Life as a Supporting Artist - Part 1
...what is it really like?
As I mentioned in my previous blog post where I talked about the skill sets or “soft skills” learnt over the years, I briefly touched upon the subject of my time working as a Supporting Artist within the Film & TV industry.
I'm going to go into a little more detail about what an SA or Supporting Artist is and discuss the roundabout route I took getting into the job.
It’s worth me saying right here and now that the glamour of movie production, the magical allure is starkly different from the actual process of filmmaking. For those working in the industry, it is a special calling. You certainly need to cultivate a sense of patience and get used to waiting around, a lot, if you're going to last.
The term Supporting Artist is also known to many as a film extra, although now there have been changes to give the role recognition as there is often more to it than just loitering in the background. The title Supporting Artist is now more widely used by people in the industry. There are other labels used such as background, background artist, or simply, crowd.
My very first booking as a supporting artist was back in 2001 for my friend Tim Plester, who had written and acted in his first short film called Ant Muzak.
I was more than delighted to be a part of the project and found a great sense of fun and pride in his achievement. He went on to create a trilogy of comedy homages. These short films were made with Director Ben Gregor. After music-spoof Ant Muzak came sci-fi spoof Blakes Junction Seven, culminating in the sports-spoof World of Wrestling. I'll save this for a future blog post.
At the time I was working as a self-employed web designer and tech geek who loved comic books, coffee and movies and after freelancing in the IT game for 20+ years I really felt like I needed a change.
So after I had completely changed my business and began selling vegan cheese at food markets, I noticed a Facebook post from a casting agency looking for extras to be part of the Queen biopic of Freddie Mercury, Bohemian Rhapsody.
Like a lot of people, I am a Queen fan! Brian May and his unique sound was a big factor in me wanting to learn to play the guitar.
I met Brian May at a Stereoscopic Society meeting. I was a fan and still am of 3D or stereo photography and I remember when he had launched a book exploring vintage stereo images of a mysterious village by photographer, T. R. Williams. One of the organisers from the Stereoscopic Society, knew him personally, having taken 3D images of the band on tour during the 80s arranged for a 3D picture to be taken of us. One of my fanboy moments.
So having seen a casting agency post asking for extras to be in the new Queen film I was hooked, the thing was I dithered about for over 2 weeks, stalling as I went through the very lengthy signup. The process involved lots of information, measurements, photos and skills and as a result of my procrastination, I missed the deadline, (I didn't know that until much later, as they all use codenames for big film productions) on the other hand, I booked my very first job with the agency within a few weeks.
All I knew, to begin with, was that it was a 70s era film. It turned out to be the movie Mama Mia 2, a location at one of the colleges in Oxford. For my first job and time on a big film set I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, I was a total newbie and getting to watch a musical number unfold and getting to learn the ropes at the same time proved to be a great primer for how life on a larger film set functioned.
There is a certain mystique about film and TV productions that fascinates people, myself included. If you had told me when I was a child, that I would be stood in the same studios that created epic movies like Star Wars, the Bond films, or even the beloved classic Ealing comedies, I just wouldn't have believed you.
Starting out was slow and it was some months after the Mama Mia 2 production before I was on set again. It can get quite depressing when you don't get selected for jobs. The next job I was booked in for was months in advance, Feb the following year and it turned out to be for the new ITV show "Strangers" in which I was cast with a group of young South Asians. We were all playing refugees, it was a tiny set cramming 14 of us inside. There was a lot of camaraderie between us by the end of the day.
It's very different going from TV to Hollywood blockbuster, massive crowd days like my experience on Maleficent 2.
Over 400 supporting artists in a massive fantasy town built on the backlot of Pinewood Studios, wearing the most amazing medieval costumes. You were literally stepping into another world.
The logistics alone in how something of that scale is created boggles the mind. However, every time I go onto a film set I'm struck with awe and curiosity at how each department plays its very specific role towards achieving the end result of what we see on the big or small screen.
As a child, when Eastenders first aired on television, it was a brand new soap. There was a weirdly familiar, sacred and somewhat nostalgic feeling the first time I stepped onto the TV set at Elstree Studios. I remembered Albert Square from back when I was an 11yr old. Strange to be standing in the place where your memories as a child played out their dramas on TV.
I have to date worked on over 50 TV shows, feature films and commercials. On projects from studios such as:
- Apple TV+
- and small indie productions.
Aeronauts - The Beard Years
It seems that my beard, which wasn't something I had originally intended to grow but grow it I did (due to Maleficent 2). From that point on, I started to book jobs more frequently, and the roles kept coming in. So I kept growing my beard. I had a wonderful experience when filming on The Aeronauts (Watch On Amazon Prime).
The production had got permission to film in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, and we had the most amazing beard styling and costumes. Over 150 bearded guys playing "learned gentlemen" sat in a very prestigious place is just a glimpse you get when you're working on the other side of the screen.
Now if you know anything about me, you may know that I'm very interested in filmmaking however, I wasn't confident enough or aware that it was a path I could pursue until after I became a supporting artist. Before it was just an unobtainable dream. It would take me nearly a year working on and off film and TV sets before I would shift gears and go it alone.
I would have to say though, one of the most memorable experiences as a featured supporting artist, which basically means you are acting or placed in close vicinity of the main cast or have a small piece of dialogue or action on screen was on the award-winning film 1917, where I was one of three Sikh soldiers in the truck scene of the film.
That job entailed a physical audition, a self-tape followed by Boot Camp and training, which involved learning the history of World War I as well as learning how to handle and fire Lee Enfield rifle. The scene we were involved in required a degree of choreography, action and timing. My colleague and I were always rushed through costume and breakdown (this is where your outfit is distressed and dirtied up) to get to the front of the queue of soldiers waiting for their hair and makeup every day we shot just so we could be rushed up onto set (a couple of miles away) to then have our turbans applied in the very specific manner required.
There was something special in the air during the filming of this scene it's hard for me to describe in words what it felt like, but when you are not only in the presence of Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins but couple that with an authenticity surrounding you every day. A passion from the crew, attention to detail in costume, props, vehicles all added to an indescribable atmosphere.
Usually, the secrecy surrounding a high profile movie means you have a lot of NDA's (non-disclosure agreements) to sign and you have to keep quiet about what you know, what you've seen, so as not to spoil the magic for the audience waiting for a said movie or TV episode to air.
The mechanics of being an SA on set works like this
arrive at set (usually breakfast)
hair and makeup
Line up checks
when ready you hopefully travel to set (if on location or in a studio this can be different and you end up in a crowd holding area)
if lucky you get picked to go on set in a scene when ready.
I’m probably missing some steps out in that list!
The delineation of crew members you interact with vary, from Crowd PAs, runners, hair and makeup artists, Assistant directors (usually Crowd 3rd ADs) when you get on set you meet a different set of the crew that you've not seen most of the day and you get placed or dressed into the scene, sometimes given an action to perform or to move or cross from one position to another, you might gain a screen partner or child, animal in some cases. Or suddenly get asked if you can ride a bicycle (all possible).
For all the wonder, it is still a job, some novice SAs forget this. You have to be attentive, pay attention, be alert, have patience, follow directions and some acting abilities will go a long way. You never know when you are going to be placed front and centre with the cast, or are the starting point for the camera in a shot. It's great to be involved and be part of the magic of movies. I've learned much and am grateful for the experiences.