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The Actors Decision to Do Extra Work
Doing extra work at the beginning of an acting career is certainly one way to get a career started. As an extra you gain knowledge, experience and technical insight while becoming familiar with studios and locations. To be sure, there is known to be a stigma attached to being an extra in Los Angeles, though not as much so in New York. This, however, is not as a concern for those in early training. Working as an extra might afford you the earliest opportunity to earn a SAG card. When you get three SAG vouchers, you are eligible to join SAG. A voucher is your pay record and is a three-page multicolored form. Of course, if you are luckily appointed or hired to utter a simple line within the script, that means you get paid SAG minimum and are eligible to join SAG. A person gets started as an extra by registering with one or more of the extra casting agencies.
"Extra work" refers to employment as a background performer in scenes for television or film. People who do this, "extras" or "atmosphere," have no speaking lines and are barely ever recognizable. They are just used to create realistic depictions of public places. Scenes in restaurants, courtrooms, hallways, and outdoors usually need to be filled with people who are walking, sitting, eating, or chatting.
Terms To Know
A.D. An assistant director, and usually part of a hierarchy, whose duties will include helping to set up shots, coordinating and writing call sheets, and directing and corralling extras.
Atmosphere. Another term for "extras" or "background artists".
Background. Another term for extras or atmosphere.
Day-out-of-Days. Schedule made by the Assistant Director (AD) assigning time slots for when certain people or things will work on set.
Day-Player. Someone who is hired at SAG scale (minimum) for the day.
Golden Time. Refers to overtime paid after working sixteen hours straight, equal to ones daily rate every hour.
P.A. A production assistant who usually gophers and manages the extras.
Photo Double. An actor, usually an extra, used in place of a principal actor who is either unavailable or only seen partially, and never has any speaking lines.
Second Team. A group of stand-ins who take the primary actors places allowing them to rest during lighting changes and camera rehearsals.
Taft-Hartley Law. A law that allows non-union actors to work under a union contract for their first role. After that, they must join the union.
Upgrade. A pay-rate increase, usually from "extra" status to "principal" status.
Work Vouchers. A paper given to an Extra at the time of check-in. It must be filled out and turned in at the end of the day of shooting to receive wages.
Extra work can be especially useful to an actor just starting out. You'll have the opportunity to see how a real television or movie set operates which can help you in future acting jobs. Working as an extra is one of the ways a non-union person can become eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). While working as an extra, you can network and swap information with other extras about agents, casting directors, and other of show-business related matters. Also, working as an extra on shows like soap operas can lead to "under-fives," which are speaking parts with five lines or less. Under-fives pay more than regular work, and obviously provide more exposure than ordinary extra work.
There are not many requirements or skills needed to become an extra. Agencies that cast for extras look for all types. That includes people who are tall, short, fat, skinny, young, old, and from all ethnic backgrounds. But of course the needs for a particular scene will dictate precisely what kinds of extras will be cast. In Los Angeles there are many extra casting agencies, but usually, only a few handle the bulk of the work. Some are large and some are small. The key in dealing with agencies that cast for extras is just knowing whether or not they are reputable. Extras can be categorized as follows:
A day extra is lowest in the hierarchy of extras. A day extra fills the background with a live body. Day extras may need to act as if they are talking on the phone or to another extra, or as if they are just standing or walking around. Lately (and perhaps sadly), computer-generated images may fill the roles of day extras in certain instances, a result of the digitalization of the film production process. Another outlet for the actor is the talk or variety show format which utilizes talent either onstage or in the audience.
Special extras perform a specialty skill in the background, such as juggling, skateboarding, diving, fencing, playing a musical instrument, or horseback riding. Exactly the kinds of things that should be listed in the "Special Skills" section of the actor’s resume. None of the actions required from a special extra are dangerous or very involved, but they do require sufficient familiarity with a particular skill so that the action seems authentic.
Silent bit extras can interact with the principal actors in some way, usually by acting out some kind of physical exchange. Silent bit extras that appear in the same scene as one of the principal actors are more likely to have their filmed segments included in the movie or television productions final cut. As a silent bit extra, you dont make any more money than any other type of extra, but you may have a better shot at screen exposure.
You can work as an actor anywhere you live. Extra work done in movies, TV shows, industrial films, commercials, and music videos may be filmed anywhere, either in a studio or on location. When film productions travel to far-off locations, directors often hire the locals as extras and advertise in the newspapers to attract the applicants. If you happen to be in a location where a movie is being filmed, you can apply to work as an extra without going through an agency at all. To find out more about extra work in your area, contact your states film commission.
A stand-in is someone who has a similar height, build, and look of a major actor/actress. Instead of wasting the principal actors time by having him or her stand on the set while the camera and lighting crew adjusts the lighting and prepares the cameras, a stand-in is placed there instead. A stand-in just stands where the principal actor is going to stand while the crew makes sure that the lighting and camera angles are okay. If the scene involves walking or moving in any way, the director may ask the stand-in to move in the same way the actor will move during filming. If any shadows, echoes, or additional disturbances interfere with the scene, the director wants to find out about them ahead of time before calling the actors in. When the camera crew is ready, the stand-in walks off the set, and the principal comes in to do the actual filming. Stand-ins do get paid better than regular extras, and they have guaranteed work for as long as the filming takes place.
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A good procedure for getting registered with extras casting agencies is to call each agency ahead of time to learn of their designated hours for registration, what you must bring with you (usually you will just need two forms of identification: a drivers license and Social Security Card), and of course, any fees that might be charged.
If you are non-union, most agencies will charge you a one-time registration fee ranging from $5 to $60. Illegitimate agencies have been known to want upwards of $300, and naturally you should stay away from anyone who wants that kind of money for this kind of work. This registration fee usually includes having your picture taken for the agencies files, in their own format, size, and/or style. Sometimes if you bring your own three-by-five color snapshot of yourself, your fee will be waived.
Also, some agencies withhold five percent of a non-union extras paycheck, as a service fee. If you are non-union, you will quickly see the benefits of belonging to a union. This service fee is another downside to experience until you can become a union member.
If you are a union member, you can never be charged a registration fee, as mandated by the Screen Actors Guild. However, some agencies get around this rule by imposing a small "picture fee," which is usually $5 to $15, but not more than this. More often than not, there are no fees for union members.
In Los Angeles, the pay rate for non-union extras is $46 a day, based on eight hours of work. Screen Actors Guild "general extra" wages, paid to extras who work on union films and television shows, are $95 per day, also based on eight hours (the rate increases by $5 every year on July 1 up until 2003, when a new agreement is negotiated). AFTRA wages for extras are $132 per eight hours of work on one-hour shows, and $85 per eight hours of work on half-hour shows. AFTRA, of course, covers television shows such as soap operas, game shows, and talk shows, which are shot on video and remain in a video format when aired.
Though these union rates may not seem tremendous, quite often shoots can run longer than eight hours, which will result in overtime. And in the event that you are released after only one or two hours, you still get paid for a minimum of eight hours work.
Non-union overtime is paid at time-and-a-half for the first two hours after eight hours. After that, you will receive twice your hourly rate until you have worked sixteen hours in one day. After 16 hours (aka "golden time") you will start earning your daily rate every hour.
Union overtime is paid at time-and-a-half for the first four hours of overtime, and twice your hourly rate from twelve to sixteen hours. At "golden time," you will earn your daily rate every hour, as do non-union extras. For both union and non-union, overtime is paid in increments of tenths of an hour.
There can also be various pay supplements known as "bumps" that you can receive depending on the requirements of the day. For example, you will be given additional pay if you wear and change your own wardrobe, use your own car in a scene, perform hazardous duties, operate firearms, wear prosthetics, or you are used as a body double or stand-in. The amount of these bumps usually varies from $5 to $50.
Extras casting directors are known to book extras in one of several ways. The most common method is to have a message line, either on voice mail or a continuously repeating loop, which is updated throughout the day with the specific types that are being sought. Prospects that hear the message and know they fit the description would then call a designated number to attempt the booking. The extras casting director will either pull your image up on a computer, or pull your picture from a file and check to see if you are, in fact, right for the job.
Extras casting directors also fill slots by allowing extras to call them directly throughout the day to inquire about work, a method that seems to contrast sharply with regular talent agents and agencies. Just remember to keep the calls brief since they speak with hundreds of people every day. With the passing of time you can foster a relationship and it will become easier to chat and ask about work.
Agencies also book extras by having a general work line that actors can call, and if extras are needed, a casting director may pick up. Usually you will supply three kinds of information: your name, age, and race. This kind of information is important to know, since the requirements for scenes can be very specific, and based on assembling certain types of people.
Yet another way extras can get booked is through a "calling service." A calling service is a small company, usually one to four people, that are connected with most of the extras casting agencies. They call casting people directly to get you work, and frequently casting people call them to fill work needs when they are very busy. For example, an extras casting director may have to book fifty extras quickly. Rather than put this information on a message line and take calls from countless people who may or may not be right for the job, the director will contact the calling service and tell them what types are needed. Calling services also usually supply books of their clients to agencies for quick reference. The calling service then does most of the work by gathering up and scheduling a list of people. Essentially, they book the shows for the extras casting director.
Thus, calling services are like agents or brokers for extras who want to work regularly. They cannot guarantee employment, but usually can get an extra two to six days of work per week, depending on how much work is available and how good a calling service it is.
If you are planning on doing extra work on a regular basis, you might consider signing up with a calling service. The fee is usually about $45 to $55 a month. To stay in the safe zone, ask the extras casting agencies you have come to know and trust which calling services they recommend before picking one. If you dont have a calling service, then you should expect to make to make anywhere from one to one hundred calls a day to stay in the hunt. You will still have to make some calls anyway since calling services can't ensure work for every day of the week.
The goal of an actor is to get a speaking role. The moment you have a speaking role in a union production, even if it's just one word, you automatically qualify for joining the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). This is a process known as being "Taft-Hartleyed." On rare occasions, a director may want an extra to shout out a word or two. If that opportunity comes your way, you will no longer be considered an extra, and you will have a speaking/acting credit to add to your resume. Until this happens, avoid putting extra work on your resume. If you are working regionally it is more acceptable to state extra work. If your goal is to be an actor, and you want to do some extra work to get a feel for being on a set, some extra work is suitable as long as you keep a low profile about it.
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