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Today I’m featuring an opportunity that won’t make you rich but can certainly generate a useful sideline income and provide a lot of fun into the bargain.
As an extra, you’ll earn some money, get a chance to see how movies and TV shows are made, and even become immortalised on screen.
This is something I have personal experience of. Productions in which I had a role include a fire safety video for British Gas employees (I played a ‘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, in the second meeting a gory end at the hands of a deranged gardener!
Who can be an extra?
In principle, almost anyone can become an extra. 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 a week or longer. Some extras in long-running TV serials continue working 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 super-attractive. Indeed, that can be a drawback.
Extras are generally required for crowd scenes or to provide background, e.g. as the main actors talk 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.
One thing you do need is stamina. The work can involve a lot of waiting around, sometimes in cramped, uncomfortable conditions, or in the open air exposed to the elements.
You may be required to stand, sit, or repeat some motion for hours on end, until the director is finally satisfied with the shot.
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 Uni-versal Extras.
In common with other agencies, Uni-versal Extras charges a registration fee, but this is quite modest. The cost in their case is from £25.00 a year. 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 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/or finish late. And you’ll 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 (and generate extra fees). 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.
Once you’re 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.
Uni-versal 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 Mandy, The Casting Collective, and Star Now.
On the day
Your call sheet will tell you what time to arrive 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 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 due to you.
Before filming begins, you will be shown to the rest area where you’ll stay when 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 to collect you when you are needed for a scene.
According to the type of production you’re taking part in (fantasy, sci-fi, period drama, etc.) you may be required to visit various departments before filming starts, such as costume, make-up and/or weaponry.
- There may also be Covid protocols, though these have been relaxed since the start of the pandemic. Mostly they involve commonsense precautions such as social distancing and using hand-gel. You may also be required to wear a mask in some areas. Information will be sent in advance about this and there may be a dedicated staff member whose role is to ensure that everyone follows the rules.
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 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 till 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
At the end of filming a scene, you will be sent 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 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 £96.70 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 haircut, you’ll be entitled to an extra £20. If you get wet in a scene involving mock rain, that is also £20 extra. And if you have to fire a gun or say a word such as ‘Hi!’ that will entitle you to a further £26.53.
You will be paid even if, for one reason or another, your services aren’t needed 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!
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 around 15 percent of earnings and there may be VAT on this as well.
If you have never considered being a film or TV extra before, I hope this article has piqued your interest. 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.
This can also be an excellent sideline for students, retired people, and the growing numbers who work from home and perhaps lead a rather solitary life. Being an extra will not only boost your income, it’s great for meeting new 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 themselves, but the great majority simply enjoy the work and extra money it brings in. You will also have the pleasure of seeing yourself in films or TV shows, and pointing out the scenes you are in to your awestruck (or not) family and friends.
Okay, that’s a wrap!
Nick Daws writes for Pounds and Sense, a UK personal finance blog aimed especially (though not exclusively) at over-fifties.
Nick Daws is a semi-retired freelance writer and editor. He is the author of over 30 non-fiction books, including Start Your Own Home-Based Business and The Internet for Writers. He lives in Burntwood, Staffordshire, where he has been running his personal finance blog at Poundsandsense.com for over seven years.