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?

 

How to schedule your day as a 2nd AD

Whenever I work as a 2nd AD on a Low Budget Film I am often in charge of  a variety of tasks. Its easy to get overwhelmed so I try and break up the day so that I can prioritize what’s important.  What is in this list is not comprehensive and it may not apply to large TV shows.  Some of the items listed will happen all day long….like signing actors out on the Exhibit G.

Before the first shot

-Assist in getting Actors through the works (HMU/WARD).

-Call or Text any Actors that may be running late.

-If on location assist with making sure vehicles, crew and cast know where to go.

-Assist the 1st AD with anything related to getting the first shot off.

-Start the Exhibit G and record when Actors arrive if they are late.

Before Lunch

-Create a Call Sheet Prelim and give to the 1st AD / UPM.

-Visit the set periodically and assist the 1st AD in between scenes to make sure things are running smooth.

-Check in with different department heads to make sure they have items ready to go for the next scene or day.

-Create a Production Report from the prior day’s out times, exhibit G and call sheet. Sometimes a 2nd 2nd AD will create the PR instead of the 2nd AD.

-Make sure lunch is setup and ready to go. Notify the 1st AD if there are any delays and assist in breaking certain cast and crew early if in best interest of the day’s work and the 1st AD allows for it.

Before Wrap

-Distribute updated Call Sheet Prelims to Dept heads and go over any specifics for the next day.

-Call or Text any actors that are working the next day that are not currently on set. Give them a heads up about their call time, location of filming and make sure they have spoken to Wardrobe.

-Call any special crew or vendors that are working the next day that are not currently working.  Example. (You have a drone operator coming tomorrow and you want to make sure he is prepared and has everything he needs.)

-Update the Call Sheet based on notes from the 1st AD, UPM and any Dept Heads.

-Print Call Sheets to fly out to Crew at WRAP. (Best to print the last hour of filming incase times change and to avoid waisting paper)

-Mark up and print sides for the next day. If you are working on a large production, the office will often take care of this.

-Draft email to Cast

-Draft email to Crew

At Wrap

-Email Cast

-Email Crew

-Collect out times from Crew or assign a PA or 2nd 2nd AD to collect out times.

-Make sure that Background are getting signed out properly.

-Finalize the Exhibit G and sign actors out.

7 things every Director should know when working with an Assistant Director

Many times I will work with a first time Director who has never worked with an Assistant Director. Typically there is a bit of learning curve because the job of an AD can be very ambiguous to those who don’t typically do the job.

Below I have compiled a list of 7 things that Directors should know when working with an Assistant Director.  It is a good idea to sit down with the Director before filming and go over some of these items of business.

1. Worrying about time

An Assistant Director is tasked with the job of worrying about time, pacing and making the day. When the Director starts to worry about these things they are in essence doing the job of an AD.  In an ideal world Directors focus solely on directing actors and the scene at large. Whenever a director says lets, go, hurry up or any notion of moving things quickly they are stepping on the toes of the AD. Its very possible that the AD is not moving fast enough but 9 times out of 10 they are moving as fast as they can within the given situation. Often times Directors will want to go but the AD is not ready because he/she knows the sound guy is adjusting a lav or an electric is working on a light.

2. Quiet on set

Its not the Director’s job to get quite on the set. Asking for quiet is always the Assistant Directors job and the role of the AD staff. The only thing the Director should be yelling is Action or Cut. If there is a noise on set or on a location the AD will often have a production assistant via walkie discover the noise and get the area quiet.

3. Chain of Command

Directors should rely on the 1st AD as much as possible to disseminate information.  If a Director notices a prop is not there or a wardrobe problem he should always alert the AD, who then will relay the information over walkie to the appropriate person.

4. Directing Background Actors

When it comes to directing background this is primarily the role of the AD and more specifically the 2nd 2nd and 2nd AD. Occasionally a Director will want to make adjustments to a few BG that are close to camera, however for the most part background falls in the AD wheelhouse. This allows the Director to focus on the main actors performance.

5.  The Cadence

There is a typical military cadence on set. Picture’s Up – Roll Sound – Sound Speed – Roll Camera – Camera Speed – Slate – Camera Set – Background Action – Action – Cut. Knowing this cadence is crucial for the Director who has never been on set. Often times a first time Director will say Action before the camera is even slated or rolling.

6. Understanding Grace

When approaching 6 hours into filming the 1st AD will typically call lunch on the dot. Grace applies to the completion of a “set-up in progress,” not the completion of a scene. The director does not make the decision to apply the Grace Period, the UPM and/or Line Producer in conjunction with the advice of the 1st AD makes that determination. On non IA jobs in LA there is one (per California Labor laws) untimed penalty payment awarded all employees if lunch is not served at 6 hours. On IA shows the Grace Period is 12 minutes.

7.  How quiet a set is

It is a good idea to get an understanding from the Director in regards to how quiet he/she wants the set to be in general. Some directors are very insistent about crew being quiet while working and other directors could care less.

7 ways to help “MAKE YOUR DAY”

“MAKING YOUR DAY” for the Assistant Director simply means getting everything shot that was on the call sheet within the 12 hour window of time.

Here are 10 ways to help make your day:

1. Break up your day into two sections. 

Lunch should always be your halfway point. There will be times that this doesn’t happen, however for the most part this is a good rule of thumb.  If you are shooting six pages then your goal should be to shoot 3 pages before lunch. Let your Director and DP know that goal early on and often so that they can be on the same page.  If you try to break your day up into too many chunks you will quickly become discouraged….having a half way point is the best way to go.

2. Eliminate lag time. 

As soon as your G&E dept and Camera dept are done tweaking their setup be ready to ask them if they are set.  If they are set then check with the Director and proceed to yell roll sound. There will be times that both the G&E and Camera department are done and you don’t know that they are done. The best thing to do is simply pay attention to what they are working on and if you sense they are close to being done then ask them.  If both departments are setup and you aren’t on the ball you can loose minutes of roll time because you weren’t paying attention.

3. Consolidate moves.

If you happen to be shooting three scenes in the same location, it may benefit you to shoot all three scenes from one angle and then move the camera.  This is not a hard and fast rule and to be honest may only work some of the time.  In addition to moving the camera it is ideal to shoot out a room or area of the location you are shooting before moving on.

4. Shoot the hard stuff first.

Don’t start your day shooting easy 1/8 of page scenes. This will slow you down because your Director and DP will end up spending hours on a 1/8 when you have a 3 page scene you haven’t even touched. There are exceptions to this rule, however for the most part its good to get the meat out of the way and then work on the little things as you have time.

5. Always be thinking about the next shot, next scene and next day.

This rule may apply more specifically to the 2nd AD, who’s role is to plan for tomorrow and run base camp, however it is vital for the 1st to think about this too. When you stop thinking about what is next you will find yourself in a pickle when you have an element that is not prepared.

Do you have a scene coming up that involves a complicated makeup gag? If so how much time do you need to allow for that?

The scene you are shooting tomorrow that involves a heavy set dress…. is the Art Dept ready for it or do they need a pre-call to make it happen?

Should we consider moving the lunch location in order that we can be closer to set since it is taking longer than planned?

6. Stick to your watch.

After each setup chances are your DP and Gaffer will need time to adjust lighting and swap lenses. The question I like to ask is… “how much time do you need?”  Sometimes crew members will squirm when you ask them this question. Very calmly say I just need to know how much time.  Once they give you a time go to your watch or phone timer and start the clock. If they gave you 15 minutes or 30 minutes then don’t be afraid to go back to them telling them how much time they have left. Remember they are the ones who gave you the estimated time, so if they bark at you remind them they gave you the time.

7. Have your hair/makeup/wardrobe times figured out.

Occasionally it can take forever to get a person through the works and this isn’t always the fault of the costumer / hair person or makeup artist.  Sometimes the actor just doesn’t want to cooperate.  Whatever the case this area of production can really slow things down if the camera is waiting on an actor to get through the works.

-Have you spoken with your makeup/hair artist about how long they anticipate with each actor?
-Have you planned pre-calls accordingly?
-Do any actors need extra time just to unwind in the morning?
-Do you need to hire an additional makeup artist on the day you have more actors?

 

7 reasons your low-budget film needs a 2nd AD

I get it. You have small budget.  You might be making a feature for under 100K and the idea of having a 2nd AD just sounds too big budget. Here is where you are wrong.   The role of a 2nd AD is to focus on tomorrow and run base camp. The 1st AD has no time in the world to focus on tomorrow much less go to the bathroom.  Here are ten reasons why every film needs a 2nd AD….even micro budget productions.

1. Making the Call Sheet. If you don’t have a 2nd AD, who is going to work on this document that sometimes takes several hours?  Are you really going to ask the 1st AD to go home after a 12-14 hour day and work on a call sheet?  This sounds a bit insane.

2. Confirming with Actors. If you don’t have actors for the scene then you have no scene. One of the responsibilities of a 2nd AD is to confirm the day before with Actors and sometimes Extras. This process of confirmation has to be done.

3. Running first team. Running first team means wrangling the top talent to and from set.  If you have no 2nd 2nd you most certainly have no 2nd AD.  Now worse case scenario if you don’t have a 2nd AD is you have a PA taking the talent to and from set. Is it really worth it to have a PA that may not have any set experience working with your top talent?

4. Setting Background. If you have a scene involving lots of extras chances are your 2nd AD or 2nd 2nd AD will be there to set the background and choreograph their movements. This is definitely not a task you could delegate to a PA, however the 1st AD will do this from time to time with no assistance from a 2nd.

5. Solving Scheduling Problems. Yes this is the 1st ADs responsibility, however when a 1st AD is on set they can’t leave to work on the schedule. This is where it comes in really handy to have the 2nd AD come up with some solutions to a schedule that just isn’t working.

6. Delegating to PAs. The 1st AD will often delegate to PAs in reference to lock-ups etc, however there may be times where the 2nd AD can do this delegation so that the 1st can focus on the set. Sometimes 2nd ADs will manage lock-ups and verify with the 1st.

7. Working with the Office.  The 2nd AD is responsible for sides, call sheets and production reports. Most of the time the sides are delegated to a PA, however the 2nd AD is typically the one to do this delegation. Production Reports again are managed by a 2nd AD, however they are sometimes done by a 2nd 2nd or UPM.