Wednesday 28 March 2012

Background artists

 For the past few days I have spent time on set of a major feature film being shot in Wellington. Everything about this project is impressive, inspiring and beautiful - including the people who work on it. The amount of dedication and enthusiasm in every department and on every rung of the movie ladder was wonderful. Despite about a gazillion people working on set at all times, it felt like a cohesive whole, very much like a very large family gathering. The level of skill present in the tiniest details in costumes, props, and set as well as the speed with which the techies worked their magic are a real testament to the talent of the people working in the Wellington film industry.
I have only done a couple of extras gigs since starting out as an actress. The first one I did because I wanted to know what a feature film set feels like, the other couple of gigs I did as a favour to friends. Extras work is not what I want to be doing professionally or even regularly. It's hardly ever paid, and most people seem to think you're an idiot for working as an extra. I also want to be acting in the centre of a film's story, not at the periphery.
But once in a while a major movie project comes along that is able to pay its extras okay wages and more importantly is so SO exciting that I'd be an extra any day just to be part of it. So, I jumped at the opportunity to be part of this particular film.

It was the biggest film I have ever worked on and the film I spent the most time on. Over four long and full-on days I learned to have some major respect for people who work extras gig. They are awesome!
They work long days and nights, often with broken turnaround. They put up with incredibly long waiting periods, heat and cold, difficult costumes, wigs and head-dresses to drive you crazy, probably the lowest pay and respect of anyone on set, and no credit to their name at all. And the overwhelming majority of extras do so without moaning, with saintly patience, and incredible enthusiasm. Of course you have the odd pushy person - sometimes quite literally - but most extras a genuinely nice, interesting and generous people - awesome through and through.
I must say that on this particular film, the extras department pulled out all the stops to make the experience for us a really positive one. They took very good care of us - the catering was fantastic, everyone was friendly and respectful, and we got as much information about the goings on as humanly possible.
There are however things about extra work that I will always find difficult. Apart from keeping up your energy over long waiting periods and after 20 takes of the same scene, the most difficult part of being an extra for me is the following.
Extras don't get any information about the story or the scene that they're in until they step on set. So, no time for preparation. Then the direction given is most often completely result-oriented, like, 'Now, be really really deliriously happy!' and 'Be so scared you're close to a heart attack!' Being asked to feel a certain emotion is difficult for most actors in any circumstances but without any knowledge about the story and without any chance for preparation it can be super stressful.
Do you remember the last time someone asked you to feel a certain emotion at the push of a button? 'Feel' not 'look as if' because the camera knows the difference and will expose you. It took me a few tries to get in the groove of things and work with what I was given but it was hard work, man! 
Looking around me though, there were a whole heap of extras who did an incredible job of turning it on and really feeling the emotions required from them, all the time and all day long. These are the people that make a scene come to life. You can have the most incredible set and costumes, and the most talented actors if the background talent wouldn't do their job and do it well, the whole illusion would fall apart.
Even though I want to be more than 'just' an extra, this experience in extras acting has been pretty great for my development as an actress. Knowing that I can work around scarce information and result direction and switch it on on demand has been a big confidence boost.
Make no mistake, extras work is hard and unglamorous but without your background talent your movie illusion will fall apart like a house of cards. 
So, the next time you feel like saying extras work isn't 'real acting' and turn up your nose at those who give your their time and dedication to work as your extras, think again. If your extras don't do 'real acting', if they are not actually living in the moment but putting on a show, your film will look in part pretty ridiculous. So, you better hope that the people you choose for the background have the talent to switch on emotions again and again even though you give them hardly anything to work with. And you better hope they are as enthusiastic, hard-working, and undemanding as the great bunch of people I had the pleasure to work with over the last few days.

Treat your extras well and they will make you and your story look real. They are the backbone of your movie illusion. Treat them respect.

Saturday 3 March 2012

Mental Health Break

 Mental health breaks are important. Most of the time I forget about that. I get so stuck in the daily routines of childcare and part-time jobs that I find it harder and harder to motivate myself to do the work. All of a sudden doing the work that is important to me and tat should be fun because it is what I want to be doing becomes almost a chore. I feel so drained that in the valuable and sparse time that I have to myself, all I want to do is sleep or at the very least not think. And then a day like today comes along.

Today, I attended a workshop/seminar put together by Miranda Harcourt and Tina Cleary with support from Film NZ and the NZ Film Commission. The seminar was about auditioning and casting process but an inspirational point of view. It was about all the little things that make an audition great; from the obvious learning your lines really really well to those things we tend to forget when our nerves get in the way like breathing, bringing ourselves to the role and making a connection with the reader whoever they happen to be. Mostly, they were things that I had heard before but watching back some fantastic auditions really drove them home and made me hungry to be better, bring more me, work harder, connect more.
It was also fantastic to see some of the actors again who I have worked with over the past couple of years. Working essentially two part-time jobs from home doesn't leave much room to connect with other actors - in real life, as opposed to social networking sites. And boy do I crave that connection as well! 
After the three hour workshop was over I really really did not want to go home. So, instead I went to lunch with two wonderful actresses I had met at other workshops and we talked and talked about all the things we can do to get better, get farther, dream bigger. Connection is great and solidarity and going this journey together.

I need more days like today and I will make them happen.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Knowing Take 2

 My agency has a new online presence. The cool thing about that is that now I can see what I am being submitted for. And holy crapness, I am being put forward to more things than I would ever have thought AND for really juicy, awesome roles on exciting productions.
This means that my agent believes in me! Let me repeat this: My agent believes in me!
There is nothing better than knowing that in this crazy business you have people on your side and believing in you. People, who are not obliged to do so because they love you because let's face friends and family, they are biased...
To have your family and friends on your side, believing in you and supporting you is of course invaluable! Without them and their support, a life as an artist would be rough at best. I am eternally grateful for their support and enthusiasm for my career and life choices.
Professionally though, to know that the people who's job it is to get you work, believe in you is, well, absolutely vital. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you should be your own cheerleader and your own approval should be enough. Go away, self-help books!

Of course you need people in the industry to believe in you! As your first port of call, your agent needs to be the first one to be a believer. Your agent is the one shouting 'Give this woman/man a job!' If that sentence isn't followed by a 'Because she/he is awesome!' good luck to you.
I feel like I have a lot to prove to my agent still and frankly can't quite believe that they should shout 'She is awesome!' about me. (I'm working on it, ok!?) But looking at their submissions for me certainly makes it clear that they believe in me. Booking the first job I had an audition for through the agency might have helped quite a bit. And yes, I am really happy and proud that I booked that job!
So, here is to the people who believe in you and cheer for you whether they are biased because they love you or not. And here is to you, the fact that you are doing what you love to do, to your successes, big and small, and to believing that you are worthy of every single cheerleader you have and the many more to join your squad.

You know what the other great thing about the new online system is? Seeing all the productions I am being submitted to makes me see possibilities that I wouldn't have seen before.  Now, I could sit in front of my computer screen and fret about whether or not I will get an audition for any of these productions. Counter-productive, if you ask me.
Nah, instead of making me sweat, I have decided that knowing is just going to help me dream big. I will stay on top of things, increasing the likelihood of getting auditions by keeping my headshots up to date and professional, getting as much acting training as possible, building other skills that are handy for actors to have, by finding unpaid work myself and all those other little things you can do to grow. 
While I am waiting to actually get auditions on big(ger) productions, knowing about being submitted to them will be part of my fuel to push ahead. So, tonight, I will dream about that recurring role on that awesome TV show and the juicy supporting part on that feature film. Best bit? My dream is rooted in a tiny bit of reality and the reality bit will grow and grow like my dreams will.

So, here is to dreaming and dreaming big and to the small glimpses of reality that make us all hope for bigger things, make us strive and grow and work hard every day!