actor,  character model,  extra,  model,  portrait advice,  screen talent,  Show Biz Portrait Advice

Portraits for Movie or TV Extras

Cliff Notes: Let your agency take your pictures at their offices for free or for a small fee. They send them off in batches, they might as well make them in batches.

When I started out in on-camera performance, it was as an Extra and I got no respect. I was a student, and I was studying design and I needed a part-time job. This wasn’t a great solution. I was also really shy, so being in the background in movies and TV series while other people acted closer to the camera suited me well.

I don’t regret being an extra. I learned a lot about filming and who’s who and what they do. It helped with my self-confidence and I earned a little money.

I do regret not having the courage to get out of being an extra sooner. If you’re hoping to be an actor, this is not the way in. Either way, you will have to study the craft of acting if you hope to achieve anything.

Yes, I know what I’m talking about from personal experience.

If people get to know you as an extra, changing that perception of you is going to be difficult. In South Africa, film and TV production is a small and highly visual industry and the people who work in it and can offer you opportunities will get to know you for what you do.

By all means, start here, but when you get the itch, reinvent yourself and find a professional agent who will represent you as an actor. Get a drama coach, take classes and do workshops, join Toastmasters, get on stage in community theatre and develop those acting muscles. When you do, professional photos and well prepared monologues are going to open doors for you. Remember who told you.

Dirk Jonker from Real Happy Pictures.

General Advice (how you know you can trust me)

As an Extra or Background Artist you don’t get paid a living wage, so it doesn’t make sense to spend that money on professional photos. Rather spend it on food, rent and transport. Lots of extras spend what they earn on petrol and smokes. Try not to start smoking. Rather have some of that free tea and coffee from the craft table.

(Note to my fellow actors: if you ever struggle to find Craft Services, find and follow an Extra. They’ll know where it is. Don’t speak to the Extra unless you want to be in the business of kingmaking. The first thing he’ll do is tell his friends how nice you were, like a name-dropper at a cocktail party. It’s what I would have done.)

The simple fact is, as an Extra, or Background Artist, your only responsibilities are:

  • show up on time
  • be presentable
  • stay with the others
  • sign in when they come to you and only on the official sign-in sheet
  • Go to hair and make-up
  • during shooting, pretend not to be making a movie
  • don’t look at the camera
  • don’t mess up the shot
  • sign in
  • don’t complain
  • stay with the others
  • don’t even look in the camera’s direction
  • don’t sign any other piece of paper on set unless you’ve cleared it with your agent first
  • be quiet!
  • do what the AD (Assistant Director) or 2AD tells you to do. Time it according to the main actors’ actions.
  • don’t look at the main actors
  • if anything sucks or seems dangerous, phone your agent. They will call the right person and get it sorted out. That’s what they are there for, as far as you’re concerned.
  • At wrap time, give everything back and collect all your stuff
  • remember to sign out before you leave

Long list, short money.

Spend the time while you’re waiting around by making friends, and whatever you do, don’t start checking the time while you’re on set. If one of the extras tells you you should join his agency, don’t. If he tells you he is making a movie, smile and nod, but don’t go and be in it. I didn’t, but I know someone who did.

Mostly, stay with the others and don’t talk to anyone who isn’t an Extra, only say yes to the AD’s unless they ask you to sign something, then phone your agent.

Basically, if making a movie or an ad was a school play, you’re the rock or the tree. Maybe the turtle. But definitely not something that speaks or attracts attention. You are there to hide the ugly background and make it look like there is a world that the actors are moving through.

Some of those actors aren’t even actors, they are stunt doubles. Try not to stand too close and definitely DON’T VOLUNTEER TO DO A STUNT. And don’t touch anything or offer to carry anything for a crew member. Nobody’s insured for that.

Portrait Advice

Extras only need headshots and they don’t have to be particularly good, so your agency can take them. They only show type and build. You will spend most of your time off-camera or out of focus, so don’t stress about it.

If a random photographer approaches you, don’t fall for the “I can take your pictures and make you famous” scam. That’s not how it works. If you do, try not to talk about it except to the authorities.

If you want to take your own photos:

  • use a blank wall as a background (no nails, cracks or scratches)
  • make sure the lighting is GOOD – if it feels too bright it’s probably right
  • check that you’re not casting a nasty shadow
  • Get someone else to take the picture or use the timer and a tripod. Your arms aren’t long enough to do it yourself.
  • adopt a neutral pose, relaxed but alert and upright
  • smile gently and drop your chin very slightly. Most of us have a tendency to lift our chins.
  • don’t get cute
  • look directly into the camera lens while taking your headshots and full-length photos.

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