In a movie or TV show, the people you might notice walking or standing around in the background are referred to as “Background”.  There are casting agents that supply background people from lists of people who apply, usually online, for that work. The important things that production companies look to casting agents for is to make sure that these people show up with proper ID to work, and are dressed appropriately. This includes clothing appropriate to the season or occasion, and no loud colors that would draw attention away from the scene being shot. Often, Background are merely in the scene to shield, buildings, traffic, signs not appropriate to the scene, or film equipment from view.

Generally, people that show up for a Background call fall into three categories – young adults looking for some way to get into entertainment, retired people looking for a few extra bucks, and film buffs who are happy to participate even if it is only to stand around or walk and not be seen.

The extent that Background is required to do anything resembling a craft is that they need to remember where they started at the beginning of a scene and return to that spot (referred to as their “ones”) for the many re-shoots (“takes”) of a scene. This is in order to preserve “continuity”.

On a film shoot, “Background” are at the absolute bottom of the pecking order, and non-union Background is the lowest of the low. Pay is near or at minimum wage, and just to enforce the low esteem, non-union background is kept in separate (crowded with minimum amenities) holding, and are sometimes fed cold box lunches instead of the buffet for SAG (Screen Actors Guild union) background, extras and craft.

Nevertheless, I found myself signing in one weekend at 5AM, checking in with the wardrobe department so they could OK my appearance as “Regular New Yorker”. (I was told  “Lose the hat.”) This was for a movie that required large outdoor crowd scenes, and casting agents were asking their regular Background to sign up friends and family so that they could provide the needed numbers of people.

The line for check in took 20 minutes. They took the check-in numbers provided by the casting agents, checked off the names and handed over a timesheet and I9 IRS form. I counted 16 Xeroxed signs “Non-SAG Upstairs Only” hung on the walls, where "Upstairs" was unfinished office space with nothing to sit on except an insufficient number of folding chairs. (At least nobody complained when we ignored the signs and got on the line for coffee and donuts.) The line for checking ID (supposedly to insure we could legally work) was another 35 minutes. That line was just to a guy sitting on a folding chair in a dark corner where he could hardly read the documents in the upstairs space. Then we just sat around for more than an hour before we were told to go to the set at around 7:15. This was my first introduction to the haphazard and unplanned nature of this particular film shoot.

The following details the overall operation of the shoot, with emphasis on what could be done to improve efficiency.


Important logistical issues that impacted productivity were the distance of background/extra holding from the shoot, and the need to coordinate with bus traffic.

Shooting occurred in and around a midtown hotel which fronted on Madison Avenue. For most of the shooting, Madison Avenue was closed except for buses which were held up 4 blocks back at a major cross street. They would hold the busses back, along with the traffic that was to be diverted, resulting in a massive traffic jam. Usually at the prodding of police support staff, they would completely stop shooting and let buses through, by radioing to a PA (production assistant) up at the cross street to let the buses through.  It was only towards the end of the last day of the shoot that somebody figured out that if they let the buses through to an intermediate hold point just short of the shoot there would be:
-less of a traffic jam at the diversion point, and
-the busses would get through more quickly.
I believe this arrangement was not put in place earlier because all decision making is in the hands of a small number of ADs (Assistant Directors) who are expected to make all decisions no matter how small.

Each time a bunch of buses went through all activities stopped for a good 15 minutes, sometimes longer. Some craft activity, such as construction of rails for moving camera shots, continued during the bus breaks on the side streets, but there seemed to be no coordination of other activities such as reloading cameras, during the time buses were going by.

Holding for background and extras was a good 5 long blocks away which resulted in long lead times to bring people on the set. Craft worked mainly out of the large equipment trailers. I didn’t see where principle actors, craft, the Assistand Directors (ADs) and the important PAs ate lunch or stayed. I think that they had a space in the hotel for them. I assume that space issues forced the background and extras to the further away holding. Generally when Background and their associated service people (PA, makeup, wardrobe) came back from lunch, craft was already setting up for the next shoots.

There was a craft services trailer with drinks and snacks around the corner from the shoot, and nobody begrudged Background coffe, soda or granola bars. They were usually mobbed during the “10 minute” breaks that generally lasted for a half-hour. (I just went for snacks and drinks whenever, but most often during the “bus breaks”.)

Scenes were shot with film cameras mounted at ground level, on ramps or elevated platforms, on the roofs of nearby buildings, and most pointedly, from a camera mounted on a large construction crane like boom on the roof of the hotel. That camera was sometimes pointed down for a birds eye view and occasionally pointed to principles who were out on the ledge of the hotel. Above the ledge was a gantry with cables attached to rollers. Actors (and others such as other camera operators?)  who went out on the ledge wore safety harnesses. We couldn’t see from where we were but I assume the actors wore the harnesses under their clothes attached to the gantry cables. One would think that entire portion could be shot either on a mock up or in front of a blue screen. (It could very well be that most of it was, since the boom camera seemed to be pointed most often down at the “crowds” rather than the ledge.)

I only saw one instance of a shot with a held camera. They were doing a scene with principles coming out of the hotel and getting in a police vehicle. There was one camera set off at an angle on the other side of the police car. The camera guy who was holding the camera (at least 50lbs?) had it attached to  a pan-tilt unit mounted on some sort of gizmo strapped around his waist with a counter weight. It was his job to smoothly (knees bent) walk backwards getting a tight shot of the principles walking towards him. His assistant walked with him off to the side to hold the wires out of the way. They did it four times, each time there was something wrong, the last time he stumbled over a wire. (Apparently they either gave up or more likely figured they had enough to piece together what they wanted.) I think this, along with a lot of the other shooting, would have went better if it was shot with lighter digital cameras.

Two types of Panavision cameras were in use on street level (they looked like museum pieces), one that held 300 feet of film and another that held 1000 feet. That corresponds to a corresponding number of minutes of shooting in each case. (I think it was three and a half and 11 minutes.)

There was a constant parade of camera assistants carting film reel cases back and forth from temperature controlled storage, and for each shot there were those leader boards with scene numbers held up for each shot. I was present for two interruptions while cameras were being reloaded.  One case involved the last day when we were doing some “fill in shooting” that involved looking up at the boom camera, pointing up at the ledge and going “Oh-Ah” or gasping on the AD’s cue. The camera was pulled in for reloading and the head cop came over to the AD and requested that the buses come through. (Side note – the cop extras looked more like cops than the real ones.) The Director quickly said “We are almost done” and okay we are set and started us going “Oh-Ah” again, while the real cop ducked off screen to the side. One of the extra pretend cops whispered to us, “See any camera up there? Now we are really acting.” It was a good 5 minutes before the boom camera came out again.

There was another shot where they mounted a long lens on a camera while they had background purposely mill around so they could “pick off” shots of extras and background to be inserted in the movie where needed. There was some hubbub among the camera people towards the end of the shooting. They then approached the AD and said there “seemed to be” a focus problem. After a few brief words, they started to take down the camera. The cameraman inspected the long lens, removed the internal filter. He then cleaned it with a lens cloth, looked at it again, then tossed the filter into the trash. He took out another filter screwed it in and replaced the long lens into the case. Was the shot film usable? Who knows, but it will go through costly processing before they find out.

The film cameras seemed to have a lot of other optical devices mounted on them (including a binocular like device – possibly for auto focus?). At one point where they had three ground level cameras going (this was the most they seemed to have going at any time) and craft hooked up cables and ran them to a cart where they had a bunch of LCD screens set up. The director sat in his folding cloth director’s chair (his name was printed on the seat back instead of “Director” like the old movies) and watched the feeds from all three cameras at once. I assume that it was from video cameras mounted on the film cameras. At first glance the cables looked like CAT5 or 6, but when I checked them out after the shot, they were just coax. That actually seemed to work out well. They shot a whole three minutes, and only reshot a small portion afterwards.

Between reshoooting at different cameras angles, and problems, it seemed most takes were much shorter and took around 5 (and sometimes much more) “takes” for a short scene. Setting up a scene with a principle was time consuming. The camera craft and the ADs had some hand held lenses that they looked through in initially setting up a shot. Then a camera was placed and “marks” were marked on the ground with either chalk or tape for principles to move to. Stand-ins who were the about the same size and wore similar color dress as the principles were used in setting up the shots. Often the detail was to the point that make-up would adjust the makeup on the stand-ins as instructed by the AD or senior camera people. Often times while the scene was being set up, the director would look through the camera. (Principles had their make-up adjusted constantly during shooting.)

Usually background were the last thing inserted, although sometimes they were inserted after a few takes to correct a problem with some undesirable feature showing up in the field of view.

Lighting was adjusted, seemingly to a neutral level. That is, when it was sunny, large boards with black felt were set up around the shoot to cut down on the light while later in the day either white boards or actual studio lighting was set up to provide additional light. (This may be because adjacent scenes are shot not only at different times but even on different days.)  Often in the course of shooting, scenes would be re-shot with changes in lighting. Sometimes the marks would be adjusted, usually at the direction of camera operators because of this or that problem in the shot. 

Interestingly, there was some digital filming going on. They had some digital cameras set up on high tripods for some of the scenes. The camera was approximately the size of a circa 1990 cam-corder and was attached via a cable to a storage device the size of a 6 inch cube. There was a separate feed to a hand held monitor from which the operator could start/stop the cameras and see what was being shot. An operator said that the cameras were full resolution capable, but were only being used to shoot footage that would be shown on video screens inside a “Police Command Post” while scenes were being filmed there.

The film car company vehicles used in the shoot were a mess. Many had check engine lights on, and some blew blue smoke and barely ran. One ambulance blew so much diesel fumes that they had to set up a charger to keep the flashing lights going instead of idling the vehicle. All the other emergency vehicles were kept idling the whole time so they could have the flashers on. Extras and background would sit in them to keep warm. One scene had to be re-shot because an extra accidently hit the horn while unzipping his jacket. The AD really screamed at him, and then the head background PA (Twinkle Toes) went to all the vehicles and told everybody “GET OUT!”.

Supervision seemed really fragmented. Except when haranguing us, the ADs had nothing to do with lowly background. We were under the provenance of the PAs. There seemed to be one main PA for the background and extras. I called him Twinkle Toes mainly because he wore tennis shoes spray painted gold. (They accessorized well with his tight black pants, thick black rectangular glass frames and gold ear studs.) He made the announcements when to go to the set, let us know how to fill out our time sheets, etc. He had several assistants who performed other chores at holding, with perhaps one other (Tattoo Man) who separately was responsible for the extras and background in the cars. It was only those two who seemed to have much contact with the ADs, although most, along with the traffic guys and some of the street PAs, had two-way radios. They gave direction to SAG (union) background and extras, but it was clear they had no pull with craft (e.g. makeup and wardrobe).

Craft pretty much seemed to be have their own supervision with a separate line of communication with the ADs, who came and went from holding and had their own radios. When we went to the set craft usually came along, but not always, and they usually just hung out in the hotel until called for something.

When we went to the set we were given only rudimentary instructions on where to go. The background that actually made it to the set (see below) usually just went wherever they felt like. When some areas turned up short, PA’s would scramble around and pull Background from other areas. Sometimes they were just told to get 20 people, but they had no idea what for. More than once a group of us were pulled over to the side and then seemingly forgotten. Another time I was hanging with a couple of other Backgrounders in front of the hotel lobby under an outside heater to keep warm early in the morning. The young PA assigned to that area asked us what we were doing. One of the older guys said that another PA had put us there “in reserve”. I eventually drifted away, but I saw some guys just hanging in front of the hotel (and other out of the way spots) for the entire time I was there.

For each little area of the set there was a PA assigned. These were usually the lowest rung PAs, and they didn’t even have radios. They often were not the same people from day to day so they couldn’t even enforce continuity. They seemed to have three functions: pass on whatever little direction they received for us, run errands, and keep passerby off the set (usually with little success).

On the set the ADs had to give the PAs direction for us (or often didn’t and then just started yelling at us to do something at the start of the shot). Then they gave separate instruction to craft. They spent most of their time with craft setting up each shot and giving detailed camera instructions. The ADs therefore seemed to have little time for logistical decisions, but the PA did not have any authority either. There seemed to be some PAs (like the guy who ran the picture cars and one of the traffic guys) who had some initiative, but it seemed that they had to run everything past an AD to do anything.

It immediately seemed that a lot of what the ADs did seemed ah-hoc, and as I learned later – it was. As part of the background there were some construction worker types and there were Con Edison extras. At one point during some fill in shooting (actually the shooting with the long lens mentioned above) an AD pulled out two young good looking women from background and told them to wait to the side. They said they planned to do a “vignette” shot of the two girls being ogled/harassed by hard hats as they walked by. The background were pretty much thrilled. But then nothing happened, the ADs never came back – they apparently got busy and it was dropped. Later they also had a shot planned of a hotel guy bringing hot coffee to hotel guests camped out on folding chairs outside the hotel. The shot was set up (my wife was one of the guests), but the buses started to come through and that shot was also scrapped.

Planning, Preparation & Control (or lack thereof):

With regards to the buses, no effort was made to coordinate the buses coming though with other activity. There seemed to be plenty of times when the buses were held up while there was nothing going on, and other times when they had to let the buses go in the middle of a shot. When the buses came through activities just stopped with most of the PAs just standing around and yelling “GET ON THE SIDEWALK – BUSES COMING THROUGH” as if some great hazard was present when a bus rolled down the street. They did let the buses through during lunch and breaks, but at other times they just held them back until an unbearable amount of traffic built up at the hold point.

As mentioned above, background was treated poorly, and many behaved similarly. More than a few left the set (or just left holding and never made it to the set) to hang out in the hotel, go to a McDonalds a few blocks away, and some even bragged about going home to sleep a couple of more hours. Since there were no controls other than check in and check out, it is conceivable that one could check in, disappear for the entire day and just show up late in the afternoon to check out at the end of the day.

It seemed that the main qualifications that the PA had were either that they were male and energetic or female and easy on the eyes. Other than PAs who seemed to be associated with equipment, (like the picture cars guy) there were no old guys like me. Asking around, I found out that they were non-union and paid only about the same as union background. Some of them had some film school or other applicable credentials, but the main criteria to be hired seemed to be that they “know someone”.

The watch word that the casting agents passed on to background was continuity. They took pains to tell us that each day come dressed the same as the day before. However, there were no controls to enforce continuity. When we checked in with wardrobe after the first day all they did was ask – “are you dressed the same”? More importantly, while we were given strict instructions to go back to where we were the day before or before lunch there was no enforcement or real direction. My son was lucky enough one day to be selected to sit in and drive a car. (It was warm and he could sleep and listen to the radio.) Later on, he had to take the initiative to get back to the same car. Otherwise they just picked whoever was handy to go back and sit in his car. A couple of the younger background seemed to make a point of floating over to wherever there was shooting going on to try to get into the scene.

With regards to the principle actors, they seemed to have little more knowledge of what was going on than the PAs. From what I could see they studied their lines right before each shoot, and the AD or (if it was a main character) Director gave them detailed instructions on the set including “motivation”. Even when there were only two or three lines to read they often flubbed the lines. One memorable instance was when a principle who played a reporter was filmed doing a “reporter on the spot” talk into a news camera. They filmed her talking with a pretend news cameraman walking in between her and the camera 3 times mainly because they couldn’t get the right angle looking over the news cameraman’s shoulder. She read the lines while holding the paper low out of that shot. When it was time to film a tight shot (i.e. what would appear on TV) where she couldn’t read the lines she had to do it 5 times – not including a rehearsal where she does the lines while the director looks through the camera but it isn’t running. The line was something like “Every 17 minutes somebody kills themselves in the US. That’s over 80 a day or 30,000 per year. But few choose to do it in as dramatic a fashion as this...”  She does this while walking sideways across a street with a crowd (background) behind er. The takes were:

  1. The director halts in the middle, says background is too static. Selects some of the younger background and instructs them to “ham” (wave, make faces, etc.) for the camera as if it were a real news film shot.
  2. Second time she stumbles over a word in the middle and stops.
  3. She makes it all the way to the end of the lines but walks too far to the side of the field of view. (She has to be looking into the camera and can’t see marks?)
  4. She says there are 30 suicides a day and 80,000 a year.
  5. She finally gets it right. She turns around to one of the backgrounders who was hamming it up and said ”It was all your fault”. The girl was crestfallen so the principle quickly smiles and said “Only kidding!”

Director and PA flubs also caused re-shoots. In one scene, a cab carrying a police woman-detective is let through the police line when she flashes her badge out the window, and pulls into the blocked off intersection. She gets out, starts to go to the hotel, turns to ask a question of a police captain and fire chief strutting (a bouncy “we are in charge” fast walk)  out of the hotel and across the street. She then turns, flashes her badge to two cop extras also walking in the opposite direction and goes into the hotel. The scene with the cab going through the police lines was shot on one day, the rest on another. The second day, two cameras were set up - one to get her coming out of the cab in the middle of the intersection, and another going into the hotel. The AD who was behind the first camera queued a PA standing behind the second camera to queue the chiefs and the cops to come into the scene. The car PA directed the cab driver onto the marked spots in the intersection with hand signals. The shots turned out:

  1. The Chiefs are queued when the cab is coming into the shot. They do their strut but by the time the cab gets into position and the police woman gets out they have walked all the way across the intersection, with the cops right behind them.
  2. They wait to queue the Chiefs and the cops until the cab is position. Somebody (Chiefs or principle) flubs a line.
  3. The chiefs are in the right position but the cops are too close behind.  They should be right in the center of the second camera to catch her flashing her badge. The cop extras are told to just stand by the hotel doors, like they are checking who is going in/out of the hotel.
  4. Everything seems to go right - the principle gets out of cab walks, turns, says a few words to the chiefs while walking backwards and then she turns. But nobody told her the cops wouldn’t be there so she flashes her badge – to nobody. Actually there is a plant on the side of the hotel entrance so it looked like she flashed her badge to a potted plant. Even the cameraman laughed.
  5. They re-shot starting from when she talks to the Chiefs. She turns, walks to the hotel, flashes her badge to the cops at the door and goes in.

I talked for a while to one of the friendlier low level (no radio) PAs. (He is conflicted over bartending for a living because “Alcohol is bad” and is “studying on” becoming a vegetarian.) I asked about what the schedule for the days shooting was. I had noted the leader boards with scene numbers, and I also had noticed some of the camera assistants labeling the film canisters after reloading and also keeping a log book for each camera. People kept referring back to sheets of paper they had. He said yes there was a schedule with the scenes to be shot, the principles in them, and even with how many of each group of background and extras were to be in them. I asked about the lighting and he said that it only listed if it was a day or night shot. Then he pulled and 8.5”X14’ inch sheet of paper and said ” here it is!”. The sheet was broken down to about 10 boxes, one for each scene with a scene number, with a summary for each scene. At the bottom there was a camera list for the day, cross referenced to the scene numbers..

I was very surprised that the plan for the activity of hundreds of people, some of them highly compensated unionized professionals, was distilled down to a few lines of text for each scene. I was also surprised when I saw it was that single piece of paper that everybody had and referred to. The camera people referred to it when setting up the leader boards and marking film canisters, and the ADs referred to it constantly. There was no “master schedule” with more information for which the single sheet was a summary.

Later in the day, I saw a young PA handing out schedules printed out on yellow paper. I asked another PA if those were revised scheduled for the day and she said no they were copies of the preliminary schedule for the next day.

Efficiency Improvements:

To this relatively un-informed observer, improvements in efficiency would be easily obtained through two avenues. One is more detailed planning and coordination of shoots, and the other is a switch to digital cameras. With better planning there will also be an opportunity to provide better controls on labor and materials. (It was noted that a lot of equipment was rolled out every day but some was not used. I also overheard that after lunch one day that a $2000 microphone “went missing”.)

Computer Aided Shot Planning:
On a construction site, they don’t wait until they are on site to survey the site, do detailed design and select tools and material. There are detailed drawings, plans, schedules and bills of material. These days computer aided design (CAD) programs are used to generate detailed 3D models as part of the design process. These models are used to optimize designs, check for errors such as interferences, and also provide realistic architectural views. This same software can be used to model sets (especially outdoor areas) and set up the views that can be tied to camera placements. Animation software already exists to build 3D models from various camera shots taken at known angles and from known locations.

Once a 3D model is constructed, the software can be modified to modify views based on camera formats and lenses. Time of day and coordinates can be used to show shadows and plan the lighting for the shots. Plan views can be created that show camera placement, marks for the principles location for lighting and reflectors/diffusers as needed. With all the shot details worked out in advance, it should be possible to arrange shots in sequence and develop a detailed schedule for a day’s shooting. With an accurate schedule it should even be possible to refine the lighting for the shots, based on time of day and shadows from surrounding buildings.

Additional cameras, longer takes:
With a detailed plan for each shot it should be possible to more carefully arrange the shot and possibly place additional cameras to run at the same time and for longer takes. This could eliminate additional shots of the same scenes from different angles.

A detailed set of plans for each shot will enable a map to be created for the placement of equipment. This way equipment won’t have to be moved for each set of shots or blocked by background. Longer takes with less re-shooting of the same scene can make the entire process take less time and money.

Personnel control opportunity:
With more detailed planning of the shots, it should be possible to assign all personnel to each shot, even lowly background. On check in, background , instead of just getting a timesheet, can get a complete schedule of where to go on the set. If enough effort is put into software development, it should be possible to create a timesheet for each background with a bar code that can be read/checked during the day. This should eliminate the problem of backgrounders not showing up or drifting around the set. Continuity can be enforced as well as insuring that labor paid for is labor used. It should even be possible to get background to show up at different call times depending on when they are needed.

Logistical Planning:
With enough detail to the shooting schedule not only can equipment and staff placing be pre-planned but it should be possible to set up planning to the detail that when interruptions are needed (such as the busses are coming through) they can be pre-planned and scheduled as well.

Digital Cameras:
In addition to eliminating the need for reloads, the digital cameras all have capability to be more easily connected onto a network (wireless would be preferred) to send images to remote monitors. With the additional cameras and longer shots the director can monitor the multiple monitors showing what each camera sees. In addition, with digital cameras the product can be viewed immediately – no waiting for developing film.

Equipment set up:
With a detailed schedule and shot plan it should be easier to have equipment such as camera tracks and lighting setups ready in advance. The tracks in particular can be pre-built on the side. They should also be provided with leveling adjusters. (Craft spent a lot of time leveling tracks as they were being put together using wooden shims.) It is also expected that digital cameras being lighter, it shouold be possible to can use lighter stands and platforms. They can also better take advantage of image stabilization technology.

Implementation of Improvements:
Producing a movie is basically an artistic process. It would not be expected that a production company would make the up front investment in the software suggested above to shoot a single movie. Either a company already involved in the process (e.g. the company the rents the cameras and other equipment) or a separate company would need to be formed to provide the shot layout, planning and schedule as a contracted service.

The company that provides the cameras would also provide the monitors and set up for a wireless network on the set.

Directors, working in advance with specialists who would run the software could pre-plan every shot. They can even get a good idea of what shots will look like in advance, and possibly eliminate shots that are now shot but left on the cutting room floor. All this can be done before a single actor, craft, extra or even lowly background sets foot on the set.