Just paint on the canvas...

Posted 14 June, 2011 Anthony Tan (staring at yet another render. But still loving it for some reason..)

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I've now spent 16 days on set for 47 Ronin - 7 as my original casting, and 9 as a backup/backfill, so while it's quiet, I thought I'd sketch out some thoughts on what makes a 'good' extra, so you can work out if this really is something you might want to do - it's not as glamorous as you'd think!

There's a certain amount of romance involved in working on film I must say.. I mean, clichés aside, for six weeks - three of them on set - I've been a small cog in the machinery of the dream factory and can now officially call myself an Artiste (according to my payslip). Right now I've a bit of spare time and so I thought I'd write something up for anyone curious what this all entails..

Getting a part, and the administrative stuff

First of all, obviously there's the challenge of getting a part to begin with, and as an extra, I did it though an open casting call way back in January 2011 or thereabouts. Basically, I turned up to a session where we were asked to sign basic agreements (mainly outlining what we would, wouldn't do, and making it clear that this session didn't guarantee work), identify if we had any specialist skills (I can kinda shoot a bow) and had our measurements and photos taken. From this, I presume the photos and data went to the film production crew and they decided which faces they'd like out of the lot, and who'd do what. Some people were lucky enough to go to a further boot camp environment to get some training on how to react and do basic performing when 'hit' etc.. basically these guys would form a class of extras that would be used for special reactions (i.e. being shot by an arrow, killed, etc).

As for me? I didn't hear much back from til May, when I got an SMS telling me how I'd been cast, what filming dates I'd need to keep clear, and a date for costume fitting. So good.. at this point, you're sort of in, and you move into the operational phase of things...

Glamorous? Hardly..

It's not as glamorous as you'd think - there's a lot of waiting, a lot of standing, and a lot of following orders. Days are long (from the moment I leave my house in Zone 4 SW, to returning : 17 hours) and can be physically challenging (wearing a heavy set of armour for the entire day, in hot sun for example). I personally like to call us paint on the canvas, because in the end, that's what we are. Important, as we help frame the main actors, and help make the scene look decent but not really important as individuals. I still dream of getting screen time, but err, yeah. I know that's not going to happen.

Here's an average day (assuming I know I'm into work that day for a 7:30am call):

0430 -
wake up
0513 -
get the 5:13 to Junction, and the the next train to Reading.
0645 -
minibus pickup to unit base
0700 -
breakfast in the mess tent. Eggs and bacon. Again.
0730 -
sign in, pick up my chit sheet, work out what character I am for the day
0830 -
begin costume, hair & makeup, armour, weapons
1100 -
on set. Standing in straight rows, kneeling, milling about, talking
1300 -
lunch on set. Eat fast, don't spill anything!
1930 -
derig, get back into normal clothes, and get the hairpieces removed.
2130 -
2230 -
Sleep.. prepare for it all over again...

Still, assuming that you're still interested...

So you're cast, now what?

#1 : Be available, be flexible

You tend to get dates, but they tend to be errm, fluid. It's part of the nature of the industry I've been told, that things can be a tad chaotic, so expect things to change and fluctuate around. It's nothing personal, it's just how it is. As an extra, your true value is in being both professionally good at taking orders, and being available to support the main cast/crew - they're what things revolve around.

Once it's 10:30 am, odds on you've got the day to yourself..In practice, this means you might get 24 hours notice for a booking - or less. I've been called at 9:30am to see if I can head into set by 11am (!) as an emergency replacement, and I've also been texted at 12:30am (yes, half an hour after midnight) asking to see if I was awake and available to work that morning at 6am - I made it on both occasions and rescheduled appointments. You might also be cut at short notice, but generally you get notified well before COB of the day before you're due in. Doesn't guarantee you won't be rebooked for that day mind you...

#2 : Be reliable, and be quick to respond

In some cases the reason you get next to no notice is due to factors out of control - rain being one of them - and availability of core cast. This might mean scenes are shot in different order than originally planned and therefore you need a different crew of people on set than you planned last week. In other cases, it's because people don't turn up (that was my 9:30am call). Some other times, it's because people take a while to respond to booking SMSes and so when they say no, it triggers off another round of 'can you work tomorrow' queries. One time I missed a phone call as I was getting out of costume, returned it 30 mins later, and was told that they'd already found an alternative replacement. Dang.

So - keep your phone handy, and return those calls ASAP. Sometimes you'll get called, sometimes you'll get texted, but you'll always be relying on your phone as your frontline communications tool.

#3 : Be patient, prepared to wait, and able to run at the right time

On set, and getting to set? Most of the time you're going to standing around while things happen... you can wait while:

  • They're setting up the next shot and moving cameras around
  • They're framing the current shot and positioning people
  • They're rehearsing the dialogue for the current shot
  • There's a backlog at costume/hair/makeup/armour/weapons/breakfast/lunch/busses
  • The light isn't quite right or there's rain... you get the idea.

These periods of waiting are, however, punctuated by periods of intense run-around type activity... it's juggling act, but it helps if you can get a feel for when there's real urgency and you know to run to position at those points - the ADs & Directors will be grateful for it. Sometimes it's not actually important to the shot setup per se, but these guys are under a lot of pressure so just the impression that we're all moving as fast as we can can help relieve the tension slightly & help out.

As well as that, there's a lot of orders that you'll be told to follow - the most frustrating one being to hold your position. Often this means standing in a single spot, not moving around and being unable to really chat with people etc.. still, follow orders. There's generally a reason why - they might be framing a shot and need to get a feel of how it'll look for example. Breaking position can screw that up and make it harder than necessary.

Just to put things in context we're not the lowest paid on set. That dubious distinction I think goes to the runners, who earn what, half of what we get? And work longer hours...Another variant of this is being positioned in a way where it's almost impossible the camera can see you, and therefore it seems a bit pointless to be there.. still, you're put there because the camera generally can - without seeing a monitor you have no idea of what is and isn't in shot, so again, you have to trust that you're needed Right There. Sometimes it's right, sometimes it's not. Again, as you work on set for a bit, you'll get a better feel for things but you are being hired (and paid quite well) to follow orders.

#4 : Be friendly, and be respectful

Last, but most importantly, the single most important skill you can posses as an extra is the ability to get on with people.

It's not exactly a skilled job we're doing here as extras. We are there to provide background colour and movement.. by our very nature we aren't going to be focused on (and if we are, it's in very limited circumstances) so we're somewhat expendable. We're important only at an aggregate level, and so we get treated as such. It is easy to feel a bit left out I must admit, and after day 13 on set, you can start to get a bit cranky and start agitating about things not working as well as they should.. all good, and it's everyone's right to complain, but step back from time to time and ask yourself if you're becoming overly demanding - everyone's doing their job, and everyone is operating on an average of 4 hours of sleep a night.

We all get cranky, frayed at the edges, and everyone wishes they had more certainty and information than they do (extras, cast, and crew).. just push through that, smile and do what needs to be done if you can. As an extension, remember that everyone's generally doing their level best and that talking back to someone (like an AD, costume, etc), is almost always counterproductive. Somehow magically it all works out... some of the guys lucky enough to be off shot and watching the monitors report that while we feel stupid, it looks amazing.

Closer to home, we're supposed to be professional, and I know costume can be a pain to use the toilet in.. but eeech, try not to make a mess? It just takes one and then the toilets just get really.. really.. bad :P Same goes for littering - you wouldn't toss teabags and empty coffee sachets on the table at home, use the bins! That's a personal peeve mind you...As to the respect bit, the guys on Ronin have been really nice and have treated us with respect - and in general we've responded in kind. However, there have been one or two incidents which have simply been not on - for example, mobbing Keanu, Tadanobu, etc, and asking for pictures. They're working just like us, and they're professionals, and nice people. They won't say no to pictures etc, but really it's not on. Someone on set took it a bit far and as we all had to be officially warned to back off, and therefore, it's spoilt it for the rest of us. Depending on the production, you may or may not have the ability to take phones on set, but I'll guarantee if people start abusing the privilege of doing so, you will be asked to check phones at the door. Not only does it mean it's more boring when you can't check your email - remember what I mentioned about your phone being your primary comms device? You really kinda want to have it around so the second you're booked, you know.

...and some miscallaneous thoughts

  • If you wear glasses, and are going to be doing something in period costume - you may really want to consider contacts - you get to see what's happening, and you don't risk leaving your optics on during a shot...
  • I tend to have a basic medical/drug bag - painkillers, antihistamines, gum, single use eyedrops, spare contacts, tissues, sunscreen - on the table which I can grab n go at any point. Mainly for me, it's the hayfever which I'm protecting against.
  • Take care of yourself - it's a long day, and you're already going to be low on sleep - no job is worth getting sick for. And if you're sneezing/wheezing, you're likely to be stepped off and play no part in the scene anyway
  • When costuming up, you're not going to get out of your gear for the rest of the day - it pays to make sure it fits in the morning..
  • Know your NI, you'll need it to fill in the chit sheet at the end of the day
  • Try not to hide stuff in your costume (phones, water bottles, etc) - Costume will get yelled at if things don't look right, even if it's not their fault that you've got five water bottles stuffed in there..
  • Have a set of thermals for those cold days. Low-v necked so you can have it on under your costume and not notice. If you really wanted to do this seriously, you'd want long/short sleeved, long/short legged, and ideally flesh coloured (or if not possible - both white and black to suit your costume)
  • Oh, and take care of your costume - it can be a LOT more expensive than you think (£2,000!).

Life on 47 Ronin

Just as a plug for 47 Ronin, so far, I've racked up 16 days on set - 7 nights (6pm to 5am) and 9 days (7:30am to 7:30pm), and while frustrating at times (that waiting gets to me - I like being in motion, and doing things), everyone has been really quite friendly, and good about it all. We haven't been treated like mindless scum (apparently it happens, extras aren't really high on the totem pole), we've been fed well, and they have taken care of us as much as they can.

There's a nice atmosphere around the place, and talking to the guys, they also say the same thing - some people have worked on other sets where there's been a different feel in the air (overly demanding extras, or really strict set protocols, etc, etc) and they don't mind the atmosphere on this one. We all would prefer more scheduling and notice, but eh, it's how it just is. The fact that when Casting calls, I tend to jump, still suggests that it's a helluva lot of fun, worth doing, and that the people are rather friendly.

Any more for any more?

As usual, I'm pretty sure this doesn't answer as many questions as I'd hoped, and there's things I've missed out.. feel free to peg me questions on email/twitter/etc, and I'll see what I can do about answering. There's only so much detail I can go into with respect to actual Ronin stuff given that I don't want to pre-empt their publicity antics, but on process and protocol, go for your life...

Silicon Milkroundabout - Sunday May 15th
Rhinos, Cheetahs, Giraffe - it's all the same ink, unfortunately
  1. My agency for this film is the Casting Collective: http://www.castingcollective.co.uk/. They're not the only ones who manage extras, but they've got the contract for this film..
  2. We get paid at FAA pay rates. FAA you say? They're the Film Artistes' Association, a section of the relevant union - BECTU - and I suspect, responsible for us being paid decently...
  3. 47 Ronin's official site: http://47ronin.jp/