Sunday, June 08, 2008

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.


Anonymous said...

Now Stanley, that's another fine mess you'd gotten her into. If it wouldn't be too much trouble, I'd like you to promise to make sure I don't get laid. Promise?

peas'n carrots.

Anonymous said...

I've done some time as an extra for commercials. I observed certain types of extras I would meet on every shoot:

The Guy Who Knows One or Two Film Terms and Likes to Say Them Out Loud: This is the guy who shouts out “check the gate” after every take, because he knows that means it’s the last take for that shot. He will also make reference to “The Martini” at some point. I can’t understand why he was rejected by USC film school.

The Guy Completely Ignorant About How Film Works: This person is amazed to learn that we probably aren’t on microphone and they’ll be dubbing in crowd sounds later.

The Retirement Job Guy: He used to be a lawyer or something. Now he does this a few times a week. It’s possible that he just really hates his wife.

The Sweet Girl from Arkansas or Texas or Alabama or Something: She’s 23 and has been out here for a year or so. Pleasant to everyone, though she’s secretly texting her best friend back home in between shots about the creepy guy standing behind her, sniffing her hair. She’s an aspiring actress, of course, and in all likelihood, even if she is very talented, may soon be facing the decision to either marry a rich guy, go home, or get into porn.

The Guy Who Thinks He’s Funny: This is the guy who says “Parton” when the director says “Dolly,” or shouts out the name of a product that’s a competitor with the product he’s actually in an ad for – i.e., the guy who, while shooting a commercial for Miller Lite in a baseball stadium thought it was funny to ask the actor playing the beer vendor for a Bud Light; prompting several other Guys Who Think They’re Funny to repeat the joke with other names of beers (Coors! Red Stripe! Endless Hilarity!) These guys think every word coming out of their mouths is hilarious. Everyone else thinks it would be hilarious if a large piece of machinery fell on them.

The Twentyish Bottle Blond Who Wears the Skimpiest Version Possible of the Recommended Costume: She spends much of the day wondering if this director is important enough to sleep with.

The Person Convinced We Should Be Making More Money: There are various rules saying that if you’re featured onscreen for more than X seconds, with a principal actor in a commercial, you’re entitled to more money. Sounds great … endless speculation about it does not.

The Skeezy Forty-Three-Year-Old Old Guy Who Tries to Flirt with Attractive Young Actresses: Will inevitably utter the phrase “Wow, you’re young enough to be my daughter” and yet not realize that he just made himself EVEN CREEPIER.

The Woman in God-Awful Makeup and a Fur Coat: I can’t imagine the horrific existence a human being could have that would lead you to this. Imagine if this were your life: wake up at five AM, smear three pounds of makeup on your face, put on a hideous fur coat and go play a member of the Verizon Network, wearing a Verizon t-shirt or fleece under said hideous coat … and this seems perfectly normal to you.

The Person Who Utterly Refuses to Do What the Director Says: If the director says to face one way, they face the other. If we’re asked to remove our jackets, they don’t. I honestly don’t understand how these people aren’t asked to leave immediately.

The Person Really Upset Because the Union Extras Are Being Treated Better: I’ve mentioned this person before and again I’ll say “That’s why they joined the union! So they’d get treated better!”

And the rest …

o The Inexplicably Hostile Gay Guy
o The Person Who Has Stories About Working with Stars, and How They’re All Assholes
o The Woman in Her Forties Who Really, Really Hates the Younger Women
o The Guy Who’s Only There Because He Knows People in the Casting Agency
o The Director’s Kid
o The Old Guy Who Wears a Cowboy Hat All the Time Even Though We’re Supposed to Be Playing Electricians or Something
o The Guy Obsessed With How Much Money the Principals Must Be Making
o The Person Desperately Trying to Get into the Shot

By Ken Levine said...


GREAT comment!!!

Anonymous said...

Yes Noah!

Don't forget the guy who has helped actors with line readings on all of his other projects.

And the guy who just wants to play cards in holding and hopes he doesn't have to go to set.

And the guy pestering the AD for a union voucher.

Ken, Thanks for speaking for us who aren't allowed to. I don't do it anymore because the pay and conditions aren't great. Thankfully some are willing to do it.

Anonymous said...

At least you resisted the urge to instruct the extras to throw pies _specifically_ to that lady, which is what a normal person would have done (and the blame it on the extras).

Michael Jones said...

Having been a Toronto-based non-union extra in the mid-80s and late 90s, I can concur with all of Noah's extra staples. I was the "periodically unemployed guy earning bucks between Social Work jobs"-Guy.

Though it was an unwritten (and sometimes written) rule that extras shouldn't mingle with the STARS, they definitely should never approach them for an autograph. I had the honour of being an extra in the cast of The New Jersey Turnpikes. What's that, you may ask? It was a basketball movie starring Kelsey Grammer that never seemed to see the light of day, regardless of the star-power of the cast. One extra (think Comicbook Guy squared) walked all the way across the court to Mr. Grammer who was on a break and asked him for his signature in an autograph book. Mr Grammer very graciously complied and went back to his break, and unsurprisingly that extra never did show up for the rest of the shoot.

I wanted to relate this as a get-well comment to Mr. Grammer a few days ago, but felt it would be swallowed up by all the other well-wishers. He is a true class-act and I heartily wish him a full and speedy recovery.

ps. Mike Starr was also in the cast and he frequently spent time with us grunts in the stands. I'm making an assumption that he was a friend of Kelsey due to his appearance on Frasier. Any credence to this theory?

Unknown said...

@Noah: awesome post. I laughed and it shed a huge amount of insight on the Extras business :-)
@Ken: of course I laughed about your story too and yes you will go to hell where you will spend eternity getting pelted with pies thrown by that woman who of course went to hell for annoying endless amounts of directors with silly requests ;-)

I was wondering why nobody mentioned "Extras" by Ricky Gervais. It's about Extras and quite funny. Go watch it.



stålar said...

I was thinking the same thing, Gervais made a whole series out of this post, and it's more or less as good as the Office. Better watch it before it gets adapted!

And great post, Ken. (And as I seem to recall asking the question, thank you!)

Anonymous said...

another movie that this blog reminded me of is "Memories of Me" with Billy Crystal, Alan King, and JoBeth Williams - Alan King plays an old time movie extra, "The King of the Extras" who is estranged from his NY Doctor son (Crystal), JoBeth plays Billy's shiksa girlfriend.

Anonymous said...

The Screen Extras Guild was absorbed into SAG more than a decade ago. Their large numbers account for a sizable voting block in the union. To the detriment, sometimes.

A said...

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.



And ditto to Noah; great comment!

It's awesome to start out my morning literally LOLing. :)

Courtney Suzanne said...

Noah said:
o The Person Desperately Trying to Get into the Shot

For a great example of this, watch the graduation scene in Almost Famous with the commentary. I've never heard an extra singled out for being annoying on a commentary.

My mother was an extra in the miniseries "The Day After", as a dead body. Her face, arms, and chest were covered in black makeup to simulate a nuked body. I'll never forget the picture she brought home to us of her in that black makeup being kissed on the cheek by Jason Robards at lunch. He apparently ate with the extras quite often on the set. That made a real impression on me as a 7 year old.

Max Clarke said...

Good to get the answer finally. I don't have any tv production experience, but while everybody else was just watching the show, I was wondering how the actors can do their jobs if there really is background chatter. Swing, batter-batter! Swing! That would make me nuts.

Yes, good comments by Noah.

Anonymous said...

I currently do film and TV extra work (SAG and AFTRA), and I've seen a few of Noah's stereotypes. Far more often, though, it's just a decent bunch of people trying to get through the shoot as painlessly as possible and trying to contribute to the overall quality of the scene without doing it too visibly (the 'extra's paradox'--the better at it you are, the less it shows). Yeah, maybe my acting career didn't happen the way I wanted, but when your only 'acting' is looking like a nondescript passerby, then that's what the hell you do!! And you do it EXACTLY as requested by the AD, and in that, it's a little like filleting a fish expertly--not everyone can do it (not everyone wants to), and there's a craft of sorts in doing it. I generally love it, in spite of the downtime, because I love watching the crew, even the grips & techs. It's a really fascinating business behind the camera, and to get paid to dress funny and be in it, even though the pay isn't great--it's a nice gig. (Well, except when you're dressed for summer and it's 35 out, getting dark, and they won't send you back to holding because they might use ONE of you, and you're standing in the wind shivering with no end in sight. Then, it sucks.)

Anonymous said...

That Superman episode gets even weirder. There are DOZENS of guys in the crime gang, and they all wear the full-head lead (poisonous and heavy!) masks ALL THE TIME! So there are scenes on the sidewalks of Metropolis, and there are all these lead-mask-wearing guys walking about in suits and ties, and NO ONE, not even ONE pedestrian, ever gives them a second glance or an odd look.

Well, maybe if you live in a town where Superman regularly flies around, and where if Mole Men aren't invading with ray guns made from vacuum cleaners, then Brianiac or Luthor will be destroying buildings, you get a bit jaded. Guys in lead masks? Ho-hum. At least Mr. Myxzptlk isn't turning me into a dinosaur - AGAIN!

My best friend's lover (I've just been asked to be in their "Big Fat Jewish Gay Wedding." Hooray for California!) was a "Background Artist" on MURPHY BROWN for five years. You see him behind Murphy, pretending to work, in dozens of episodes. Eventually he got to lean in Murphy's office door and say "Murphy, President Clinton is on line two for you." to which Murphy replied, "Thanks Tony." thus establishing forever that he was "Tony" on MURPHY BROWN. Trust me, his resume says "MURPHY BROWN -"Tony" - five years."

I used to ask him, "Since your job is pretending to work, if you did ACTUAL work, would you be goofing off?"

He rose to stand-in, and regularly stood-in and took down blocking for Garry Marshall, whenever he was in an episode (Marshall ONLY showed up on show day.) or any other male guest star. I have the script he filled with Tom Poston's blocking, the week Tom was a guest, and Gilmore stood-in for him.

These days he is a field producer for shows on the Home & Gardens Network, but he formed a lasting friendship with Lily Tomlin on the set.

I once werote an elaborate radio comedy piece for Whittington which was supposed to be a tribute to the greatest extra of them all, Harold J. Berquist. The highlight of Harold's (wholly fictional) career, where recognition is career death, was playing "The Title Role" in A FACE IN THE CROWD, playing the third face from the left, in the fourth row from the top.

But I will put my own extra work in ROCKY II (I play "Guy watching fight") up against anyone's. The chemistry that mob I was a speck in had with Sly and with Burgess Meredeth broke your heart.

Anonymous said...

Oh one other point, a logic point, about that Superman episode. The reason they're wearing the masks is so Superman won't know which one of them is a crook and catch him.

BUT, since they are all wearing them in furtherance of a felony, they are ALL guilty, and therefore he should just round up all of them.

The idiotic logic of the scheme is that Superman would think, "I can't grab that man just because he's wearing a lead mask. He could be an INNOCENT man who just HAPPENS to be wearing a lead mask."

"Good heavens Superman, has it gotten so a man can't stroll around Metropolis in a toxic lead mask that weighs 140 pounds anymore without being accosted by a guy in tights and a cape?"

Nathan said...

Once, I was working on a movie that involved a night-time traffic jam in the pouring rain on Park Avenue near the Waldorf-Astoria. We had tons of extra crew that night with the additional lighting and the rain effects. We also had 150 extras showing up with their cars to be in the scene.

Needless to say, getting everyone where they belonged was something of a cluster*%#^. In the middle of all this, an old blue-haired lady in a Jaguar drives up and says, "Where do I park"? I asked her if she was an extra. She gave me her most scathing look and said, "The term is Background Artist!

Also, the 2nd A.D. on Made in America liked to stage little scenes with the extras in the deep background. I'm not sure it made it into the movie, but there was a scene in Whoopie Goldberg's store, where, if you looked out the front window, you'd see a woman having her purse snatched and then chase the snatcher out of frame left. Moments later, you'd see the snatcher run through frame again from left to right, still being chased by the woman, but now with a cop in hot pursuit as well.

Kimosabe said...

Any chance there's a clip of this pie fight on YouTube?

Cap'n Bob said...

I read somewhere that extras were also called "color." Anyone ever hear that?

For a great sendup on extras, try to find a bit about them that ran on SCTV. Joe Flaherty, doing a terrible but funny Kirk Douglas, hosts a Salute to the Extras. At one point he says that the stars played a game, which consisted of getting as close to an extra as possible without acknowledging their presence.

Great post and great extra (ha-ha) info from Noah.

Anonymous said...

>I read somewhere that extras were also called "color." Anyone ever hear that?

Maybe the extras on Old Yeller, am I rite Ken?

Tom Quigley said...
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Tom Quigley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Quigley said...

I did about half a dozen bits as an extra ("Background" as the Guy who Knows One or Two Film Terms might put it) and I think I ran into everyone of those types that Noah mentioned (some people may have even put me into one or more of those categories, depending on my behavior at a particular "location shoot" -- darn! there I go again! -- especially after I received that restraining order obtained by the girl who's hair I kept sniffing in HIGH INCIDENT -- or was it the one I was giving a back rub to while she was sleeping?)...

Anyways -- Noah, you nailed it!

Actually, my first extra part was being cast as a one of the townsfolk of Plymouth, MA who was dressed up as pilgrim for a Thanksgiving episode of THE SINGLE GUY (I think I got the costume they gave Ron Howard to wear in the HAPPY DAYS Thanksgiving episode from back in the '70s. It looked that old and beat up.) For informational purposes, I have to wear glasses because I'm blind as a bat without them, and my eyes are too sensitive for contacts. Unfortunately, this day I was prevented from wearing them by the 2nd AD who decreed that there would be no eyewear worn by anyone dressed in pilgrim's outfits, and so I inevitably started tripping over cables, tree roots and cracks in the sidewalk, and stumbling into and over other extras, in pilgrim shoes that were two sizes too big no less, (since to go along with my minimal vision, I also have minimally-sized feet) which I had to stuff with toilet paper in the toes so they wouldn't keep slipping off while I was walking. At one point it got so bad that I wasn't even looking in the right direction for one shot (How the hell was I supposed to know? I couldn't see a damn thing!) and the director yelled "Cut!" and came over himself and physically positioned me where he wanted me to be. (He evidently didn't feel that it added any value to the shot to have me staring blankly off toward the vicinity of Burbank, or Pasadena, or somewhere in those environs.). And finally, as if to put a perfect cap on the end of the day, when I had to turn in my outfit to Wardrobe, I got the silent treatment from virtually everyone on the production (except for Ernest Borgnine, God Bless him!)... Undaunted and encouraged by the experience, however, I went home thinking "Boy! Wait'll I tell the folks back east 'Guess who I was in a scene with? -- Ming Na! -- I even got to sniff her hair!'" -- Naturally the response from my family back in Rochester was "Ming who?"

Noah said...

Glad people liked my comment. I can't claim it just poured out of me as soon as Ken posted. I actually wrote it about a year ago. Loking at it now, I think I was kinda trying to write like Ken Levine.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm sounding like a broken record, but this is exactly the kind of scene you would have told us in "The Sitcon Room," not to write. Too difficult, too expensive, too hard to pull off. Would you still give yourself the same advice?

Joey H said...


Off topic...any stories about Bill Dial, the WKRP writer (and former radio guy)? Dial died last week. He wrote the famous "Turkey's Away" episode.

Anonymous said...

I remember working as an extra when "Lucky Numbers" was shooting in Harrisburg, PA. We played newsroom people who ran out of the building when Lisa Kudrow's character crashed her car to create a distraction so John Travolta's character could swap lottery balls (insert your own joke here). One of the women ran to the car ahead of all of us and began asking Kudrow's character if she was all right in a loud voice. She did it every take. After awhile, the production people took her aside and made her sign a day player's contract, because she had taken it upon herself to speak. When the film came out, she was cut from every scene.

Dr. Leo Marvin said...

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

You haven't heard some of the harp playing I have.

Anonymous said...

The highest-profile thing I did as an extra was GLORY, the Civil War epic. Every working male actor in greater Boston (along with some Civil War re-enactors, since they had their own costumes) were packed onto a bus and driven to a farm in Ipswich. It was the aftermath of the biggest battle of the war. We were distributed onto the field as dead bodies.

When the director said "Cue the background" we laid there and did everything we could NOT to move.