10 Tips to Working with Background Actors on Low Budget Films

Finding, managing and directing Background Actors on a Low Budget Film can be time consuming, tedious and challenging. The below tips are simply a guide to use when dealing with Background Actors.

Tip #1  Run the numbers

During pre-production I will often sit with the Director and go through each scene with the estimated number and type of BG Actors needed. After this meeting I will figure out which BG I think I can re-purpose.

Example… If I need 5 pedestrians in the morning for Scene 31 and 10 pedestrians in the afternoon for Scene 45 I will probably reuse the 5 pedestrians from the morning and just change their outfit….this assures the production that I will only need 10 extras that day instead of 15.

Once I have a good handle on the number of extras needed I will then look at the schedule and see which days I will need extras for 8 hours or less and which days I will need for 10-12 hours.

Example…. I know that I will need 100 BG actors at 8 hrs per day and I will need 75 at 12 hrs per day. 

Now that I have the number needed from the Director and the estimated cost based on the hours I am working them I will take these numbers to the Producer to see if we are above or below my current numbers. If my numbers are way higher than the budget we will either need to increase the BG budget or decrease the numbers in certain scenes. The other option is to consider using friends, crew members or volunteers for one or more scenes.

Tip #2 Hire a BG Casting Company

If your movie has more than 30 extras you may want to consider hiring a Background Casting company. Typically these companies charge 10-20% of the total cost of your BG budget. Yes you can train a PA, Intern or have your 2nd AD handle this, however it will be a major time suck and the chances of this falling through the cracks is a lot higher.  Also if you hire BG through websites such as Craigslist.org or Lacasting.com you may have a small percentage of BG that just don’t show up for whatever reason.

Tip #3  Coordinate with your Costume Designer

Once I have a breakdown of all the BG I need, I ask the Costume Designer to write detailed descriptions so the BG will wear the right thing on the day and possibly bring options in case they need to change.

Tip #4  Have paperwork figured out prior

During Pre-Production I make BG packets that often consist of a W9, Release Form and an Invoice.

Tip #5  Figure out how you will pay everyone

In general it is ideal to pay BG actors at the end of the day, especially if they are only working one day. I mean think about it…would you really want to wait 3 weeks for a $80 check for that one day you worked as a BG Actor?

Tip #6 Disseminate information

I NEVER send Background Actors call sheets. Its just too much info for them and a lot of times will confuse them. If I am working as a 2nd AD without a Casting Company I will email the extras the day before with the Time, Location and Wardrobe Specifics. I will also make sure they confirm they got the email.

If I am working with a casting company I will email the casting company the day before shooting with the time, location and wardrobe specs.  The company will handle confirming the extras.

I also NEVER send the EXTRAS DOOD to the casting company. The reason be is that it changes so often and it can be confusing to them because what is not included on the EXTRAS DOOD is which BG I intend to reuse etc….

In general I try to give the BG Casting Company 3 working days heads up before the next batch of EXTRAS needed. Most of the time I will send them a weekly batch of needs Thursday afternoon for the next week if we are starting each week on Monday.

Tip #7 Hire a stellar 2nd 2nd AD

If you have a lot of BG actors it is imperative to have a solid 2nd 2nd AD.  The 2nd 2nd AD will make sure the BG are taken care of and assist the 1st and 2nd AD when it comes to placing and directing the BG.

Tip #8 Give a speech to the BG

Always feel it out if this batch of BG is experienced or first timers… This will impact how you run your meeting.

  1. Make sure to explain wear the following are (bathrooms, crafty, holding and changing areas)
  2. Remind everyone to silence their phones
  3. Remind BG actors to pantomime and not to whisper when rolling
  4. When starting a new scene explain the motivation they should have
  5. Tell them who to ask if they have a questions

Tip #9 Give the BG actors enough time to rehearse

It can be tricky to give actions to 30 Extras in less than 5 minutes before rolling. I typically like a good 15 minutes or more to give the BG actions, crosses and certain motivations in order to make sure the scene works. Once we do a camera rehearsal I will adjust the Extras according to the Director’s wishes and what looks best for the scene.

Tip #10 Be creative

As an AD, working with BG is one of the most creative parts of the job. Take your time and make the scene feel authentic and real to life. Would you buy the scene if you were watching it on screen or does it feel cliche or fake?


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