PLAY–Seeing from the Children’s Eyes

By Wendy (Tzu-Shu) Shyu

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POV shot from the GoPro camera strapped on child’s chest

“When [Nate] was four, I remember he was getting super social and he really liked playing with other kids, he at first had a little bit difficult time of introducing himself, and he would get sort of nervous about it, and a little embarrassed. He would ask us to help him.” Recalling this story about his son, Chris Mohney talks about how this kind of “nervous[ness] about rejection” is the “social dynamic” that he finds interesting in children.

Mohney’s short documentary in planning stages, PLAY, aims at video recording children in New York City playgrounds, injecting a new idea into film production: making a dozen children wear GoPro cameras in front of their chests. As the producer of PLAY, Mohney hopes to capture the interaction children present from their point of view.

Currently the VP of programming at Maker Studios, an entertainment company based in Culver City, California, Mohney started a campaign on Kickstarter.com to fund PLAY, his independent project. Using lots of POV shots, he hopes to “re-live” childhood experience.

“I’m surprised how few people are using [GoPro cameras] to tell human stories,” Mohney says, which gives him the inspiration to strap cameras on children to record their perspective. Starting with the idea of strapping cameras on children’s heads, Mohney tested the results on his own son, Nate.

“The head was not that good, but the chest was good. It was taking a long time to get it on and off,” said Nate of his experience of wearing the cameras. Noticing how difficult head straps are to put on and how they make children uncomfortable, Mohney came up with alternatives. At first he thought of making children wear helmets with cameras attached, but realized that would be too distracting for the children’s interaction.

As a result, he decided to focus mainly on chest straps. Chest straps not only provide a more comfortable experience for children, but also generate more stable footage. The only problem is that when children get too close to each other, the view would be blocked by another child’s chest. Mohney explains that editing would solve that problem, as it would be combined with other running or conversational moments.

According to Jocelyn Gonzales, the technical director of Feet in Two Worlds, a non-profit multimedia ethnic journalism project in NYC, who also teaches a course named Sound Image at New York University, GoPro cameras can be somewhat tricky to use. “GoPros look very specific because of the wide angle. [Its] videos have a slight fish-eye kind of quality. Because of that distortion, it doesn’t seem as reality-based if you’re doing non-fiction work.” On the other hand, “It [can be] very useful. it has a lot of potential cause it’s so small and so light. You can attach it to so many different things where a regular camera can’t get.” She says on PLAY, “It can be very revealing to see what children see.”

Having captured moments in action, when children start running, for instance, Mohney describes them as “striking,” as this is “part of showing their activity and action.” He says that based on the context, jerky footage with reasonable length would be inserted. Other than cameras strapped on children, Mohney also used a soccer ball as a prop with a hidden camera inside to provide a different aspect of the children’s activities. He plans to hire camera operators to film the overall surroundings.

Working with children from four to six years old, Mohney eliminates the “corny complexity for social action” found in older children, as children at an older age might be more aware of the camera and act differently while being filmed. Dr. Andrew Getzfeld, a psychologist who teaches Child Development at NYU, explains that children around four to six years old are in their “early childhood,” while the cut-off from adolescence, which is part of childhood, to adulthood is 18 years old.

The original inspiration of PLAY stemmed from Mohney’s experience as a father of a son and daughter. “As a parent with a couple of younger children, there’s a point when your kids are going out to playgrounds so they no longer need you to hover over them.” Observing his own kids, Mohney said, “I thought it would be fun to put a camera on my son to see his perspective.”

The very moment when children become independent from parents is very significant in child development. As Dr. Getzfeld says, “To me it’s very significant because realistically parents are not going to be around forever, and usually the scenario is that the kids outlive the parents. Independence is very, very crucial.”

“Beyond the cute[ness] and funn[iness], [PLAY will] remind you of something of your own childhood.” Mohney describes PLAY as “not a documentary about specific children, [but] more universal than that.” In terms of ethnicity, “we definitely want as diverse a group as possible in terms of practicality,” says Mohney. An extension of the project would be partnering with schools or even filming children outside of New York if resources are available.

Different kinds of characteristics in children can also bring diversity to the way they interact with each other. Children’s personalities can be explained through exploring the combination of temperaments and “types of attachment.” Accordingly, children all deal with strangers differently.

Mary Ainsworth, an American-Canadian developmental psychologist, and her experiment of “The Strange Situation” in 1965, observing children’s reaction to strangers both with and without their mothers present, is an example Dr. Getzfeld uses to anticipate ways children might behave in playgrounds. Ainsworth discovered three attachment styles: secure, anxious-ambivalent or resistant insecure, and anxious-avoidant insecure. Shortly put, children with a secure attachment are easily affected emotionally by the presence of the mother: happy at their presence, and upset at their absence, while resistant insecure types tend to be uncomfortable even at the mothers’ presence, and anxious-avoidant insecure types are relatively indifferent to their surroundings. This would be the rationale behind children’s interaction in playgrounds when they first meet others and no longer have their parents by their sides.

As for children’s temperaments, Dr. Getzfeld mentions the three types psychiatrists Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess, and Herbert Birch discovered: easy, pseudo warm up, and difficult child. Easy children are usually more adaptable and accepting to new environments, while pseudo warm up children can have a hard time dealing with unfamiliarity or challenges, the former being avoidant, while the latter reacts negatively and emotionally. When children are put in playgrounds to explore on their own, various personalities might bring in different social dynamics.

Moreover, Dr. Getzfeld explains an environment like playgrounds as a “natural laboratory: there are fewer restrictions and it’s a system that [children] are more used to. They are kids being kids as opposed to kids being kids being observed in a lab situation. It [is] a natural laboratory, or natural environment.” It is within this natural environment that children are free to run around and play with whoever they meet. Whether the experience is pleasant or not, Dr. Getzfeld believes that sometimes being exposed to interaction with others can help children develop ability to adapt to real life better.

Mohney, as someone who works in the media field, on the other hand, calls playgrounds a kind of “social metric,” where “some kids are shyer than others when they encounter certain situations,” and “some are super social.”  Based on Mohney’s observation, “[children] introduce themselves in different ways, or even to start a game.”

As dealing with different kinds of children can give the film various vibes, the relationship among each child can also affect their behavior. Mohney explains that it does not matter whether his young participants of the short film knew each other beforehand or not, as children “are extremely into just playing around with other kids.”

Dr. Getzfeld also expects parents’ presence to alter children’s behavior, especially for certain types of children: “in general, kids react differently when parents are there, and ones that are securely attached will use mom as a hard base, a safety area so to speak.” According to Mohney, though, in terms of safety, parents or guardians would be at the shooting as long as they do not actively affect the children’s behavior. Staff with medical training will also be present in case of accidents, as Mohney explains that the crew’s priority is to keep both the parents and children safe and happy under the filming process.

PLAY’s length is estimated to be from twelve to fifteen minutes. No official shooting has yet been done, though footage of camera testing can be found on PLAY’s official website.Planning on getting eighteen to twenty-four hours of footage, Mohney wanted to start production in April so it could premier and be released online by August. However, production is at a halt, as the team failed its fund-raising campaign for their budget of $24,000 on Kickstarter.com in early March.

Funding has been the biggest challenge the PLAY crew has faced so far. As Mohney has observed, films have been one of the most common topics for fundraising on Kickstarter.com, which also generates the highest failure rate. PLAY requires expensive equipment, as each camera costs more than $700, including straps, batteries, and memory cards, not to mention the money used to hire the whole production team, which includes a location manager and freelance photographers. However, neither the children nor their parents will be paid for their work on the film.

Experienced in looking for funders for her project, Gonzales holds a skeptical attitude towards Kickstarter.com. “I think it works great for lots of different projects and lots of different people, but I personally, as a regular consumer, has so much Kickstarter fatigue I cannot even tell what projects I would want to fund or not. And I’ve heard many statistics for how few of those Kickstarter projects actually get completed.” She says she probably will not try out Kickstarter for fund-raising, “It’s like throwing [money] in a hole.”

Since the Kickstarter project failed to fund PLAY, Mohney plans on renting some of the equipment instead of buying it, and he is now looking for more sponsors.

Gonzales, who has undergone similar situations while working with FI2W, says that funding “is definitely a problem” working for a “non-profit.” “You have to think of projects that will attract different funders (sponsors) because you can’t be vague about what your mission is, you have to be fairly precise, and have good outlines and structure for the project you do and how you’re going to deliver,” she says. PLAY’s website serves as the window for this purpose: to continue dialogue by giving shout-outs to sponsors that might be interested in funding PLAY.

Funds are not the only thing the PLAY crew has no control over. As Sky Dylan-Robbins, the editor of PLAY, said in an interview, when filming with children, “there’s no way of knowing what we’ll get.” For instance, it would be ideal if children wearing cameras would interact more with those not wearing cameras, but it is almost impossible to stage or script children at this age. The unpredictability not only lies in children, but also in external factors, such as the distraction the camera creates, or the different atmospheres various playgrounds and the weather brings.

Whichever environment children are in though, Dr. Getzfeld believes that the cameras would still definitely affect their behavior. In empirical terms, the effect is called “demand characteristics,” which is how extraneous variables, cameras in this context, brings out a certain behavior from the children due to their knowing that they are being observed. Mohney, however, looks at the impact from a different point of view: as curious others start asking the child wearing a camera about the gear he is equipped with, conversation will begin.

As for the issue with environments, Mohney addresses them by re-emphasizing his statement on being universal, “depending on how [playgrounds] look visually, I’m not looking for it to be particularly representative; I’m trying to make it completely universal.” As a result of difficult staging, natural sunlight would be the preferred lighting for PLAY.

A similar idea can be seen in the trailer of “The Land,” a Welsh documentary that records children’s behavior in an “adventure” playground, where they can light fire or use hammers and nails. Due to the nature of the environment, the feeling The Land gives out is very different from PLAY. However, the general idea is the same, as Mohney calls The Land “a definite spiritual sibling for PLAY.”

Although faced with different challenges, Mohney still insists to work on PLAY independently, as he believes that it should not be linked to his job or the company he works for. Furthermore, this is actually not the first time Mohney has worked on film production with children.

A few years ago, Mohney worked on another amateur film with forty children, aging from eight to fourteen, in his native Alabama. “It was kind of a nightmare to get all the kids organized and making sure they were taken care of,” he said. When asked if the past experience is where PLAY stems from, he stated that it is very different from PLAY: “if anything, it sure taught me not to do this.”

With past experience in mind and dealing with a younger age range of children, Mohney seems to have a clear goal in mind for PLAY, as he writes about the excitement it brings him: “No matter how grand or complex the ideas, PLAY will remain grounded in the real: kids having fun together. And kids and adults alike should experience PLAY as a reminder of that pure joy, from any perspective.”

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