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Movie Extras, What To Do At The Film Set

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Working on the Som Tam Movie set again this week I was reminded of my previous encounters with movie Extras.

Movie Extras are entry level actors or hobbyists who work as crowds and background people in movies. They do not get any lines, they get no camera focus, and they are uncredited (names not shown at the end of the movie) and they don't get to put the movie onto their CV (unless they are lying).

There are several official classifications of movie Extras but the biggest classifiaction differences are in the way each movie Extra acts on set and what he/she does... 

To explain what I mean by this let me tell you a few stories from my personal experience with movie Extras.

Unofficial Classifications Of Movie Extras

Movie Extras do not get paid a lot of money, in fact it is near minimum wage, but this does not mean that they can sit around doing as little as possible. If you have signed on as a movie Extra then you have made an employment agreement and should do your best as in any other endeavour

Insulting Movie Extras 

This week onset I had two seperate movie Extras approach me personally and begin their conversation with an insult about my height. Brilliant. These guys must be living with their heads up their backsides as their social skills are crap.

The first words out of their mouths were insults. You know what they say about first impressions. These guys blew any chance of me taking time to talk to them in the first 2 seconds.

I just walked past them and did not acknowledge them at all - I mean what did they want me to do? Return a joke about their obesely fat stomach? Maybe laugh that they'd be lucky to get ahead in life with an attitude like that?

I am sure it is people like these who spread rumours that certain celebrities are unfriendly and snooty.

Rude Movie Extras

On a TV commercial shoot a while ago I was talking to a couple of french guys who were working that day. These movie Extras were asking me how to become an actor. I explained my basic theories of paying attention, jumping to it, enthusiasm and overt friendliness and left them to it.

5 minutes later the Assistant Director came over "Extras onset please". These guys stood around talking amongst themselves. The A.D. watched them for about 15 seconds and called again "Extras onset please".

One of the guys turned around and said "Yes, when we finish - don't be so rude".

My jaw dropped, when was the last time you spoke to your immediate boss like that when you were interested in getting a promotion?

Lazy Movie Extras 

On another movie shoot I was able to shoot off to grab some water and food between my takes while they filmed some crowd scenes with the movie Extras. 

As I went out the back I saw a bunch of the movie extras standing around the coffee table eating snacks, smoking cigarettes and sipping coffees. WTF?

"Aren't you guys supposed to be filming?" Blank looks returned. I shake my head.

There is another movie Extra nodding off to sleep in a chair. The makeup staff were sitting nearby, one of them got up and moved the electrical fan off the sleeping Extra and pointed it toward the makeup group who were waiting between takes (and therefore working). He was indignant about this and told them off.

Superstar Extras

Standing directly behind me on a movie was a group of movie Extras. Sitting there waiting I could not help but overhear them talking.

They were bad mouthing us - the actors!

Look at these guys they think they are so special. They get whatever they ask for. Did you see they have their own airconditioned room, etc.

They then noticed that I was listening and switched to another language in which I can understand a little and continued talking about us.

The reason Actors are well looked after is that we are more valuable to the production in several ways

  1. We are more skilled as proved by the fact we passed the auditions and beat off all competitors
  2. We are on set the whole shoot and not just one or two days
  3. We are not instantly replaceable, to replace an Actor takes reshooting the movie
  4. Extras can be replaced at a moments notice they are not important to the production
  5. If an Actor is hot, uncomfortable, hungry and/or thirsty it will show in his acting thus lowering the quality of his performance and the movies quality in general
  6. Some of us, like me, have special dietary considerations that need to be met and are brought up as a condition in the contract

As a fellow actor said "All I have to do is snap my fingers and I get whatever I want, yet I ask for less than half of what these guys ask for." 

If you are a movie Extra then you need to elevate yourself from the low skill pack so that you too gain additional benefits on set. You get rewarded by the value you give out, same as in every aspect of life.

Amateur Photographers

There is 1 rule onset any movie set in the world - NO PHOTOS.

If you are a movie Extra DO NOT bring a camera onset and do not take out your mobile phone and start snapping photos.

In America I have heard stories of the Director storming up to the movie Extra taking the camera and smashing it on the ground - then telling the Extra to get off the set and reinforcing this by having security escort the movie Extra out, without pay.

Fair enough.

You may have noticed many movies of the same genre come out at the same time. Suddenly there will be 5 pirate movies, or 8 dinosaur movies, or 7 medieval themed movies. Happens all the time.

Now imagine you are making a quality film with a long lead time due to the quality of filming, editing and promotion. A movie Extra comes on set and takes photos but you don't stop him.

Next thing you know a close replica of your set, your story ideas and your jokes are appearing in a low budget C grade digital DVD movie release. Even though these are your ideas by the time you get your film out it will look like it copied the C grade movie.

On Som Tam one Extra was caught taking photos by the Assistant Director,  who asked for the camera. The Extra refused. The A.D. asked again politely. No.

This went on for several minutes with the A.D. being extremely polite almost pleading for the camera. The Extra stood in his place and said No.One fault of Thai culture is that they sometimes are far too polite.

I was sitting there in a leather jacket in 40 degree (104 fahr) heat sweating my butt off while we were all waiting for this extra to stop being a fool so we could get back to filming. I had enough.

I got up walked to the Extras and said quietly but firmly "Give him the camera.... now.". He did and his photos taken of the set and Actors were deleted and the camera handed back. He was then asked to leave.

Now the most surprising thing is that 2 other movie Extras were sent home earlier in the day without pay because they had been taking photos, what was this guy thinking?

But wait there's more....

30 minutes later another Extra pulls out his phone and starts snapping photos of the set and me. I get up and address the Extra and his friends and tell them they do not have permission to take my photo, they do not have the directors permission to take photos of the set so put the cameras away or..... Go home without pay like the other 3 people have, is it that hard?

This seemed to get the message through to even the most dull witted.

Incompetant Movie Extras

On two seperate occassions I have heard Directors say, and I quote, "F'ing Extras" this was follwed by "Can we get someone else in at this time of day?"

If you watch a home movie you will see people jumping about like fools when they notice a camera on them, yeah it's OK for kids and for silly home video shows but it is not OK on a professional movie set.

Also it is not OK to stand there in focus staring around at the set and the camera. Actors and Extras must NEVER look into the camera unless the Director specifically asks for it.

Just act normal, in fact don't try to act, just be yourself, just be normal. Even if the adrenaline is flowing and you are over excited just be calm, truth is you probably won't see yourself in the final cut anyway.

Once I have been on a TV commercial filming where a movie Extra had to walk past the driveway and on the 2nd step look at the actors before his disappeared behind the fence. 8 takes later the Director is uttering the above words. On the 9th take he gets it... but the other extra in the scene was day dreaming and did not do her part!

On another TVC a young guy on his first job cannot stop giggling, it was a dramatic scene and there is this guy in the crowd giggling with big eyes and looking around the set, on the playback it was noticable, very noticable. The other movie Extras were panicing, upset and horrified at the drama unfolding before them. Again I hear the famous words above and the guy is moved so far back in the crowd scene that they may as well have sent him home. In the final edit you could see his shoes only :)

This is one major reason actros get paid a lot more than extras. Film is very expensive, each take costs hundreds or thousands of dollars. Each stuff up costs a lot.

Good Stories About Extras

Not all movie Extras are bad obviously, the above examples stand out in contrast to the majority who are there to watch a movie being made and make a few bucks in the process. Some are professional Extras and work almost daily as their day job. Some are there with bigger goals in mind. What? A plan? Thinking ahead?

Yes some movie Extras work their way up the ladder to become more, sometimes much more... 

Lastly here are a four stories I know of people who started as movie Extras and went on to be a lot more because they took their job seriously and acted professionally.

Sitting in a casting room years ago this fellow came in overalls covered in dust and greeted all the staff by name, asked how they were and made small talk for a while. The receptionist then told this fellow that there was a casting coming up that he would be suited for. After he left I enquired about him (as I too had taken the trouble to learn the receptionists name and treat her like a human being). Turns out this guy had been an Extra for years and had gotten to know many people in the movie industry. By being know as capable, enthusiastic and reliable he had just completed his first acting role and was now no longer doing Extras work.

A close friend of mine was called in to be an Extra on a Police drama TV series. Being well built, personable, somewhat outspoken and friendly as well as confident with a good work ethic he was pulled from the crowd and asked to read some lines. My mate lookked at the lines and said "Coppers (police) don't talk like that... this is what he'd say..."

The Director was so impressed he gave him a bunch more of his own lines and then at the end of the day my mate (who was new to the industry) called his agent she asked how he went. He replied "they got me to say lines and added in extra stuff for me to do... is that good?"

Next week he had a one year renewable contract as a series regular.

Two guys I know in Thailand started as Extras. Again being enthusiastic, taking the time to get to know the people they were working with and building themselves a good reputation over a few years (includes not making demands and not making trouble) have progressed into a series of acting jobs and extraordinarily one is now a movie producer and the other is working his was up currently as an Assistant Director.

You can work your way up from an extra to an Actor and beyond but it won't happen without you working at it from many angles, networking, personal development, acting lessons, enthusiasm, and a dream to be something bigger.



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