Life lessons from a film extra

Wall decorations, Elstree Studios

I have been registered with an agency as a film extra (OK, background actor) for about five years now. Initially, I signed up simply because I love films and it was one of the easier ways to be a part of the industry. Although I’ve loved films from a young age, science became the day job and films ended up being something I enjoyed in my spare time. Since I’ve been in London, there’s a lot more going on – premieres, film festivals and actual filming. Now it’s less something I merely enjoy in my spare time, but a proper hobby of sorts. I am actually IN movies (and TV shows) now, and that makes me very happy.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the actual experience of being on a film set. It can be hard work but really gives you a buzz and I get why it’s such a competitive industry.  I also learned some great lessons along the way, which apply just as much to daily life as anything.

Listen and pay attention

I’ve been amazed by some of the extras messing around on set like it’s one big jolly. They missed cues, didn’t hear the instructions from the Assistant Director and then got told off because they’re basically holding things up and wasting people’s time. How hard is it to shut up for five minutes and pay attention? You might miss something you need to hear.

Be respectful of others

I thankfully haven’t seen much nastiness or bad behaviour on sets, though clearly it goes on. Film and TV crews work hard and put so much passion into creating something. That process is better when everyone behaves decently. We all get tired and frustrated (I certainly did after about 20 takes in the freezing cold), but you get much more out of people by being nice.

Action is better than thinking

Something I definitely need to get better at. I can spend a lot of time thinking about things rather than doing things (procrastination is my middle name.) On set, I was intrigued to see how much effort might go into setting up a scene, only to find on the first take that it doesn’t really work. Then I watched the crew leap into action to solve the problem, keeping at it until they got the shot they want. The lesson here is to just start doing something – you can always change it along the way.

Collaboration is key

I’ve often preferred to work alone and be responsible for delivering all the work I’ve been given. Filmmaking is always a team effort and with the right group of people, magical things can happen. I’ve reached out recently to various friends and colleagues, and the response has been great. Never be afraid to ask for help, and finding a group of people on the same page as you can be a fantastic thing.

People always remember the food

Have you ever noticed that? When I did events management a long time ago, delegates always mentioned the lunch served on the day. If they felt especially wordy, they might make cursory points on the content and structure of the conference. I can remember exactly what I ate on each set I’ve been on – some of the food has been amazing, other catering was more school packed lunch. This isn’t really a life lesson, but people often remember the details while forgetting the big picture. Or maybe food is the best part of any event (it might be).

A glamorous film set breakfast.

Pay creators for their work

I would be incredibly sad if I didn’t have films, music, books and other art in my life. Yet in this internet and digital age, too many people seem to begrudge paying artists for what they create. Working as an extra has meant seeing firsthand how much it costs to make films and TV shows. It definitely isn’t cheap, and as a result I’ve found myself making sure I pay for good art. Go and see a film at the cinema instead of waiting for streaming; contribute to someone’s Patreon; or crowdfund a book. And if you aren’t particularly flush with cash, try telling an artist you love their work.

If you’re interested in being a film and TV extra, it’s great fun. I’m signed up to We Got Pop – I’ve always found them easy to work with. In particular, I think agencies that cast extras definitely need more people of colour on their books.

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