by Carrie Specht
The background artist, or extra is the most thankless and overlooked position on any production. In a sense, it needs to be. After all, if you’re paying more attention to what’s going on with the people in the background than you are to the main actors then someone hasn’t done their job right. Although, there is a lot of time and energy spent on making sure this important contributing factor to the atmosphere of a production is just so, it is vital that it not draw any attention to itself. This result is virtually the definition of a classic “catch-22” otherwise know as, “mutually conflicting dependent conditions”. Welcome to movie making!
There are some important basic guidelines that will help the background artist achieve the goal of aiding production to their fullest ability, while at the same time making the most of the experience. The following are just a few of the more obvious points. As your experience grows, so will your understanding of what is expected of you and you’ll be able to achieve every one of these goals without thinking about it. That’s when you’ll know you’re a pro.
Be on time. Punctuality is important for any job. Yet, there seems to be a popular misconception that tardiness is the norm in the entertainment industry – that it’s no big deal if you’re a few minutes late. This is perpetuated by the well-publicized antics of name actors. However, unless your name is used as a tool to promote the project you’re working on you better be on time and ready to work. This means you are dressed, made up and have already eaten and gone to the bathroom by your set call time. Period. There are literally thousands upon thousands of people ready to take your place, so you really don’t want to give those responsible for hiring you a reason to replace you. Many Assistant Directors (the crew members to whom you answer directly) are jaded by bad experiences with background artists, and they don’t have the inclination to deal with someone who is going to be difficult in any way, shape, or form. They simply don’t have the time. So, start off on the right foot by being on time, early even, but not too early. Someone who is ridiculously early can be as much trouble as someone who is late. They just get in the way. Fifteen minutes is early enough. If you have to, wait in your car before arriving at the designated check in point. Otherwise, you may be considered a nuisance.
Be prepared. If you have been instructed to bring a specific type of clothing or item such as a backpack, purse, etc., then do so. And make an effort to match the request as precisely as possible. If you’ve been requested to appear in cocktail attire, country club casual or some other description with which you are unfamiliar then “Google” it. There’s no excuse in today’s world of instant information for not knowing what is meant by a particular style of dress code. Also take the time to make sure your items of clothing are presentable. Do not show up with a couple of quickly selected items that barely meet the description and are obviously in need of ironing, cleaning, or worse. Remember, you have been asked to bring a specific selection for the purpose of speeding up the process of preparing you for camera, not slowing it down. This means you should definitely not answer a call for something you know you cannot fill. If you don’t have a tuxedo, don’t take the job that requires one, thinking you can show up and have wardrobe fit you for one. It is highly unlikely that will happen and you will be sent home without pay. The same goes for make up and hair. If the scene you’ll be working on requires extra care in grooming you need to check in with that already done. That goes for men too! Particularly if you are informed ahead of time that you will be playing a cop or other uniformed position. Your sideburns and facial hair (let alone the hair around your collar line) is expected to be appropriate to the role. If it isn’t, then do not be surprised when you are asked if it’s okay to cut your hair or shave your face. If it is not okay with you (which is absolutely your prerogative) then you should not have taken the job.
Be flexible. If you are booked to be a doctor in a hospital, but upon arrival are asked to switch to being a patient, please be gracious enough to do so without hesitation. Similarly, if you are given one set of instructions for your on screen business, and then someone else comes along and gives you an entirely different set of instructions, simply and quickly inform the second person that you have already been “set” and by whom. They will either leave you with your first set of instruction or tell you that your instructions are being changed. Both results happen all the time. The first because the second person did not know you had been “set”, and the second because things change quickly on set, and you need to be ready to change with them.
Be attentive. Please use your common sense here. If a person of authority is talking, do not be paying attention to anything else but that person. If you are on set, do not be doing anything other than standing by to do your business, whether that’s what you’ve been informed to do or waiting to be informed what to do. It is most aggravating when someone has very little time to set the background and the background artist isn’t paying attention. You need to know what you’re doing as well as what others around you are doing, because often times your cue is motivated by the actions of another background artist. You do not want to be the person who says, “I don’t understand. Who am I waiting for? When do I go? Can you say that again?” More than likely, you will not be asked back, let alone included in the more complicated setups, thus reducing your screen time.
Be alert. If something around you changes you need to be aware of it. However, these changes are not always directed at you so you need to be able to notice them. If you’re working on a scene where the cue of one background artist is dependent on the next and so on, and one of those cues is changed then there is a domino effect. So if you’re alert enough to pick up on this whether or not the Assistant Director has told you directly that person will be in your debt for being on top of things. If in doubt, ask. This is a good question and your alertness will be appreciated.
Be polite. Smiles and good manners go a long way. I was once told that I looked upset and unapproachable. After reviewing several pictures of myself I saw that I did indeed look angry in many of them even though I know that I was not. As it turned out, my face in its natural relaxed state was a scowl. It took some time and a lot of practice but I trained myself to smile no matter what. I’m not saying that if a devastating accident occurred right in front of me I wouldn’t respond appropriately, but I now smile when relaxed. Most people now find me pleasant and approachable. I don’t think you have to be insincere, but things generally go a lot smoother when those involved make the effort to be pleasant. Yes, it may be a very long day of repeating the same actions over and over. But remember, the same will be true for everyone else too, so you might as well make the most of it.
Be in the moment. Don’t be watching the clock. Your day will go much slower if you do, I guarantee it. Instead, take every opportunity to learn from what’s going on around you. It may be a long day, but it will be a much fuller one that goes by surprisingly quickly when you strive to make every moment an opportunity to grow in your knowledge and skills as a member of the on set team. You never know what you might learn from the every day experience if you pay attention.
Be professional. Do not take anything personally, and take the good with the bad. Sadly, there will be times when you are treated unfairly and with a manner that may seem disrespectful if not out and out so. That’s just the way it is. But more than likely when this happens it will have nothing to do with you. On the other hand, when you are treated with exception it will likely have a lot to do with you and your ability to go with the flow.
Be willing. Do not moan about doing the work. It’s not as if it will change anything any way. Remember, most people on set are not performing their dream job. More than likely all most everyone (cast and crew) is looking to move up in one way or another. Everyone will have something to complain about, but the one that works time and again is the one who is smart enough to keep it to him or herself and readily pitches in when called upon.
Be safe. I cannot stress this point hard enough. Sets can be dangerous places. Watch out for cables, water spills, protruding light stands, etc. It is important to always pay attention to where you are going. If you see something that you think may be a hazard then tell someone with production (a PA or AD). Hazards can’t be attended to unless someone says something. And don’t do anything that may make you uncomfortable. If you are asked to do anything that makes you uncomfortable then simply say so. Don’t make a big deal about, and don’t make a scene, just simply say you are uncomfortable with the request. Don’t feel the need to explain yourself. In fact, it’s less time consuming if you don’t. It doesn’t matter if you feel unsafe making a cross amid traffic, would rather not lift a heavy item, your reasons are your own and should in most cases be respected. After all, you need to be able to work on your next job and you don’t want to do anything on this job that will physically prevent you from taking the next one.
Be smart. If you end up being called out for your work because in someone’s eyes you made a mistake, don’t throw the blame on anyone else by saying something like, “But the AD told me to do that”. That’s considered “throwing someone under the bus”. Just listen to what they want you to do differently and do it. And if you realize you’re about to collide with another background artist (or worse, a lead actor) use your best judgment to adjust your timing. You can pause, change your pace, hesitate longer at your start mark, but be sure not to cause a distraction that will pull the focus from the main action. The ADs will thank you for it.
Be tolerant. Not everyone around will have the same attitude about the work. Do not let them bring you down, and be patient with them. The Assistant Director who is currently being less than charming may have just had a bad run in with the Producer or Star of the show. Their bad mood will pass; so don’t give them any reason to associate that previous bad experience with you. Nor should you let the jaded background artist contaminate you with their negativity. Take what the complainers say with a grain of salt and consider the source. You’re also going to have to deal with those who have dominant personalities and strong opinions. You may vehemently disagree with someone you are forced to work with, but the set of a movie or TV show is not the place to debate anyone.
Be positive. This is probably the most important thing to do. The set of any production is a great place to learn about your craft, about the behind the scenes needs of the business, and about dealing with all types of personalities, so be sure to take advantage of the opportunity. You may not be working under the best conditions, nor be treated with the greatest respect but you can’t let that effect you. Remember all of the positive aspects of the job. After all, you have a job in a clean and safe place where you don’t have to dig ditches (unless of course you’re cast you as a ditch digger). You’re attitude will make all the difference in what you get out of every experience, so do your best to make each experience an enriching one.