Culture, Film

How-to: Be a Background Artiste Part II – Mostly Random

Hugo - don't forget the SA'sAh, the trials of being a Scenic Artiste – that’s ‘Extra’ to the uninitiated. Think of this as a tribute to the men, women and sometimes children who fill out the cafes, castles, supermarkets and streets of everything you see on film and TV. Often including ‘unreality TV.’

Did I mention the business is completely random?

It’s how I ended up in the press-pack for Hugo, but edited out of the final cut. And how one lucky lass taking a couple of days off from her primary school job got a full-on snog from a playful Robert Pattinson (don’t worry, that bit isn’t mandatory, chaps).

Maximise your employability, make sure you detail in your profile any special skills, uniforms or clothing (police, chefs, medics, historical). If you’re especially tall, short, fat, thin, ugly, deformed, an amputee, exotically foreign-looking, can dance or have a military background, you can at least double your chance of working.

It also helps if you look like a ‘name’ actor; stand-ins and doubles are always required for camera set-up and the bits the stars themselves don’t want to do. Like lying in a river, playing dead in place of an American actor I had no idea I resembled. It’s a funny old game. It can also lift you out of the hum-drum background work – almost star treatment, better catering – but not necessarily more pay…

Mostly Random
If the agents aren’t enough of a pain, the productions themselves can be a trial. Runners and Asst. Directors can be brilliantly polite or total nazis; geniuses or virtual retards. The higher up the food chain they are, the nicer they tend to be. Oscars earned, nothing to prove, egos put aside.

Unlike the wannabees and the climbers, the frustrated and the passed-over. To them, the SA’s are the bottom of the food chain. Not helped by the part-timers among the SA’s themselves who don’t concentrate, don’t listen, don’t stay where they’re put and most importantly, never shut up.

You will get to meet a completely random cross-section of the populace in the SA’s tent, half of whom will be sectionable, a quarter will be out for a social jolly (well, it gets them out of the house), an eighth will be bunking off their regular jobs (not to mention out of work actors in desperation straits), while whoever’s left just want to do a good job, collect the cheque and go home. Try not to punch any of them, no matter what the provocation. ‘Shutter-sluts’ included.

Plans change from minute to minute.

There will be hours and hours of standing about (or sitting about if you’re lucky). On larger shoots, with big crowds, you will spend forever queueing for sign-in, wardrobe, make up, breakfast, tea, lunch, going to set, getting off set, wardrobe again, make up again, and check-out.

Once you arrive, you are on the clock, they are paying for your time, it’s up to them how they use it. Or not. The best you can do is achieve a Zen-like state. It can be difficult.

The bigger the job, the more of a pain it’s likely to be. If you’ve never worked with five hundred random twonks milling about like five year olds or dementia patients in a nusery run by a loose collective of the underpaid and over-stressed, well, it’ll be an education.

Take nothing with you to a location that you can’t bear to lose (we had some thefts from the SA’s tent on Harry Potter; no I don’t think anyone waved a wand and chanted ‘disapeariamus’).

On-set catering varies from fantastic to 3rd-world subsistence. Besides vegetarian, they largely don’t do special requests. Don’t assume anything until you get to the catering wagon. If there is one. A certain car commercial was notorious for the cold, soggy box of fish and chips on a London street at 9.30. With no cutlery. And the ad was rubbish.

To be or not to be – seen
Oh yes, don’t expect to be seen. Ever. Editing is a cruel process. You might see the back of your head for two seconds, or your left ear in a whole scene. If you are in shot, resist the temptation to mouth ‘hello mum’ behind Russell Crowe.

Finally, be hardy. Being an SA is often a test of endurance. As well as the hours and hours and hours of standing about – usually in bad shoes – more fool you if they’re your own – for which you’ll need sound feet, knees and back, you also need robust health and a patient bladder. Be prepared for extremes of heat and cold, sometimes wet. Be light on your feet and watch where you walk.

This is The Industry that Health and Safety Forgot. There will be cables everywhere. Everywhere. And bits of set. Scaffold. Cranes. Cherrypickers. Flight cases, camera dollies, camera track, lamp stands, dustbins, ropes, canvas, smoke machines, wind machines, ladders, toolboxes. And crew. Sometimes hundreds of them. And they will all be in your way. If not, wait a couple of takes, until the director changes shot. Everything will move. And it will all be in your way. Again. In a different place.

And that’s before the actors chip in. Because whatever the AD’s instruct you to do, the actors will muck it up by putting their performance first. Most inconsiderate in my view.

But for all that… well that’s more for Part III. RC

Related: How to: Be a Background Artist Part I – The Bottom Line

About Robin Catling

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


One thought on “How-to: Be a Background Artiste Part II – Mostly Random

  1. Hi there! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new iphone! Love reading your blog and look forward to all your posts!

    Posted by marissa shirley | August 10, 2013, 3:16 pm

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