November 03, 2009

So you want to work in films?

 As regular readers of this blog will know I've been doing some work in film and television recently. In fact over the summer I was in three of the top four movies being shot in the UK along with prestigious TV shows such as 'Cranford', 'Larkrise to Candleford', 'The Legend of Dick and Dom', and my personal favourite ever job which was a music video for a long-time chart artist making a come-back in the new year. (I can't tell you much about it as I am under a non-disclosure agreement. But it was a lot of fun and should be out February time)

I've had a number of people ask me how to get into this business so I thought I would write a few words about the whole process.

What's it like?
The first thing to remember is that this is usually a profession with long hours, early starts and low wages. If you don't like getting up early (4.30am for the music video I mentioned), working late (11pm finishes for 'Clash of The Titans') and earning very little (a 'basic' daily rate is about £100 including travel etc.) don' get involved. Sure you can get some cushy jobs - I auditioned for a chewing gum commercial last year which would have involved a week's filming in Cape Town (all expenses paid) followed by a 'buy-out' payment of £15,000 to use my image across the internet - but these are exceptions rather than the rule.

The kind of work I do - generally referred to as 'background' or 'supporting artiste' involves a lot of waiting around, a lot of repetition and some not very pleasant conditions. On the one hand you can get to do some fabulous work with people like Jessica Biel, John Cusack, Dame Judy Dench, Alexa Davalos, Jim Carter, Michael Sheen and William Hurt. You get to see first hand how movies and television are put together and occasionally you have something quite extraordinary happen (such as being served cake personally by Russell Crowe to celebrate the birthday of a co-actor). On the other hand you can end up standing in a field with 300 other people dressed in 6 layers of clothing (including some rather unpleasant smelling under-layer clothes), carrying a sword, a spear and a shield in the heat of a July day and waiting for 7.5 hours while the film crew decide to re-write the scene you are currently filming.

So how do I get into the business?
The good news is that it is now incredibly easy to get into the supporting artiste business. All you do is get yourself attached to an agency. Back in the mists of time you had to have an Equity card to be eligible to even walk onto a film set, let along stand in front of the camera. But now you just fill in a form, send off some pictures and wait. The agency usually accepts you and you go on their books. There are many, many agencies operating in the UK. For a list of reputable ones check out the National Association of Supporting Artistes Agents web-site. There are others out there who are not registered with the NSAA and they are perfectly fine as well. The key to remember is that no reputable agency will charge you for registering with them. Many will deduct an admin charge from your first pay-check, but this means it is in their best interest to get you some work to pay them.

How do I get work?
Usually a film company, say , will be looking for a number of folks to put in the background of shots. (As a typical example, watch this clip from 'Easy Virtue'. Everyone in the scene apart from the main actors can be classified as 'Supporting artistes)

This scene will probably have taken two days to shoot (All this for a clip which lasts 1:46 mins!). The production manager will decide that they need, say, 36 people to be in the background for this shot and they will need them for two days. He or she will send out a call to the agency (or agencies) that the film company is working with. They will specify age ranges, personality types (For example in a movie set in mythological Greek times there will be lots of darker skinned folks and very few blonde haired people). The agency will consult their lists of people and identify a short list of about 50 or 60 people. This short list will be contacted first to see if they are available on the required days (sometimes by phone usually by text). Those that are available will have their names put forward (along with the photo's you have on file with the agency) and the casting director will then choose the 36 people they need. These folks will be confirmed and allocated a 'fitting'.  A fitting is where the artiste visits a wardrobe location and has an outfit made up for them (in their size) from hired clothing the production has paid for. This will then be tagged with their name and shipped to the location for them on the day of the shoot. At this time a visit to make-up will determine what additional changes will need to be made (hair cuts, wigs, beard etc) and these will also be noted. All fittings are deemed to be paid work and you will receive payment for attending them. Usually fittings are either at the major film studios (Pinewood, Shepperton, Elstree) or at costume houses (Angels in Hendon or Cosprop), but I have also been to a lock-up storage facility in Battersea for a costume fitting!

What happens on the day?
A day or so before the shoot you wil be given your call details. This lists where you need to go, when you need to arrive there and who you need to contact. It will also provide any additional information such as transportation details, parking and special conditions. Guard this information carefully! As a supporting artiste you are expected to arrive on time (and this could anytime from 5.30am to midday for a day shoot, or 4.30pm to midnight for a night shoot) and be professional at all times. Typically you will be told to 'Arrive at Pinewood Studios for a 6.30am call and contact Jess who is the crowd AD (Assistant director)'. On arrival at the location (or studio) you will usually find the catering bus which is where everyone will congregate. Find someone (anyone!) with a radio and earpiece and ask for Jess. You will  usually be directed to a young lady with an ear-piece, a raft of documents clipped to her belt and comfortable boots to allow her to spend all day on her feet. She will cross your name off a list and give you a 'chit'. The chit is the all important document. Keep it with you, fill in the relevant details and make sure somebody in authority signs it at the end of the day. If you don't get it signed you won't get paid. (Take a copy of the chit (they are usually triplicated) and file it to reconcile back to the payment you get at a later date. If there is a discrepancy make sure you check it out). The next order of business is usually breakfast. Almost without exception all shoots will be catered and the catering is usually very good. Make the most of the breakfast. Have your cooked food if you want it, or cereal, fruit, yoghurts, toast, porridge etc. Avail yourself of the fruit juices and coffees. On some shoots there will even be a separate van that has a cappuccino machine and smoothie maker! You will be called to go to costume and have the same clothes fitted that were chosen when you went to the fitting, then you'll go to make-up. This can vary from a 10 second brush of the hair and general tidying up to a more in-depth application of beards etc. (For the picture below it took nearly 1.5 hours to get me made-up including wig, beard, mustache, face make-up, body make-up and application of mud)

Then the waiting starts. This could be anything from 5 minutes to 5 hours*. When the director is ready to shoot the scene you are in you will be called to the set. An assistant director will corral you all to your respective places, give you some direction or something to do and, maybe, tell you what else is going to happen in the scene. You will then stand around and wait until the main actors are called, then you rehearse. Then you shoot. Then you rinse and repeat as the cameras are moved to different locations and the lights are changed accordingly.

At some point in the day you will break for lunch. The cast and crew get to eat first as they are only contracted for a lunch break of however long it takes them to eat. As supporting artistes you are contracted for a full hour lunch break. Any less will involve a charge for the production company.

At the end of the day it's costumes off and line up to get your chit signed. A good day's work

Let's talk money shall we. As a standard background artiste you will not make enough money to live on. I mentioned above that a basic day's pay is around £100. This is a 'general' figure and not be taken for granted - it depends on a number of things. The money can be substantially higher, but it can also be lower. Remember also that out of that money you will have your travel expenses to pay and the agency will take a commission (and if it's your first pay check an admin fee) plus National Insurance and VAT. The work can be sporadic (I worked pretty much full time over summer but had almost 9 months with NOTHING prior to that), and things can change at the last minute. The kicker with this is that people who have a full time job are usually not the best people to take this kind of work because they need the flexibility to be able to change at the last minute, but if you don't have a full time job you usually can't earn enough money to support yourself. If you're in this to make a fortune then you will be disappointed. Very much. Yes, I mentioned the advert I auditioned for last year that would have paid me £15,000 for one weeks work, but this is an exception rather than the rule. If it happens it's great, if not don't count on it.

I've really enjoyed the work I've done as a background artiste. Each shoot has taught me something about the business and about myself. If you can stand the waiting around, the fact that the money is dreadful and that on large shoots you get herded around like cattle rather than human beings (you know what I mean Merry-Men Films) then this is a great job for you. Otherwise get yourself a bar job where the money is known, the work constant and the conditions favourable. You'll thank yourself later.

* That's assuming you are used at all. A colleague of mine was on a feature film last year and he had five days work but spent three of those days on the bus waiting to be called. He still got paid, though.


  1. very interesting read Gary - so who's the chart artist? Is it Shaky?

  2. Can't tell you too much about the shoot because of the NDA, but the artist was around quite a bit later than Shaky. Think:
    "You took me to your rented motor car and filmed me on the bonnet.
    You got me to hitch my knees up and pulled my legs apart.
    You took an instamatic camera and and pulled my sleeves around my heart"