Stories on Set: Working with Extras
by Marieta Caballero
My second time working on a short film in the capacity of the director was a very different story than the first, both on screen and in the process. In case you missed it, I wrote about my first short and the challenges that I faced during its making, both in terms of production, preparation, and delegating projects to my crew. My second short was called The Collection. With the lessons I learned from working on my first short, this time, with a committed crew and a better production plan, we managed to put together a five-day film shoot in two different cities.
This is not to say this shoot wasn’t hard, either—in contrast to what we’d done before, the project was ambitious and exciting. On the last day, we would be facing the sequence that needed the most coordination: shooting in a classroom with five principle actors and about 20 extras, recreating a history class. Including the crew, there were approximately 40 of us on set that day. In the story, one of the main characters asks an politically-incorrect question to the teacher, and the rest of the students (in this case, the extras) had to react to him asking this question.
Going into this shoot, I had never managed such a large number of people, and I tried not to imagine what might happen if everyone decided not to pay attention or listen. Days before shooting, we had to change the shooting date of this sequence and my right-hand man, the Assistant Director (AD), wouldn’t be able to make it. With him by my side, it had been very easy to lead the shoot and his absence worried me. Even though we had a substitute, I was still a bit nervous since it would be our first time working together and it would be his first time in the role of AD.
We began planning for the shooting day with the extras. I talked to my production manager and we decided to open another classroom to serve as a waiting room where extras could leave their bags and relax between takes. He went to pick up food—I’ve learned that food always makes people happy, especially waiting as we prepped between shots. I also asked him to show them around the set and give them a small tour. After all, the extras were friends or friends of friends, mostly teenagers interested in acting. For nearly all of them, it was their first time on set.
When my Director of Photography was done lighting, the AD called the extras in. As they did, the AD indicated where they had to sit as if they were in a classroom. As this was happening, I spotted a girl who was wearing a bright red, very cute dress. We had requested that the extras wear classical style clothing that would be appropriate at a preppy school that didn’t require a uniform. But wow—that dress was so bright, it was practically the only thing you could see on the screen. I talked to my AD and asked her to switch her to a seat near the left of the classroom. It was uncomfortable because I wanted for everyone to end up on screen since they had taken the time to come, but at the same time that dress would never make the cut. Throughout this, I’ve learned that you cannot take anything for granted when you delegate to people you don’t know. The more specific you can be, preferably aiding yourself with references of what you need, the better. Once everyone was in their position, I stood in the front of the classroom to explain to everyone what we were going to shoot. I took a deep breath and—everyone became quiet!
I began to explain the story, the context, and what they had to do once one of the main characters asked the uncomfortable question to the teacher in that scene. I was amazed that people were listening. They were quiet and respectful. When it was time for questions, they even raised their hand to ask me things. This had never happened to me before. I thought it was going to be incredibly challenging to have everyone pay attention and concentrate, being so many of us there. What I learned, however, is that when extras go to a film shoot, they feel like they are participating in something very special. If they see everyone working professionally and they are given clear instructions, extras will collaborate. I felt like they wanted to talk to me, know more about the project, and become a part of it.
I think a lot of them felt admiration for the team because we were all more or less the same age, and this shoot was probably way bigger than any they’d done with their friends. We had a lot of equipment, experienced actors, and a professional crew. I mentioned this in my previous article, but whenever I’ve told people I made short films with my friends, I assume they envision kids playing around with cameras, not the organization nor the magnitude of what we were accomplishing in spite of our age. When people come to set and see all of our equipment or see the final result of the film, many times they tell me: “it looks like an actual movie!” This reaction is very typical. They say this in an appreciative manner, but I laugh in my head because of how much people underestimate young people when we work on a project we are passionate about accomplishing. When my friends and I say we are filmmakers, some people underestimate what we are capable of achieving. It’s not their fault and I don’t blame them, but as a young creative person, it’s something to be aware of. I continue to believe in the importance of showing people what you’ve achieved and what you’re proud of in order to give them the opportunity to try and understand your work and your accomplishments, regardless of age.
— Marieta Caballero is a film director, writer, and producer who was born and raised in Madrid, Spain. For the past six years, she’s been exploring the world of filmmaking. She is currently based in Madrid working at her own production company. (www.talkoofilms.com)