What I Learned as an Extra on a Feature Film
Yesterday, I spent almost 11 hours standing on the sidelines of a makeshift football field, as the wind blew and the temperature steadily dropped, holding a saxophone and wearing a marching band uniform (which, as you former and current band kids may know, is too hot for hot weather but not warm enough for cold weather). Today, I am sunburned, sore, and completely exhausted.
Why would anyone subject themselves to something like that? (Especially for no pay?) For a chance at getting some screen time in a movie, to hopefully meet some famous actors, and to gain some acting experience.
Actually, I had been nervous about going to this shoot and almost didn’t. I often see casting calls for extras in nearby cities, but I’m always too nervous to apply for them. I’m afraid I’ll do poorly and look dumb on camera (should I actually make it in the final cut). But, since this was a volunteer thing, that took some of the pressure off. I figured this would be my best chance to at least see what it would be like without the added pressure of, “I’m being paid for this, I can’t mess it up.”
The work you do as an extra will depend on the film you’re shooting, obviously, so my experience may not be the typical extra experience. But if you’re looking to work as an extra, maybe this will give you a small taste of what to expect on set.
Here’s my takeaway from my day on set:
- If you know you’re going to be outside all day, plan accordingly. Bring sunscreen (even in colder weather), check the weather, and maybe bring a couple different options for wardrobe. I spent most of my day being cold because I didn’t realize the temperature would be dropping throughout the day. I’m also suffering from sunburned hands and face today.
- I expected the famous actors to be either separated from us or to completely ignore us. That was not the case with the actors in this movie. A few of them just chatted us up like we were old friends. The ones who were asked to take photos were totally cool about it. One person even asked about taking a photo with the director and one of the assistants went and got him, no hesitation. Everyone on set that I dealt with — the actors, the crew, the extras — were super nice and friendly and helpful. I was so surprised.
- On-set Melissa is way more outgoing than real-life Melissa. Normally, I have a hard time talking to people or asking for things I need or being any sort of social (in the first few musicals I did, I did not talk to any of the other actors because I didn’t know them and was incredibly shy). But yesterday, for whatever reason (maybe because I was already out of my comfort zone), I talked and joked and met some really awesome people. I wasn’t socially anxious and awkward and weird like I normally am. I even found an on-set buddy in one of the other marching band extras to chat with most of the day (almost unheard of for me). It was great!
- Movie-making is not the easy, glamorous job I used to believe it to be. You have to shoot the same scene several times and from several different angles. And even though your hips are killing you and you’re tired of holding your saxophone, you still have to act like you’re super excited or whatever they ask for with “high energy” (their phrase of the day yesterday). I have some experience with that from doing short films around here, but this is the longest shoot I’ve done so far, and they needed us to basically stay in the same spot for all 11-ish hours. It was incredibly exhausting.
- Extra work is kinda boring. There’s a lot of “hurry up and wait.” Luckily, I was able to hide my phone in my pocket and had that to entertain me while I waited. I was surprised to see that the big-name actors all had their phones in their pockets, too, even while they were shooting. Between shots they would text or make phone calls and stuff.
- It’s really hard to not look at the camera at first, especially when they are unclear about where you should be looking.
- Eat breakfast (or whatever meal) before you get to set. I had to be there at 8:00 a.m., and they didn’t let us go to lunch until after 1:00 p.m. (after they told some of the extras lunch would be at noon). I would have been one hangry marching band member if I hadn’t eaten beforehand. I also made sure to avoid caffeine, because it makes me have to pee a lot, and I wasn’t sure how often I’d get a chance to do that.
- If they ask you to bring an instrument, bring a piccolo, because alto saxophones are heavy and bulky.
Overall, I really enjoyed the experience, despite my now sunburned lips and desire to sleep for 12 days. It was cool to be feet away from people I’ve seen on some of my favorite shows (and to talk to some of them!). It was also exciting knowing I got to be part of a big film. From a more practical perspective, I enjoyed getting to see part of the filming process of a big movie (as someone who is about to start shooting her own short films) and all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into it. I am so glad I worked up the nerve to go.