Background Action!: A Guide to Handling BG on Indie Films
Extras. BG. Background artists. Background actors. Atmosphere. Props with pulses. However way you want to call them (I don’t suggest using the last one openly), you’re undoubtedly going to work with them if you plan to AD anything.
On big union shows, there’s specific systems in place that help keep the background effectively moving around from casting all the way through action. Usually there’s a small army of PAs and casting folks who make sure these folks have everything they need to be the perfect dead body in the background of a zombie film. And these folks are usually paid pretty well for their time and documented fully.
This is vastly different for indie/non-union films. The paperwork usually boils down to photo/video releases and a PA is forced to sometimes check on them throughout the day and occasionally herd them to set. This usually results in having extras who are not experienced, unprepared, and annoyed at the process.
We can be better at handling the extras on an indie set. Just because they’re usually unpaid does not mean they are not equally important. A crazy bar scene on an indie needs just as atmosphere as a union show. In the immortal words of an A-list actor I worked with a couple years ago, “Just because we’re low budget does not mean we need to be fucking amateurs.”
So just because we’re not giving our extras vouchers and start work from the accounting department, does not mean we should not handle them as if they were on a union set. Treating the background as professionals, unpaid or not, only helps your production across the board.
Firstly, you should budget someone to be the extras casting coordinator. Even on small budgets, I’ve seen this properly executed. You should NEVER rely on your ADs to do extras casting. Ever. Never ever ever ever ever. One more time: DON’T MAKE YOUR ADs DO EXTRAS CASTING. Your 2nd may be sitting in an office all day but they really are focused on a bizillion things to make sure the next few days of filming are smooth. Do you really want them diverting their attention away from this? Hire someone to be the extras liason. This helps so much. Not only can they make sure you have the right type of BG for each scene, but they can also help wrangle on set (and be a PA or additional AD when there’s no BG on set that day!) Extras Coordinators also make sure they cast BG that are AVAILABLE for the full day and also emphasize how important it is to be on time and remain there until released. It’s a common problem to have unpaid BG try to leave early and not bring up other commitments before filming. A coordinator can help filter out these people or alert production if anyone is leaving early ahead of time.
Once you have an extras casting person, the director should be sitting down with them or the 1st AD to go through each scene that requires BG. The director should be as specific as possible as what they are looking for in terms of BG. AND THIS SHOULD HAPPEN EARLY IN PRE-PRO. Especially if a specific wardrobe/hair/makeup/props/SPFX situation is needed for the BG. You will want each respective department head to know if they need to prepare for extras. BG like cops, paramedics, etc. all have specific looks that wardrobe and props will have to prepare for. Makeup and hair will often take a look at the BG on the day and do a touch up if needed before the BG is called to set. In regards to wardrobe, if the extras require special costumes, the BG will need to be cast early on so they can be scheduled for fittings with wardrobe before the day of filming.
Yes, even on an indie is this important. You cannot expect extras to come in on the day and be fully prepared. This all needs to be figured out well in advance. You’d be terrified to know how many indies neglect this part of pre-pro and have 100 extras show up with mismatched uniforms on the day and no way to make it work. This happens a lot and all it takes is a little foresight to avoid.
If BG is asked by wardrobe to bring clothing options, then it’s a little bit easier to handle them, but they still should go through proper casting and prep. I will never forget the day we had a party of 20-somethings in the script and production brought in a group of underage 17 year olds. We made it work, but it caused an unnecessary stress on production on a day when we already had a lot going on. Simply put: the BG needs to be just as important during pre-pro as casting your 1st team.
So you have your extras cast and prepared for the scenes they will be in. Now what do you do? You figure out the logistics of extras. This is something you may want to talk to production about hiring additionals for. Most indies will balk at the idea of hiring more crew unless it’s presented as a dayplayer situation. “They will help take care of things that we will not be able to give our attention to fully” usually does the trick in getting producers to bring on extra help. If the rate’s shit (which it usually is), you can ask them to offer additional AD credit if the person is seeking that line of work.
If you are bringing in additionals to help with BG on big BG days, then you will work with them in pre-pro to make sure there is a holding area, snacks, water, and bathrooms for your BG. YES, EVEN ON AN INDIE. It’s possible, I know it is because we’ve done it. This is where having your extras casting coordinator is super important. They can play 2nd 2nd and arrange for these things while also advising your additionals. It is important that any scene with more than 5 BG has a separate space for the BG including their own mini-crafty and lunch, waters, and if possible, their own bathroom situation. If your show has a locations department, this can be easily arranged between extras casting, additionals, and locations. And you can just check in to confirm. If there’s no locations, you should check in with your producers to make sure these things are being thought of.
The worst thing you can do is have 45 extras arrive on the day of filming and absolutely no place to put them. It’s even worse when they are required to have a wardrobe change or makeup/hair done. These details need to be worked out ahead of time. When your extras arrive that day, there should be signs up directing them to a holding area (even if it’s just a tent with tables and chairs). There should be signs for bathrooms and a plan worked out on how they will get through wardrobe, hair, and makeup if need be. Sometimes the vanities departments will have additionals themselves that come to the extras holding and provide their services there. Sometimes, you will need to have whoever is wrangling extras take the BG to where ever your vanities are staged and oversee the BG going through the works.Whatever your plan, it needs to be thought of, checked, and double checked and confirmed with all who need to be involved BEFORE the day of filming.
You don’t need a boatload of money to make sure these things happen. It’s all in the planning. If you can’t afford to take care of BG, there shouldn’t be scenes with BG, period. Even if you’re holding 15 BG in a backyard with a pop up tent and giving them costco snacks, you still have to have a plan. Unpaid BG will respond better to an efficient low budget than to a disorganized bigger budget.
When BG arrived, someone should be checking them in individually to make sure everyone who was cast has arrived promptly. The extras coordinator should send the ADs a sheet of BG names which shows what their call time is, what type of BG they are portraying, and if they’re being paid, what their rate is. This is referred to as “skins” and is super helpful when the extras arrive at holding. The coordinator should also make sure the extras PA has a contact list of all who were cast as BG in case they are running late. The extras PA will have releases, the skins, and some sort of contract/voucher paperwork if the extras are being paid. The PA should know how these things are filled out ahead of time and help assist each extra with the paperwork. This helps with credits, head count for the scene and for catering/crafty, and if paid, helps with accounting and making sure the extras get their check. In the end, whatever space ends up being extras holding, there should be a sign in area right near the door containing envelopes with ample printed out releases and contracts, lots of pens, clipboards, paper clips, and anything else that you deem necessary for the PA to have.
Wrangling BG doesn’t have to be complicated either. If there’s a lot of them, you can make a chart of where each person sits/stands/acts for the scene. You can make a list of people who are simply “crossers” (bodies that cross in front of the camera or behind the actors), featured extras (folks who will be in the scene prominently, or interact with the principals without speaking), and specific clusters of BG such as “cops”, “dancers”, “zombies”, etc. Having this stuff written down and listed out ahead of time helps out significantly and allows your 2nd or 2nd 2nd (if you’re lucky enough to have one on an indie!) to place BG while allowing you as the 1st to take care of your normal duties. Keeping a PA with BG is also essential as the 2nd or 2nd 2nd can call for them over walkie and the PA can walk the BG to the set and help place them. Your PA can also look after BG when they are not on set, making sure there is ample crafty, water, and that BG are not getting lost or going missing when they are needed.
If you have a 2nd 2nd, they will be the ones giving the BG their directions and arranging the BG. They will work with you and the DP to make sure the BG looks good on the frame. They will make sure the BG do not look directly at camera, or talk during the scene (remember… PANTOMIME!). Your extras PA will make sure unused BG remain quiet and out of the way if they are on the set, or walk them back to holding. Your PA will also help to warm up the BG and give them a 5-10 minute warning before going to set. This allows the BG time to go to the bathroom, finish up snacks and cigarettes, and do any makeup and hair touches if needed.
If you are without a 2nd 2nd, either you or your 2nd will be in charge of overseeing the BG while they are on set, and calling for the right BG for a shot when the extras are in holding. This is a pain in the ass, but it’s totally doable and this is also a great time to have your extras coordinator on set to help if they’re not needed to cast more BG for future scenes. Whatever the situation is, you can easily (and without spending more money) come up with a proper plan to oversee them.
A good bit of advice is to wrap out groups of BG as soon as possible. They also have a turnaround and if they’re needed back the next day, you will want to treat them like your first team actors. They need to drive home, sleep, see their families, etc. Especially if they’re unpaid! Kill em with kindness and appreciate the fact that they are spending time on the set without the promise of a paycheck. That’s a very difficult thing to ask for so BE GRATEFUL! It’s not always possible to send them home as soon as the angle’s done, but if you can, DO! It helps not only with BG morale, but also keeps costs down (extras LOVE free crafty). When BG are released for the day, make note of each BG’s out time. Even if it’s not absolutely necessary for accounting or the PRs in your case, this is a great habit to get into because it IS necessary for union shows. Your PA can sign out each extra like they signed them in and create a chart of what time each extra left location for the day.
In terms of scheduling BG, you as the 1st should try to not put big extras days on the same days as other big scenes that don’t include extras. Schedule extras scenes together if there are multiple scenes with BG on one set. Wrangling BG takes time and placing them can be a much longer than anticipated process. You will want to account for the extra time it takes to herd more bodies around and give them the attention they deserve. You will also want to be as specific as possible when setting call times for the BG. Be realistic. Don’t call them in too early, especially if they’re not paid. BG will get grumpy if they’re sitting around for too long (and who can blame them?). And even if they are paid, they’re often rated for a certain amount of hours before going into overtime, so realistic call times affect your budget as well as your BG’s morale.
At the end of the day, indie or union, we all recognize the importance of solidly placed and coordinated atmosphere to fleshing out the film. DPs love having the action on their frame and directors love the energy BG brings to the scene, so don’t treat them like subhumans. Take care of your BG, paid or unpaid, and they will in turn take care of you.
This is a painting I did to explore the look of the Sky Spire in “Giant Woman” and I also used it later to test out an idea we had for the episode title cards before Rebecca decided to do the laundry hands idea.
The backgrounds for this episode were later beautifully designed & painted by Sam & Elle! Check out a selection of the productions BGs HERE!
This is my favorite episode that I worked on! And it has my favorite song that Rebecca wrote! She even dedicated this live version to me at Comic Con last year!! ^O^