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Don’t call them “extras”

Background actors are part of the magic of film
Brindi Tremblay, costume costumer and set supervisor for the production of Hallmark’s Holidazed, explains background actors’ tricks of the trade.

By Timothy Collins

Imagine that you’ve settled in to watch a long-awaited movie, but there’s a problem.

The characters in the show are walking down a city street but there are no cars on the road that day. In fact, it appears that there aren’t any other people on the street either.

The characters turn into a restaurant, and the dialogue continues but you find yourself entirely distracted by the fact that this eatery – like the city street – is deserted.

By now, it’s unlikely that even the biggest talent in Hollywood can make you care about this movie’s plot. The magic is gone.

Of course, you’ll never actually see films play out in this way. Producers and directors learned long ago that actors need appropriate backgrounds to play out their roles. And those backgrounds include other people.

(Cecil B. DeMille once employed 14,000 extras when filming The Ten Commandments.)

And while there aren’t any biblical epics being filmed in Victoria at present, there are hundreds of people who regularly secure roles as background actors in all manner of films. Watch any film that is shot here, from documentaries to horror movies to Hallmark Classics, and you might be seeing these intrepid souls in the background.

The key word here, of course, is background. The trick for filmmakers is to incorporate other human beings (and sometimes animals) into scenes without distracting from the actions or dialogue of the principal actors.

“That can be the tricky part,” said Brindi Tremblay, a costume costumer and set supervisor with decades of experience in the movie industry. Tremblay was recently on set for the production of Hallmark’s Holidazed, filmed in Duncan B.C.

“Background actors … we don’t call them extras, that’s sort of rude … if they’re doing their job right, are part of the background and complete the scenes without becoming the focus of the action.”

Tremblay’s job is to complete the illusion that these people are a natural part of the scene by ensuring that their appearance is appropriate to the action. That might mean that a background actor will find themselves in full winter wear, despite very warm weather at the time a scene is shot.

On set at Holidazed, a Hallmark movie filmed in Duncan B.C. (Tim Collins)

Consistency is important as well.

“We photograph every background actor and keep a record of what they look like in a scene. If they have their scarf over the left shoulder in one scene, that scarf can’t change color or be over the right shoulder in the next scene,” Tremblay said.

Of course, continuity in movies has had some classic fails. In the classic, Wizard of Oz, the film was shot over several months and Dorothy’s hair grows and shortens by a few inches several times over the course of a single song (If I Only Had a Brain).

Oh well, OZ was a magical place, one assumes.

Tremblay explained that background actors are also coached in how to stay unobtrusive in other ways. For example, if two background actors are having a conversation in a restaurant, they can’t really talk. They have to mime their conversation, so their voices aren’t picked up by microphones.

“They also have to be consistent. You can’t have one of them smiling or laughing and the other one looking very serious or sad. They have to work out what they’re pretending to talk about in advance.”

Background actors have their hair styled in appropriate fashion, can’t wear name brand clothing with visible logos (producers get paid by companies for product placement and no free adverts are allowed), and can sometimes have foam pads glued to the soles of their shoes to prevent clicking footfalls as they walk behind the actors.

Patrick Baynham is very familiar with these idiosyncrasies of the business, and more.

He’s been a background actor for more than 30 years and still loves the business.

“Being a background actor is a great way to pull back the curtain and see how the industry works. I’d recommend it for anyone who has an interest in acting or film production. It’s a great way to see how things are done,” Baynham said.

Baynham, who now has a training in film production, still takes background work from time to time.

“The joy of the business is that you never really know what’s coming up next. I still love it.”

Baynham does have some tips for would-be background actors.

“Expect to hurry up and wait. They’ll rush to get you ready to be on camera, but then you might have to wait hours before they need you. Bring a good book.”

He also said that you should manage your expectations.

“If you think that some director is going to see you and decide that you’d be perfect to star in his next film, you’re heading for disappointment. That just doesn’t happen,” Baynham said. “You’re also unlikely to meet or talk to any movie stars. The ‘talent’ doesn’t really associate with background actors, and we’re asked to respect their space.”

The final tip is to get an agent. Most casting directors, he said, only cast through agents because they can make one call with specific descriptions of the ages, genders, body types, etc., of the people they need for a scene.

Sandy Webster, a local film/TV agent with CMT International, agrees.

“Pretty much all the casting for background actors is done through agents. We know what they are looking for and can provide them with the people they need. We can also advise the background actors on the wardrobe they need as well as coach them on their behaviour on set,” Webster explained.

“We’ll tell them things like be on time, be respectful, and be prepared for a lot of sitting around and waiting. Making movies or TV shows isn’t a quick process.”

Webster makes this last point after spending thousands of hours on sets with her son, Calum Worthy, an actor who began his career as a nine year old.

“The fact is that acting, and the film industry in general, is a wonderful way to make a living and, for some, that’s what some background actors will go on to do. For others, it’s nothing more than a fun and fascinating pastime. Either way, there’s a certain amount of magic to the whole thing,” Webster said.

“It’s important to remember, though, that everyone on a set is important. There’s nothing ‘extra’ about working background.”

It’s an important point.

READ MORE: Julie Kim: connecting people through laughter

On set at Holidazed, a Hallmark movie. (Tim Collins)