Today I’m featuring an opportunity that won’t make you rich, but can certainly generate a useful sideline or even full-time income, and provide a lot of fun into the bargain.
As an extra, you’ll make some money, get a chance to see how movies and TV shows are made, and even become immortalized on screen.
This is something I have personal experience of. At one time I belonged to an amateur theatre company, and through that got the chance to take part in various productions, including a fire safety video for British Gas (I played the good guy who got up and left his desk the moment the alarm went off). I also had a small role in a cult horror film. I was in two scenes, and in the second met a gory end at the hands of a deranged gardener!
In principle, almost anyone can become an extra, and that clearly includes older people as well as young. It will help if you live near a film or TV studio, or a popular location for filming. Many gigs are for a single day, but occasionally they can go on for a week or longer. Some extras in long-running TV serials continue to work on the show over a period of years.
You don’t need to have gone to stage school to be an extra, and you definitely don’t have to be ultra-attractive. Indeed, that can be a drawback. Extras are generally required for crowd scenes or to provide background, e.g. as the main actors hold a conversation in a bar. In most cases extras are expected to look average and normal (for whatever may be the setting), so they won’t distract viewers from the stars.
Depending on their appearance, extras may also be asked to stand in for the main actors, e.g. in long shots or (conversely) in certain close-ups. This type of work pays better than simply appearing in crowd scenes.
One thing you do need as an extra is stamina. The work can involve a lot of waiting around, sometimes in cramped, uncomfortable conditions, or in the open air exposed to the weather. You may be required to stand, sit, or repeat some motion for hours on end, until the director is finally satisfied with the shot. A typical working day is 10–12 hours, and on a music video it can be even longer.
How To Get Work
It’s possible to get work applying directly to TV and film production companies, but most people get into this business by joining a casting agency such as Universal Extras.
In common with other agencies, Universal Extras charges a registration fee, but this is quite modest. The cost in their case is £25.00 plus VAT for two years, or £30.00 plus VAT for four years. Full-time students can join for free, however.
Although anyone can register as a would-be extra, there are certain minimum requirements you must fulfil. Clearly you will need to have free time available during the week, so this opportunity is not suitable for those in full-time work. You will also need to be punctual and reliable. Flexibility is important too, as shoots can start very early and finish late. And you will need to be courteous and considerate to everyone involved in the production. Leading actors and actresses can get away with being prima donnas, extras can’t!
If all that sounds like you, you can fill in an application on the agency’s website. You will be asked to complete a profile questionnaire, including basic information such as height and weight and contact details. You will also be asked about any special skills or experience you may have, from horse-riding to fencing, piano-playing to juggling. Clearly if you have any such talents they may lead to additional work, but don’t claim skills you don’t have, as you WILL get found out!
The other thing you will be expected to provide is photos. As a minimum you will be asked for head-and-shoulders and full body shots. These are clearly very important, as they will be used by casting directors when choosing extras for their productions. It is therefore important that the quality is as high as possible, so it’s best to use a high-quality DSLR camera. Some agencies will not accept photos taken on mobile phones. And they definitely don’t want selfies!
Once you are registered with an agency they will keep your details (and photos) on file, and contact you when an opportunity matching your description comes in. You will then receive a call sheet from the production office and told when and where to report.
Universal Extras, mentioned above, is one of the best-known UK agencies, but there are of course others you can apply to as well. Three other possibilities are Studio Extras, Film Extras , and Star Now.
- If you’re outside the UK, your best bet is to search online for “film extras” plus the name of your country and/or nearest big city. In the US, by far the best-known agency is Central Casting, which has offices in New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles. You can find out more (and apply) via their website at CentralCasting.com.
On the Day
Your call sheet will tell you what time to arrive on the shoot and whom you should report to (on a film set this will typically be the 2nd Assistant Director or extras captain). On day shoots a 7 am start is not unusual.
When you arrive you will meet your contact and be given your “chit” or “salary voucher”. You will be required to fill this in and keep it with you at all times, to ensure you are paid everything that is due to you.
Before filming begins, you will be shown to the rest area where you’ll stay when you’re not on set. This is a good place to relax, read a book and meet other extras before your shoot. A runner or Assistant Director (AD) will come and collect you when you are needed for a scene.
According to the type of production you are taking part in (fantasy, sci-fi, contemporary, period drama, etc.) you may be required to visit various departments before filming starts, such as costume, make-up and/or weaponry.
Once on set for your scene you will normally be directed by an AD. They’ll tell you what they expect and give you an opportunity to rehearse before filming starts. Once they’re happy that you and your fellow extras are capable of doing what they want, rehearsing will stop and the main actors will be brought on.
Once everyone is on set and in place the AD will usually shout “Background Action!” This means that you start doing exactly what you have been rehearsing. “Action!” will then be shouted to give the main actors their cue to start.
At the end of the scene the director will call “Cut!” or just “Thanks, everyone!” to let you know that the scene and filming has ended. Don’t stop acting until you hear these words. More often than not the scene will be repeated several times until the director is happy with the outcome.
Here are a few more things to avoid while on set…
- Rushing up and talking to the actors
- Asking anyone for an autograph
- Taking photos (cameras and mobile phones are normally banned on set)
- Staring at the main actors
- Staring into the camera
Remember that the actors are there to do a job, like you, so they need to avoid distractions.
At the end of filming a scene, you will be taken back to the rest area until you are needed again. You may be asked to take part in many shots such as close-ups, long shots and mid-shots.
At the end of the day do not leave until you have been signed out and completed the necessary paperwork to ensure you get paid. And don’t forget to return all props and costumes given to you!
What Does It Pay?
Rates of pay vary depending on the type of work, but they are governed by nationally negotiated agreements.
The Film Artistes Association (FAA), for example, stipulates a daily basic rate for extras of £84 for a nine-hour working day including an hour for lunch. That is clearly not a fortune, but the basic rate may be supplemented in various ways.
For example, if your role requires a change of clothes or a haircut, you will be entitled to an extra £12.50. If you get wet in a scene involving mock rain, there is a £19 additional payment. And if you have to fire a gun or say a word such as “Hi!” that entitles you to an extra £25 in your pay cheque.
You will be paid even if, for one reason or another, your services are not required on the day. In addition, cooked meals are normally provided free of charge, including breakfast for early calls. A common source of conversation among extras is the quality of the catering!
Earnings can also be boosted in some cases by a “buyout”. This is a one-off lump sum paid to extras in lieu of royalties. In a few cases royalties may still be paid, which means you get a further fee every time the film, TV show or advertisement is aired. Royalty deals for extras are not nearly as common as they used to be, however.
You will normally receive payment four to six weeks after the shoot. Extras are regarded as self-employed, so no deductions are made for tax and National Insurance. Assuming you are hired via an agency they will take their cut, however. This is typically 15 percent of earnings, and there may be VAT to pay on this as well.
If you have never considered being a film or TV extra before, I hope in this post to have whetted your appetite. As I said at the start, you are unlikely to make a fortune this way, but you can get a lot of fun and satisfaction from it.
In my view this is also an excellent sideline for home-based entrepreneurs, who often lead a rather solitary life. Being an extra will not only boost your income, in my experience it is great for meeting new and interesting people, and getting away from the computer for a while!
A few extras have been “discovered” this way and gone on to become genuine stars in their own right, but the great majority simply enjoy the work and the extra money it brings in. You will also have the fun of seeing yourself in films or TV shows, and pointing out the scenes you are in to your awestruck (or not) family and friends.
And finally, if you’re too shy to appear in front of the camera yourself, you can still make good money by allowing your home to be used as a location.
It’s a wrap, then!