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.

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