I should probably save this for Friday but a reader wanted to know if extras talked softly and if so is it distracting to the main cast?
The extras don’t talk. They just mouth conversations. The background hub bub is added later in post production. If they did talk it would be (a) distracting, (b) hard to match takes when we edit back and forth between takes, (c) they would have to be paid, and (d) God knows what bullshit they’d say.
On multi-camera shows extras are generally brought in the last day or two. The Second Assistant Director is in charge of placing them, telling them where to walk and when. Invariably when I was directing there would be a woman placed at a table with Marge Simpson hair that completely blocked out the stars. Or someone would be told to cross in front of a star just as he was delivering his punch line. Occasionally you find an extra looking at the camera.
I always picture an union meeting (they do have a union – SEG, Screen Extras Guild) where everyone is incensed, waving arms, pumping fists, and mouthing their passionate views.
Even though extras are not allowed to talk they are allowed – even encouraged to act. Or should I say, “react”? Cheer when someone makes a big announcement. Silently gasp in horror when someone spontaneously bursts into flames.
I remember an episode of the old SUPERMAN series. The bad guys wore full lead helmets (Superman can’t see through lead). There was a scene where two of them were walking down the hall in the Daily Planet building en route to a meeting with Perry White. Two extras entered from the other direction and didn’t even notice that there were two guys in suits and hats with LEAD HELMETS!!
I was directing an episode of ALMOST PERFECT that featured a giant pie fight scene (actually 800 custard tarts). We had our cast and sixty extras. For three days I choreographed and rehearsed the scene with rice cakes. Once cameras were rolling I knew I only had one take. (My inspiration was the great Laurel & Hardy pie fights.)
I was trying to work out a thousand things at once when this extra comes up and announces she would not like to be hit with any pies. Please place her accordingly. I said, if you don’t want to be in the pie fight then we’ll just replace you. No, no, she said in a very prim voice, she’d do it, but I was to instruct all the other extras to spare her specifically from any incoming pies? I said, I would see what I could do.
Okay, I know I’ll roast in hell for this but I did instruct the other extras. And when cameras rolled this girl got pelted with hundreds of pies. From all directions. Just bombarded. (It seems that she had managed to annoy all of them too.) I look back at that episode and the sight of her just getting blasted with pies makes me fall on the floor laughing every time. Like I said, I know there are not going to be any harps where I’m going.
Being an extra looks like an easy job but it’s not. There’s a lot of down time that can get real boring. The pay isn’t great. Job security is nil. There’s pie in your hair for weeks. In general it’s a very thankless job. The common name for extras in Hollywood is “background”. How many people in their college yearbook list “background” as their dream job of choice?
But they perform a very useful and important function. And I’m happy to speak on their behalf… since they themselves can’t without being paid day player rates.