Extra Wrangling

Jay asks:

I’m starting my first set PA job on a big-time scripted cable TV drama. I was just told that I’m the one who is going to oversee background (extras). I’m guessing I will be in charge of the non-union and SAG-AFTRA vouchers. What other duties should I expect, and what tips can other set PAs who have worked with background pass along?

First of all, congrats on the job! Always happy to hear my readers are working.

For readers who don’t know, “vouchers” are forms provided by the actors’ union that have to be filled out every day. They’re a combination of a time card and a report of the tasks the extra performed. (Did they bring their own costume? Were they working in dangerous conditions? Did they get served lunch on time? Etc.)

Because extras are basically untalented actors, they can’t be trusted to complete the forms on their own. A PA (or 2nd AD) is required to make sure each one is filled in correctly.

Beyond that, working with background largely involves two things– shuttling them to and from set, which is not fun at all. 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.

The other main task is actually directing them. The AD will give them their initial instructions (“You walk here on this line,” “You go there when she says this,” etc.), but it’ll be up to you to actually cue them on the day.1 As I said, they don’t listen to instructions, and there’s a 110% chance that they won’t know when they’re supposed to go. So, you better know.


Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. Meaning, when we’re actually filming.
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11 Responses

  1. This does not seem like the position for you. Not all background actors are untalented, wander off, are not there for the money or some unimportant reason here, etc.or cannot fill a voucher correctly. I and many other regulars can do it correctly and assist others in do it.
    Most of us know the routine very well for working on set, more than you know. And, yes, some do come to work only to star gaze. I hope you for a position in production that works for you or see in background actors people who come to work and deserve to be treated with consideration.

    There are some great Background Production Assistants that I love working with because they are great with people and do their job well, They are organized, communicate well, consistent and have great interpersonal skills. And I would assume because of that I work with them a lot. Steven Tsang sounds like he knows about this.

  2. I am employed as an extras casting assistant (aad bkc) aka Additional assistant director Background coordinator. In some markets, this is a Union position and you would be part of the directorial team. 3rd AD/ TAD usually perform this job on smaller productions or on days where there are only a handfull of BG. Most PA’s are far too busy to effectively do this job. Here’s some pro tips;

    1, Always be respectful and courteous. For some, this is thier chosen profession. I never refer to them as “background extras” but instead use the term “Background performers or artists”. I know it’s only semantics of language but respect goes a long way. Even the title “Background Wrangler” is derogatorey to some. It implies that the background are little more than cattle to be herded around.

    2, Many BG aren’t doing this for the money (lord knows it dosen’t pay well). They are doing this for the opportunity to get a foot in the door in the industry. for some, it is merely an adventure into something that they haven’t tried before. Being unprofessional can sour thier experience and makes you look like a jerk and paints an unpleasant picture of the industry as a whole.

    3, Give as much information as possible at the start of the day. People crave information and letting people know what to expect will go a long way. Lay the ground rules about set ettiquette and what is appropriatte right off the hop. Yelling at somebody for wandering off when they are needed for continuity makes you look incompetent for not keeping track of your people because they didn’t know any better.

    4, Be ORGANIZED and alert. Read the sides (or skins) and know what scenes are being shot. Prepare the BG ahead of time so you are not scrambling to assemble people. When the 1st AD calls for BG to enter set, make sure you copy on the radio/walkie. There is nothing worse than making excuses to the 1st AD or having them ask you twice.

    5, I cant hurt to keep a list of talent agencies names/adresses in your contact list. Many BG don’t know thier agencies address or forget to bring that information.

    6, Keep a list of BG performers that can show up on set at a moments notice. By the time you filter missing people up to your extras casting director, massive delays will be created and only makes you look bad. Of course you should let the extras casting director know that you are missing people but cover your own ass and offer up replacements. Some directors will be okay if you are short a few people, some will lynch you.

    7. Time is money. The faster you can get your people ready, the better. I have found that Hair/makeup/wardrobe are the biggest time eaters. Organize your people by priority on scene. Make sure props are ready for your people and are ready to go and share your urgency to get them to set on time..

  3. I would without a doubt file with SAG against you if I was on set and I heard you say anything of the sort. Everyone in production wanders off, crew always unprofessionally has their damn cell phones out when it’s a closed set and are facebooking. Do your job, get paid, make it fun for everyone.

    But you degrading BG like that? Without bg you would have a lot of solo and duo pieces. LA LA LAND with no background, and featured extras. Right…

    Don’t get too angry, PA. One day you’ll have a real job yourself. Until then, keep collecting pens, bud.

  4. 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.

  5. Wow untalented actors only work as background actors? Many of us have done roles on Broadway or on National tours. Theater gigs, even Broadway ones don’t pay very well and the work is unsteady. So a lot of us work as background actors. It’s not what we dreamed of when we went to theater school, but it pays the bills. It’s a tough business. For every role, there are literally hundreds of people in line for the job. Think it’s hard to get a Production Assistant job? Multiply that by a 1,000 and that could give you an idea of how hard it is to get series regular role on the worst television show. Even getting an under-5 or a day player role is extremely difficult. And if you’ve worked in this industry for any length of time you’d know some of the principal actors, even ones who work all the time, are unprofessional divas, a few are drug addicts, and some can’t be bothered to learn their lines or show up to set on time.

    As far as the vouchers are concerned, talent has nothing to do with filling them out. They’re confusing for actors because each show uses different forms, and we’re sometimes going on 2-3 hours of sleep because we had to make a 5 AM call time. Casting directors are sometimes told the wrong information and we might have gotten an incorrect address, or inaccurate information. Instead of working on the same show every day, we usually bounce around from production to production. So those rules about so many hours in between shifts don’t apply to us.

    If you want to work in this business for the long haul, I would drop the arrogant attitude. We’re all working together, and we’re stuck together for those long hours. Of course some background actors are idiots, but that’s true in any business. There are morons in every field including crew members. I never assume that a production assistant is not doing the best he or she can do in very difficult and often stressful situations. We’re both at the bottom of a very tough hierarchy, at least you have more hope of climbing the ladder.

    Some days we sit in holding and do nothing, while others we’re forced to wear thin period costumes in 20 degree weather, or heavy wool coats when it’s 95 degrees out. We get screamed at by 23 year olds who have no idea what they’re doing and blamed for everything. So I’d cut the attitude because it’s certainly not going to help you wrangle 100 a people that you secretly have no respect for. We’re human too, and you’d have an easier time of it if you treated us as such.

  6. I would like to think that you didn’t actually call background artists “untalented actors”.

    Maybe I am misreading your sense of humor.

    Just in case it wasn’t in jest, I would like to point out how very important background artists are to production, especially Assistant Directors. Without a background artist ( or background actor, I am sure we can agree that’s a better term than “extras” which makes them seem superfluous) there is no human atmosphere to a scene. They provide the reality in which the actors can be believed. In every show, period.

    While there are many tasks to being an Assistant Director, one of the most rewarding creative ones is being able to direct action that ends up on screen and impacting the show (good or bad). The PA’s that I hire to run background are essential to my team. I find that they are some of the smartest on the rise PA’s that are on a fast track to becoming AD’s.

    There is a lot more to the job than you said. In a previous comment SeanW managed to get more information to Jay which I am sure helped him.

    While I haven’t read a lot of your blog, I do think you have had some excellent things to say in the past.

    On a final note, I think it’s important to impart on your readers good form, like respecting everyone on set from the top to the bottom.

    I would be happy to discuss further with you anytime.


    Jason Roberts

    PS: For your edification some of those untalented actors that started out as background artists were: Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Clint Eastwood, Michael Caine, Megan Fox and Rene Zellweger.

  7. First, congrats on landing the BG PA gig. Usually first jobs are just deep lockups, deliver this, get breakfast for them. So, you should have fun.

    When you arrive in the morning, you should get several sets of “skins” (a list of all your BG (background) with their call times, phone numbers, and maybe their roles). They will either come from the 2nd AD or a delivery from the PO (production office), usually in the “football (the file box that passes between the PO and set). You should give a set of skins to your 2nd 2nd AD, the wardrobe department, and the prop department.

    Once they start arriving, check them off, run them past wardrobe and possibly HMU (hair and makeup). If any are late, call them to get an update. I would usually give vouchers later in the day during some down time, otherwise they will loose them and/or fill them out wrong. The majority of them WILL fill out the I9 form incorrectly. Passport only for column one OR a drivers license AND social security card for columns two and three, respectively. Other documents are allowed, but these are the usual ones.

    Once they are through the works, be ready to bring them to set when your AD calls for it. If they’re not ready, have an idea of how quickly they will be, or ask if you can bring the ones who are ready then come back for the others. Try to have a fellow PA meet the first wave to deliver to set while you go back for the stragglers. BG will wander, usually to crafty or the bathroom. They should never eat lunch before crew has gone through the line, unless explicitly told so by an AD (usually because of impending meal penalties and it won’t interfere with crew lunch due to different call times). If you have a decent 2nd 2nd, they will help get you up to speed, especially when signing BG out with overtime, bumps, etc. Generally, they’re pretty friendly, but can be weird, arrogant, mischievous or assholes. But there should at least be one or two experienced and nice one’s who will help you out. Be nice, use lot’s of pleases, and don’t act like you are their boss. There’s more, but there’s no substitute for hard earned experience. Good luck.

    1. One addition – as soon as you get your skins, take a picture on your phone! Inevitably, someone will spill coffee on/ mistake for scrap paper and start taking notes on/ spit their gum out in your original, especially if it’s your first time (Murphy’s Law). You’ll want a back-up plan.

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