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Film and Television Extras

The Job

When you go to the movies, you probably do not pay close attention to the people in the background of all the scenes. Yet, if they were not there—if there were no lines at the bank, no crowds at the football game, no passengers on the airplane—you would certainly notice. Practically every filmmaker uses extras. Though these extras do not have lines, close-ups, or any real significance to the film's plot, they are important in establishing the world of the film.

Many people work as extras to gain professional experience, hoping to someday become principal actors (performers in featured roles), or to work in the film industry in some other capacity. Others simply see extra work as an enjoyable way to supplement their incomes. Anyone can register at a nonunion extra casting agency to become an extra. There are several agencies in the Los Angeles area, and they book work for extras when they are available.

If selected, film and TV extras are advised on what they need to bring to the set and when and where to report to work. For most films, extras are asked to wear their own clothes. For a film set in another time period, they may have to report to the wardrobe department for a costume fitting.

In some cases, a casting director for a film will be looking for specific types and talents. For example, if a scene features a baseball game, the director may need extras who can pitch, hit, and run. Or a period scene in a dance hall may call for extras who know certain traditional dances. These extras are called special ability extras and usually receive better daily pay than general extras. A stand-in may also be needed for a film shoot. A stand-in is an extra who takes the place of a principal actor when the crew prepares to film a scene, but who is not actually filmed. Stand-ins are positioned on the set for the cameras to focus the shot and set up lights.

Members of SAG-AFTRA, the union for film actors and extras, generally receive better pay than nonunion extras. A film must have 30 SAG-AFTRA-registered extras on a given day before hiring nonunion extras.

When reporting for work, extras may be part of a rehearsal or may be thrust immediately into the filming of the scene. They are required to pay close attention to the director and cooperate with crew members. Extras may be asked to simply stand in the background, to have conversation with other extras, or to move freely about the set. They must keep track of what they are doing in each scene in order to help maintain continuity from scene to scene. Extras may have to repeat their actions, gestures, and expressions again and again until the filmmakers have the shot they need. Their scene may only take a few hours to complete or may take several days. Extras may be used for the background in only one scene or may be used in many scenes. In rare cases, an extra is plucked from a crowd scene and given a line to speak. In this case, the performer is considered a day player.

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