On Working with Extras by Reese Hayes

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!

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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…

On Using What You've Got by Reese Hayes

It seems like a large population of the independent filmmaking community is overly concerned with gear – cameras, sound recorders, stabilizing equipment, fancy lights, whatever you get it – so much so, that it prevents them from actually making the thing they want the gear to help them make.  I completely understand this.  In fact, I’ve been struggling with a mild camera buying addiction for several years. I always want the newest thing with the coolest features and neatest doodads, but I try to never let my lack of doodads keep me from being creative. As far as I’m concerned, creativity requires very few doodads.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, making Cobblestoned has been one of the most challenging yet rewarding projects of my short filmmaking career to date. We spend very little money, shoot in our backyard, and cast our talented friends to act and operate the camera. Of the 3 episodes we’ve completed so far, a tri-pod has been the only piece of non-camera/sound equipment that we’ve used. We have no gimbals or cranes or dollies or doodads of any sort. We have a camera, a microphone, and (this a very new addition) a ring light. You can see the ring light in action during Cobblestoned 3 when it’s reflected in Erick’s glasses while he sits on the couch eating Shredded Mini Wheats with Irish Cream Liqueur…

And I will admit, we have a nice camera. Like I said, it’s a serious problem I have. After shooting Half Bath with a rented Sony A7Sii, I decided I needed something for myself to shoot all of my projects with. The camera I had been using up until that point was incredibly outdated (i.e. it didn’t shoot 4K video). So, I saved up for a few weeks and bought the Panasonic GH5 and a couple prime lenses. Since then, I’ve purchased another lens, a battery pack, and a variable ND filter. All of that and the Tascam sound recorder and Rode NTG-2 boom microphone I’ve had since high school pretty much fills out our equipment list. And from what I can tell, it’s really all we need to tell a story.

I understand that a lot of filmmaker’s number one priority is not always storytelling. Some just want to make something pretty. Others are more concerned with creating dope visual action sequences or being really cool—okay I don’t actually understand those filmmakers. Storytelling should always be the number one priority. But the point is, make stuff. It doesn’t have to be perfect, polished, professional… It just has to be completed. If you have a camera and a microphone you’re already half way there. And if you don’t have a camera, I’d be more than happy to lend you one of mine.

On Looking Back by Reese Hayes

This week, I’ve been in my hometown helping my mom move everything out of my childhood home.  It’s been an interesting experience filled with mixed emotions.  I’ve spent much of my time going through old photographs, playing the video games I used to love, and listening to the music that once meant so much to me.  There are things about those years and the memories made in this house that I’ll truly miss when it’s finally time to say goodbye.  This is where I developed a love for cinema.  It’s where I wrote my first stories and made my first films.  I remember wishing for the day that I could leave this town and become the youngest Oscar award winning director in history!  But now that this house and this town will only be a part of my past, I feel a bit of melancholy that can only be cured by one thing…  Reflecting back on (and cringing at) the movies I made in my youth.

 

TRIGGER WARNING! THESE FILMS ARE REAL BAD AND MAY CAUSE AN OVERWHELMING SENSATION TO LAUNCH YOUR COMPUTER/PHONE ACROSS THE ROOM IN DISGUST.

 

Might as well start from the beginning.  ‘Wanna Duck’ was modeled after a game my classmates and I played where we repeated a silly phrase about a duck to one another.  It was kind of fun if you had a ton of people doing it, but other than that it was pretty lame.  And since I had very few friends willing to be in my movies at this time, the video is pretty lame too, but I learned how to edit on iMovie which is a valuable skill to put on a resume!


 Over a year later, I made POKEMON RAGE QUIT which was basically my attempt at recreating the scene from The Two Towers when Gollum is arguing with himself about the hobbits.  This one isn’t totally incompetent (please ignore the frustrating disregard of the 180 degree rule. I don’t think I knew what it was yet) and is even kind of funny at parts.  I was learning to tell stories with an actual beginning, middle, and end around this time and the two Reese’s seem to be different characters which is impressive given my poor acting abilities to this very day.


Unfortunately, I can’t share with you my life’s work, CAPTAIN CAPTAIN, as it remains incomplete, but I shot enough of it to cut this sick trailer that I used for months to prove I was a real filmmaker.  CC is still probably the longest script I’ve ever written, filled with masturbation jokes, obscure references, and a lengthy interview segment that tied the whole narrative together that was never shot.  I worked for months on this short film, recruiting all of my friends to play silly parts and to hold the camera whenever I had to act poorly as The Sheriff.  Most of the shots are out of focus, all of the music is from my favorite movies, and I’m pretty sure the ending was a direct rip off of Dirty Harry.  Honestly, I’m just happy to have gotten this garbage out of my system at such an early age.  Had it ever been finished, it would have been a real stinker.


But this lead me to reviving the classic character for my very first web series, Part 1 | Zombies and Part 2 | Werewolves. This series also ended abruptly after my lead shaved his beard in the middle of production on Part 3 | Vampires, but my dream is to reunite the cast of my high school buddies and complete this saga once and for all.  Watching these films brings me back to a time when all I wanted to do was to create things with my friends.  I had no agenda or desire for success from making these movies, I was simply bored of school and passionate for filmmaking.  While the films aren’t all that good, I think the amount of fun we had making them shows.  We were just goofing off together while I bossed everyone around for my “vision”.

 

I think that’s about all I can handle for today.  I made a few more films after these that I’m relatively proud of, but I can’t put myself through watching them again.  However, it’s good to reflect on the work you’ve done in the past.  It helps me see the progress I’ve made as a filmmaker while also reminding me of what I used to love about the process of filmmaking.  These films bring me right back to the mindset I was in when I made them.  I remember my frustrations at not being able to properly convey the emotions I wanted to express.  I remember my friends and teachers praising me for my hard work.   I remember sneaking into abandoned buildings, shooting entire scenes in grocery stores without permission, making my friends do ridiculous things for the sake of a funny joke.  It was a great time to learn about cinema and sometimes I feel like I need to recapture some of that youthful ignorance in order to continue growing as a filmmaker.

On Leaning into Your Inspirations by Reese Hayes

There’s a lot of talk around the indie film community about “finding your own voice”.  I’m not totally sure what that means.  I’ve been making films since I was 12 and still don’t think I’ve ever found my voice.  There are certain things that excite me as a filmmaker and a few tools that I continually use to tell stories a specific way, but other than in my writing I don’t think I have a specific style that’s only unique to me.  What I do have, however, are a ton of filmmakers and movies I look to for inspiration time and time again.

There are many artists who view the world in such an interesting way, that it’s impossible for their art to not reflect their point of view. Filmmakers like David Lynch and Wes Anderson seem to fit this bill.  Watching their movies feels like stepping into their brains and seeing the world from a totally different perspective.  It creates a sense of wonder in the world they’ve crafted for the screen while being entirely authentic to their artistic sensibilities.  There are other filmmakers (Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright, for example) that have built a career and a visual language from the movies and works of art they love.  They’re students of cinema that are able to translate what they enjoy about a certain film into their own style.  It’s not as easy as ripping off a shot or referencing a line of dialogue.  You have to understand the film from every aspect before you can apply the tools to your own work.  The difference also lies in the volume of art they “copy”. 

I’m not trying to say that you don’t need to have an artistic expression in your movies.  Your art should be personal to you and the way you present your art should reflect that.  BUT!  It’s silly to expect yourself to have some completely original way in which you tell your story.  What I’m suggesting is that you steal from every film you’ve ever seen and loved.  Rip off a shot from Goodfellas, take a line from Chinatown, light a scene like the Godfather, do whatever you want!  Don’t be afraid to have inspirations and for those inspirations to show up in your art because inevitably they won’t look or feel very much like the source you ripped off and now you’ve created something different and interesting! 

This shot from Cobblestoned 3 was inspired by a panel from one of my favorite comics, Calvin and Hobbes.  It helps that Reese is half the size of Erick…

This shot from Cobblestoned 3 was inspired by a panel from one of my favorite comics, Calvin and Hobbes. It helps that Reese is half the size of Erick…

A lot of notes on this blog aren’t meant to be taken seriously, and this one may feel like that, but it’s for real.  It’s okay to not know how to say what you’re feeling.  You probably got into movies because someone else was able to explain your feelings better than you were.  And while I’m kind of joking about stealing direct images from your favorite movies… mostly I’m not.  You should take what you like, but put your own twist on it.  Your shot won’t look like Scorsese’s.  Your line won’t sound like Robert Towne’s.  Your lighting won’t feel like Gordon Willis’.  But you’ll learn why those masters made the decisions they made.  You’ll gain a fundamental understanding of how that specific shot or lighting setup works and the next time you make something, you’ll use it to your advantage in a totally new way. 

Just make sure you aren’t focusing all of your theft on one film or filmmaker.  My series, Cobblestoned, is heavily inspired by the works of David Lynch (primarily Twin Peaks), but I gather a lot of ideas and inspiration from other shows and movies as well like The X-Files, The Evil Dead, and Bojack Horseman.  Figure out what you love and lean into it.  Don’t worry about being completely original, especially early on in your filmmaking career, because you probably don’t have enough life experience anyway.  Spend those early years experimenting with tools developed by the people you admire.  Become a craftsman and apply those tools however you wish.  But I guess I should probably mention that I’m not an authority on this and that our Dashing Agent lawyers strongly recommend not listening to anything I say.

On Working with Animals by Reese Hayes

The three things you learn in indie film producing 101: minimize locations, never work with animals, and pizza for lunch as often as possible.  While 2 of these are rules that should never be broken, the animals one is a bit misleading. What it should say is: Never work with animals that aren’t professionals. Amateur animals are a nightmare and can be seriously detrimental to the productivity of a film set. A true, professional animal actor on the other hand is there to help you bring your vision to life (and likely to be murdered by a ghost or home intruder).

I first began working with professional dog actors in my 2010 short film, Let’s Ride Donkeys. Gustav was a true gentleman of a Rat Terrier. He was pleasant to everyone on set, even the PAs! He never barked when things didn’t go his way and his tail was almost always at a full wag. While I was at first hesitant to hire a shedding creature for my short film, his professionalism and grace really turned my views on the whole species around. Now I prefer to have dogs on all of my sets! But I try not to discriminate. I’ve worked with cats, fish, and even a large pig one time.

In 2013 I met Mr. Finch and both of our careers were changed forever.  It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime actor/director pairings. Like Werner and Klaus or Nolan and Caine.  We’ve made countless films together, learning more about the craft and each other along the way.  And as a result of this long, magical collaboration, I truly believe that working with an animal as beautiful and wise as Mr. Finch has taught me how to be a better human being.

            BUT! There are definitely some things you need to know before you can hire a gorilla to jump off a diving board in your super-8 music video…

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Animals are wild (even the domesticated ones).

I don’t care how talented of a director you are. It doesn’t matter if you’ve worked with Gene Hackman, Katherine Heigl, or even Rami Malek. Until you’ve tried directing a Golden Doodle, you have no idea what a “challenging actor to work with” actually means. There’s simply no training a four-legged animal to work on a movie set. They may be professional enough to bark on command or shake a human actor’s hand, but chances are high they definitely aren’t showing up at call time. My suggestion is to hire a PA designated to do nothing but keep eyes on the animal. The animal will need to be driven to location each day, they’ll need constant affirmations in between takes, and they will definitely NOT poop in the bathrooms. The poor PA will have to pick it up in a little bag with their hands. Gross.

Animals are picky eaters.

Have you ever tried to feed a bird lasagna? It probably didn’t go over well. Most animals require specialized animal food for their sensitive animal bellies. You can find animal food at most grocery stores. It looks and smells a lot like dirt. But be careful, because this is an easy way to put a production over budget quick. Even animals like dogs who will eat anything put in front of them, shouldn’t be eating lunch with the camera department. You may think all is well, but you’ll be kicking yourself after the next set up when your furry talent pukes all through the 3rd take.

 Animals have a pretty complicated work union.

You think working with SAG is a headache? Try working with the Animal Actors Association of the East. They require each on-set animal to have a minimum of 14 daily breaks which does not include the mandatory 3 naps every 8 hours and 20 petting hours per work week rules. And don’t forget, most animals are minors so their parents must give written or verbal consent AND be on set while the minor is working. It gets even more complicated when the parents of the talent are minors themselves! And yeah, dog years do not apply so unless you’re working with a tortoise or my ex-girlfriend’s cat, you’re probably shit out of luck. Don’t even get me started on the ridiculous backend deals these creatures get.

Animals are a distraction to canophiliac crew members.

Your crew is bound to fall in love with the animal talent. There’s nothing you can do to avoid this. It’s going to cause days to be shorter the talent’s ego to sky-rocket. Try to keep your crew in line and your production running smoothly by spreading rabies rumors.

 Animals are too pure. We don’t deserve them.

Movie sets are filled with bad people and unjust motivations. Everyone is out for themselves and their wallets and nothing else. Except for animals. They’re on set because they love us and we force them to be there. And while they’re often the best part of any movie they’re in, they rarely receive the credit they deserve. Where are the Dog Academy Awards? Why has no cat ever been nominated for best leading actor/actress? There is simply not enough representation in today’s media!

 

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I hope that you now see the benefits (and dangers) of working with animals on movie sets. They bring a wealth of enthusiasm to the production and can make the most difficult days so much more bearable. But they should never be taken advantage of. Work with animals that you trust and trust you back. Like your dog or your cat or turtle or parakeet or chinchilla or whatever. Collaborate with them to strike a balance between your vision and their personal experiences. Treat them with care and dignity. Love them unconditionally. And for the love of god, please don’t kill them off for cheap plot advancements!

 See Mr. Finch in Half Bath and Cobblestoned!