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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Extras / Background Artists

The Extras: Background Talent

   The people who populate the world in which the principal or primary actors tell the story are known as extras, background artists, and background talent or background actors. While there are those who do make their modest living as background talent, primarily in Los Angeles and New York, most background talent are either actors who also do background work or those who are seeking entry into the entertainment community through the relatively unchallenging work of portraying real people as a backdrop for the action of the film, television show or commercial. While relatively unchallenging, being a professional background artist does require discipline, the ability to appear natural (an acting skill in and of itself), an understanding of wardrobe, characters and the ability to contribute to a production rather than distract from it.
   Background talent (the preferred term on both coasts is now Background Actors) are provided through local talent agencies, advertisements in the newspapers, listing with casting directors, as well as various managers or talent representatives. Historically the primary places to register for work as a background actor are Lear Casting, Baskow Agency, Wildstreak Talent, Nevada Casting, Casting Entertainment and through the Screen Actors Guild Office (which keeps a file but does not actually cast). As with the casting of roles, it is best to keep on top of the sources elsewhere in this package, since companies will come into the market and do their own background casting.
   Union background talent should list with viable background casting companies, but have the additional support of iActor and Cast SAG, an on-line interactive resources offered to producers and production professional free of charge. The union-only benefit lists actors and background talent in a searchable mode by geography, specialty and a number of other traits. Names, photos, even video and audio are available on line at little or no cost to the union member (no cost for photo and listing, cost for additional listings, photos and other add-ons). iActor is one of many programs launched by the unions to help counter alleged corruption and bias in the casting process and to add added value to joining a union, even in a Right-to-Work state like Nevada.
   Union work is intended for SAG union background talent. When such talent cannot be found to meet a specific need, producers are allowed to take advantage of the Taft-Hartley laws and Taft-Hartley a non-union person. That person gets all of the benefits, including pay, working conditions and pension and health contribution, of a union actor, After three Taft-Hartley’s as a background extra, or one as an actor, in Nevada talent has the option of joining the Screen Actors Guild. There is no requirement to join the union once doing or before working under union contracts in a Right-to-work state. In a union state, such as California, they must join the union before accepting any additional work. In addition, there is every indication that it will become much harder to join the unions as background talent starting as early a next year. The toughening of entrance requirements comes as the industry, through new technologies, is finding it less attractive to go on location and shoot and ways of generating background crowds and action using only a minimum of actual actors are being brought into regular use. The first phase of a technological revolution in on-camera talent is the phase out of live background performers. Synthespians, image duplication and alteration, even the reuse of old “B” roll are being utilized with greater and greater technological success to replace the expense and operating hassles of utilizing group of live, human actor/background professionals. In addition if large numbers are needed, there is a trend to film in countries where background actors are exempt and will work for nothing or almost nothing.
     Before you jump to conclusions, answer this question. Have you ever really watched background performers. When they look natural and do not distract from the experience of your viewing the film, they are most likely actors, professionals. Films shot on location in New York have a higher minimum on number of background artist and historically New York City actors will accept background work for what it is, income and contributions to pension and health plans. So most of the background you see in a film shot on location in NYC are union. Now really look. You will see that it does make a difference to use professional union background talent.

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First published 8/7/2009, from document written in 2000

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