Background Actors (the preferred nomenclature) are a mysterious bunch of artists that are critical to creating a realistic environment in your movie. Whenever you watch a scene that takes place at a restaurant or a bar or at a wild party, all those folks in the back having fun are background actors. They create the atmosphere of the location and give life to the scene. Without them, movies would feel very lonely indeed. However, many low budget and independent filmmakers struggle to find background actors that are willing to perform their art for free, for “credit”, or for access to a really weak crafty table. Believe it or not, most people do not enjoy standing around miming actions for 8 to 12 hours with little to no compensation.
On our web series, Half Bath we had a difficult time filling out the bar in Chapter 3, the diner in Chapter 4, AND the party scene in Chapter 5. The bar wasn’t a huge issue since it was meant to be an undesirable location for the main characters so having some awkward silence wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. We also got around this problem at the diner by sitting the characters closer to the window and only seeing the rest of the establishment for brief moments in close-ups. The party in Chapter 5 on the other hand was a little embarrassing. Why don’t they have enough friends to warm their new house? Who is Natalie talking to when she gives her speech? We didn’t have good answers to these questions so I changed the time of the episode to take place much later in the night and hoped people would assume the party was winding down when the episode began… The background actors who did show up were all wonderful people who like nothing more than being on set and surrounding themselves in the filmmaking process.
For our most recent episode of Cobblestoned, I decided to do things a little differently. I wrote the scenes so that our principal actors (me and Mikey) are never seen in the same shot as the extras. There are multiple instances where one or both of us are talking to a group of people or showing them an illusion and it was important to me that I could shoot the reactions of the crowd before shooting our performances. This allowed me to move very quickly and get all of the shots we needed so that the extras could leave as quickly as possible. Most of these people were fans of the show or our friends that owed us a favor and all of them seemed excited to be there. We didn’t make them wait around, we gave everyone a line of dialogue if they wanted one, and we got them out the door in less than 3 hours. That’s a pretty quick day for any background actor. And it worked really well! It took more planning and organizing than usual, but what resulted was the best scene with extras we’ve ever shot at Dashing Agent. Everyone had fun, did amazing work, and made new friends!
When trying to find people to be extras in your movie, you need to realize that they are as essential as any other role. Maybe they don’t have lines or close-ups or drive the story forward, but they’re there to make the world feel real. Treat them like they’re a part of the production family and that you couldn’t do it without them. All they want is to be a part of something and have fun while they do it. Allow them to have fun and make them know just how important they really are. But by all circumstances DO NOT make them waste their whole day on your stupid movie set. DO NOT neglect to make them comfortable while they’re there. DO NOT tell them you’ll feed them only to kick them out way ahead of schedule and keep the hotdogs for yourself (I’m really sorry about lying to you Jake, Joe, Chauncey, Donald, Ryan, Lorraine, Shannon, Chloe, Philip, Jack, Carrie, and Justin… I swear it was not my intention).
When it comes time to shoot the crowd scenes, give the background actors specific directions. They’re actors too and need to know what they’re supposed to be doing and why they’re doing it. Give them the opportunity to come up with characters for themselves. It might seem silly, but if they have the proper motivation they likely won’t stick out as a clumsy extra who doesn’t look like they belong there.
Try your best to keep them on the move. If you give someone a specific task and make them do it over and over for the entirety of your shoot, they’re gonna get cranky and bored. Move them around even if you might not see them on the screen (in fact, it’s probably better if you can’t). Most audiences won’t notice if an extra is in 2 shots when they shouldn’t be, but you’re an independent filmmaker so who cares what the audience thinks?
And for the love of god, pay attention to them! Answer questions if they have them, give them breaks if they need them, and tell them to fix whatever they might be doing wrong. A lot of the time, directors and DPs will be too focused on the talent to realize the background talent looks uncomfortable and unrealistic. Work with them. They’re as much a part of the scene as your leads, so make sure they’re doing the right thing. Background actors love being told to do something differently. It means they’re working and are useful. And that they might get IMDb credit for this one! Finally!!
That’s all the advice I have on working with extras, but if you’re reading this you’re probably wondering “How do I even find extras for my movie?” That’s a whole different topic that I don’t even want to try to get into. My biggest piece of advice is to not write scenes that need extras. It’s such a pain…