Naomie Christensen: Background Learning Curve

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Background Learning Curve

Having worked on film sets as a day-player or background actress, there are principles to follow for successful film shoots. Often people overlook background actors; however, it is important to be professional to be in the final cut.

Working as a day-player in a couple independent films the pay is lower, yet there is less competition for parts and they emulate professional studios. Though a short experience days are long. Film time is undetermined for scheduled scenes. Ability to understand orders is important. Scheduled eight hours is really ten hours. Scheduled twelve hours is really fourteen hours. This means waking up before sunrise and spending a long day going from scene to scene to produce five minutes of quality film.

Directors are unable to see the final product until filming is done; therefore, they shoot the same scene from several angles in order to achieve an over-all esthetic. Every time they go to a new angle, they have to reorganize everything. Repositioning everyone is a challenge.

As a background actress on "127 Hours" there were literally hundreds of extras to film the crowd at a basketball game. With every available extra in town, there were difficulties. The director would say they needed light chatter into a roaring crowd on mark. Everyone would do this once and then when the director said action everyone cheered at full force. We spent all day on one scene. It probably reflected badly on every one in Utah. Eventually, they filmed the actors talking separately. If all else fails, they can dub the final cut.

Days can be boring, or constant work; however, long, boring days are tricky. Cast and crew work nonstop for days at a time with three or four hours of sleep at night. The last thing they want to hear is pouting from an extra sitting around with beverages and snacks lounging in the holding area. It is also important to acknowledge the "no talking" rule between background actors and cast. They might love their fans, yet talking to everyone can be overwhelming. So while I've been on sets with famous people there isn't much to report.

Never knowing means be prepared. Bring puzzles books, reading books, playing cards and other methods of wasting time. Wear rubber soled shoes and talk to personal assistants. I have become a master of slipping in and out of the holding room between scenes to access the restroom or take small breaks.

The most boring and rewarding project was on "Kane Files." Getting there semi-early in the morning, I spent over ten hours in holding chatting with other extras. I was on set less a half-hour playing a nurse; however, I was in a major scene and definitely made the final cut.

In various films, I have become overly adequate in making it into the final cut. People might think it is luck or appearance, yet it is an intellectual endeavor. In "Den Brothers," soon to be released, I visibly positioned myself into scenes. I was next to an adorable kid; I was in the bleachers by mascot and in a daydream sequence. After so long, I started sitting in the back out-of-sight. Eventually, I was totally off camera. How can someone be an opposing team's parent and mascot's friend in the same movie? They cannot. Something would have to be made to make the story congruent.

Even though they say, "Mix it up. Sit next to someone different," you cannot count on people taking directions. The same cute kid felt safe with me, so even after costume change, there they are. Wondering away may make them feel unlikable, yet I'm probably in the final cut.

In "Animals" I positioned myself with a friend. Friends seemed natural and normal in a bar. Then they had to go work the next day, ergo if there is overlap, several scenes were cut. However, in a week long shoot, something had to make beyond editing. Oh well, as a background actor a person makes these decisions for themselves.

As a background actor a person also makes many decisions on how to present their character. Think about your character. Background acting is often the first step. Think about angles, your character and camera locations. Absorb all the information to prepare for future jobs.

Acting is an ongoing experience and while this offers some ideas, real life experience is extremely valuable. It was unfortunate overhearing an extra talking about how they spent a lot of money on outfits and they were never in a scene. In addition, they were tiling the crowd. Many people wore their nicest black outfits, which appear as empty black tiles. I read the instructions, "No black, white or bright red." Oddly, as the resident Goth, I was one of the few people in gray and purple clothes.

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