Casting Notes #15: Don’t Mind Me – Casting Background Performers (For Filmmakers)
This 20-part series, written by Team J’s Bjorn Munson, covers the lessons learned during the casting of The Broken Continent web series pilot in 2012. You can find the full Table of Contents in Part 1.
This series is meant to help other independent filmmakers, primarily those who are casting a large ensemble (10+ speaking parts, multiple background actors, etc.). Individual articles may be useful to production companies looking to cast other work such as commercials. There are also a number of articles specifically for actors on how to better submit for auditions, do the auditions, and deal with the statistically inevitable rejections.
The lessons learned have been applied to Team J’s Stonehenge Casting service, an online tool for producers to find actors and actors to find work.
Previous Casting Notes Article | Next Casting Notes Article
Don’t Mind Me – Casting Background Performers
Just as with the fight auditions, not every project –even an indie feature or web series– is going to have background performers (aka “Extras”). The good news is that most of what you’ve read so far about getting the casting notice out and processing the submissions holds true for casting background performers.
Good background performers know how to re-create their actions precisely, take after take, as well as take direction just like the speaking roles you’re casting. This is not to say that you shouldn’t pack an audience scene with friends and family. Indie projects by their nature have a small budget and may need bodies for crowd scenes. Just remember that you do get what you pay for and the allure of “working on a film” can make the bodies of those friends and family restless as you press on into hour four of the shoot.
Here are some things to consider when casting background performers.
Consider always having some background performers
I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but background performers are a great way to expand the cinematic world you’re creating. Just as I always advocate having a variety of ages, body types, and so on in the cast (like you have in the real world), the real world is full of people in the background. 
Even when the world you’re portraying is far from real, you often want people in the background. For The Broken Continent, we had committed to some form of “epic” fantasy. Having a couple people with swords on camera wouldn’t do. Wherever it made sense, we wanted to have additional soldiers, advisers, or denizens in the background to fully realize the world.
Even in an indie project set in modern times, you may have characters in offices and stores or walking in hallways or sidewalks. Unless it’s apocalyptic setting, there might always be one or two people in the background (and even in apocalyptic settings, c’mon: zombies!). 
Getting the word out for background performers
The method for getting the word out for background performers is essentially the same as for your regular cast. In fact, you might find some potential background performers among the actors submitting for regular roles (more on that below). So when you’re crafting your casting notice for background performers, try and find a way to make them want to come and stand around for hours at a time. Ask yourself these questions:
- Can you describe the background role as exciting? (“We need background performers to portray a crack SWAT team.”)
- Can you describe the scene where the background activity is exciting? (“We need 20+ background performers to be mystified, befuddled, and ultimately entertained by a street performance by our two female leads.”)
- Can you evoke memorable, archetypal crowd scenes from other movies? (“Be part of the frightened masses fleeing mutant snakehead fish as they emerge from the Potomac River!”) 
You will not have an enticing hook for every project and every type of background performer. In some cases, you might honestly just want to make sure this office or that street corner isn’t completely deserted. But you don’t lead with that. Remember, in part 4 of the Casting Notes series, we talked a lot about crafting your casting notice with a mind to woo the performer. Don’t stop wooing when it comes to seeking out background performers.
Create a separate casting notice for background performers
Now, using Stonehenge, I would both create a different casting notice for background performers and make sure to note whether or not the performers had checked the box on the site that they were open for background work. To explain that reasoning, I should explain what we did for The Broken Continent.
For that series, we created one omnibus casting notice. At the bottom, after the 20-some roles, there were clearly plenty of opportunities for background performers listed.
Then, during the auditions, we checked in with people at the end of the audition to see if they would be at all interested in background work. Our director, Francis, cheerfully noted that we were asking this of everyone (which was true) and we would perfectly understand an answer of “Hell, no!” (which was also true). This question was asked with what I thought was about as light a touch as could be done. And we did have a good reason to ask people whom we were calling in for principle roles. As we explained, we fully hoped the pilot would lead to a regular web series — and so it would be wonderful to cast someone as one of the king’s advisers in the pilot who then could be revealed to be a key supporting role in a later episode as if we had planned it all along.
Many of the people we wound up casting were excellent actors, and we had every intention of doing exactly what we said because we knew they had the acting chops to rise to the challenge. That Woman of the Wood you saw in the opening? She could strategize with one of the leads at the eve of a later battle. That courtier looming behind King Eadwyn? He was in league with the scheming Barda to consolidate power. Even some of the refugees were capable of popping up in later episode to add to the epic story. The background actors were a combination of people whom auditioned for us along with some people who we did not initially call in, but had indicated they were up for background work.
Nevertheless, in retrospect, there were a few instances that, despite Francis’ light touch, the actor was surprised and probably a bit uncomfortable at the question. For that reason, in the future, I would do the separate casting notice as mentioned above — and also check the Stonehenge tool to see who was up for background work. However, I would make sure that the check-in staff informed all the actors that their Stonehenge profile was up-to-date in terms of their availability and interest in background work (“Make sure it’s not checked if you don’t want it and make sure it is checked if you do.”)
Consider budgeting for background performers
One thing I would not change with what we did with the Broken Continent was to pay all the actors, including the background performers.
Time and again, I hear from fellow filmmakers who’ve had no end of trouble getting even 10 people to come out and be background for free. That’s because the mystique of filmmaking quickly loses its allure to many a newcomer when they realize just how much hurry-up-and-wait is involved.  Background actors hurry up and wait even more than most.
Consider that you could ask for 4 hours’ time for a background performer, pay them $40 and they’d be making well above current minimum wage. 
For the Broken Continent, we didn’t pay that much, but we did follow state and federal minimum wage laws — and we paid overtime if actors were hurrying up and waiting for more than 8 hours (like you’re supposed to). We did this, in part, because we knew we needed to make costumes for these actors and, in part, because we knew our shoot days could be long and would be somewhat remote. We wanted the actors to commit to being there.
Now many filmmakers reading this might be running numbers in their head. They might reasonably calculate how they could add 10-20 extras at that $10-per-hour rate and quickly add $400 to $800 of cost. If you wanted a modest throng of people over a couple days, you’d quickly add thousands of dollars to your budget.
It’s fine if background performers are where you want to cut costs. Just don’t pretend that “being in a film” is that big a motivator, especially because you’re asking someone to hang out and not do much of anything — and often they need to be near set and quite quiet. For isolated needs, where you need people for less than a four-hour chunk –and ideally a less-than-one-hour chunk– many family and friends can probably be relied on again and again. If some of your friends are actors or creatives –and the background performers have something moderately interesting to do– you’ve just given creative people an opportunity to play. You can safely bet on an extra hour or so. But if you really want people to commit to being background not simply state that they “should be available,” money should be one of your tactics.
Remember, you’re spending the money on background performers to add production value. Not every shot is a crane shot or needs a Steadicam. Not every set or costume needs to pop. But sometimes, having one of those elements is that special ingredient you want to spice up a shot. Feel free to cut those ingredients from the budget if you don’t need that spice, but plan on adding that to the budget if not having the background performers will visibly lessen the production value or take an audience away from what they expect.
Storyboard the shots with background in mind
Do you need to do this step before casting? Not absolutely. But you do want to do it before the day you’re shooting with background performers. Otherwise, you run the risk of looking at your set, looking at your limited amount of extras, and realizing things won’t look good.
Storyboarding with a realistic notion of the final number of background performers you’ll have therefore becomes critical to ensuring that you’re maximizing your production value — and also not looking too cheap in key shots. In general, you want enough extras so that they can fill out the edges of the frame indicating further people off camera. Sometimes they’re integral to establish motion and activity of a location by cutting in front of the camera or passing in back of the main action. You can do a lot with just a few background actors and careful framing.
I counsel many indie filmmakers to take a look at television shows, especially those from more modestly budgeted days of yore. Nowadays, TV shows may have show-stopping cinematic setpieces with a lot of background performers (though some of them might be CGI). Modern TV directors also know that they can get away with more cinematic compositions because of both expectation and the rise of huge home theater screens. But older TV shows wanted to give the impression of bustling Western towns, hospitals, space stations, and police precincts without having anything close to a blockbuster budget or epic-sized audience expectations. The camera framing and number of background performers in these shows reflect those constraints. 
Regardless of how average or ambitious your shot list may be, you want to take the time to know how you’ll use background actors to your best advantage. Depending on what location you wind up with and the number of extras you get, you may need to adjust your framing.
Have at least one crew member manage the background performers
This may come as an absolute shock to some industry folks, but not every production has a Second Assistant Director, let alone a Second Second Assistant Director or Third Assistant Director. Heck, many an indie production I’ve been on hasn’t had any assistant director. That’s okay.  However your crew is organized, make sure someone on the crew is responsible for (and knows beforehand they’re responsible for) checking in and checking out the background performers including all their paperwork especially their release.
Ideally, you not only have a crew member to do the organizing and get the all-important release, but all the crew who might interact with them, from the production assistants to craft services, can be pleasant, but firm as necessary. Remember, for many background performers on an indie production, this is their first exposure to a film set. You need everyone who interacts with background actors know they need to helps them remember such boring but vital things like:
- Where to stand and not stand
- Who to talk to and who is going to be busy 
- What activities are fine for hanging out and waiting… and waiting (book-reading yes, beat-boxing no).
- Who will bring them to set and what to do at the end of the day
In other words: don’t assume your background performers know “the rules.” On an indie set, “the rules” may vary (and that’s okay). But even if everyone on your set knows what “the rules” are for this set and can communicate those rules to extras in a firm, but friendly manner, having a point-of-contact that the background performers report to is a good idea.
Whether you’re paying background performers to populate your web series world or you’re trying to get people to volunteer their time for short, student film, you want it to be easy for potential extras to say, “Yes!”
Figure out ways to woo your background performers from the casting notice, onward. Knowing that the extras will be doing something interesting or dressing up in costume can often entice people to spend some time hurrying up and waiting.
If you determine that you really need background performers in certain shots to sell the story, consider paying people as one of your tactics to make them commit.
Know what your “rules” will be on set, make sure the crew knows them, and make sure you have a designated point-of-contact for the background performers on set. 
Just as with your casting speaking roles, the effort you put in here will pay dividends. I have yet to have a standard guideline for how many people you should expect to reach out to in order to get a minimum number of background performers. Assuming you are paying less than SAG-AFTRA scale, you need to rely on the wooing indicated above and perhaps some novelty for the novice background performers involved — and it doesn’t hurt if you’re shooting in their backyard (proverbially if not literally). Searching by ZIP code isn’t a bad idea (and something you can do via Stonehenge). If you want 10 background actors on the shoot, reach out to 50… unless you can reach out to 100. I have yet to meet a director or D.P. who doesn’t find a use for the right background people (remember Footnote # 2).
Previous Casting Notes Article | Next Casting Notes Article
FOOTNOTE #1: Because people can take umbrage about anything and everything, it probably comes as no surprise that some actors object to the term “extras.” However, before you dismiss using the term “background performers,” as actors being overly sensitive, bear in mind you’re asking people to do, in some cases, precise repeatable actions take after take — that is, if you like your editor and continuity. Moreover, these actors are being asked to be this precise for the sake of being unobtrusive “moving scenery.” Just like we mention to actors: when you have a choice that won’t hurt you and might help you, choose to not hurt yourself. (At the same time, any background performer who freaks out or goes into a tirade upon being referred to as an ‘extra’ on set may need to consult a medical professional.)
FOOTNOTE #2: The needs of the story prevail. If you’re shooting a project like “The Wire” and your setting is the proverbial “mean streets,” it’s best that your extras don’t look like they’re about to go yachting. That’s not the problem I see. The problem I see time and again in indie projects is what I call “20-something White Guy Syndrome” where a film has characters and background that is very, very narrow and takes you out of any reality the film is trying to establish.
FOOTNOTE #4: Okay, that’s a bit of a dated reference for denizens of the DMV only. As it happens, someone made a snakehead horror film. I have no idea if they had a great pitch to entice people to be an extra in the film, but rest assured, if Team J ever does a creature feature, we absolutely will.
FOOTNOTE #5: I have seen other projects where they do the same thing on the paper form they have actors fill out upon checking into the audition. As has been alluded to elsewhere in this series, we don’t advocate doing on paper what can be done easier and more effectively online. Part of the Stonehenge profile actors fill out is whether they’re interested in background work. Yeah, you can have that checkbox on a whole bunch of paper forms, but this way, you can tally up the actors with a couple mouse clicks. (The results of actors suddenly deciding, no no, they meant “interested in background on the latest Hollywood-budgeted feature” are the same as the paper method, though.)
FOOTNOTE #6: One of my favorite stories to illustrate how quickly the cinematic glamour fades was when one roommate wanted to come out and be on set for the day during one of our shoots. I had no objection, but said he should bring his own car. He looked at me confused and more than a bit annoyed. What sense did that make? We were heading to the same place and it wasn’t like I was hauling a lot of gear. Moreover, this was going to be in the city and parking would be a pain. I insisted and he begrudgingly went along with it.
After about four hours of incremental camera set-ups in a less-than sweet-smelling alleyway, he pulled me aside and mentioned he’d be heading out and, hey, best of luck with the rest of the shoot.
FOOTNOTE #8: The idea here is that viewers expect some shots to have “spice.” Offices and shops usually have other people in them. Streets have cars and pedestrians. We are used to seeing this in both film and TV. A great example of this was when I was working on a web series which had a series of episodes set at a gym. Part of the script called for a comic scene in a gym class. Even though he knew he could rely on some gym rats to be game to hang out and participate in some of the shots, the director enlisted the help of one of the staff to corral a group of gym goers and they were all paid $20 to participate in a brief scene and ensure the gym class was full. He was thrifty on budgeting the whole series, but this was where he knew for the sequence to work, it couldn’t take the viewer out of the location (or the joke) by having a sparsely attended gym class.
FOOTNOTE #9: I suggest this because many indie filmmakers have great ambitions for the look and feel of their films. I have no problems with this. Personally, I try and mix some Kurosawan elements into anything I shoot. However, we generally don’t have the budget for Rashomon, let alone Ran, so I find it’s good to eat a slice of cinematic humble pie and see what people with constrained budgets did. At the same time, I don’t advocate necessarily looking at indie films or web series. Why? Because network shows of yore, even though they had producers and network execs trying to figure out endless ways to do things on the cheap, they still didn’t want to look cheap compared to all the other shows on at the same hour. Trying to keep your show on the air for several seasons is more peer pressure than trying to get your low-budget movie into some sort of distribution.
FOOTNOTE #10: Assuming you can maintain high amounts of on-set safety and low amounts of sleep deprivation with the reduced crew. Small crews are fine, but remember: background performers, especially on an indie production, can be some of the most inexperienced people on set. Having someone make sure they’re safe and they’re not endangering the safety of others by galumphing into a power cable or messing with rigging is important.
FOOTNOTE #11: I know this varies on indie sets and the prohibition of extras talking to the lead actors or director may not be as strict. But know what your version of “the rules” may be. For example, your director might be happy to talk to the extras and not be as distant. Just make sure when she needs to focus and huddle with her assistant director and cinematographer, she can.
FOOTNOTE #12: And don’t forget: if you’re shooting under a SAG-AFTRA agreement, there are certain rules you absolutely must follow in order to not violate the terms of your agreement. Luckily, this mainly means being detail-oriented and actually doing your paperwork… which is an unsexy behavior real filmmakers have accepted for some time.