Sunday, March 20, 2011

Extras! Extras! Read all about them!

I should probably save this for Friday but a reader wanted to know if extras talked softly and if so is it distracting to the main cast?

The extras don’t talk. They just mouth conversations. The background hub bub is added later in post production. If they did talk it would be (a) distracting, (b) hard to match takes when we edit back and forth between takes, (c) they would have to be paid, and (d) God knows what bullshit they’d say.

On multi-camera shows extras are generally brought in the last day or two. The Second Assistant Director is in charge of placing them, telling them where to walk and when. Invariably when I was directing there would be a woman placed at a table with Marge Simpson hair that completely blocked out the stars. Or someone would be told to cross in front of a star just as he was delivering his punch line. Occasionally you find an extra looking at the camera.

I always picture an union meeting (they do have a union – SEG, Screen Extras Guild) where everyone is incensed, waving arms, pumping fists, and mouthing their passionate views.

Even though extras are not allowed to talk they are allowed – even encouraged to act. Or should I say, “react”? Cheer when someone makes a big announcement. Silently gasp in horror when someone spontaneously bursts into flames.

I remember an episode of the old SUPERMAN series. The bad guys wore full lead helmets (Superman can’t see through lead). There was a scene where two of them were walking down the hall in the Daily Planet building en route to a meeting with Perry White. Two extras entered from the other direction and didn’t even notice that there were two guys in suits and hats with LEAD HELMETS!!

I was directing an episode of ALMOST PERFECT that featured a giant pie fight scene (actually 800 custard tarts). We had our cast and sixty extras. For three days I choreographed and rehearsed the scene with rice cakes. Once cameras were rolling I knew I only had one take. (My inspiration was the great Laurel & Hardy pie fights.)

I was trying to work out a thousand things at once when this extra comes up and announces she would not like to be hit with any pies. Please place her accordingly. I said, if you don’t want to be in the pie fight then we’ll just replace you. No, no, she said in a very prim voice, she’d do it, but I was to instruct all the other extras to spare her specifically from any incoming pies? I said, I would see what I could do.

Okay, I know I’ll roast in hell for this but I did instruct the other extras. And when cameras rolled this girl got pelted with hundreds of pies. From all directions. Just bombarded. (It seems that she had managed to annoy all of them too.) I look back at that episode and the sight of her just getting blasted with pies makes me fall on the floor laughing every time. Like I said, I know there are not going to be any harps where I’m going.

Being an extra looks like an easy job but it’s not. There’s a lot of down time that can get real boring. The pay isn’t great. Job security is nil. There’s pie in your hair for weeks. In general it’s a very thankless job. The common name for extras in Hollywood is “background”. How many people in their college yearbook list “background” as their dream job of choice?

But they perform a very useful and important function. And I’m happy to speak on their behalf… since they themselves can’t without being paid day player rates.

35 comments:

Charles H. Bryan said...

"... everyone is incensed, waving arms, pumping fists, and mouthing their passionate views."

That's just damn funny.

I look forward to posts from 'anonymous' saying that you're a cruel person for hitting that woman with pies.

wv: monoyst - the practice of marrying one's self. Funny, until you need a divorce.

Carlos M Hernandez said...

You're a cruel man, Mr. Ken Levine.

Nathan said...

I worked on one movie where the 2nd A.D. liked to stage mini-vignettes in the deep background with the extras. Nobody would ever notice during the actual shoot, but we'd sit there in dailies and suddenly everyone would notice the "purse snatching scene" taking place across the street from our shot.

Nat G said...

I did some extra gigs - yes, the long waits can be boring, but it's a great way of getting on the set and seeing how it's all done. And it can be a path toward SAG qualification. And one ends up with good stories; how else can one end up saying "I spent the day dressed up as Ben Franklin and kissing a beautiful woman - for profit!"?

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

I figured she'd get bombarded with pies the minute she introduced herself to you. Personally, I think she had it coming.

There was an episode of Star Trek (DS9, to be exact), where one of the extras was wounded by the villain. I remember a story that this particular extra called the villain a spoon-head and a microphone picked it up. It was never meant to be audible, but you could still hear this bit on the final mix. The writer of the episode, René Echevarria, also mentioned that there was dialogue written for extras, but it didn't go through the same channels as regular character dialogue.

Johnny Walker said...

Yep, the pay is next to nothing, and the hours are long. That's not too bad, but sometimes you're treated like crap. I remember hearing some actor did some extra work before he was famous and couldn't believe how horrible they were all being treated. (He may have walked, I can't remember.)

Since he's found success as a big name actor, he's always tried to make sure background is being treated well. Or so he says.

Anonymous said...

There is no SEG anymore. It was absorbed by the Screen Actors Guild. Now they are a full, VOCAL voice at contract meetings and negotiations.
Just take a moment to let that sink in.

Also, the pay is, indeed, bad. On films or TV. For commercials, it can be quite lucrative and the opportunity for upgrade is high.

The Quis said...

I've heard a director call extras "Props that Eat."

Simon H. said...

The pie throwing scene in question for the newcomers here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_gJYJPn0IY

I have it narrowed down to two extras myself.

Cap'n Bob said...

SCTV did a great sendup on extras. Joe Flaherty, doing a frantic Kirk Douglas impression, said actors liked to play a game--seeing how close they could get to extras without acknowledging their presence.

Ian Sokoliwski said...

I've done some work as an extra, and have always really enjoyed it. But I do have a pretty flexible schedule, so that helps a lot. Plus, you know, I like pie.

RCP said...

Roast in Hell? You probably did pie woman a favor.

My friend John and I were extras in Howard Stern's Private Parts - part of a crowd scene, naturally. Requirements? That you could move upright and stand still when directed. Having a tendency to jump the gun (and sometimes make ridiculous assumptions) I wore a bright red shirt, certain I'd be able to spot myself in the film and proably be discovered - I was already worried about handling the pressures of fame. Of course, 57 other people wore the same color. It was a fun day's work - though one scene had to be reshot because an extra had looked straight into the camera and mouthed "HELLO" to his buddies.

Mac said...

That made me laugh. Albeit an evil laugh. If you're going to demand that you don't want to be hit by pies, well that's much the same as demanding to be hit by pies. Either way, you'll be hit by pies.
I shot a dinner scene once where I was told at the last minute that due to a black hole in finance, "father" was now an extra and couldn't speak. Having cut his lines, which were crap anyway, he sat there nodding and smiling at everyone else.
As soon as possible, I got "mother" to say "I expect you'll be going out now, dear?" (Where? It was never explained). He nodded mutely and left most of his dinner uneaten.
It was not a Bafta-nominated show.

Pat Reeder said...

To RCP:

I'm amazed they were able to shoot the Howard Stern movie. I figured that every time they turned the camera on, some extra would jump in front of it and yell, "Bababooey!!"

D. McEwan said...

I have an ex-friend whom I now loathe who was a "Background Artist" on Murphy Brown for 5years, which used all of his limited talent. He's one of the guys in Murphy's FYI office walking around "working" in the background, though he got a name, "Tony," in one episode, when he got to tell Murphy she had a phone call, and she had to reply "Thanks Tony."

Anyway, I asked him once:"Since your job is pretending to work, if you went in and actually did some work, would they fire you for goofing off?"

That pie woman story is hilarious. This is one time when "She was asking for it" works as a defense, because she was doing everything but wearing a "Hit Me With a Pie" T-shirt. Soupy Sales would have roared.

Side note: it's raining extemely hard in Los Angeles today, and today is the LA Marathon. I laugh. No one is handing them water. The Triumph of the Wise Couch Potatoes.

Charles H. Bryan said...

But what if Pie Lady were exercising reverse psychology because she WANTED to be hit with all of those pies and thus perhaps become the most noticed person in the crowd? What if she's just that kind of evil genius? And, if so, what would she be doing with her life today?

I bet she's Sarah Palin's publicist.

Zman said...

My father-in-law is a writer who had his novel made into an indie film. He was good friends with the director who cast him in a quick bit at the beginning. Because he wasn't SAG, they had to dub over his voice (he is heard on the phone and seen in the background).

My wife had a walk through in the park and as the main actor rode past her on a bike he said hello. She responded naturally, and said "Hello" back. All of a sudden, she had to get paid, even though the scene ended up getting cut.

Reno said...

One minor Hollywood producer said the first thing you should do on the first day of production is have all the extras lie down in a parking lot, then run over them with a large truck. Else you'll get screwed over in all imaginable ways.

What he'd then do without them, he didn't say. Is CGI cheaper than live extras?

D. McEwan said...

Having now watched the scene (Yours. I know the Laurel & Hardy scene backwards. Thanks, Simon H.), I must say, every other time I've ever heard someone shout "TART FIGHT!", it was a very different, if no less messy, event.

Props to Kevin Kilner for carrying her out in his arms over that now-VERY slippery floor.

Matt Patton said...

To heck with the nasty extra lady--I love the part where the singer gets dive-bombed after she breaks into FLASHDANCE -- Too bad that didn't happen to Irene Cara when she was recording it . . . And she could actually sing.

D. McEwan said...

For any who'd like to see the Laurel & Hardy original, here it is. A masterpiece of timing and construction.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDgnqfepRfI

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Like I said, I know there are not going to be any harps where I’m going.

Parsippany, New Jersey? ;)

D. McEwan said...

And here's the mammoth pie fight in The Great Race, where Tony Curtis is apparently Ken's extra.

Ken, I can't believe you passed up a perfectly good opportunity to put up a picture of Natalie Wood covered in banana cream, I mean banana cream pie.

I wonder how long this took to shoot, given that Jack Lemmon plays two different characters in it, in two different costumes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0BOOgW7rHE

D. McEwan said...

And lastly, here's the famous pie fight between Trini Lopez, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and the piemaster himself, Soupy Sales.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zW9s9OEErG0

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Ken, I can't believe you passed up a perfectly good opportunity to put up a picture of Natalie Wood covered in banana cream, I mean banana cream pie.

Thanks for giving me another term to add to my thoroughly disgusting vocabulary, Douglas!

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Of course, in my case, "banana cream" is way too optimistic. ;)

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen and good night!

normadesmond said...

hold still.

LouOCNY said...

OK Ken....which lady is it? The one in the foreground in pink?

escalante blogger said...

I like your style Ken.

Scott said...

Here is the scene... I'd love to know who she was....

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_gJYJPn0IY

Anonymous said...

Your Dad was in the pie fight scene and it seems he didn't get hit by any....how did that happen????

Rob said...

I should point out that the Laurel And Hardy pie fight linked above is actually an edited version of the original scene. When Robert Youngson wanted to use the film for one of his comedy compilation that were so popular in the 1960's, he had the scene copied but as in many of his films, edited it slightly for reasons best known to himself. The original negative and any prints of the short ( called THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY ) have long since disappeared ( one of the very few 'lost' L & H films ) so this material is all that we have to represent the Great Pie Fight.

Brad said...

Oh man thank you for this. I'm a talent agent and I supplement my income with a background roster (we're not all Ari Gold) and this posting just brought a smile to my face.

Overcranked said...

"Breathing Scenery" -- that's another term I've heard for background. And as someone working my way up in the crew side of production, I like to supplement my income by doing Extra work. Hey, it's the easiest way to get on a film set and paid while I hustle for crew gigs. But I've come to enjoy it, the characters you meet!

I've also developed what I call my "Background Bucket List" - all the crazy stuff I'd like to do on camera (play a cop, play a zombie, get killed...)

Lastly, you're right about the bullshit we extras say. Generally, in those big crowd scenes you see on TV, we form little groups of 5 or 6 and act out our own little scenes, or hold our own conversations at whisper volume, where we just make up random shit. "So, I totally wasted this fool earlier today..."

Or mock the costumes: "You know the badge says Lieutenant, but these stripes are for a Sergeant..."

By the end of the day, we've invented character names and fictional biographies for ourselves.
"I'm Fernando, an exchange student from Seville..."

Thanks for the love.

John said...

The blog is interesting reading, but Mr. Levine doesn't come across as a particularly good or sympathetic person. There are some comments and anecdotes that are a bit unsettling. Perhaps he is to be commended for his honesty in letting things "hang out"?