Extras, extras, read all about it


For the umpteenth time that day, Mel Gibson in director mode called for ‘Quiet on set.’ Mel roared as only Braveheart could: ‘Shut the hell up!! I’m trying to make a film here!’

Many a good storyline in Ballykissangel was lost as we tried to look past the smouldering good looks of Colin Farrell to see the gnarled features of a neighbour.

Eight thousand extras were used in the making of Ben Hur.

 Comedian Ricky Gervais even made a successful TV series Extras featuring such well known stars such as Kate Winslett

Ben Kingsley in the hugely successful Gandhi. Director Richard Attenborough used over 300,000 extras for the funeral scene



Jim Rees says you may only need to go to Hollywood, Co Wicklow to appear on the silver screen

Cecil B. de Mille used 3,500 in his silent film version of The Ten Commandments. Eight thousand were used in the making of Ben Hur. But the record goes to the late Richard Attenborough who had over 300,000 of them in the funeral scene in Ghandi.

What am I talking about? Extras: those nameless men, women and children who turn up in large numbers to play their parts in everything from Hollywood blockbusters to regional soap operas and telly ads. Without them, many stories simply could not be told. They add the spectacle, impact, or just background ambience to a scene set in a country pub or church congregation. Without them, even the work of the most skilled directors and writers would seem contrived and fall flat.

The logistical problems must be a nightmare. How, for example, did Attenborough and his crew organise over a quarter of a million people to do what was needed of them? Anyone who has organised a bus tour knows the difficulties even a small group can create.

It’s not just the large scale aspects that need to be managed. The director and his helpers have to be constantly on the lookout for anything that will make nonsense of a scene. Take three background actors – the usual term for ‘extras’ in the trade, by the way – who are taking part in a film or television drama set in the 1930s. No matter how authentic the clothes and hairstyles, even the language, an exposed wrist sporting a digital watch, a mobile phone peeking out of a pocket, nose-studs, bits of metal through eyebrows and other obviously modern fads and fashions will immediately spoil the credibility of the scene.

Dressing a crowd in appropriate period costume can be a major task, depending on the numbers needed and the level of detail required. Marauding warriors in jeans and Reeboks just isn’t on, unless of course it’s for Love/Hate. Likewise, an acquaintance of mine was asked to grow his hair and a beard when he applied for a part in Vikings. He could have donned a wig and fake whiskers, but they preferred the real thing, as did my friend who wore his scruffiness as if it were an Oscar.

No wonder more and more film-makers are now looking for ways of creating crowd scenes without the crowds.

In a world that seems determined to replace human beings with machines, answering services and other embryonic robots, it will come as no surprise to learn that the film industry is increasingly using computer graphics to do away with the need for hordes of extras.

In 2002, James Hawes’ film for America’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Lawrence of Arabia – Battle for the Arab World needed as many skilled Arab horsemen and camel riders as they could get. All he could muster were 60 officers from the Royal Jordanian Camel Corps and Mounted Police. Impressive though these riders were, no one would be fooled into thinking they were a full army. Enter the ‘special techniques’ crew, who multiplied the five dozen into multitudes.

The good news is, while the technocrats and their gadgets are becoming more skilled by the day, they haven’t yet been able to do away with the need for humans completely. Extras, real extras – the ones with heart-beats and lived-in faces – are still required.

Let’s look closer to home.

County Wicklow has been described as the film-making centre of Ireland. Perhaps it is no coincidence that in the heart of the county is the village of Hollywood, named long before that upstart on the outskirts of Los Angeles was heard of. Just look at some of the films that have been made in the county in the past twenty years – Michael Collins, A Love Divided, Braveheart – and then there are television series such as Bracken, Glenroe, Ballykissangel and Vikings. So, how come the Garden of Ireland gets all this attention?

Well, one clue is in the nickname, ‘Garden of Ireland’. The natural beauty of the place is extremely cinematic. Also Ardmore Studios, where indoor sets can be erected and technicians have the facilities with which to create their magic, are based in Bray. Dublin airport is just an hour away, linking the most remote locations with major film centres not only in Ireland, but throughout the world. Game, set and match.

Because of this, it is not unusual to see film stars popping up in the county’s towns and villages, some even calling in for a quick pint. Over the decades James Cagney, Robert Mitchum, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Gabriel Byrne and a host of other top talents have been seen walking amongst the mere mortals of Wicklow.

Sometimes, the fact that locals are recruited for crowd scenes can spoil the viewers’ appreciation of the programme or film when it finally goes on air or is released in cinemas. It is not the star that cries out for our attention, it is the faces in the background, the ‘extras’. We want Gibson to move his head a little so we can get a glimpse of Johnny Byrne from down the road, kitted out in a dirty tartan and wielding a claymore. Many a good storyline in Ballykissangel was lost as we tried to look past the smouldering good looks of Colin Farrell to see the gnarled features of a neighbour.

So, how do you go about getting in on the act?

It all starts after an idea has been floated, locations found, backers and potential buyers identified, stars’ agents contacted, contracts agreed and signed, scripts written, and – the key role – someone has been hired to make sure that the kettle is never off the boil. Then, and only then, is it time to gather in the great unwashed, an especially apt phrase in a series such as Vikings!

As I mentioned, casting agencies are contacted, but you don’t have to be registered with an agency to try your luck. Announcements are also made in the local media, calling for all shapes and sizes to present themselves at a particular location at a particular time and date. Sometimes, it can be sheer serendipity.

When A Love Divided was being filmed in Rathdrum, a friend of mine drove his then teenage daughter to the location. This was in response to her constant pleading as she desperately wanted to be an extra. Pat, on the other hand, just wanted to have a look at what was going on. Unfortunately, by the time they got there, all the female teenagers required had been recruited. What they did need, however, were a few more middle-aged men. Never one to hide his light under a bushel, Pat jumped at the chance of being ‘3rd Bigot’ – at £100 a day. Originally booked for one day, it turned into fifteen, paying for a family holiday to Spain. He also managed to wring enough sympathy from the casting director on the last day of shooting to have his daughter included in a scene.

Another acquaintance of mine still tells of the day when he and Mel Gibson had a ‘cosy chat’ on the set of Braveheart.

He was a member of the FCA, then Ireland’s reserve army corps. You may remember that part of the package that attracted Mel & Co to make the film in Ireland was the agreement of the government to allow the use of the FCA for battle scenes.

Do you recall that scene where the blue-woad-dyed Scots were lined up and about to show that there really was nothing worn under their kilts? Well, it was that day – a day of idly waiting for hours for the next five-minute burst of frantic activity. It had been long hours of planning, debating, shooting, ‘cutting’, assessing and reshooting. Everyone was either a little fed up or completely fractious. Harry was the former, Mel Gibson the latter.


For the umpteenth time that day, Mel in director mode called for ‘Quiet on set.’ Harry, deep in conversation, didn’t hear him. Nor did he hear him the second or third time. Mel roared as only Braveheart could: ‘Shut the hell up!! I’m trying to make a film here!’ To this day, Harry speaks with pride about this spot of repartee between acting buddies.

A word of warning – it’s not all glamour. Extras do far more standing around than anything else. It can be tedious waiting for the next mad dash before relapsing into another hour of idleness. Nonetheless, many people who have done it are bitten by the bug and can’t wait to do it again.

Interested? Just google ‘movie extras’ or something along that line and you’ll see just how easy it is to get your toe in the door. As preparation for this article, I contacted the Irish company MovieExtras (http://www.movieextras.ie/info/index.html) for information regarding what is required. Now, as I write just two days later, my computer has pinged letting me know of the arrival of an e-mail informing me not only of projects they have been involved in recently but also what projects are in the pipeline for which extras will be needed.

Also check out www.facebook.com/LouiseKielyCasting and http://www.tv3.ie/entertainment_article.php?locID=1.803.813&article=142014 to see how extras have been recruited for TV3’s new soap Red Rock.

Now, it’s up to you. Who knows, maybe one day a famous director might roar at you before shouting ‘Action!’

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