Saturday, March 27, 2010

Latest Gig: Background P.A. on "Homework"

My latest gig is as background P.A. on a low-budget feature called "Homework" starring Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts among other note-worthies (not to be confused with several other films with the same title, I noticed).  I knew at least half the crew before we started and everyone's cool; the AD department is especially likable. As I write this, we're on Day 3 of 22 and I've been really hustling, making mistakes of course, but they're the learning variety and my supes have been impressed. 
(Picture: A prepared Background PA. I'm still in the learning stages,  I guess... )

One particular mistake that had me burning inspired me to make a system I'm sure will make the process easier and more efficient.  When you're dealing with a multitude of restless background players, who are for the most part just sitting around waiting to be called to set, chances are you will get crossed up at some point about who has done what, who is wearing what and who needs to do what.  After the twelfth hour, you're not going to remember this stuff in your head and mistakes will happen, which they did.  Fortunately, they were not critical mistakes, though I personally  thought they were.                                                                                  

As I sat and contemplated critically over seemingly critical mistakes, I came up with a simple solution: create a chart that will breakdown scenes, the number of the background player in that scene and what that player is wearing for that scene.  It's so simple, I'm sure there's a chart for this specific purpose already, but I'm going to make one for myself so I can keep my thoughts (and especially the thoughts of the 2nd AD) together.  So, I doubt I will be making this mistake again. 

What do Background PAs do, you ask? We process and organize background talent (extras) on behalf of the Assistant Director and his/her seconds, who set the players in various positions in the camera frame and give them quick directions on what to do.  At the beginning of the day, the background talent will come to me in a specific holding area, where I check them in off of a list called "skins" that has their name and assigned number. I give them releases to fill out and sign; these are for permission to use their images in the film for whatever purpose production has for them (i.e. exposition, marketing, etc.) at the agreed rate, which is always a set day rate. These releases must be filled out every day and kept organized for later use.

A member of the wardrobe department will come in and look over whatever clothing and sets of clothing (changes) the talent was told to bring that will give them an authentic look according to the description of scene; sometimes providing changes if they have the budget to do so.  After wardrobe approves, we all wait for the 2nd AD to call for stand-ins (extras who literally stand in for the principal talent on set during technical rehearsal), then selects the number of background talent he/she wants for the scene.  I will select whatever number is needed (a few to all) and escort them to set, then depending on the needs of the 2nd AD I usually stay to assist in placing and queuing background, and when the scene is completed I escort them all back to holding and organize for the next scene. 

What I've learned so far is that these changes occur quickly, and I have to keep up by knowing who is needed in the scene and in what type of outfit.  I have to keep the background talent informed and prepared for the needs of the scene, then hustle them on and off set as needed.  Again, this can be hectic and confusing without a system in place to organize them, so each player is assigned a number for accounting purposes, but it helps me organize the talent for my chart as well. 

At the end of the day, I sign out the background players on a sheet provided by accounting and pay them according to the designated rate. After that, I fill out a report that describes the number of background players as well as their in, out and meal times, not to mention a running tally of how many background have been used to date.  When all the paperwork has been processed, I take my leave, drive the electric department truck back to the lot and go home to sleep for a couple of hours and start again the next day.  Literally.

I've been a freelance PA for over four years, and I've been working in the film industry off and on since 1995 when I first interned as a locations assistant for the Hudson Valley Film & Video Office.  At the same time I was cast in my first starring role on a straight-to-video production called "Brothers" by the ancient Greek slave/writer Terence. I was a background player for two years on several big TV shows and feature films, and jumped to the other side of the camera after graduating from film school, going full time as a freelancer when I realized I was getting calls on a regular basis.  In all that time, I've worked in various departments, but I've never run background like I am now.  It has been a learning process indeed, but according to the 2nd AD and others, I've been a real asset, which was my intention from the start.  So I'll keep learning and growing with this experience, and hope to land similar work right after this; keep the streak alive and all. I've been hustling like crazy and I'm tired.  But it's a good tired.  >;)


xjam13x said...

Very neat!
Are you allowed to give us any plot details or anything along the lines of that? ;)

Chyll Will said...

Hee-hee... as I was walking the prado with Descamisado, someone asked him, "do you have ropa?" to which he responded quite like myself to you, saying "NOPE-A!" >;)

xjam13x said...

Haha, darn. :)