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Videotapes of vacations should keep the kids in the picture

The Collett kids couldn't stop laughing. They giggled and guffawed as the tiny, seaweed-covered monster staggered out of the Pacific Ocean, chasing an even smaller girl down the Southern California beach. Suddenly, a brave hero came to the rescue, sending the monster back into the sea.

The video was 10 years old and the plot certainly left plenty to be desired, but the Colletts didn't care. They loved every minute. That's because Jesse, Jeremy and Chelsea were the stars while their sister Kacey had helped their dad direct.

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"You should have seen the one we did where the girls met Big Foot in the mountains," said their dad, Chuck Collett, who, as operations manager of UCLA's film school, advises aspiring filmmakers and video producers. His key for successful family vacation videos: "Always get the kids involved in telling your vacation story."

Before the shooting starts, let them plan out their movie. Have they got a theme or script in mind? What costumes can they improvise? What special effects will they use?

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Bring an inexpensive microphone and let the kids become television reporters, giving their take on the day's sights and sounds, which may be entirely different from the adults'.

Pose them in front of a sign, license plate or bathroom and suggest they each tell something funny that happened that day. Let them become cameramen, each shooting five seconds at a time.

They can even turn the camera on Mom and Dad for a change. "You get a real MTV effect," says Dan Nicholson, who travels the country for Sony Electronics, teaching people to use their camcorders.

"Kids love the power of the camera," adds David Irving, a film professor at New York University who shoots video professionally. But be aware that the kids' efforts, especially at first, might not be the vacation record you were hoping for. The tape shot by Mr. Irving's 10-year-old daughter, Austin, and her cousins on a recent cross-country trip from New Mexico to New York, for example, was "excruciating to watch," he said, full of the "underside of the rental van." When the kids' interest waned, they didn't record the sights at all.

That's not to say many adults' family vacation videos are much better. They zoom in and out so much they make the viewer seasick. The images are choppy because the camera wasn't held steady. They're too long and inevitably boring, focusing on landmarks rather than people.

But that's not stopping anyone from shooting hours and hours of tape on family trips or at family gatherings. These days, in fact, more tourists than ever are seeing the world through a camcorder; Americans are buying nearly 3 million a year. One in five American households now has a camcorder, reports the Electronic Industries Association, a national trade organization.

No wonder it seems as if everyone is busy recording every memorable moment of their family vacations: Yosemite's waterfalls, New York's skyscrapers, Colorado's mountains. Too bad they concentrate on the postcard shots and neglect the family actually doing anything.

Mr. Nicholson suggests starting the video with a close-up of the date the vacation starts circled on the calendar. Shoot the kids packing, or waking up the morning of the trip, he says. Include a tight shot of a sign of the family's destination to frame your arrival in Orlando, at the Grand Canyon or your hometown.

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Let the scene speak for itself, Mr. Nicholson urges, and keep narration to the minimum. "Watch your favorite TV show and see what they do," he suggests. Another tip: Use a tripod to avoid jerky images and don't zoom or pan the camera too much.

Think about the shots you want before aiming the camera, professionals suggest. Most times, the place is just a backdrop for capturing the family at a particular moment. Don't be afraid to get in close and record what's really happening, good and bad.

Veteran network news cameraman Blake Hottle says his family still laughs watching one of his first film efforts, recounting the time his parents led the kids up to a historic fort in Alaska.

"We got there and it was closed," explained Mr. Hottle. "I filmed us walking there, the closed sign and then my dad's face."

Each segment should have a beginning, middle and an end, suggests Mr. Hottle, who frequently shoots stories for CBS' "48 Hours" program. Don't spend all day behind the camera, either. It's not necessary.

"Put the camera down and enjoy the place," suggests Denis O'Keefe, a Philadelphia-based network news cameraman.

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"If one shot is longer than 10 or 15 seconds, it's too long," adds Sony's Mr. Nicholson.

And go for the laughs. "It's the family interaction that's funny," says Barbara Bernstein, the producer of the network program "America's Funniest Home Videos," where four staffers screen as many as 1,000 home videos a week. One of the biggest mistakes people make: They stop shooting when something funny happens. And they don't get tight enough shots of the kids.

Ms. Bernstein believes there are still plenty of funny vacation videos out there, and she wants them. (Send them to "America's Funniest Home Videos," P.O. Box 433, Hollywood, Calif. 90078. If you want your tape returned, enclose a $3 handling fee.)

Even if your vacation videos aren't funny enough for network television, they certainly can entertain family and friends rather than put everyone to sleep. Just remember to:

* Turn off the camera and move in for a close up rather than constantly using the zoom.

* Avoid shooting into the sunlight.

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* Brace against a tree, car or telephone pole to keep the camera steady.

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And don't forget the extra batteries -- and the charger.

Eileen Ogintz is the author of "Taking the Kids to the Pacific Northwest" and travel guides for children on the American Southwest and Northern and Southern California (HarperCollins West). Taking the Kids invites reader questions and comments about family travel. Send them to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.



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