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5 Things I Didn't Know About Being an Extra on a Film Set

Updated: Jan 24, 2018

This past fall after I quit my full-time corporate job, I finally got the freedom to fulfill a life-long dream of being on a film set. I signed up on a local website called to be an extra in a movie or television show.

The application was quite simple. I had to fill out a quick bio about myself, add a few photos (none of which are professional headshots), list physical traits such as hair colour, height, clothing sizes, special traits like piercings or tattoos, list of any special skills I have like dancing, scuba diving, any languages or special skills like bartending, list of any special types of wardrobe or props I already have such as baseball gloves, dance shoes and cowboy boots, and last but not least to list if I have any pets or vehicles that I could add to a set.

The first thing I learned was that I did not need to have an agent or have professional head shots done. I just filled out the form to the best of my ability and added as much information as possible. A few weeks later I was contacted by email to be a part of my first extras project.

When I first got the email, I was so excited to know that I would get to be a part of a film set, and that one of my bucket list dreams would finally be fulfilled.

The first project I was a part of, apparently was one of the biggest extra "cattle-calls" in BC history with over 600 extras on set. A lot of the people around me (extras who have had many years of experience behind them) moaned and groaned with how crazy of a day it was going to be. As a newbie and an outsider, I thought everything was so magical and went so well. It ended up being about a ten and a half hour day in the pouring rain, but I loved every second of it. Since then, I have been called back two more times, and have continued to enjoy the experience and seeing behind the scenes of just how much time and effort even one minute of filming takes to capture and perfect.

So what are the 5 things I learned about being an extra on a film set?

1. You actually get paid!

I had no idea that extras got paid. When I first signed up to be an extra, I was just happy to be a part of the action that I would have done it for free...but of course the extra cash is ALWAYS a great thing. It is also great to know that people do get paid for "background work" and that film studios don't just take advantage of people to fill their sets and scenes. In BC being a non-union member, the rate is about $12 an hour, and after 8 hours of work you get paid overtime which is about $18 an hour.

2. You get fed, ALOT!

The first day I was on set, I felt sudden panic when I was on my way to set and realized I didn't bring any water or snacks with me. I was so nervous and rushed that first morning (the call time was for 4:00 am) that it completely slipped my mind to have food and water packed with me. I felt so completely stupid, and immediately started to dread the possibility of fainting on set. To my surprise, after I signed in on set, they sent me to "go get breakfast". Go get BREAKFAST? I was shocked, but super excited about this. You may be reading this thinking, "Of course they feed you, who cares, the food sucks anyways", but I was THRILLED. Who doesn't love free food? When I arrived to "breakfast" I couldn't believe the amount of food they had. In my head, I imagined it would be granola bars and something unappetizing, but there was a HUGE breakfast buffet set up, almost like at a hotel continental breakfast. It was filled with eggs, hash browns, bacon, fruit, salads, toast, bagels, granola bars, yogurt, crackers, candy, juice, tea, coffee, and it was AMAZING! Throughout the day, we had lots of breaks with plenty of snacks, candy, juice, coffee, tea, and lunch was the same.

3. A scene that is 2 minutes long sometimes takes a FULL day to film

Recently I was on a TV show where I was an extra in a scene that from start to finish probably is about 2-3 minute in length in total. Where you think it must take MAYBE an hour to shoot 2 minutes, actually took an ENTIRE day. So you know those scenes where it is a conversation? You probably don't realize as the editing in most projects shot these days are so seamless that you actually don't realize that there are multiple angles and shots taken for just one conversation or scene. So picture doing about 5-6 takes of the actors from the right, 5-6 takes of the actors from the left, 5-6 takes of the actors from the back and on one point of view, and 5-6 takes of the actors from the back of another point of view, 5-6 takes of their hand movement (if it is significant), 5-6 takes of the food they are eating, 5-6 takes on a pen writing notes down...I think you get the point. This kind of seamless storytelling takes an entire day as they have to get so many multiple angles. They need to ensure continuity and consistency, even down to the people walking in the background of the window that can be seen. If it is SEEN in the scene, then it is cheoreographed and planned to the T. This made me appreciate the process and craft so much more by seeing how incredibly hard people work to ensure that they get the right shots, and ensure that the story is perfectly portrayed not just by the actors, but by absolutely every little detail.

4. Details, details, DETAILS!

Okay, I knew that film sets were extremely detail oriented, but I truly did not realize HOW detail oriented they were about background sets and the extras. I assumed that extras brought their own clothing. I have no idea why I thought this, I think maybe the sheer magnitude of thinking that the costume department even provides costumes for extras was mind blowing for me. So first: the costumes, the amount of detail and attention that goes into an extra looking perfect was beyond anything I ever imagined. I had no idea that extras get costumes, and get their hair and make-up done. Thinking of it now, it seems completely crazy that I didn't think of it as in every movie and tv show I have seen, of course the background performers FIT into the story. Again, just another brilliance of how seamless everything seemed when you watch a film or television show, as it is a detail you don't ever notice or think too much about. One of the last projects I was on, I got the FULL treatment. They curled my hair, did my make-up, they even did my nails. It was such a fun experience to be a part of. I felt like I truly was a part of the magic. The other details that I was blown away with was the background set. The first project I was on, I couldn't believe the amount of time and effort it must have taken the team to put together the scenes background. Even parts of the set that would not be seen on film had the most exquisite details. It truly made me have so much respect for the teams who work on the set design and how brilliant of a job they do, again, to make it look so seamless and real.

5. The Cast and Crew

For the most part, I have had extremely positive experiences working as an extra on film sets in Vancouver. From my perspective, extras are treated extremely well, and everyone is very respectful and appreciative of your time and effort.

It shocked me to see the amount of crew that is actually on set, and to see how a well oiled machine works when everyone works together and gets the job done quickly and efficiently. It has been a cool behind the scenes experience to see how the actors are before the camera is rolling. I have found it very intriguing to see some funny quirks and habits that some actors have to get into character and prepare themselves for a scene. It has also been really interesting to see how an actor takes a script and truly makes the dialogue and action their own. I have seen an actor do the same scene 5-6 times and completely change a tone, a word or try out a new small action that further emphasizes or changes the scene. As expected, no one other than the crew spoke to the actors, which I think makes sense when you understand and realize that they are in the zone of "being someone else".

Tips to remember if it is your first time.

#1: dont bring ANY food at all! It will make your bag really heavy, and it is one less thing to worry about packing.

#2: bring things to do during “down time”. Sometimes you are not guaranteed to make it on set, or there are breaks in between camera resets or changes. Be sure to bring a book, an ipad or work you can work on as sometimes you may be sitting for hours waiting to be called to set.

#3: bring extra plastic bags. Maybe this is just a winter/rain thing, but I have found having extra plastic bags with me to be such a lifesaver when I have to carry my wet rainboots and umbrella around.

#4: be extra nice to everyone on set. After seeing how hard everyone works and realizing that alot of the “little” guys don’t get much credit at all, it has made me feel even more grateful and appreciative to all of the people I have met.

#5: be co-operative, on time and say YES. If you are able to leave a good impression on the casting directors and their team, chances are you will get selected for more projects and you will be remembered for being easy going, nice and pleasant to work with.

If you have ever wanted to be on a film set, or be an extra I absolutely recommend filling out a profile and trying it out. I am so excited to finally be in the system to getting regular calls to be an extra, and that I have checked this life-long dream off my list. I cannot wait to see the next projects that I will get the chance to be a part of, and I can't wait to see the projects that I have worked on be released so I can have my 5 seconds of fame.


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