Working With Extras

As part of many corporate videos and commercial productions, extras become a key part of setting the scene. Whether you are filming in a restaurant, storefront, or in a park, you may need a number of extras to make your production look realistic. The added cost of extras is perhaps one of the more obnoxious parts about a higher end commercial or corporate video, because the cost isn’t just the extras, but the crew involved in managing them. The shorter duration you need extras, the more reasonable the cost is bound to be and thus the more realistic an option it becomes. I recently spent a solid amount of time budgeting a restaurant video for a potential client, only to learn that he had nowhere near the budget to afford any extras let alone the number needed for his concept.

Many people assume they can just ask friends to help out and play extras in their video, but you are much more likely to run into issues when you’re not paying people money to be present. If you’re asking employees to appear as extras, you’re going to have great success because they have no choice. But if you’re asking friends and family, count on a high percentage of no-shows and don’t underestimate the time commitment. Even for what seems like a simple scene, it could turn into a several hour (read: 3-4 hour) commitment between asking everyone to be available early for rehearsals and walk-throughs to when the scene finally wraps after numerous takes.

Other people assume they can offer $20 for extras because they heard about such and such production paying their extras only $20 for a full day. Keep in mind that you’re in violation of federal and state minimum wage laws if you’re paying below minimum wage for work, even if you don’t think it’s “hard work” or “real work.” You can ask for volunteers, which is perfectly legal of course, but understand that when people aren’t paid to show up, they feel less obligation to do so.

The first aspect of securing extras is having someone on the production staff who is in charge of dealing with the hiring of extras and feeding them the necessary information, such as location, times, and pay, as well as contracts. When I’ve used extras on music videos and short films, we often have everyone sign a photo / video / audio release form on set, which in low-budget situations I’ve handled myself or assigned to a 1st Assistant Director but in all actuality should be handled by a Unit Production Manager (UPM), an assistant of the UPM, or perhaps a 2nd Assistant Director. In any case, someone from the director’s unit (whether UPM or AD) will be the lead on communicating with extras and making sure there are enough of them. As a general rule, figure that about half of the people who say they’ll show up actually will be there for production, unless you have them pre-sign contracts.

Though you have to watch your bottom line, never treat the extras poorly or you’ll generate ill will you don’t need. Someone from the production department had mentioned to a few of our extras about getting a free copy of the movie when it was completed, which is a promise none of the investors or top level producers okayed, so when the movie hit iTunes and other digital media outlets, it became a source of some awkward conversations. Only make promises that you can keep and make sure you communicate with all of your staff the same message. You want to avoid a situation where every extra thinks they’re getting free products from you because they appeared in your commercial and Jennifer, your summer intern, somehow promised them all free product.