August 25, 2008

Extras - The unsung folks who make the film world go round.

Working on a film sounds glamourous. Believe me it isn't. Film work is the equivalent of working yourself into a state of stress and exhaustion just to watch a patch of paint dry. It's a typical case of 'Hurry up and wait!". Everything on a film is vitally important but not really urgent. Until it is urgent.

I work as a "supporting artiste" (extra) on film, television and commercials. So I know what I'm talking about.

If you've ever wanted to get into this field it is extremely interesting if you are interested in the process of film making, otherwise it is endless tedium. Let me take you through a typical day:

I was asked to do a days work on a large Hollywood blockbuster which had been filming in London before heading out to the Far East. I was cast as a newspaper reporter working in a newsroom in the 1940's

A couple of day before I had spent a few hours up at Elstree Studios North of London (Which is where the original Star Wars was filmed) to do a costume fitting. The room was an old rehearsal venue on the 2nd floor which was completely filled with racks of period costumes. Trousers, shirts, jacket, three-piece suits, ties, shoes hats etc,. You name it, they had it. The whole idea of a costume fitting is that someone (usually a young lady) takes your measurements and then disappears off into the serried ranks before reappearing clutching an outfit you might like. This is followed by several rounds of fitting - where the clothes are swapped out for ones that are actually your size, or ones that are a completely different style to the ones that were originally brought - until you end up with a look they 'like'. These items are tagged with an identification for you and that's your fitting done.

On the day of the shoot, it is usually an early start. We were shooting in a building just by Covent Garden, London, and I was originally given an 8.30 call-time (Which is fairly late for a film shoot). The night before this was swapped for a 10.30 call time - which is VERY unusual.

I duly arrived at the location where the first thing that happens is.. you wait. This is where you meet your fellow extras. There were about 40 of us in all and we milled around introducing ourselves to each other. Sometimes you see somebody you met at the fitting, sometimes it's someone you saw at a previous shoot.

After a while you will be called in for your costumes and make-up. The outfit that was chosen for you at the fitting will usually be there on a rack, so you slip it on and hope it works. The costume designer will usually be there casting a learned eye over the finished product just to make sure it looks right. This is usually the time on period dramas where I am fitted with a different tie, or made to wear/carry a hat of some sort.

After that it's into make-up.' Make-up' in this sense refers to having your hair plastered down with some gelatinous gloop similar to the stuff they use on children's TV to coat guests in when they get 'slimed' (If you don't know what I'm referring to here then you've obviously led a sheltered childhood), after which you... wait.

A some point in the middle of the waiting you will be sent off for breakfast. Catering is usually a high-point on a film set and, almost without exception, the food has been very acceptable on all shoots. Generally the cast and crew eat first then the extras. Then it's back to....more waiting.

Usually a good book is the order of they day. More frequently than that is the discussion about what we are going to get paid, how long the day is going to be and what other work is being lined up for you. Payment is standard and uniform - which means that everyone will be paid the same hourly or daily rate unless they get asked to do something different such as say a line of dialogue. A typical working day is split into one of three types "A Standard Working day" which finishes at a set time in the evening usually 6.30pm, 'A standard Working night" which is identical to a standard working day but starts and finishes later, and a "Continuous Working Day" which starts at any time finishes at anytime, but consists of a set number of hours. Once those hours are finished the production goes into overtime. The period film I was working on was a continuous working day. This meant that anything after about 5.30 was considered overtime.

Eventually we got called onto the set. This is the part that excites me the most. Usually there are two facets to a set: The things the camera sees and the things the camera doesn't see. The things the camera sees are usually very meticulously set-up, clean (when needed) and minutely detailed. The things the camera doesn't see are usually lined with cables, travel cases and sweaty grips talking about "What's the next show you're on?" It certainly is a world of two halves.

Co-ordinating this mayhem - from a supporting artiste point of view - is usually the role of the second assistant director. He is generally an overworked, harassed individual who is trying to decipher the wishes of the director, manage conflicting priorities and herd gaggles of extras around the set. Also this is usually the only point in the proceedings where the extras come first. We are usually the first on the set. This allows lighting to be finished, set decoration to be completed and camera's to be positioned. All through this you are supposed to.... wait.

There is more fiddling around with lights and moving the camera, and then the assistant director will tell everyone what they are supposed to do. "In this scene the lead will walk in and be introduced by his boss. Everyone is to acknowledge him and then get back to their work. I want lots of energy - but no sound". We were to hear a lot of this during the day "Lots of energy but no sound". I like this part of the shoot. This is when you're actually on the set, the camera is pointing towards you and you have some idea of what is expected of you. This is the point where you can decided how to 'work on' the action to make it more deliberate. On this particular film I had a typewriter, a stack of papers and an old Bakelite telephone on the desk in front of me. The direction was 'Look busy', so I started by doing some typing. I than added to this by whipping the paper out of the typewriter. Finally I decided that would be an appropriate time to answer a phone call.

Eventually the stars will arrive and take their places. The star of this particular shoot was very friendly and even said 'Hello'

A 'take' of a scene can last from 30 seconds to well over 3 minutes. Depending on what the director is looking for there can be multiple takes. On one film I actually did a complete 3 minute take 16 times! When the director is happy there will be movement around the set as the camera's are repositioned for 'the reverse angle' and the whole thing starts again. If the move can be done within a minute or two everyone will be asked to ... wait. Otherwise you are all marched bak to a holding area where you can engage in that worthwhile activity of .. waiting some more.

Lunch will be taken at some point during the day and this will involve further waiting. Eventually the second AD will release you and - after having your pay slip signed - you can go. On this particular day I left the set at 10.30pm having arrived at 10am. This resulted in a huge chunk of overtime as well (which was nice)

It's pretty much the luck of the game about whether you will end up on screen. I worked on a film with Jessica Biel recently where I played a pit mechanic on a car she was driving. I had a close up shot as well so there is a reasonable chance I'll be on the screen (unless they cut the whole scene). Plus I got to have lunch sitting next to Jessica! However, on Shanghai (with John Cusack) I was directly in front of John as the scene was being shot and even had co-star Hugh Bonneville standing next to me delivering lines. There is a very good chance I will be on screen for this one. The flip side to this is a recent commercial I did for a well known brand of potato chips. I was one of 250 extras who were being shot in 20 different configurations for a large crowd scene. I recently watched the finished product and - even though I am on there over 20 times - I am completely indistinguishable from everyone else.

Such is the work of the supporting artiste.

Supporting Artistes in the UK are covered by the NASAA Union who's web site is here

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  1. well did you hear about the extras who got hurt on Tom Cruise's new movie and are suing for millions?

  2. I didn't hear about that. But it doesn't surprise me.

    You know, things are going to happen on film sets. Don't get me started on film set accidents (Vic Morrow, Brandon Lee, Roy Kinnear)

    But then again accidents happen all the time.

    Luckily the Tom Cruise extras had someone to sue for it!

  3. They won't be suing Tom Cruise, that's for sure, unless they tripped over him. Shortarse.

    The production company will have public liability cover. Tom Cruise is totally protected.

    Shame, really,

  4. Actually, if I think about it, isn't Tom's new movie being released though United Artists? Who owns United Artists now. Oh, yes. That's right. it's Tom Cruise.

    Maybe they will end up suing him!

  5. Nah... it'll be the insurance comapny who loses, that's what I meant.

    P.S. Extras don't make the world go round. They make actors feel good about themselves.