Episode 10 – The art of directing Background Actors with Alexander Salazar

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In this episode we talk with Alexander Salazar about the role of the 2nd 2nd AD and the art of directing Background Actors.
Alexander Salazar (@directedbysalazar on instagram) is a filmmaker and Assistant Director from Washington state, who graduated with a Bachelors in Film & Television Production from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles before moving to New Orleans to work on a wide range of independent and studio films. After working on numerous shows as a Production Assistant, Alex soon joined the Directors Guild and began working as a 2nd 2nd AD and Key 2nd AD. Some of his credits include Happy Death Day 2U, The Highwaymen, Yellowstone: Season 2, Queen of the South: Season 4, as well as the upcoming films Power and Bill & Ted: Face The Music. In addition to his work as an AD, Alex has directed two feature films, including the award-winning Amazon film “Danger, Dames & Dangerous Games” and “A Lesson In Cruelty”.

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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.

A guide to finding background actors in a rural area

Occasionally I have the opportunity to travel and work on films that are shooting around the world. One of the challenging factors I have faced when shooting in a city or state that does not have a huge talent pool is finding background actors.

Most recently I filmed a movie in Kentucky and was tasked with the assignment of finding hundreds of volunteers to be background actors in our film. Because the budget was very tight the budget I had for background actors was used to feed them and hire someone to help me find them.

Here are the steps I did to recruit hundreds of volunteers in a small town in Kentucky:

  1. Create a generic email address nameofmovie@gmail.com. Use this email for all correspondence with the background actors. You don’t want to give out your personal email account because you may have several people logging into this email to reply and stay updated with the correspondence.
  2. Create a sign up form using google forms or another online form maker. I tend to use google forms but I realize there are probably additional sites out there that would be great for this. In the form you want to include name, email, phone, gender, age, photo link, if minor parent’s info, roles interested in and dates available.  This form will give you a link that you can send out. Make sure to include the title of the film, a logline and something enticing starring “Denzel Washington” etc..
  3. Send out a sign up link to various groups and organizations. Depending on the type of project I would try and partner with similar organizations who might want to help. I was working on a faith based movie so we contacted a dozen churches and asked to see if they could include this link in their e-newsletter or on their church’s facebook page. I also joined local facebook pages to the city and state that were related to film/acting/movies. I contacted the local news organization who was able to do a story on us and they were able to post the link as well. As it got closer to doing one of the school scenes I was able to talk to the communications person at one of the schools who was kind enough to post the link on the school’s facebook page. Was this a lot of work? Yes. Did it work? Yes. I actually got hundreds of people to sign up and the link was part of the key. It made it easy for them to sign up because it was simple and provided a sign-up process that was very straightforward.
  4. Sign up people in person. As much as I love digital forms and technology I believe that there is something to be said for going old school and taking a personable approach. I contacted a local high school and was able to do a presentation with the theater class. After the session was over I had nearly a dozen students sign up to be extras. Old school worked!
  5. Figure out who will handle the communication. If your film has between 20-30 extras throughout your entire film its very possible that the 2nd AD can handle the communication between all the extras. If for example your film has several hundred or even thousands of extras you will most likely want to hire a person to take this workload off the 2nd AD’s shoulders. Anytime I can afford an official Background Casting Director or Background Casting Company I always do it. If however you are shooting in a rural area your options may be very limited. It is at this point that you can hire an office PA and train them how to do the job.
  6. Create a facebook group. Create a secrete facebook group just for your film. Invite everyone who has signed up to be an extra in your film and occasionally post last minute needs in the group. This is something I wish I had done on previous films and plan to do in the future.
  7. Communicate clearly with the background. We chose to confirm twice with most of our background actors. Because the people we were working with were volunteers things would come up, people would get sick and so confirmations were essential. Its a good idea to book about 10-15 more people than you actually need because you will typically have a few drop out last minute if they are not paid. I like the idea of emailing background two days before the shoot day to confirm their availability and then the day before to give them all the details such as date, time, location, wardrobe info and things they should know. I give them specifics such as  how long they will be on set, if there will be food provided and other details etc. In the second email I give them a deadline to reply to. Once this deadline is passed we begin to text those who have not confirmed the second time to see if they are still planning on coming.