Extra (Ordinary): A personal account

“Action! Background action!” shouts the director and you begin walking, pretend talking, or simply sitting still and not getting in the way. Being on the set of a movie, music video, or commercial may seem like an exciting experience, but being an extra on these productions isn’t all that glamorous. Hours of waiting around (in sun, wind and rain), clothes that don’t fit, tedious repetition of actions, and all for minimal pay. But when that film, music video, or commercial is released, you hunt for your blurry image in the background. Because let’s face it, without extras most movie scenes would be a handful of featured actors talking to one another in a human vacuum. The extras are essential to making fictional scenes seem more real…more ordinary.

I am still a “newbie” in the extras business. Signing up in November 2015, I told myself that it would be a great way to earn some extra cash and to get behind-the-scenes experience (in the hope that it will look good on my cv when I one day apply to work in the film industry). Since then I have only done 3 jobs as an extra and have had 3 different experiences of the job. So here it is, a personal account from a person with minimal experience about a job occupation that in my opinion is underrated (and that’s not only because I myself do it).

“Hurry up and wait”, the infamous slogan for filmmaking. I have been lucky so far that I haven’t been in a production that required several hours of waiting in scorching sun or icy wind; something which I’ve heard recounted by a number of extras I’ve met on set. But whether it is a small or large production, as an extra you do a lot of sitting and standing around. Waiting for make-up to be done, wardrobe to be checked, lights to be set and cameras to be positioned. So my advice is to always have a book in your bag, or make a new friend because the waiting game can get more boring than soduko.

I’ve met many interesting people on set; students like myself who do the work for extra cash or as a gap year experience, and seasoned extras who have many stories of their experiences and who often do extra and featured work for a living. Try to avoid the Chatty Kathys (unless you yourself are one) because 8 to 12 hours of shooting can be extremely tiring and those people talking your ear off only make it more so.

Yes, you work long hours. I was on one commercial shoot that went overtime, resulting in us working 14 hours (in kitten heels, might I add), but I have also been on a music video set that wrapped us extras after only 6 hours for one scene. It all depends on that specific production. The worst for me was not the 14 hour experience, because that was my first time and I was kept fueled by my own excitement, but my first ever night shoot.

In South Africa in summer (which is the height of filming season), night only really sets in after 8pm. So, night shoots can often go on until 4am or even 6am the next day. I ended up doing this night shoot as a favour to my agency, under the assurance that it wouldn’t go on later than midnight. This was because I knew I had to be up at 5:30am the next morning to get to UCT for an 8am lecture. So I was really peeved when we ended up working till 1:30am, also considering that we were shooting outside in the cold and I wasn’t dressed nearly warm enough for someone recovering from the flu. But, most times you just got to suck it up because you are there to be a body in the background or a head walking across the shot to make the scene look more crowded than it actually is. You learn a lot about how a scene can be made to look the way it does in the movies, and it is often the extras that add the fullness or energy to a frame.

(Imagine how much duller this dance scene from Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) would have looked without the energy from the crowd behind the dancers. Image taken from Crave online)

What made the shoot at least bearable was one extremely friendly and helpful assistant director. He was in charge of the extras, and he made sure that we were all fed, hydrated, clear on what we had to do (as the directors themselves were French and very fussy), and even lent me his own jacket to wear between takes. The people involved in the shooting of a film/commercial can often make or break the experience. I have been very lucky to have mostly worked with friendly crew and cast, but I have heard stories of extras being treated like props. One guy recounted how the meal that he got on a day shoot that had several hundred extras on it, was a packet of crisps and a soggy sandwich. Another extra then shared how on a large film set, the extras were blasted with water without warning. Due to confidentiality agreements between the productions and their employees, I can neither name these people or the productions involved. All I can say is that as an extra you got to be tough and also be able to stand up for yourself if you are treated badly. To anyone who is starting out, a major piece of advice is to never sign anything other than a confidentiality agreement and sign-in sheet on set. Call your agency first to find out what you are signing, because often production companies will get extras to sign off on being featured to avoid having to pay them more for the feature. In the film business, extras are at the bottom, then features (faces shown clearly), then day actors (speaking role for minimal scenes) and then the leads (the characters in the story). As you go up the ladder, you are entitled to a bigger paycheck.

I fear that I might have painted a bleak picture in the subject of being an extra. There are cons yes, but there are also definite pros. First of all you get paid for all that waiting around; and if you go overtime you should get paid for that too. So when I get my money three months after the work has been done, I feel like I’ve won a prize. Plus, for a student like myself a paycheck of R500 to R700 makes a big difference. Secondly, you may be lucky to get to work with some amazing, maybe even famous people. A former classmate of mine got cast as a first class extra (meaning he had a recurring role, working over several weeks) for a major movie production, and he had the extremely good fortune of meeting Daniel Radcliffe. A fact that made me burn with envy. Yet, I live in hope that one day it will be my turn to meet someone I admire as much as DanRad.

Finally, all complaints aside it is a privilege to be on set. Speaking from the perspective of a film student, it is incredible to experience the behind-the-scenes action. I will never forget the first time I watched the playback monitor while a take was being shot. Seeing two simultaneous perspectives at the same time, the real and the recorded, sent chills down my spine.

So I might just be an extra, but I know that I have an important job to do. Without extras, some of the greatest battle, protest, or disaster scenes in films would be non-existent. For example, the image below shows a scene from the movie Stargate (1994) which used thousands of extras for its crowd scenes (image taken from Critictoo Cinema).

Extras add may add the element of the “ordinary” in some scenes but in others, they create the extraordinary. And I for one have learnt to appreciate what a little extra can do.

(Featured image taken from Catherine Sherman)

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