Episode 3 – Jason Roberts – An Assistant Directors insight into working with Tom Cruise, utilizing VFX and managing thousands of extras

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In this episode we talk with Jason Roberts about his experience working with Tom Cruise, implementing VFX sequences and demystifying the process of managing large amounts of background actors.

Jason Roberts is a member of the DGA and works as a UPM, 1st AD, 2nd AD and is known for some very well known Tv Shows and Movies….. The Orville, Downsizing, American Made, Transformers: The Last Knight, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Jurassic World, Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Collateral etc… Jason started out in the film industry working as a Production Assistant before landing a job as a DGA Trainee.

What to include in your speech to Background Actors

Whenever you have a day in your production that involves Background Actors or “BG” one of the things the AD staff may handle is giving a speech to this group of people. Typically this speech is given by a 2nd 2nd AD or Background PA and is helpful so that things run smoothly and the BG know what to expect and where to go.

Below I have listed 10 things to include in your speech to Background Actors:

  1. Read or Summarize the scene(s) that the BG will be involved in. Background Actors are there to “ACT” and while they may not need the sides/script knowing the motivation of the main characters around them can be helpful on certain occasions. Let the BG know if and when they should react or respond to the main action.
  2. Explain continuity and starting positions. If you have a long complicated scene that involves a lot of coverage this will be especially important. Stress the importance of going back to your one when the ADs say back to one when a scene has cut. There may be occasions that BG need to start or stop their action by the cue of an AD or by listening/watching the action in front of them.
  3. Explain how to pantomime. Believe it or not most beginning BG will not get this right off the bat. Explain that whispering can be picked up by the sound mixer and it is not the same thing. Watermelon, Watermelon, Watermelon…. always does the trick for realistic pantomiming.
  4. Discuss any safety concerns. Remind the BG that they are on a film set and there is lots of heavy equipment spread throughout. If someone says points they should pay attention and watch their head. If there is a stunt sequence or road work this is a good opportunity to stress where they can and can not stand and how important that is to their safety.
  5. Discuss noise levels. If your BG are working close to set or the set is inside its good to remind them to keep their talking to a minimal and silent when rolling.
  6. Explain where things are. Show the BG where crafty, bathrooms, holding and set are. Be careful to use film terms such as the technical names of the trailers as that may confuse some. Stress the importance of remaining in holding and not wondering off.
  7. Talk about crafty. Once you have shown the BG where crafty is its a good idea to lay some ground rules….especially if they are sharing crafty with the cast/crew. They should not be filling their pockets to take stuff home and be respectful of the area.
  8. Give instructions regarding paperwork. Remind the BG that they may need to give their payroll sheet sometimes called a skin to another dept if they are borrowing wardrobe or props. This is a way to make sure these items are returned to the proper dept. Explain to the BG that they need to sign out with a designated AD or PA with that paperwork. This is especially helpful for new BG who may not understand the drill just yet.
  9. Discuss meals. Depending on when the BG arrived and how long they are planning to be shot will be part of the determining factors if and when your production plans to feed them. It is a good idea to let the BG know the approx time they will eat, that they will eat after the crew and where they can sit. While the breakfast or first meal may be available to the crew are you going to allow BG to participate?
  10. Talk about set etiquette. There may be occasions where the actors on set are famous. This will be a good time to talk about the importance of BG to not talk to the Actors or ask for a picture or autograph.

The Role of the 2nd 2nd AD

The 2nd 2nd AD (sometimes called 3rd AD outside the US) is primarily responsible for being the extension to the 1st AD on set. In general a 2nd 2nd AD works with background actors, supervises production assistants and sometimes wrangles talent.

The thing I love about a good 2nd 2nd AD is that they can really help the 1st AD with very complicated scenes that involve stunts, mass amounts of extras or scenes that take place in difficult shooting conditions.

Below are 5 things to consider when working as a 2nd 2nd AD:

  1. Setting background actors is an art form. This is one of your main areas of responsibility so take it and run with it. Make it the most believable scene of extras crossing the street anyone has ever seen. When you are giving background actors direction…. consider giving them a storyline so they can get into character and come up with creative crosses that reflect everyday life.
  2. Delegate lock-ups to PAs and the Key Set PA. Think about how you can work with the Key Set PA to determine the best possible lock-ups at least 10-15 minutes before the lock-up occurs. Its too late to think about lock-ups once the camera is rolling…so always be thinking about this ahead of time.
  3. Accurate Production Reports are a must. As a 2nd 2nd AD you will most likely be responsible for filling out the Production Report or PR or at the very least managing parts of the PR. These documents can look different on various sets but the main thing to note is LUNCH TIMES and OUT TIMES of the crew. While it can be overwhelming to collect out times of a large crew, this can be made easier though using dept sign out sheets.  Many PRs have a place to put important notes like if someone got hurt or if a scene was missed. Throughout your day it is a good idea to keep track of important things like this so you can add them to the PR later in the day.
  4. Work as an extension to the 1st AD. The 2nd 2nd AD is oftentimes the only person other than the 1st AD on set that really knows what is going on in terms of “making the day”. If you want to really excel at this job always be anticipating what the 1st AD needs and delegate information to the PAs. You can ask dept heads if they are ready for the next scene, shot or day and even advance to various sets to keep an eye on the art department.   If the 1st AD is having to put out 10 different fires…then consider yourself as someone who is helping to put out those fires and lighten the load a little bit.
  5.  Backup the Key 2nd AD when available. There may be days with no background and one or two talent. Use this as an opportunity to help the Key 2nd with any work that may be piling up with future days coming up.