Culture, Film

How-to: Be a Background Artiste Part I – The Bottom Line

Robin Hood and Bel AmiThey used to be called ‘extras’ or, at the posh end of the business,’scenic artistes’ and you will often see the term ‘SA’ used. On set, everyone refers to the ‘Background’ – that’s not part of the painted set, but the people who do the (usually) thankless job of populating the imagined worlds of TV and film. The passers-by, the shoppers, visitors, patients, passengers, peasants, cadavers or, at lowest common denominator: ‘crowd’.

And yes, being an SA or Background Artiste is still, for now, a paid job of work.

Gone are the days the old-timers on Harry Potter described to me, when it was a wholly unionised ‘closed shop’, when you needed sixpence for the payphone to ring the agent at the end of the day for the next day’s job, or know the pubs in Charing Cross to go on spec for that day’s filming work.

Now, it’s all via Interweb and text messaging; digital head-shots and the luck of the draw.

You can still get lucky with a long shoot (my record is 58 days on a feature film), with a feature (maybe with dialogue) or a walk on; or the Holy Grail, an advert with a fat buyout fee for six months repeats.

More likely you’ll get half a dozen jobs a year. It’s a crowded market, with more people flooding in than ever.

This is the good news and the bad news about being an SA. Hang on til the end before you make your mind up

First, the bad news.

Putting the mystique of the film and TV business aside – and you better had, because there isn’t any – think of it as any other temporary recruitment business. The agents need to make a quick turnaround on messy production schedules, hashed and re-hashed by creative types for whom schedules and budgets are so much Scotch mist.

There are many background agencies operating in the UK, including a plethora of cowboys on the Internet. Consequently not everyone behaves as well as they should.

Always keep in mind the business is completely random in every aspect.

It’s so random, you can ask any four SA’s about any four agents and they will all hate at least 2 of them – but all different. The SA’s favourite complaint is time to payment, followed by late cancellations.

The Bottom Line
Pay rates vary. The best jobs are on PACT rate (Equity and BECTU rates), mostly feature films and high-end TV. Unless, of course, the agent has cut a deal with the production company to secure the work – Les Mis pinned the agents to £100 for 12hrs with no overtime.

The Internet cowboys are undercutting the established agents. There are lots of jobs for £30 and £40 a day and no shortage of people with ambitions to work on TV for the bragging rights. Or the unemployed.

But surely, you say, being an SA demands talent? If only. Most of the time, what’s needed is the right age, the right ‘look’ and the ability to turn up on time and not bump into the actors or the furniture. More on this later. Back to the financials…

All agents work on commission (anything from 10-25%). This varies. Most still charge annual registration fees, some will waive this but take more commission. You might opt not to pay up-front but take a deduction from the first job(s). It means you may do a couple of days for free each year, but if you don’t work, you don’t pay anything.

Remember, it’s a dog-eat-dog business and everyone is your friend until there’s a dispute over bookings, hours or money. You have to be nice to the agent, they won’t necessarily be nice to you. Grow a thick skin, suck it up, or do something else.

Do not rely on it for a source of income. I know one chap registered with 17 agents and still doesn’t have a full time income.

Location, location, location
Be sure to consider travel time and cost before you accept a job (unless it’s something you really want to work on). Petrol and parking cost. As do train tickets.

The permanent studios ring London’s outskirts (Longcross, Shepperton, Pinewood, Levesden) with a few closer in (LH2, Camden, Three-Mile Cross). Locations can be literally anywhere – stately homes, private estates, the Gillette factory, Hammersmith Tube station, Reading FC. ‘London’ extends out to Chatham, Luton Hoo and even Northampton. Treat any location given a bit like a RyanAir destination; plus or minus 20 miles.

Location matters. I will take jobs at Bristol Bottleyard as the studio there is quicker to get to than Levesden. If you’re inside the M25 and can hop on a tube at no notice for the price of a travelcard, you’ll work twice as much as those who can’t – maybe more.

The hours – early calls and late wraps – also impact your ability to travel cheaply and safely – or at all.

Working Time Directive
In this business, there ain’t no such thing.

Days can be really long – calls from 5am or earlier, til 10pm wrap or later, and anything between. Then there’s night-shoots – lucrative if you get the proper night rate, less so if you get the notorious ‘split-shift’, mid-to-late afternoon call for after-midnight finish. The split shift is paid at whatever is the ‘normal’ rate for the production.

Think about travel and overnight stops before you accept consecutive days filming.

There is no guarantee you will work consecutive days even if booked and that messes up any B&B’s or other accommodation you have to book in advance. And you will be looking at the cheapest accommodation available, because at £90 to £120 a day with no guarantee of overtime, with travel, and suddenly you’re making less than minimum wage. My best single day? £285.

Booking Etiquette
You will get ‘pencilled’ for jobs last minute and cancelled last minute. They get to cancel you, you don’t get to cancel them. If you accept a job, do not accept another for the same day and expect to play one off against the other, it will back fire. If you are late, irate or a no-show for a job, the agent will probably drop you then and there. Do not under any circumstance plead a double-booking after you accept a pencil booking and definitely not after you’re confirmed, the agent will drop you.

Don’t get me started on the ‘heavy pencil.’ It can weigh more than Saturn yet still disappear in the beep of a text.

The Expendables
Background work is largely unskilled. You are expendable. Selection is usually based on your age, look and reliability. Expect to be treated like cattle most of the time (the bigger the shoot, the worse it gets).

Unless you get picked for continuity or walk-on or special feature, you could get dropped from one day to the next. Actually, if you do get picked for a feature, you could still get dropped – “sorry, you’ve been seen too much.”

If you want to work the days, find out where the camera is and try to be as far back from it as possible. It doesn’t always work out. The ‘deep background’ often get hovered up to the front to fill in the gaps in a scene and that’s your plan for anonymity shot.

Is that it? Not by a long shot. Hang on for Part II – Mostly Random. RC

Related: Opinion: No Summer Blockbusters, Please

About Robin Catling

Writer; performer; project manager; sports coach; all-round eccentric.


2 thoughts on “How-to: Be a Background Artiste Part I – The Bottom Line

  1. Interesting

    Posted by Mike P | August 5, 2013, 1:46 am
  2. Hello There. I found your blog using msn. This is a really well written article.

    Posted by janette wisniewski | August 23, 2013, 4:14 pm

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