Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Life Less Extra-Ordinary

Riddle me this...

Question: Name a job where you can work for 8 hours but never actually do any work?

Okay, besides being a politician, cable installer, or construction worker.

Answer: Background extra.

Twice in the last two months I've worked 8-hour days on TV/film shoots but just sat in extras holding the whole time, never to be called to set.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not complaining. Who wouldn't like getting paid to do nothing?

And both times, I still had a pleasant day getting to make new friends and the meals were good too. So I didn't feel I'd lost anything by being there doing nothing because I still got paid.

But I felt bad for an older gentleman I met on a recent shoot where neither of us were used. It was his first time working as an extra, and he seemed a little bitter that he never made it to set. He said, "I told all my family and friends I was going to be on TV! What am I supposed to say to them now?"

Unfortunately, it happens sometimes. And for anyone interested in working as a background extra, the most important thing to keep in mind (besides always behaving as a professional) is that you should never expect to be on camera. If it happens, great. Call your momma and celebrate. Otherwise, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. I've worked on film shoots that included as many as 300 extras. And in a crowd of 300 extras, do you really think all of them will be seen on camera?

It's called background for a reason. Extras are there simply to provide an element of atmosphere -- a realistic setting for whatever's going on in a scene. Without background, viewers may become aware of how bored they are and realize they are just watching actors blathering at each other. So extras still play a necessary role in production, but on camera they may be out of focus, cropped off at the head or waist, facing away from the camera or merely a silhouette crossing in the distance. And with multiple cameras filming, an extra might be in the frame only for one of them, so there's no guarantee that it will be the shot that the director and editor end up using.

And even if you happen to be close to the cameras while they're rolling, in full focus and everything, you still shouldn't expect to see yourself in the finished product. One of my first experiences working background was on Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys. I was thrilled when I got the call to work on the film because I had heard reports that extras "got good face time" on Tyler Perry's productions. My wife, however, wasn't thrilled about me working on the shoot overnight in downtown Atlanta, but she didn't try to discourage me from something she knew I was really excited about.

The shoot involved a ballroom scene with a few hundred extras, including a full big band orchestra who was hired to not play at all. (Ever try dancing without music or playing an instrument without making noise? Happens on film all the time, and it's a surreal and awkward experience pretending to do so on camera.)

Several times that night I was so close to the camera I could see my reflection on the lens. For one scene, I was placed so close to the principals that I could smell Robin Givens' perfume.

After the film was released, I told lots of family and friends to look for me in the film. And when I finally got a chance to watch it on DVD, I have to say I have never been so excited to see a movie that got mediocre reviews.

So I'm all ready for my big "feature film debut", sitting there on the couch with my wife. And the ballroom scene came and went. It was a lot shorter than I anticipated, and it went by so quick I forgot to really look for myself in the scene. My wife, though, said she didn't see me at all.

So I watched it again.

And...yet again, this time slowing down the frame rate. But I was still nowhere to be seen. By this time, my wife got frustrated with me and went off to play on the internet.

I went through the scene again, frame-by-frame. And finally, I spotted the back of my head in one frame, and my shoulder in another. But it was only because I remembered where I was placed that I knew it was me. My wife didn't believe me at all. "That could be any white guy's head and shoulder," she said frankly.

Which, of course, did nothing to help my ego.

What I discovered, watching the DVD's deleted scenes, was that an entire subplot of the film had been cut, and most of the dialog involving that subplot took place during the ballroom scene.

And that's the way it is for anyone who works background. Heck, even A-List actors' entire scenes have been left on the cutting room floor, so don't think for a moment that your little background contribution might make it in over a cast member's speaking lines. Ultimately, the film is in the hands of the director and the editor, and for an extra it's all in the luck of the edit whether or not you actually appear in the film.

I have since happened to make it on camera occasionally, but that's no longer my motivation for doing background work. I do it for the work and for the experience, and nothing more.

I feel that anyone who enjoys movies and TV shows should work as an extra at least once, just for the experience. My enjoyment comes from being able to see what goes into production. And anyway, it seems wrong to complain about paid work when there are about 15 million unemployed people in America.

And if you get paid to do nothing, accept it and be happy.


  1. Honorable work, as I've done it myself.

    At the very end of the film "Great Balls of Fire," I'm visible from the center of my face on down dancing, to the piano stylings of Dennis Quaid.

  2. Thanks for giving me a reason to watch a great film yet again, John.

  3. You give a good, positive description. I worked background on one movie, and was bored to death. Set-up took all day, and the actual shoot took about 15 minutes.
    I worked background on a commercial for the Stratosphere in Las Vegas. Had a great time! The director and his assistant took the time to know our names, and treated us very nicely.

  4. I would love the experience. where do you find out about extra opportunities?

  5. @Anonymous: It depends on where you live. Some states may have fewer opportunities available. Contact the film commission for the state you live in and they should be able to give you some leads. You might also consider registering with a 100% legit site which will allow you to search for extras opportunities regionally.

  6. Craig, that's crazy. I was in that scene as well. I used to live in Atlanta. Unfortunately, you could also only see the back of my head, but I was in the same boat. Thought I was front and center, but lo and behold, it was not to be.

  7. Getting to see the technical side of "movie magic" has made all my onset experiences worthwhile. Camera time or not it's an incredible thing.

  8. Great advice for people starting out! Thanks for the reminder.

  9. LOL. Thanks for this entertaining post.
    PS You've got a great wife. ;)

  10. Great article! I agree with you. My motivation for working as background is as Julie said, the "magic" of watching many how many skilled dedicated individuals work together to make "IT" happen. It is thrilling to be on the scene with huge names you have admired for many years, but watching the scene come together is an exciting event! I, too, have sat in holding for 11 hours never to make it on set, and on the flip side, have stood for 14 hours in the sun in place for multiple "takes". I always look forward to meeting GREAT PEOPLE and always have a new
    "BESTIE" for the day! It is rewarding and cannot wait for my next experience!!