ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT BACKGROUND WORK
Doing Background work can be intimidating for your first time, so we've provided some general rules on set along with some tips for your first few days doing background.
WHAT DOES THE JOB ENTAIL?
Essentially, your job is to be on time, and ready on set for whenever the AD's (assistant directors) need you. You will be on camera mostly doing the main three directives: standing, walking and sitting. Talking is mimed (you can mouth lyrics to a song you know, or the months of the year as an example). You will be getting directions from the Assistant Directors on what to do on each take.
DO I NEED ACTING EXPERIENCE?
No, but some minor acting may be asked of you. Like looking at the sky in awe as if you're seeing a UFO. Screaming at a monster. Cheering at a sporting event. Laughing at a movie. Etc.
WHEN AND WHERE DO I HAVE TO BE ON SET?
This can be a frustrating part about the industry. Calltimes (the time you have to arrive on set) and locations sometimes do not go out until very late the night before you are booked. Sometimes asking casting or your agent will give you an idea. Productions are required to let talent know if the shoot is overnight. Minors have to be given 72 hours notice for any calltimes after 7PM. If you have not received a callsheet or calltime by 9PM, I suggest checking your junk mail, or checking in with your agent or casting. Most of the time, calltimes are not known upon booking.
HOW DO I KNOW WHEN WE WRAP?
You won't until the day. So many things can go wrong and delay the shoot. You are expected to stay until the AD's call a wrap on background. Minors are the only ones who have to leave based on max hours on set. A good way to guess an approximate wrap time is 12 hours after the Unit Call (when most of the crew starts the day).
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I ARRIVE ON SET?
Usually, you'll go through a COVID screening, which may also entail a COVID test. After that, you will be directed to holding (where Background waits). There, you will be processed, which means going through Hair, Makeup, and Wardrobe. If production is giving you wardrobe, you have NO SAY as to what you are wearing. You have to wear what is provided. Refusing to wear anything can be grounds for immediate dismissal. People who need to wear undergarments or swimwear, are contracted specifically for these wardrobe requirements. Once you are processed, you wait until background is called. Then you go to set and have fun!
WHAT SHOULD I BRING?
The email you receive will let you know what kind of clothes you should bring. They should be clean and wrinkle free. On Non Union Shows, bringing as many options as possible is well regarded. On ACTRA shows, you should bring two changes. If wardrobe requires you to bring more, you get additional pay. Clothing should not have any logos on them (sneakers can be an exception). The emails will also usually indicate if you need to be hair and makeup ready, or if you will have your hair and makeup done on set. If the shoot is outdoors, multiple layers on cold days would be recommended. You should also bring your own face mask, although they are usually also provided on set.
There can be A LOT of down time. Bring anything you need to keep yourself distracted like books, video games, laptops, headphones, all your chargers. DO NOT bring anything that makes noise like a guitar, or children's toys.
Craft services (the snacks available on set) aren't always available for background, or won't be the best selection. Best to always bring some snacks and a water bottle for the day.
If you have any medical concerns that would require immediate attention, such as Epipens or medications, you can let the crew know where they can find it in case of an emergency.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENT BETWEEN UNION AND NON UNION?
Productions are either an ACTRA signatory, or they are not. On an ACTRA production, the union requires a minimum number of background per day to be Union members. On Commercials, all background must be a union members. (exceptions can be made for children, special skills, or difficult demographics to find). Non Union productions are not allowed to engage union members at all.
WHEN DO I GET PAID?
On ACTRA productions, all performers are required to be paid within the following 2 week pay period. On Non Union productions, industry standard is within 30 days.
WHAT IS PROPER ETIQUETTE ON SET?
- Any kind of harassment is not permitted and is the easiest way to get fired immediately, blacklisted from casting directors, and dropped from your agent. This includes any kind of racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism or sexual harassment. Sets are professional places of business. Do not be trying to pick anyone up.
- Phones must be on silent at all times. Do not make any calls on speakerphone. Phones should be left in your bag in holding while you're on set and either turned off or left on silent.
- No chewing gum when you're on set.
- Listen attentively to what the AD's say to you.
- Do not engage with the Cast, unless they engage with you first.
- Do not introduce yourself to crew members who are not directly connected to background, this includes the director, producers, writers, etc.
- Never leave the holding area unless it's to use the washroom, or to be be processed in another room (wardrobe, makeup, etc). The assistant directors should ALWAYS be able to find you.
- Many sets are still following all of the Section 21 Ontario Labour Laws for COVID, which means all talent must have a mask on at all times except when eating, going through Makeup, and on camera. Being asked multiple times to put your mask back on can be grounds for dismissal, or not being asked back to set.
- Do not wear cologne/perfume.
- Be freshly showered. Avoid biking to set on hot days (makeup and wardrobe will not be pleased if you arrive sweaty).
- Don't bring any smelly food.
- Respect people's space. If follow background actors have headphones in, they probably don't want to talk.
- Remember it's a place of business and language should always be appropriate, especially if there are children on set.
- Follow all COVID compliance regulations on set.
- You must be open to anything that is happening on set, as background aren't given scripts, or sometimes even the official name of the production. With the exception of any nudity or sex, you must participate in the scene. For scenes with nudity or sex (including strip club scenes, etc) background must be notified upon booking what kind of scene it is so you can turn the work down rather than say you won't do the scene upon arrival.
MY CHILD IS BOOKED FOR BACKGROUND WORK. WHAT SHOULD I KNOW?
There are many rules in ACTRA and also laws from the Ontario Labour Board that must be followed. This includes rules about max hours on set, breaks while on set, tutoring hours, etc.
Here is a link to the Ontario Labour Board laws for minors. For the FULL ACTRA agreements, CLICK HERE.
The main things you should know on all productions are:
- Children under 12 can only work 8 hours plus lunch. 12-15 year olds can work 10 hours plus lunch. 16-17 year old can work 12 hours plus lunch.
- One parent, guardian or designate chaperone must be with everyone 15 and under. 16-17 year-olds don't require an on-set guardian, but may have one.
- If parent/legal guardian can't be on set, they can assign a chaperone. A letter must be with the chaperone on set at all times. Chaperones must be at least 18 years old, and not employed by the production.
- Children must have 12 hours between wrapping and the calltime for the next day. Children can only work 5 days in a row, and 5 days between a Sunday-Saturday week.
- Tutoring is not mandatory on Non Union Productions. On ACTRA productions, children over 6 must be tutored if losing 2 days or more on the same week, or 5 days or more total on a single production.
TERMS YOU SHOULD KNOW
ACTRA: The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists. This is the English Speaking union for all screen actors in Canada. UDA (Union des Artistes) is the French Speaking union.
AABP: Additional ACTRA Background Performer. This allows the talent to work on ACTRA commercials and Low Budget Productions, that Non Union performers can't.
AD: Assistant Director. These will be numbered like 1st AD, 2nd AD, 3rd AD, and even sometimes 2nd 2nd AD. The assistant directors help get all the departments on the same page to get through the shooting schedule on time. On small productions, there might only be a 1st AD who will usually be in charge of background. On most productions, a 2nd AD or a 3rd AD will be in charge of background.
AGENT: A talent agent represent actors for Principal work. A BG agent represents talent for background work. They are contacted by background casting directors with "orders" of what is required. They take commission from your payment.
BACK TO ONES: It means to go back to your starting position. This will be announced after each take. If you travelled or had a "cross", it means to go back to wherever you were told to start before "action" is called.
BLOCKING: A term for where all cast and background are at the start of the scene, and all the traveling done throughout the scene that must be done exactly the same for each take.
CALLSHEET: A sheet with all the required information for the day. This is normally distributed by one of the AD's or the Production Coordinator. Background doesn't always get the callsheet, rather only your calltime, location, and wardrobe notes.
CALLTIME: The exact time you're expected to show up. Sometimes on the callsheet, BG will have a HMW TIME. Always arrive for the earliest time next to background, or your specific name.
CASTING DIRECTOR: Most productions will have a casting director who casts all the principals and actors, and a Background Casting Director who books all of the background performers through various agencies, and through their own contacts. They work for production and get paid directly by production.
CCO: COVIC Compliance Officer.
COUNT: The minimum number of ACTRA background required per day on a production.
CRAFT or CRAFTY: are the snacks, coffee, and water available to cast, crew and background throughout the shoot.
CROSSES: The Assistant Directors will give "crosses" to background who are not seated or standing. This just means where you walk to during the scene and when. The AD might ask you to count to 5 once action is called to start traveling. Or they might ask for you to wait for a specific cue like an actor saying a line, before you start your cross.
EYES ON: Radio jargon for "does anyone see"? For example, "Does anyone have eyes on Makeup?" means "Does anyone see Makeup?" (likely because they are not responding on radio)
HMW: Hair, Makeup and Wardrobe.
HOLDING: Holding is whenever people are to wait until they are called to set. Cast and Background usually have separate holding areas.
OVERTIME: On ACTRA productions, this is anything over 8 hours of work.
PC: Production Coordinator. Sometimes the PC will be sending out the callsheets and can be the main contact for background.
PM: Production Manager. Is usually the one in charge of processing payments for performers and crew.
PROCESSING/PROCESSED: It means you have gone through all the background departments. Hair, Makeup, Wardrobe, and COVID testing.
SSE: Special Skills Extra. The term BG is now preferred over Extras, but this acronym has remained. On ACTRA productions, there is a higher pay. This includes everything from driving a car, to horseback riding. On Non Union shows, it is up to production to establish rates between regular background, and SSE (if any). Don't ever lie about your specials skills in order to book a job or try to get upgraded.
STAND-IN: A background performer who literally stands in for a cast member to help crew with blocking, lighting, etc. This person is usually cast to look as much as possible as the actors they are standing in for (height, hair, weight, etc). This is a higher payscale on ACTRA productions.
SUBS: SUBS are short for Substantial Snack. On some sets, background will be offered SUBS. Which is a more filling snack that what's usually available.
TRAVELING: Any movement done during the scene. This includes walking, running, biking, etc.
UNIT CALL: The time on the callsheet when most of the crew must be on set. Do not take this call as your calltime. On a callsheet, there will be a line specifically for background.
UPGRADE: This means someone who was booked as background, is upgraded to a higher pay background, or an actor role. Getting upgraded to SSE, means you get the SSE rate. Getting asked to say a distinctive line that is not part of a crowd, gets you upgraded to Actor. Partial nudity, dudity, kissing other BG actors, are also upgrades. On Non Union Shows, these distinctions aren't as clear.
VOUCHER: On ACTRA productions, you must fill out a voucher after each shoot. A green voucher is for all ACTRA members, or Non Union talent who are filling in an ACTRA spot. White vouchers are for Non Union talent on an ACTRA show. The voucher says how many hours you worked, including travel time. This is what accounting uses to pay you. Non Union productions don't have a voucher system, but will in some way, confirm your hours on set.
WARDROBE CALL: On shows where a lot of background must wear specific costume, there may be a wardrobe call day. On ACTRA shows, you much be paid a minimum of 2 hours. Non Union shows will negotiate their rate.
WRANGLER: Someone who is charge of specific cast members, or background as a whole. They make sure everyone is processed and where they need to be. These are common on shows with a large number of background, and when holding and set are far apart.
WHAT'S YOUR 20: Radio jargon for "where are you?"