Ever wondered what a career in acting is like?
WELL – my first week as a “retired guy” was busier than all my weeks as a “NOT retired guy” put together, I’m an actor!
OK, if you are expecting a post just about voice over, I’m afraid I will not be meeting your expectations this week. Pretty exciting stuff going on for me and I just thought I’d share.
Yes, I’m sure that I could be a movie star…
So, as you probably know, I began last year working on starting my voice over business as a retirement gig to keep busy, have fun, and MAYBE earn a little extra income to support my golfing habit. In an earlier post I mentioned that I’ve retired from my day job as a government program manager as of December 31st. Retirement ROCKS by the way. Anyway, I launched as a full time voice over artist as of January 1st 2021, but as a “lark” I also applied for a role as a background extra in an upcoming television series…and LANDED the gig!
I can’t really talk about the show, as I signed an NDA, but suffice it to say it is not an independent project with people you’ve never heard of before. After several rounds of COVID testing I was finally on set last week and HOLY MOLEY was that a blast!
First, let me just say if you ever thought you might want to be on the set of a TV series or movie, you should definitely go for it. It’s not considered “serious” acting, but I’ve spoken with several people now who have gone from background to day player and then featured actors in a fairly short period of time. Of course, you should be able to act, so take a look at last week’s post and get yourself some acting classes first.
Watching the magic happen…
From the minute I arrived at the facility, I was enthralled. Walking in past wardrobe, with racks and racks and RACKS of clothing of all sizes and colors that was appropriate for the time period of the show. Into an EXTREMELY large warehouse like space where sets were being constructed for future projects (there was some stuff there from walking dead, so that will give you an idea of the level of professional going on here). This cavernous space was broken up into smaller areas with tubular metal frames covered in black plastic to provide a break area for the crew, a “holding area” for us background folks and changing rooms for us to get into and change wardrobe.
There was also a cool little area fenced off for the “craft” folks, who were providing drinks and snacks for the cast and crew. Yep, you got it…free food! A shame I couldn’t eat most of it because of my Keto diet, but it was still pretty cool.
I won’t give away too many of the details here, because I don’t want to spoil the “magic” of it all, but suffice it to say I’ll never watch television in the same way again.
Acting is kinda like being in the military…
First order of business was to check in with the background production assistant and get my voucher for the day. As I am non-union I expected a non-union voucher, but much to my surprise I was put on a union voucher for the day. I didn’t learn till later in the day that being on a union voucher means much higher pay and some real perks. If you get put on a union voucher, it’s a little like hitting the lottery.
After check-in and getting our required face shield (they are SERIOUS about COVID protocols, which is good), off to the changing area to get into the first costume of the day. All of this was accomplished in a fairly rushed manner, so that we would be ready when they called us out to the set. And THEN (and this is where it gets very much like the military), once we were ready…we sat.
And sat, and sat…waiting for the production crew to be ready for us. Very much a “hurry up and wait” vibe going on. Thankfully I was used to this after twenty years of service, so I didn’t get as fidgety as some of the other background folks. In what turned out to be a 12 hour day, we were probably actually on set and acting for about 3 hours. The rest of the time was spent either in holding or at the staging area waiting.
I’m ready for my close-up Mr. Deville…
Once we were checked in and in costume it was off to hair and make-up. Yep, I wore makeup! Honestly, this was not what you see in the movies at all. Very quick touch ups with a lot of “blotting” to remove skin oils that might shine on camera. All in all, hair and makeup took about 90 seconds. Total, not each. The girls working in this area however, were friendly and outgoing. It was definitely a fun experience, and I would visit them periodically throughout the long day for “touch-ups”. They also came out on set to scurry around amongst all the actors between takes.
And then, for a while, nothing…
Again, the majority of the day was spent either sitting in holding or standing in the staging area. And I mean standing…if you have bad legs or feet, this profession may not be for you. Even though the actual “work” of the day only lasted about three hours, I was on my feet for the better part of eight hours over all.
Finally, they called for background. The Production assistant rounded up the number of background actors needed and walked us through a large garage type door into the OTHER half of the huge warehouse space. If I am being completely honest, I was GIDDY with excitement.
The production floor was as large or larger than the area where holding was located, although more dimly lit. It was filled with sets and props, including several vehicles that I assume would be used on location in outside scenes. From the outside, the sets looked like unfinished houses. Just framing and support structures with lights and cables all around. So MANY cables.
Standing in the holding area amidst the tables full of props was pretty interesting as well. The show is set in the 90’s, so there were a lot of familiar items sitting around to make the set look like it was in period. Fax machines (when’s the last time you saw one of THOSE?), phones with actual cables (MORE cables!) and miscellaneous items like lamps and ah trays. Like a trip down memory lane. It made me think there is a warehouse (or warehouses) somewhere that are full of everyday items people collect for use as props. Kind of amazing when you think of it, and it’s something you rarely think of.
And THEN, you walk on set. While I’m not permitted to describe the actual set, let me tell you once inside it was like actually being in the rooms they were trying to portray. All finished, painted, decorated and filled with furniture that fits the era. It was like taking a step back in time by 25-30 years. Again, I was in awe.
Just a quick plug for the crew who builds the stages…way to go guys!
So we as background were given our assignments, and placed in “first position”. Now, when you watch a movie about a movie being made, you always hear the director shout “ACTION”, and while they don’t actually shout, that is an accurate-ish representation as they actually do say “action”. It’s quite a bit more than that though, and all the production assistants, who are connected via radio all around the set, all repeat back the director’s commands. Again, kind of like being in the military. First, they have “roll sound”, where the sound crew begins recording. There is still a lot of activity going on at this point, so they have a lot of editing work to do afterward in post-production.
The next command you hear is “roll tape”, and all the PA’s repeat “rolling, rolling” into their headsets. Then, clear the set (or hallway, or office, or whatever room they are filming in) and all the production crew scatters to be off camera.
By the way, if you didn’t already realize it, there are probably three times as many people working the CREW on a set than there are actors in the scene. And for smaller scenes, where there are just two or three people and no background, it’s even more.
The next command (the one I enjoyed hearing) is “Background”. This is where all the background actors begin doing what they are supposed to be doing in the scene, followed closely by…yep…action! Action is where the principal actors begin moving and start saying their lines.
Interesting thought about background actors. You never actually “notice” them in a scene, but without them, the scene doesn’t really work. Next time you are watching television or a movie, just for a minute stop paying attention to the actual scene and loo at the random people in the background. You’ll see people dressed for whatever is going on in the scene whether it is an office setting, police station, city or rural sidewalk/town. Even large scenes like the crowd at sporting events or demonstrations etcetera. These people are all background actors, doing the things random people would be expected to do in that time period and scene. Now imagine them not there…and the scene JUST doesn’t work.
Imagine a scene, set in New York City, in a coffee shop. The actor is at the counter ordering from the pretty barista, and behind him yu see people through the shop window going about their daily lives. Can you even IMAGINE a moment in New York City where there weren’t SCORES of people walking up and down the sidewalk or window shopping? Some may even enter or leave the coffee shop, or be sitting at a table drinking their coffee. I don’t know why people don’t take background actors seriously, because without them, no scene really works. Personally, I will never watch TV or movies the same way again.
Some actors don’t want to interact with the lowly background folks…
Quick fun story of my day on set. One of the principles first position was the same place as mine as a background actor. When they arrived at their position, they asked me and the PA to back up to give them space (this is a well-known actor/actress, but not at ALL known to me). We backed off 2-3 steps, they turned, looked at us, and said “No, around the corner” …so we had to move all the way around the corner. They then turned and said “I go on ACTION” (as if we didn’t already know that), which was basically an admonition that I should not, as the background actor, go on “background” so as not to interfere with them in the scene. This person was a bit of a …well, this is a family blog so…butt head.
On the other hand, while standing in line for lunch several of the principal actors arrived and we were asked to step out of line to give them a chance to eat. One of them wound up standing right next to me, and he looked over, said hello and asked if I was having fun. Of course I was, and we had a pleasant, but very short, conversation in the lunch line. Throughout the day, this person made it a point to acknowledge me whenever we were in close proximity. I asked his name (he LOOKED familiar), he told me and I sadly told him I didn’t recognize it, which made him chuckle. He asked me if I was working on anything interesting, and I had to confess it was my first day as an actor. He wished me good luck in my career.
If I ever get to be a well-known actor (highly unlikely, but hey you never know) I hope I remember to be like that second person and not the first.
HOW some of the magic happens…
So, for me, I learned a TON about film making in this single 12 hour day. Have you ever wondered how they can show two people having a conversation on screen, with the camera on one actor with the shot over the other actor’s shoulder, and they go back and forth during the dialog without seeing the other camera in the shot? I have wondered that many times, and always assumed the camera was disguised as a prop in the scene.
Well, spoiler alert here…the way they do this is by filming the scene many times over, with different camera angles. One of the biggest surprises for me was learning that we were going to be shooting this scene anywhere from four to eight times in a row. Repeating the same actions over and over again. In between takes, everyone leaves the set so they can reposition cameras, then are called back in to repeat the scene exactly.
Like me, do you watch for and notice “Easter Eggs” in the scenes? Maybe someone’s collar is turned up at one point and then in the next second, it’s corrected and it’s meant to seem continuous. I just noticed this in an episode of “Gotham” the other day. Jim Gordon is exiting a van and while in the van all is well, then as he begins to exit his collar is askew, and as yu see him hit the ground it is back to normal again. The way this happens is those scenes were filmed multiple times from different angles and then cobbled together in post. Whover did the cobbling, and review and QC missed it. This is also how a stray Starbucks cup wound up in Game of Thrones.
But I can tell you they try VERY hard not to have these things happen, which is why they are pretty rare. How do they do that? I’ll tell you. Pictures. They take HUNDRED of pictures of the actors and sets between takes so when they reset it all looks continuous. Honestly, I wonder how people thought of all this. At any rate, I was photographed more in that single day than I have been in the five years previous.
I’d definitely do it again…
All in all, this was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. One day, when the series is released I’ll share with you the name and how to watch it, and maybe you’ll see me in the background doing a bit of acting! But I absolutely have “the bug” now, I only wish I’d started earlier. They say it takes twenty years to become an overnight success, and I likely don’t have twenty work years left, so it likely won’t happen for me, but I plan to have a great time while I can. I’ve actually applied for a background role on yet another series you’d recognize, and am hopeful I’ll get a part in it. I’ll let you know when I am able.
I’ve also auditioned for several other supporting roles in TV and film. On January 14th I’ll be filming for a documentary (non-speaking, just background fill during voice over interviews) and a trailer for a feature film on Saturday the 16th. Not to mention my role as Judge Huxman in the Zoom play “Words That Made a Difference: Brown versus the Board of Education”, set to air Sunday night, January 17th. If you are interested in watching, the link to the website and pre-registration is below. Please join us!
Pre-Registration Preferred online
Cost to stream this film is listed as “0$ to $20”
Television and movies have always fascinated me. Being retired and having the opportunity to work on the set of an upcoming television series has been the opportunity of a lifetime. I hope to continue working in TV and film, along with my voice over work, and encourage you to try if you are remotely interested. One of my fellow background actors on this show, who is still working full time, said to me at the end of the day “After this, I don’t know how I just go back to work tomorrow!”. I’m just glad I now have the time to devote to pursuing a career in entertainment. I can’t WAIT to see what the future holds!