Managing Background Actors

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have heard some of my frustrations with background actors on a small shoot I was helping out on.

First of all, bear in mind that I definitely did not say any of these things on set. That would be even less professional than the extras1 I was complaining about. Besides, no one likes a complainer.

More importantly, saying “You suck. Try not to suck so much next time.” isn’t a very good management strategy.

And make no mistake, when you’re the background PA, you’ve suddenly gone from the bottom rung of the totem pole to the second-to-bottom rung. You’re not necessarily making the creative decision of where the extras should or shouldn’t be. The AD or director2 will most likely make that call, depending on just how important they are to the scene.

But often a PA will cue specific background at specific points, if the scene calls for it. (This is a situational thing. If the shot is MOS, the AD will most likely call it out herself; if the leads are having an important scene and an extra needs to cross in the background on a certain line, there’s probably a PA just off camera cuing him.)

Your job is more than just on set, though. You have to shuttle them to and from extras’ holding, catering, possibly wardrobe. It can be surprisingly tricky, especially when dealing with a crowd of dozens or hundreds.

The vast majority of extras on a big show will be totally professional, but there’s a rotten apple in every bunch. Some idiot who wanders off, doesn’t pay attention to your instructions, steals stuff.

Losing your cool will not help in those situations. Just like you don’t enjoy being yelled at by the UPM when the other PA is late with lunch, don’t tar the entirety of the background with the brush reserved for that one asshole.

Be as clear and friendly as you can, with the group and individuals. Give them whatever information you’re allowed (everyone wants to know when lunch is), make sure they’re comfortable, give them a heads’ up when you’re about to bring them to set.

When somebody does give you trouble, be calm and rational. If they still cause problems, well… you don’t get paid enough for this shit. Bump it up to the 2nd (or 2nd 2nd) AD. They can decide whether to send someone home, reprimand them, or give Central Casting a call to never let this particular extra come back on your set.

Also, try to look at it from the background actors’ point of view. You’re a PA, still wet behind the ears. You’re under 30, you’re still excited to be on set. Many extras have been doing this for decades; this is their career. They’ve seen and done it all, and you’re not going to surprise them.

So, don’t act like a know-it-all. You know this shoot, right now. Don’t talk down to them. In fact, you could probably learn a thing or two from the background vets.

Except for the asshole who tries to talk a selfie with the lead actress. Fuck that guy.

[[1]]That link is an older (original?) TAPA complaining about using the term “extra” rather than “background actor.” While I sympathize with the point in theory, 16 characters is too much to type over and over in a post about extras.[[1]

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Fun fact: the director is not actually allowed to direct background… directly. If she does, they become “actors,” with the commensurate pay bump. Nobody wants to pay for that.
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What Is Multicam?

Last week, I answered a question about film school that contained within it a big error–

Is there much overlap in the skills and techniques used in multiple camera television productions and those used in single camera television productions? I am wondering if the skills taught in these classes, as well as experience working on multiple camera productions such as reality shows, would be transferable to working on single camera scripted dramas, or whether they are just too different?

Despite what the name implies, “multicam” doesn’t mean “more than one camera.” And “single cam” doesn’t mean “only one camera.”

Almost all television series (and most movies) shoot with more than one camera. It’s just more efficient. If you’ve gotta shoot 8 pages a day, you’re going to need as much coverage as you can get. This is doubly true of non-fiction, whether you’re talking about Oscar nominated documentaries or low-rent reality shows.

But none of those are “multi-camera shows.”

Fifty years ago, most movies and television dramas were shot with a single camera. These were distinct from sitcoms, which were shot with multiple cameras. That’s the etymology of the term, but it’s not the only distinguishing feature of these types of shows.

The main thing is, multicamera shows were (and are) filmed (almost) entirely on a single sound stage, in front of a live studio audience. It’s more like a play than a film set. The director has to block the actors and cameras in such a way that entire scenes can play out in their entirety, entertaining both the audience present in the room, and the TV audience watching from home.

The production cycle is incredibly different, as well. On a single camera show (drama or comedy), the crew is filming pretty much continuously, day in, day out, all season long. On a multicam, four days are spent rehearsing, blocking, re-writing, and re-rehearsing every scene. It’s only on the fifth day1 that cameras actually roll.2

Some old-timers might refer to multi-camera shows as “three camera series;” that’s because, you’ll be surprised to learn, these shows used to be filmed with three cameras. Nowadays, it’s usually for. The cameras are labeled, naturally, A, B, C, and X.3

In short, just because you see a two-camera setup, doesn’t mean you’re on a multi-camera show.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. With some pre-shooting on day four, if there’s anything that’s technically tricky to film in front of an audience.
  2. Another anachronistic term; nothing is actually rolling in modern cameras.
  3. “D” and “B” sound too similar over the walkie.
Posted in The Industry | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

What Classes Should I Take?

Natasha writes in:

I’ve been enjoying your blog and I wondered if I could ask you for some advice. I am an aspiring writer living in LA, ideally hoping to write for hour long television dramas. I am currently considering taking classes in television production. I figured it would be a good idea to learn about the production side of things as this would give me some more options (like writing and shooting my own projects, or pursuing production assistant jobs). Also I’m sure a better understanding of the production side would help me to write more effectively for television, especially in the future if I was ever to become a showrunner.

I’ve been looking into the Television Production Certificate at Los Angeles City College. Apparently the classes are mainly focused on multiple camera studio productions. Since I’m really interested in working on single camera television dramas, I’m not sure how relevant this course would be. Is there much overlap in the skills and techniques used in multiple camera television productions and those used in single camera television productions? I am wondering if the skills taught in these classes, as well as experience working on multiple camera productions such as reality shows, would be transferable to working on single camera scripted dramas, or whether they are just too different?

There are plenty of skills that carry over from multicamera to single camera productions. You just won’t learn any of these skills in the classroom.

A lot of parents teach their children how to read and do math well before they’re in kindergarten. The first couple years of school are more-or-less refresher courses for these kids. So why send them to school at all? Socialization.

Twelve years later, you’re once again in the same boat. College, or at least film school, isn’t about learning skills. It’s about about getting out of your parents’ house, meeting people your own age, drinking all night and suddenly realizing you have a paper due in the morning. It’s about learning how to fulfill your responsibilities even though nobody honestly cares if you succeed or fail.

Whatever minimal production skills you learn will be eclipsed by your first day on set. So don’t worry about what classes you’ll take; worry about networking and landing internships and being your own person.

Also, you’re way too youn to worry about where your career will take you. Maybe you’ll like multicam, maybe you’ll hate it, but you’ll have no idea until you do it.

So why not try it?

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You’ll Never Get It Right

A long Twitter exchange last week reminded me of a great, probably apocryphal story1

A famous director was being driven home from Paramount after a long day’s shooting. As they inched along Melrose, the director pointed at a burger joint on the corner and said, “I hate that place.”

I mean, I doubt a vegetarian would find much there, but still...

It doesn’t look that bad.

The driver asked why. The director said, “It’s when we drive past that I suddenly figure out how I should’ve shot today’s scenes.”

Like many of you, I write and direct short films on the side. For me, it usually takes about three months to figure out what I did wrong on set. I’m not sure whether it’s heartening or disheartening to know that, even when you make it to the big leagues, you’ll still not have any idea what you’re doing.

But there is a takeaway from this for everybody, from the lowliest PA to the biggest producer– don’t stop reflecting on the work you did. You might not be able to correct that day’s mistakes, but you can be sure not to make them tomorrow.

Tomorrow, you’ll make all new mistakes!

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. I think I read about it in Sidney Lumet’s fantastic Making Movies, but I’m not sure.
Posted in The Industry | Tagged | 2 Comments

Keep Copies of Everything

Andi followed up on yesterday’s post:

Total bummer though about the mileage. I’ll definitely be claiming it on my taxes however. Should I still keep tracking my mileage on a mileage form in case I’m audited?

Absolutely! In fact, make copies of everything you fill out around the office– mileage reports, petty cash receipts, petty cash envelopes, time cards, start work, call sheets, production reports, everything.

You never know if, when, or why you’ll need this stuff. It’s good to have on hand.

Technically, the show will keep a copy of everything, too, but a fat lot of good that will do you if it’s cancelled in May (RIP my show), and you’re trying to do your taxes the following April.

Also, eeeeevery once in a while, you’ll get a paycheck that’s a little light. If you think you got short-changed, are you going to trust the time card in the accounting office, or the copy you made immediately after filling it out?

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Are You Getting Mileage?

Andi writes in:

I’m an Office PA working on a low budget feature film in LA. I’ve typically worked on bigger features that have their own rented production vehicles for me to drive.

Must be nice. I’ve worked on massive budget television series, and always had to drive my own car. Film has a different way of doing things than TV.

Due to the nature of this film, they want me to drive my own car for runs, which was fine until they told me that they would not pay for my mileage, only gas receipt reimbursements. My question is, is it legal for them to deny me mileage reimbursement if I’m using my own vehicle for job-related tasks?

I’ve racked up over 200 miles in the 7 days I’ve worked on this show, and if they are legally obligated to pay me that 57.5 cents per mile, I definitely want that.

I was surprised to learn that no, your employer does not have to pay you mileage, or even reimburse gas. Almost everybody does, because, come on, what kind of asshole doesn’t pay mileage?

Well, the assholes Andi works for, obviously.

This is why you should always check, before accepting a job, if they’ll be paying mileage. At the rates PAs get paid, your miles can be a significant portion of your paycheck.

Besides the fact that everyone fudges the reporting on their mileage sheet, mileage is not taxable. That’s because it’s a business expense, and technically, they’re just reimbursing you.

Which is why they don’t have to pay it. If they don’t, you can write it off on your taxes. In fact, if they pay less than the IRS rate of 57.5 cents/mile, you can calculate the difference and write that off, even though you got paid something.

Don’t forget to copy your mileage forms every week before you turn them in!

Posted in On the Job | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Be Personable, Not a “Personality”

Genevieve commented on Tuesday’s post about cover letters:

I can’t tell you how many resumes I get that have an overly familiar, joking type of “cover letter” where the writer tries to be witty. Things like “Coming soon to a set near you!” and the entire cover letter is themed like that. I had one submitted like a script where they wrote out how their job interview would go.

They go straight into the trash.

Oh, God, I hope none of my readers took that from my post. Let me be clear: a cover letter is not the time to try out your open mic material.

It’s nice you have a sense of humor, but we need to know you’re serious about a job first.

The best submissions have the position listed in the subject line, a cover letter that introduces the person with a bit of background (that applies to the position!) and has a resume attached. I tend to keep those ones on file for future productions too.

This is exactly correct. Your cover “letter” is the body of your email.1 It should be direct, to the point, and tailored to the specific job you’re applying to. If you do those things, your cover letter can’t help but reflect your personality. It’ll demonstrate what you think is important.

Don’t try to be cute, or “entertaining.” Be yourself, and you’ll get the job.

Unless you’re an asshole. Try not to be such an asshole, next time.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Unless otherwise specified.
Posted in Finding a Job | 1 Comment

You Need a Cover Letter

After sharing a job posting on TAPA yesterday yesterday, the HR person at the unnamed firm sent me an email:

If you could please add “and cover letter” in the last line I would really appreciate it :)

What this says to me is, at least one of my readers (probably more than one) sent a blank email with a resume attached.

This is a terrible idea.

Resumes are great, factual accounts of what you’ve done in the past, and often give an idea of what you plan to accomplish in the future. But they don’t give a sense of personality. They don’t tell people who you are.

That’s what the cover letter is for. You don’t want to be too jokey or familiar, but a finely crafted cover letter can make you stand out from the crowd. It’s your chance to say, “Hey, other PAs (or assistants) might have similar experiences, but I’m somebody who you can totally spend 60 hours a week with and not go crazy.”

Plus, it’s a chance to highlight specific elements of your experience that relate to this job in particular. That could mean you went to the same school as the person you’ll be assisting, or you both started out at the same agency, or whatever. Anything that separates you from the hundred other candidates is a good thing.

Now, don’t go too crazy writing the perfect letter. You should still have a template sitting in your drafts folder. The basic outline of your cover letter doesn’t change; modify a line or two on any give job application.

By the way, if you’re having trouble with your cover letter, I can help you with that.

Unless the job notice specifically says, in so many words, “Don’t include a cover letter,” always always always include a cover letter. It’s well worth your time.

Posted in Finding a Job | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Presentation Matters

Claire shot me a DM over Twitter:

Quick question, if you have the time: I’m an office PA, mini septum nose piercing yay or nay? Or should I hide it and feel it out first…?

First of all, you’re in Hollywood. A nose piercing is probably less shocking than nothing at all.1 I doubt if anyone would even notice, much less care.

The short, easy answer is, this is still America, and you’re free to do whatever you want to your body.2

The long, complicated answer is, this is still America, and everyone else is free to judge you based on your appearance.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a great way to teach children both open-mindedness and grammar,3 but the fact is, nobody really does that. Otherwise, you wouldn’t pick up the pace when a big, hulking man follows you through a shadowy parking lot at the end of an 18 hour day. Sure, he’s probably just a grip on another show, searching for his own car, but then again, maybe not…

That's how grips dress, right?

Probably just a grip.

Anyway, I doubt Claire’s nose ring will appear threatening. But everything about your self presentation, from the way you dress to the way you do your hair, tells people something about you. It doesn’t matter if you intend to convey a message; a message is conveyed.

So take control of that. Are you a hard-worker? Smart? Conscientious? Then dress like a hard worker. Comb your hair smartly. Pierce your nose conscientiously.

What does that mean? I honestly don’t know. I don’t have a nose ring or tattoo. If you chose to express yourself in those ways, be in control of what you’re expressing. Understand what reaction you’re eliciting.

We are, after all, in show business. Everything we do is superficial. We convey a character’s deepest inner turmoil through external actions, words, costumes, set dressing; things that the audience can see.

If you don’t understand how the way you dress makes other people perceive you, you’re in the wrong industry.

Again, I’m not saying you can’t have tattoos or wear crazy outfits. Those are de rigueur in Los Angeles. There are plenty of people with, say, crazy hair who are extremely successful. A little whimsy in your self-presentation is totally fine. Just don’t go into it with the idea that people won’t have a reaction.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Unless you’re an actor, when as little body modification as possible is preferable. The costume and make-up departments can always add stuff; it’s much harder to take away.
  2. For now.
  3. If you’re wondering, there’s no apostrophe because “its” isn’t a contraction.
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Debating Actors

There’s an old TAPA post about wrangling extras that still gets comments from time to time, because it has some unflattering things to say about background actors.

Extras are basically untalented actors… They tend to not listen to instruction, dawdle, or just plain wander off. If you’ve ever been a camp counselor or grade school teacher, you’ll know what it’s like.

That TAPA later amended his statements:

I’m kidding about those prejudices. I’ve met plenty of nice, intelligent, talented background actors and stand-ins. Most of them are, in fact, aspiring actors, but I’m an aspiring writer, so I probably shouldn’t be throwing stones at aspiring glass houses.

Still, Anonymous SAG Member wrote:

The way you view background can only mean that you are that lowly dirtbag pa that gets paid less than union background and treats them like crap. If you ever work with me watch out ill file a grievance with SAG and the DGA and talk to your bosses. I’ve gotten a few production assistant’s- untalented “go-fers” kicked off sets.

Wow. Even ignoring the poor grammar, methinks she doth protest too much. I mean, who brags about getting someone kicked off set?

Still, I wanted to say something nice to balance out the karmic scales, which is why I wrote yesterday’s post about the challenges of making it as an actor.

And then regular commenter Nola Trash Talk wrote

I disagree.

Being an actor is easy. As you said, it’s playing pretend. When these people are booked on shows, it’s nothing short of luck. Anyone can just as likely do what they do. As one told me, “I just stand where I’m supposed to and read the words.” Being a PA around professional actors is no different than being a PA around a dozen lottery winners. The same goes for many in the producer’s chair(s) too. They came from other businesses, they had connections through family and college (usually Stanford). They didn’t sweat out long hours on set or in a production office, learning how the whole process works. They just got lucky and now you have to fetch them a bottle of Fiji water.

Going to auditions isn’t hard. Taking classes isn’t hard. Stuck on location in the middle of summer with no shade for 15 hours is hard. Working at a bar or restaurant is damn luxury compared to the menial stress of day to day production work. I have personally worked with some very well known and powerful people in this business and I was never left with a feeling of awe. It was all circumstantial. They got lucky breaks at the right time in their lives and didn’t completely fumble the opportunity. It could happen to you. It could happen to me. It could happen to that guy over there. Unfortunately, most crews are like gangs of whipped dogs, too broken by the stupid system to realize the bigger picture.

Yeah. Do what THEY say in a timely and professional manner. But don’t actually respect these jokers. The size of their bank account versus yours has nothing to do with work ethic, creativity or a sense of integrity in this industry.

I don’t want to get into a semantic debate, much less a pissing contest, so I’m not going to write a point-by-point rebuttal. I’ve already said my piece on the matter. I’m just putting this out there, so you, dear reader, might see the range of attitudes you might run into on set.

And like Nola says, no matter what your thoughts are, do your job in a timely and professional manner, and you’ll be fine.

Posted in On the Job | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments