The Actions of Background Work
In a scene as a background actor, you’re not left to your own devices and improvisation. You will be given instruction and blocking by either Production Assistants (PAs), an Assistant Director (AD), or the Director. Your directions will help give the scene life, authenticity, or dramatic effect. Sometimes the action you’re given will relate to the role you’re playing or the “type” your aligned with. Don’t deviate from the action you’re given just because you feel it’s boring. If you are physically unable to do an action, say so. Any potentially uncomfortable actions…we’ll cover those in a later section. Let’s look at the most common types of direction/blocking you’re likely to be given. The Cross We need to feel like our main characters are in busy public places—a street corner, a train station, or a high school. But we want to focus on them, not the horde behind them. To create and control this, production will move extras in a series of crosses within the camera frame. The timing is designed to create an even flow of people. You could be by yourself, with another person, or in a group. Usually there is an intention and a specific place you are going. Wait for production to give you a cue on when to cross. Sometimes, to give the scene a busier look, you’ll cross again in the opposite direction. This is a cheat, making 20 extras look like 100. EXAMPLE: “The Pursuit of Happyness” (Sony) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZZnBoruCik
The Interaction Sometimes the cross you make is with the intention to land somewhere to talk to somebody. This could be a friend, loved one, co-worker, or consumer encounter (buying from a merchant). The interaction may be brief—you stop, encounter, then continue moving—or it could be detailed and involved with each beat directed. Any interaction you have must be done in PANTOMIME-moving your lips without speaking. Sound is very sensitive, and we have to hear the dialogue of the principal actors. Background noise such as chatter, street life, music, is added later in post-production via looping actors.
EXAMPLE: “The Wolf of Wall Street” (Paramount) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wM6exo00T5I
The Reaction Mostly in comedy, action, and horror genres. You react to something a principal actor has said or done, or to something happening on set or imagined via greenscreen. Depending on the scene, it can be subtle or melodramatic (everybody stops at once). This could be your time to shine if the shots ask for single coverage of everyone’s individual reaction.
EXAMPLES: “When Harry Met Sally” (Columbia) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PdJm3DVg3EM
“My Best Friend’s Wedding” (Sony Pictures) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WlB-BbWBzd8