Their job is to be invisible, blending into the background so as not to distract from the principal actors’ scenes while providing depth to each shot, bringing to life a restaurant or city street that otherwise would be eerily empty. Now, however, background performers could truly disappear.
Already threatened by the advancement in special effects that create computer-generate crowds, the background acting community is bracing for possible extinction in the wake of COVID-19.
Several lists of recommendations for safe sets amid the coronavirus shutdown have been released or leaked over the past couple of weeks from the Australian series Neighbours, Sweden and Denmark, Tyler Perry, Film Florida and Warner Bros TV among others. One thing they all have in common: virtually eliminating crowd scenes as well as greatly reducing the number of background performers or even replacing them with crew members already on the set.
The goal of all new guidelines is to limit the number of people on set to essential personnel. “That makes background actors among the most vulnerable groups,” says Rick Markman, a 20-plus-year veteran background actor and former chair of the Background Actors Education & Outreach sub-committee for SAG-AFTRA, L.A. Local.
While rarely talked about, background actors serve an important purpose, Markman contends. “It is the Background Actor that fills the stadiums for the sporting events and concerts, we eat in restaurants and coffee shops, we shop the retail stores, we attend weddings and funerals, we are the pedestrians on the sidewalks,” he says. “In short, Background Actors make up the crowd scenes that convey the reality of life to TV shows and feature films.”
Under recent safety recommendations released by the Film Florida trade association, productions are advised to “carefully consider the number of Extras required” and “Have enough space and tables and chairs for Extras holding areas to practice social distancing.”
Given the pre-coronavirus conditions for background actors working on movies or TV shows, it is clear why their numbers will likely be significantly reduced going forward.
“Until needed on set, Background Actors are kept in a ‘holding area’,” Markman says. “Many times these holding areas are equivalent to a ‘can of sardines’. It would be virtually impossible to impose 6-feet social distancing from each other under the conditions we worked pre-COVID-19.”
He and his colleagues have ideas for what can and should be done for them to be able to work safely when production resumes, but at this point they are leaving it to the unions, the film commissions and the studios.
While often referred to as “extras,” the term is considered offensive by many SAG-AFTRA background actors due to the fact they are professional actors like himself, Markman says, noting that many times the word “extra” is associated with background performers who are non-union.
Background actors could be SAG-AFTRA members, relying on the actors union for health insurance coverage, and non-union; Markman is a SAG-AFTRA member, and the looming drastic cuts of background performers on sets is worrisome for him amid the health crisis. “SAG-AFTRA Background Actors are dues-paying union members, and we must meet certain criteria based on our earnings to qualify for health coverage and pension credits,” he says. “If numbers are cut, many members will not be able make their health coverage and pension credits.”
Background actor and L.A. Local Board member Linda Harcharic echoes Markman’s fears.
“The biggest concerns we are hearing from the background community at this time are the inability to qualify for health coverage and pension credits when there is no work on which these benefits are based,” she says. “The SAG-AFTRA Health Plan’s slashing the premium in half for the April-June quarter was a big help, but what do members do going forward when no work assures they will not qualify for health or pension credits?”
Harcharic also calls on their union to provide more information and make changes to health and pension qualifications amid the pandemic-related production shutdowns.
“Members are frustrated that there is no information about this situation forthcoming from the SAG Pension Plan Trustees, the AFTRA Retirement Plan Trustees, the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan Trustees, nor our head elected or hired union leadership,” she says. “There’s a need for both health and pension qualification time extensions commensurate with the length of time that our work is down.”
Background actors work under several different contracts, each with different terms/conditions, most notably the AMPTP-SAG-AFTRA Codified Basic Agreement. Terms also vary based on where in the country the SAG-AFTRA signatory production is based.
In the West Coast zones (Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, Hawaii and Las Vegas), the first 21 background actor positions on a TV series and 57 on a feature film have to go to SAG-AFTRA members. If more background performers are needed, producers can go non-union. In the East Coast zones (which includes 300 air miles from the center of Columbus Circle in the City of New York) the minimum requirements are 25 SAG-AFTRA background performers on a TV show and 85 on a feature.
The rest of the country is comprised of either right-to-work states or simply has no union coverage for Background Actors (hot spots being Atlanta, New Orleans, Albuquerque and Chicago).
The number of background actors, or BG in industry parlance, on a production varies vastly. “I have worked projects where I was the only BG, and other projects with over 300 BG,” Markman says, noting that on the large calls, the union caps must be met before non-union actors can be hired.
While the current SAG-AFTRA collective bargaining agreement provides protection for union background performers to be hired first, “the subject of the survival of the background actor comes down to how producers will honor the contracts” amid COVID-19, Markman says.
“The question being asked is, will producers honor the SAG-AFTRA contract and hire SAG-AFTRA Background Actors in the covered zones, and will SAG-AFTRA enforce our contracts thus eliminating non-union Background Actors if the number of people (cast & crew) allowed on set are drastically cut?” he says. “If not, and producers are allowed to hire non-union, the SAG-AFTRA Background Actor may become obsolete. If producers do honor the SAG-AFTRA contracts, non-union Background Actors in union covered zones may become obsolete.”
“No matter what the new safety guidelines/protocol may be to resume filming, one thing is for certain, the role of the Background Actor will be dramatically changed forever.”
The current SAG-AFTRA contract expires June 30, and the union and studios are in discussions on a new pact. Background actors already had been worrying that the union background actor number guarantees may be negotiated down, adding to concerns they could soon become largely CGI-generated with the advances in VFX technologies.
Now, in the face of COVID-19, background actors fear they could be purged from scripts as studios and producers have indicated over the past few weeks that scripts are being written — or rewritten — “to include the bare minimum of background performers, if any… eliminating BG and/or using CGI,” Markman says. “We are being written out of existence.”
Making a living as a background actor already had already become more challenging. “Many of us were able to make a great living as BG,” Markman says. “Many things have changed over the years, especially since the 2012 (SAG-AFTRA) merger. It is not easy to make a living doing BG anymore. If someone is lucky enough to become ‘core’ group on a TV show it is still possible (many of the core hospital staff on Gray’s Anatomy have been with the show since the beginning). I was fortunate to have been core on L.A. Law and Mad Men and a few other short-lived shows.”
Markman does not think employing crew members already on set as background actors is feasible.
“First and foremost, contractually, crew is not allowed to work as background actors. There are exceptions which require a waiver approved by SAG-AFTRA but will not take away from the contractual number of SAG-AFTRA BG,” he says.
Besides being in violation of the contract on a SAG-AFTRA signatory production, crew members doubling as background performers would be impractical, Markman believes.
“Using crew as BG is unproductive as they have enough work of their own to do. Imagine a lighting grip that is up on ladders adjusting hot lights and moving heavy equipment around the set wearing work attire, or the costumer with flaming pink hair and multiple tattoos. It just wouldn’t work,” he says. “Once set is ready for filming, crew would have to clean up and change into proper wardrobe for the scene being shot. A huge waste of time, resources and money.”
As for the use of visual effects, “CGI is fine for large stadium/crowd scenes (aka ‘A Cast of Thousands’) in a wide shot where spectators/crowds have little action and/or are not important to the story line,” Markman says. “If, however, there are principal actors in the stands or in the middle of a crowd, you would want real people behind them, not computer generated people whose actions are computer programmed. Same principle with restaurant-, shopping-, church-type scenes. CGI background would be computer programmed, so there would be no spontaneous reactions and/or movements which would look very unrealistic.”
That is why background actors are impossible to replace without hurting a film or TV show’s credibility, Markman thinks.
“Professional Background Actors are just that, professional actors…we just happen to be non-speaking, but we are, nonetheless, actors,” he says. “Many of us have actual stage training, take professional acting classes and have done principal work. We also bring a sense of reality to the project with the proper reactions that reflect the tone of what is being shot.”
Facing an uncertain future, Markman reminisces of his last gig just before Hollywood production ground to a halt in mid-March amid the fast-spreading coronavirus pandemic. It also could be his last acting job for quite a while.
“The week before the shutdown I worked on a very FX-heavy scene for a TV show over a four-day period,” he says. “The first day there were only nine BG as this was the close-up shots of the big FX scene. The following three days there were over 50 BG as cafe patrons, street pedestrians, shoppers — basically what one would see in a city environment. These types of scenes can become obsolete.”