Spotlight: What This Filmmaker Learned From Working With Children

 

Are test scores more important than compassion when judging a student’s worth? That was the question Chang Kai Xiang wanted to examine in his new Viddsee Originals, ‘Final Exam‘.

Viddsee Originals Final Exam Chang Kai Xiang on directing children
Chang Kai Xiang on set with a young cast member

Inspired by an online forum about childhood memories, the thought-provoking film follows three school mates who are tasked to help out a classmate in their next exam, only to find out that it might be her last. That discovery makes them reevaluate their attitudes and approaches to education.

One issue? As a director who had limited experience working with child actors, the thought of shooting a film with four children as primary cast members made Kai Xiang extremely nervous.

Here’s how he brought ‘Final Exam‘ to life, with a little handy advice from his friend.

Working with children means learning to let go

Watching videos, reading articles, and even consulting with fellow filmmakers, the Singaporean filmmaker enthusiastically dived into research on how to coax the best performance from child actors.

Everything was thrown out of the window when he received this advice from a fellow director:

“You will never get the performance you want from kids; you can only play to their strengths.”

With that revolutionary insight, he cast kids based on their real-life personality rather than their performance.

“I tried to be flexible enough to let them be the character instead of dictating how their performance should be. The thing that shocked me the most is how kids are so much smarter than you think!” quips Kai Xiang.

Watch ‘Final Exam’ by Chang Kai Xiang (Singapore) on Viddsee:

Shooting with children makes you authentically present

As part of the production process, Kai Xiang and his team had hand-drawn storyboards to help visualise the film. However, due to the unpredictable nature of his young actors, the storyboards were eventually dropped for improvisation.

“We only managed to follow the first scene of the storyboard. The rest of the shots were basically ‘felt’ on set. It was stressful with the constant fear of not having enough shots, but also liberating because you get to feel the scene more authentically, to be in the moment for the first time.”

Learning how to simplify life from his child actors

“Working with kids forced me to self reflect on my directing approach and to realise my mistakes. I tend to over complicate things,” reflects Kai Xiang.

Nathaniel Ng (Ming), Rayan Malique (Rafiq), Twyla Chloe Ku (Bella) goofing off on set
Nathaniel Ng (Ming), Rayan Malique (Rafiq), Twyla Chloe Ku (Bella) goofing off on set

While his love for telling tragicomedies remains undeterred, the method of distilling a complicated story as simply as possible is something he hopes to continue to refine.

“It’s important to make things as clear as possible, especially when filmmaking is a team effort.”

Up next for Kai Xiang is a scriptwriting role for a TV comedy series on Toggle and directing gigs for a few episodes of Chinese kids TV drama. He’s also hoping to continue his oeuvre and make a thriller film next!

Watch ‘Final Exam’ by Chang Kai Xiang (Singapore) here.

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