Extras, or background actors as they should more appropriately be called, are a key part of many film projects. Whether you’re making a feature, a commercial, or a student short film you will most likely require background actors to make your film feel complete.
We often underestimate how much work goes into making this background action happen. But failure to properly recruit can bring the background into the foreground, adding real stress to your production.
Assess Your Need
As with most parts of the production process, your first step should always be to look at your script and get an idea for what kind of background action is needed to make your film feel authentic. Do you need 10 people or 200 people? Should extras be a specific age, gender, race, or ethnicity? Must they have a certain hair color, fitness level, or height? Do they need to be doing a certain activity? (i.e. shopping, watching a sports game, attending a formal event, or simply walking down the street)
Consider Your Budget
We all wish that we had unlimited funds to bring our creative dreams to life, but chances are you are on a budget, and background actors are not your biggest line item. Assess whether or not you will be able to pay background extras and if so, how much.
It will always be easier to recruit people if you can pay them. However, it is usually possible to find volunteer background talent, especially if you are producing a low budget or independent film. If you are a union production using SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actor’s Guild) actors, you may be required to use a minimum number of SAG background performers. This will increase your overall costs.
Even if you are not paying extras, you will still want to have some budget allocated toward expenses associated with facilitating extras. You’ll need to print release forms, setup check-in tables, have a designated holding area for the extras to wait in, and have a dedicated team member such as a Production Assistant or Extras Coordinator to be with the background actors at all times. Depending on how long they will be on set and at what times, you may also need to provide extras with a meal or two.
Recruit, Recruit, Recruit!
Depending on the size of your budget and where your production is located you may be able to utilize a casting company (such as Central Casting) to help you recruit background actors. Companies like this are a great tool that can help you fill very specific needs (i.e. 50 blond cheerleaders that can all do the splits) However, if you are on a limited budget, or more crucially, filming in an area that is not known for film production (basically anywhere that is not in California, New York, Georgia, or a few other places) it’s going to be tough to find a good casting company. However, don’t despair! It is still possible to find great background actors, it’s just going to take a little more personal networking and communication. For more info on recruiting extras, check out this great guide to finding background actors.
On Set – Working with Background Actors
You’ve done your recruiting homework and now have a list of confirmed contacts that are ready to be extras in your film. Here are some key tips for managing the process of filming with extras:
The rule of thumb when it comes to communicating with extras is to repeat any important instructions at least three times. For instance, send everyone an email several weeks ahead of time, another email two days before, and then a final email 18-24hrs before they are supposed to arrive. These emails should contain as many details as possible without being overwhelming. At a minimum, you should address the following questions that background actors might have:
- Where will I need to go? Include not just an address that they should arrive at, but also instructions on who to talk to and what signs to follow once they arrive.
- What time do I need to be there? This is important to remember: Only about 50%-70% of the people that say they are coming will actually show up. This is especially true if your extras are not being paid. From experience, we have found that of those that show up, about 10% of extras will arrive at least 30 minutes to 1hr early. Be prepared for this! Roughly 80% people will arrive right on time (or slightly early). The remaining 5-10% will arrive late, sometimes up to 1 hour late.
- What should I wear? Make sure to provide specific instructions about what the background actors should wear. It’s usually a good idea to include some generic instructions about things NOT to wear, such as any clothing with logos, neon colors, or distracting patterns. Encourage extras to bring 2-3 complete outfit changes so that you can swap an item of clothing out if something is not working.
- What else do I need to know? It’s usually a good idea to remind extras to bring a snack and something to do (book, homework, etc). It’s also a good idea to send a digital version of the background actor’s release agreement that each person will need to sign when they arrive. This gives people the chance to read over this document before they arrive and even bring a printed and signed copy with – win-win!
Any background actors that are minors will need a legal guardian’s signature on their release form. Encourage them to bring a printed copy of this form that is already signed by their guardian.
When it comes to extras, it’s important to keep a record of who actually showed up and who did not. The best way to do this is to print out your registration list and then set up a check-in table that extras are required to stop at when they arrive. When each background actor checks in, you can check them off your list and collect a signed extras release form. This extras release is usually a simple one or two-page contract in which the individual gives the production company permission to film them and use that footage in the movie. From a legal perspective, it’s very important that you get this signed release for every single background actor that appears in the movie. You can download our free template using the form below (follow us on social media to unlock the content):
Working with extras is all about managing expectations. Once everyone has checked in, make sure you give your background actors some basic instructions about what they’ll be doing when they’re called to set. Make sure they are comfortable while they wait. Have adequate seating, clearly marked restrooms, and water (at a minimum) available. If you’re filming outside in extreme temps, make sure background actors are kept out of the elements like cold wind or hot sun; this is not just to be courteous — it is a safety precaution. It’s also a good idea to go over some basic points of set etiquette. Remind everyone to never look at the camera while rolling and to keep the action going all of the way until the director calls cut. Once on set, the extras will usually receive instructions directly from the 2nd 2nd Assistant Director (2nd 2nd AD) or the 1st Assistant Director (1st AD).
Once they are done filming on set, give your extras a big THANK YOU. Make sure you collect any costumes or props that production has provided to them.
Make sure you communicate with people if they will be needed again. This is especially important if certain extras were featured in a shot and will need to return at a later date for continuity purposes. In such cases, find the extras that you’ll need again and make sure to get their names and contact information. If at all possible, get them to commit to your face that they will come back on the date(s) you need them again. This will make them be less likely to drop out last minute.
If In Doubt…
In this article, we’ve covered the basics of recruiting and shooting with background actors. As we wrap up, I want to leave you with two key thoughts as takeaways:
- Clear communication is kind – Be upfront and straightforward with your extras about what to expect. If they are going to be sitting outside in the hot sun all day, prepare them for this. Don’t try to “sell” people by making being an extra sound like it’s all fun and games. While you might get a few more people this way, you will have lots of unhappy campers that leave mid-day. And that will add lots of unneeded stress to your day.
- Don’t take it personally – Working with extras can be emotionally exhausting. You often have to be the bearer of bad news to people. There will be times where your extras will wait around all day and they will never be called to set. In these moments, treat people with courtesy and kindness. Apologize that they were not able to be in the movie, and thank them for coming. At the end of it all, remember that you can’t please everyone. And remember all of the people that loved getting the chance to be in a movie. Let people’s disappointments or anger roll off of you, take a deep breath, and keep doing what you do best – being a fantastic extras coordinator!