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.
When we filmed Ignis Fatuus, a music video for the rock band Autumn Tragedy, we were supposed to have somewhere between 50-60 extras for the performance band scenes. Instead, somewhere around 25 people showed up the day of the shoot. Fortunately, film is full of trickery and ways to make the best of a bad situation. We didn’t have enough extras to put two rows of fans on each side of the band, so instead we filmed only one direction at a time, reusing the extras and rotating the rows. In other words, whenever we filmed the left side, Group A would be the front row, Group B the back row. Whenever we filmed the right side, Group A would move to the back and Group B in front, so unless you’re watching very carefully (which is hard to do with the quick edits and constantly-moving camera), you won’t notice the same people appear on both sides. Ideally, you won’t have to cheat and reuse extras, but on lower budget shoots it’s almost a necessity.
With a commercial production like our spot for Mr. Formal, a tuxedo rental company, we had no need for extras, which meant we just needed a 1st Assistant Director who is in charge of scheduling, watching the clock, and coordinating the crew to their various tasks. When you add a bunch of extra to a shoot, as with Ignis Fatuus, you immediately need a 2nd Assistant Director whose primary task is managing the extras while the 1st A.D. manages the cast and crew. A 2nd A.D. will also be in charge of blocking the extras, which in film terms means deciding where the extras need to stand, sit, or walk. For instance, a 2nd A.D. may tell three extra to stand in a corner “talking” (or mouthing words, at least, to avoid audio interference), tell another extra to cross behind the camera on the 2nd line from the lead actress, and another extra to cross in front of the camera before the actor’s 3rd line. They will make coordinating decisions with the director, but the director is often too busy dealing with more important tasks to be able to focus much attention on extras and their placement, actions, etc.
While a 2nd A.D. on a non-union film shoot may not command much money, they will add to the overall budget. On a union (DGA) shoot, they are entitled to solid pay along with most union crew members. Fortunately for corporate video work, the DGA doesn’t care much about corporate videos, which are deemed “industrials” in the film world and beyond the concern of the bigger unions. National TV commercials, however, involve all union talent and pay scales, which often means even the extras add significant expense as SAG (Screen Actors Guild) performers. Believe it or not, some people make a living purely as background extras and regularly appear on TV shows and movies to pay the bills. A “featured extra” is usually someone who has a name in the script (even if it’s Buss Boy #1), or performs a significant task (like a server who delivers drinks, for instance, but doesn’t speak), but is otherwise of limited significance.
One strategy for saving money with extras is to identify the scenes where most of the extras are needed, then shoot all of them at once. As many people know, films are rarely shot in order, and even commercials are shot out of order if there’s good reason to do so. If you have a couple entering a busy restaurant, but then going to a private booth, before they eventually leave the restaurant again, go ahead and shoot the entrance and exit at once and then cut loose the bulk of the extras so that you can focus on the private booth conversation. You don’t need to film 90 minutes with extras, then two hours in private conversations between two people while the extras wait around, and then have the extras again for 90 minutes after. You will effectively not just waste their time and your money, but distract from the production while the extras mill about somewhere in the background, sometimes unintentionally disrupting takes with conversations and noise. Also keep in mind meals and meal breaks with extras present. Though it sounds harsh, when budget is a huge concern, you cannot afford to feed an extra 30 mouths at $10 per meal. On my feature film, Amy Alyson Fans, we had a large party scene with about 30 extras that we knew we could film in 6 hours before lunch (film days are 12 hours long with a union-required meal break after 6 hours). We barely finished the scene, then cut loose the extras before lunch to avoid needing to feed everyone. 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.