Tips For Your First Time Being an Extra on Set

This post is for anyone who’s going to be an extra (also called “background”) on a TV or film set for the first time. It’ll tell you what to expect, how to prepare, and what to do and not do while working on set.

I’ve been an extra many times (it’s how I first got started). Here’s some tips, advice, and insights from my own experience, doing background work in Los Angeles:

  1. If they ask for wardrobe options, bring 4-5 shirts and maybe 2-3 pants. Pick different styles and colors. Make sure there’s no logos, images, or artwork on them. Nothing that could potentially be a trademark or copyright issue. Usually a regular pair of shoes is fine (as long as they don’t show a big logo and/or stand out with bright colors or something). Never hurts to bring a second option though. The costume people will LOVE you for bringing “too many” options — but at the same time, remember, you gotta bring *everything* with you to “holding” (more on that below), and there’s probably limited space. So, generally, 3-5 shirt/pants options is great.

  2. “Holding” is this space they have all the extras wait, when they’re not needed on set. It may be nearby where they’re filming, or it could be far away. Holding will be your second home. You will either be on set, in holding, or in the bathroom — NEVER go wandering off anywhere else, ever.

  3. If you have to go to the bathroom, let a Production Assistant (“PA”) or your Assistant Director (“AD”) know first. If one of them isn’t around, then let a few other extras know in case the PA or AD comes looking for you to call you to set. On a film set, you’ll learn they’ve got special codes and nicknames for everything. A bathroom break is called a “10-1”. That means you’re taking a quick pee and should be back in a couple minutes. (And you guessed it, #2 is a “10-2”, but try to avoid that on set if possible. It happens, we’re all human — but, if you gotta, just be quick about it.)

  4. Always be aware of your volume. While you’re in holding, you’ll probably have other extras to talk with. Sometimes it’s easy to not realize how loud you’re getting. If you’re anywhere near set, you may hearing them yell “quiet on set” or a PA may come and tell you to be quiet. If that happens, just SHUT UP, be quiet, and whisper “sorry.” That’s all you need to do. They don’t need big apologies or explanations or anything. They just need it quiet so they can get the shot. If it happens, don’t feel bad. Again, we’re all human. Just be careful to keep the volume down thereafter.

  5. You may be in holding all day — or barely ever at all. I’ve literally spent an entire 12 hour day on set and NEVER left holding. You get paid whether you get seen on camera or not. So that’s cool! But it also kinda balances things — because some days, you’re on set ALL DAY, running around and yelling and doing high energy things. Those days are exhausting. So if you get a day where you can relax in holding for several straight hours… ENJOY and APPRECIATE that!

  6. You may want to bring a book to read. Lots of experienced extras do. If you want to listen to music or play games on your phone, use earbuds — but make sure you can also easily hear the PA or AD if they call for you.

  7. NEVER EVER take a nap. Ever. You’re there to work. Some days it may be slow and boring. You may be tired because of a super early call time or you’re in a dark quiet room or whatever… Some days, honestly, the most difficult thing about being an extra is staying awake.

  8. When they call you, be ready to drop whatever you’re doing (reading, playing a game, etc) and jump to your feet, ready to go to work. They may call for you specifically, or they may call for your “category.” So the PA or AD may say, “Okay, I need all of Group C” or “Police officers, detectives, office workers, you’re up!” Know your category and be ready for whenever they call for it.

  9. The PA or AD will then escort you to set. They will tell you where to stand or sit. They will tell you, “on action, walk over there” or some other instruction. There will probably be a rehearsal, but not always. Either way, don’t be nervous. You’re literally part of the “background” to help bring the scene to life, but all the focus will be on the “principal” (speaking) actors. (Unless, of course, you’re “featured”; more on that next.) Your only job is to look as natural and human as possible, without making ANY noise at all (even if you’re “talking” with another extra in your scene; always do pantomime, always stay quiet). Just don’t look into the camera and you’ll probably be fine. 🙂

  10. If you are “featured”, that means you’re still a non-speaking extra, but the camera will focus on you for a bit. Usually they ask for volunteers to be featured. If you’re nervous and/or just prefer to disappear into the crowd, then don’t volunteer. But sometimes the PA or AD will request you specifically. (It could be your look, wardrobe, the right height, any number of reasons.) If you’re REALLY super nervous and uncomfortable, tell them that. They’ll either help you relax or find somebody else who does feel ready. But remember: it’s film. If you or anybody messes something up, they’ll just cut and try again for another take. It’s totally common to feel nervous and excited the first time you’re on set. But we’re all here just to tell a story and we get multiple chances to get it right. So relax, have fun, enjoy yourself.

  11. Unless a PA or AD tells you to change what you’re doing, KEEP DOING whatever you’re doing, take after take. It’s common to feel tempted to ask, “Did I do it right? Want me to try anything different?” But you should always assume, if you get no notes/instructions to change anything, then they like what you’re doing and you should keep doing the same thing each take. However, sometimes (often) they will tell you to make changes and adjustments. That doesn’t mean you did anything wrong, either. It could just be the director didn’t like the timing of something or how it looked in camera. In fact, EXPECT there to be changes. They are super common on a film set. Always listen to and do whatever your PA or AD tells you to do. It’s never hard or complicated. It’s usually “pretend to be talking to that person” or “walk from here to there” or “pretend to be working at this computer”.

  12. Extras come in all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. Some have a lot of experience. Some have little or none. Some talk a big game about how important and special they are, how they acted across from some celebrity, how they’re working on some big indie film project of their own, they’re gonna be a star someday, etc, etc… Other extras more or less keep to themselves, stay quiet in holding, and do their job on set with no fuss or issues. It’s those latter types you want to be like. THOSE are the professionals. They’re there to work. Not to network, try to get “upgraded” to a speaking role, have their face seen on camera, or anything else. They’re there to be an extra, period — and do whatever the PA or AD tells them to do when the cameras are rolling.

  13. Never, ever, EVER complain. For some reason, extras are notorious for bitching, whining, and complaining about EVERYTHING. Oh my God. PLEASE don’t be one of them. “It’s too cold, it’s too hot, I had to wake up too early to get here, the craft services suck, there’s no craft services, when’s lunch, when are we gonna wrap???” … You may think nobody’s listening, but trust me, there is a PA or AD (or other crew person) nearby… and they hear EVERYTHING. Being an extra is one of the EASIEST jobs IN THE WORLD! You literally get paid to sit, eat free food, and talk with your friends sometimes. You get to be on movie and TV sets. Work side by side with major celebrities sometimes. Wear fun cool costumes sometimes. You get paid to look pretty and walk past a camera when the director calls action. That’s your job. APPRECIATE it. Be grateful. There are millions of people who would do anything to be where you are right now.

  14. Don’t talk to principal actors unless they initiate a conversation with you first. Remember, they’re there to work too, and they’ve got a ton of lines to deliver, emotions to emote, and carry the success of the film partly on their backs. Some principal actors like to stay focused and go straight to work. Others may stop by and say hello to the extras. If a principal actor starts talking with you, never ask for an autograph or selfie, or fan-gush all over them, or anything like that. You’re both on the same film set. You’re both film professionals now. See them as a co-worker. But let them lead the conversation, and as soon as they want/need to go, let them go.

  15. Do not take pictures on set, unless you get permission from the AD first. Most professional sets have a strict “no photos” policy. But some of the small to medium size ones might allow it, but always get permission first. If you absolutely must take a photo of yourself in costume, then do it in holding against a neutral, blank background… and do not post it to social media until AFTER the show/film has released. Even if your privacy is set to “friends only” or something — once something’s on the internet, it has a life of its own and sometimes gets shared by well-meaning people who are just happy, excited for, and proud of you… and then someone from the film production office somehow discovers you just “leaked” something about their movie, and you can get into trouble. Never, ever take photos that include the actual film set or any other actors in the production. Unless, of course, you get everyone’s permission first.

  16. If you don’t know or understand something, or aren’t sure what to do, JUST ASK a PA or AD. They’d rather you pause for a minute to understand what they mean or how to do what they want, than for cameras to start rolling and then have you do it completely wrong. No one gets upset when someone asks for clarification.

  17. When cameras start rolling, extras usually start moving before “action” is called. Extras begin their action when you hear the AD say “background”. Then “action” is called for the principal actors to begin. There’s a whole list of things they say before the scene actually happens. You’ll hear “picture’s up!” and “roll sound” and “sound speeds” and “roll camera” followed by “rolling”. Usually all the PAs will yell, “rolling, rolling!” Including ones on a radio, far away from the actual set. So no matter where you are (in holding, on set, hair & make-up department, etc), everybody knows when the cameras are rolling and they’re going for a take. Then they’ll say “background” followed by “action”. Stay in character until you hear “cut!”

  18. Now let’s talk about food. Usually nearby holding will be the “craft services” table, which includes an assortment of snacks and drinks. There’s usually water bottles and soda, fresh fruit, granola bars, chips, coffee, tea, bagels… It really depends on the day and production, but those are some common staples. If you’re not needed momentarily on set, those snacks are there for you to enjoy too. Craft services are for everyone, so obviously, take what you want but leave plenty to share with others. That food is meant to help keep your energy and morale up, because some days get LOOOOOOONG and exhausting. On really big shoots, there may be separate craft services — one for the union extras and film crew, and one for all the non-union extras. Never complain. (See #13.) It’s still free food.

  19. For actual meals (breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner as the case may be), extras eat LAST. The crew works much harder and longer hours than you do. They also have to rush back to set first. So let the crew and principal actors be first in line to get their meal. There is always plenty of food. Usually food goes to waste and gets thrown out. So no worries. Just be patient. You may be tired and hungry. So is everyone else. Extras are at the end of the food line. That’s just how it goes. (But if it makes you feel any better, the PAs actually eat after you — and they are usually the first to arrive on set and the last to leave after a long day too. PAs are so under appreciated… but it’s the entry job that opens up doors to all the better crew positions.)

  20. Be on time or early. If your call time is 6:00 AM, then be there by 5:30 to 5:45 AM… You don’t know what the parking situation is gonna be like. You might get lost trying to find the place. There could be a long line from all the other extras and crew members arriving at the same time. It’s better to be an hour early than 5 minutes late. Unfortunately, you only get paid starting at your actual call time, not whenever you first arrive. If you get there early, the PAs will appreciate and respect you, and tell you just to wait until they’re ready to start checking people in.

  21. When you check in, you’ll receive a “voucher” — it’s a piece of paper that logs your hours and tells the payroll company who to send the paycheck to. Hang onto it, don’t lose it. When you’re wrapped, the PA will sign you out and record your actual, final total hours. You’ll keep a carbon copy of your voucher for your records. You should receive your check in the mail in 1-2 weeks, usually. Your voucher is proof that you were there and how much money you earned. You get a new voucher for each day you work on set.

  22. Expect to work 12+ hours. Much of that time could be spent in holding, talking with other extras, eating free food, playing games on your phone… But it’s very common to be there for 12 or more hours. But usually not more than 16. After 16 hours, it starts getting REALLY expensive for the production. The union actors and crew members start what’s called “golden time” — they get paid a full day rate for every hour they work past that. So needless to say, production companies don’t like paying that if it can be avoided. But 12-15 hour days are fairly common. Sometimes, however, you may only work 3-4 hours. It’s super rare, but it does happen. I don’t know where you’re filming, but on professional productions in Los Angeles, they guarantee you’ll make 8 hours worth of wages, no matter what. So even if they send you home after 4 hours, you still get paid for a full 8 hour shift! (Again, another reason never to complain about this job!) But… they’ll only send you home early if they’re absolutely sure they won’t need you anymore. Often, they’ll be “done” with you after a few hours, but keep you around “just in case.” And then right before you’re about to go into overtime, somebody will come and say, “okay, you’re wrapped!”

Okay, I know I threw A LOT of information at you. And every production works slightly differently. But this will give you a good idea of what to expect, how things work, and proper protocol as an extra.

Personally, I loved being an extra for quite a while. It’s super fun. Eventually I grew into principal roles and only do those now. But background acting will always hold a special place in my heart and memory. I’m grateful for the experience. If you think you may want to become a principal actor or part of the film crew someday, take this opportunity as an extra to observe and learn as much as you can.

Just stay quiet, out of the way, and ready to work whenever you’re called. You’ll do great! Just relax, have fun, and be a part of the movie magic!

Welcome to the industry! 🙂