistry with these boy babies. The babies weren’t interested in him, and he wasn’t interested in them. You had to believe he was falling in love with the baby or there was no movie. And, [with these boy twins], it was like a love story with no love affair. We had to fire them!”

Dieckmann, whose most recently film was Motherhood with Uma Thurman, wound up recasting a single girl baby and instantly the chemistry reversed. “Henry loved the baby, and her mother felt confident with him,” she says. “The baby really communicated with Henry in the film — it’s an amazing baby performance.” Still, that performance was achieved with a bit of trickery. “We would put a mirror by the lens [so the baby would be fascinated by the reflections]. And for MOS (‘without sound’) shots we had the baby’s mother singing off camera.”

Remembers the film’s d.p., Jim Denault, “I think a good amount of our success with the baby was that we had a very cool mother. That was probably the most important factor. She was with us the whole time, helped us figure out what times of the day the baby would be good and when she was not going to be good.”

Even with that perfect baby and great mom, the shoot had its challenges, though. “The baby was 12 weeks old and she had to nurse all the time and could only be under the lights for so long. There are so many lyrical landscape shots in the film because we could only shoot with the baby so often!”

What happens when an unhappy baby is required? Starch remembers pondering that question when he was hired to assistant direct a music video. The babies would be sitting in their parents’ laps but, referencing a line in the song, had to cry — or at least emote a scrunched-face, upset expression — on cue. “The director was very clever,” said Starch. “He had someone reach up from below frame and hold the baby’s feet for a moment. As soon as they started to cry he would let go. The babies were fine. They were sitting on their parents’ laps but just that little loss of control caused them to react.”

  2. Babies on set, according to Sharf, “can’t be on camera for more than a four-hour day, and they are not under the lights more than 15 minutes a time.” To ensure the baby is handled correctly, “directors hire baby wranglers. They are usually registered nurses, and their job is to transport the baby from parent to set. And, there is always a fridge and crib nearby.”

When shooting situations are more taxing, when simple cutaways to smiling — or crying — babies aren’t enough, there are other options, such as animatronic and even CG babies. However, these options aren’t the immediate panaceas they might seem.

Dieckmann remembers workshopping her film at the Sundance Labs several years before production. “I didn’t have children myself when I wrote the movie,” she says. “I remember being at the Sundance Lab and David Cronenberg was my advisor. I had an actor carrying a prop baby around in a burlap sack, and David said, ‘You can’t do that! Any parent will detach from the film.’” By the time she shot A Good Baby, she had one of her own, and developed a critical eye when it comes to prop babies. “It’s so annoying to me to watch clearly prop babies try to double as real babies. They can be stiff, and their weight is completely wrong. That’s why even though we were a low-budget film we used real babies. You just can’t fake the way someone holds a real baby. The big problem with babies in film is when [the filmmakers] treat them like objects.”

Such concerns are paramount to the practice of Andrew Clement, owner of the Van Nuys, CA-based Creative Characters. “I’m known as ‘the baby guy,’” he says, referring to his company’s work as the “prime provider” of silicone-based animatronic babies to the movie and television industry. If you have watched House or Gray’s Anatomy, you have seen one of Clement’s babies.

Clement’s lifelike prop babies are “so supple and flexible that they have their own life” when they’re held, he says. “They flop and wiggle around and are great.” The craftsman began his baby building when he was hired to build one for the pilot episode of ER. “It was the first baby I ever did,” he says, “and the next day [after airing] people all over town were calling us asking, ‘Who did this baby?’” What made Clement’s baby so special? “I was one of the first people doing silicone babies [with a higher degree] of realism,” he says. “Prior to that, babies had been made out of vinyl.”

“[Prop] babies are really time savers,” he continues. “You can extend [the shooting day], and you can also use them for lighting references.” In addition to the silicone babies that move with the actor’s gestures, Clement builds “fully mobile” animatronic babies outfitted with remote control transmitters.

When he started making babies, Clement says he worked from an extensive photo reference file. Now, when he builds a baby for a show like House, he’ll often replicate an existing baby. “We’ll take casts of the hands and feet so we won’t have to sculpt them from scratch,” he says. “Then we’ll take pictures from the head, and then just rough out the body.”

The finished product is often shockingly realistic. “When the babies travel, we ship them in flight cases and they are wrapped inside in clear packages,” Clement says. “I have had [an employee] detained at gunpoint by airport security who thought he was transporting a real baby. And they wouldn’t open the wrapping and touch the baby because they were too convinced it was real!”

When most filmmakers cast very young babies, observes Dieckmann, “they don’t cast a newborn. They go up to 12 weeks.” But filmmakers looking for a real newborn are not entirely out of luck. Sharf, who admits that true newborns are “difficult to find,” comments, “I book pregnant moms too – we have them on file before their babies are born. We once needed a truly newborn baby for a soap opera. We contacted all the moms and asked, ‘Have you had your baby yet?’ One woman said, ‘I’m going to have my baby by appointment on Friday. I’ve got kids at home, I’m overdue, and it will be a boy.’ The mom had her baby in the hospital and she kept telling the doctors and nurses, ‘My baby will be on a soap opera on Monday.’ Everybody thought she was stoned on anesthesia. They thought she was delusional. But she was released from the hospital Monday morning and went straight to set. The baby still had his hospital tags on. So, you see, we even book babies in utero!”