By Julia Courtenay
It’s been a blockbuster year for film in Vancouver, providing a slew of opportunities for Background Performers (a.k.a Extras) to be anything from zombies, to German officers, FBI agents, bikers, baristas or nuns—and get paid!
Want to get in on the action? Read on to find out how to work as a Background Performer on set.
WHAT ARE BACKGROUND PERFORMERS?
Background performers are the non-speaking actors who are included in a scene to create realism. You probably know them as “extras.” They’re part of the atmosphere and ambience: patrons in a café, passers-by in a street, attendees at a funeral etc. Some become “core” background, i.e. series regulars, such as a consistent group of police officers in the bullpen of a cop series.
By the way, the term “extras” has been dropped because of the negative implication that they’re unnecessary. Background is essential for the texture and realism of a production.
WHY BE A BACKGROUND PERFORMER?
If you’re considering a career in film or are a film student right now, background performing is a great way to get your feet wet on professional sets. It’s low stress and low risk. You’ll get to absorb the etiquette, language, and process of a set, as well as see the variety of career options (from Script Supervisor or Set Decorator to Grip or Boom Op.) up close and personal.
If you’re a film student, you’ve probably already worked on small, independent sets, but this would provide a paid opportunity to experience a bigger unionized set while working on your career path.
And the best perk of all? Watching the show with friends and pointing yourself out as the third zombie on the right!
Think you’re too good to work as Background? Tell that to Jennifer Lawrence in Monk! Try to guess where she is:
WORKING AS A BACKGROUND PERFORMER
That’s all fine and dandy, you might be thinking, but what’s it actually like working as a background performer?
Up front, there can definitely be a lot of waiting around doing nothing. Crews spend hours setting up lights and cameras, and Background usually isn’t brought onto the set until set up is complete.
On the bright side, you’ll be well fed with provided lunch, ongoing snacks, coffee, and more!
Don’t expect a 9 to 5 schedule (though, if pursuing a film career, why would you?). Locations will vary wildly and working hours can be odd. Sometimes you might start as early as six in the morning, other times it might be a full overnight shoot. So clear your day!
The work is also somewhat seasonal, with summer being the absolute busiest time. It gets quieter from November to March, but you’ll still find opportunities around.
DO BACKGROUND PERFORMERS NEED AN AGENT?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: it isn’t essential, though many background performers opt for one or more agents. Agents will find you work and charge a fee for their services.
If you want an agent, ask around for recommendations since not all agents charge the same fees or offer the same services. Look for one that specifically handles Background.
Alternatively, a great option is BCF Casting—an online Background Performers database. Like agents, BCF will send you out on calls but without the fees or commission.
Both agents and BCF Casting have websites that guide you through the application process. They typically ask for your height, weight, body measurements, hair type, and age, plus any experience or special skills you have. You’ll also need some clear, full length photos—try to show a few different looks (evening wear, sports wear, work wear, uniform etc.) to show them your range (you can upload up to 12 photos on BCF). For Background work you don’t need expensive professional shots so don’t be talked into them!
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
- Don’t approach the Director, key crew, or cast on the show.
It’s not personal, they just need to stay in a bubble of concentration and don’t want to socialize. The Assistant Directors or Background Coordinators will give you your instructions. Stay quiet, professional and focused.
- Absolutely NO personal photos of actors, sets, or the day’s events.
- Most scenes require the background to be totally silent.
Not only does that mean mimed conversations, your footsteps and handling of props and set dressing must be noiseless. The Sound Department might separately record a “babble” track of the Background chatting and moving at the end of the scene, which they’ll add into the sound track later. This is all to make sure the words and actions of the main cast are recorded cleanly and clearly.
- Don’t ask to leave early.
They’re relying on you to be available for the day, whether it’s 16 hours or all night. Make sure your schedule is clear.
- Bring something to pass the time
Something like a book, tablet, playing cards etc. Otherwise, you’ll be twiddling your thumbs for more than a while.
- On cold days, bring your thermals.
You don’t want to find yourself standing around in breezy summer clothes in December!
- You might be asked to bring your own clothing.
You’ll usually get some instructions as to what to bring, but always bring a few extra choices of colours and styles to provide some options. You don’t want your only option to be the exact blue shirt that the lead performer is wearing.
ADVANCING AS A BACKGROUND PERFORMER
Once you’ve spent 15 days working as a Background Performer on union shows, you can step it up by applying to The Union of BC Performers (UBCP).
The main benefit is that you’ll get preferential hiring over non-union background performers on the bigger shows. Big productions have a quota of union members to hire before they can hire non-union. Check out the UBCP/ACTRA website for more information.
After that, all you have to do is kick back and watch your scenes when the show comes out. Enjoy!
Want to be a Production Assistant instead? Get certified at the Motion Picture Industry Orientation!
We also offer plenty of workshops geared towards preparing you for specific film career paths!
- Script Supervising I: Orientation
- Script Supervising II: Advanced Class
- Introduction to Production Design
Learn more about film industry positions with Script Supervisors: The Eyes and Ears of Continuity and Assistant Directors: The Unsung Heroes of the Film Industry.