Photo courtesy Peggy Spitzner.

Ins and outs of a professional extra

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Working at home in front of a computer is comfortable and has many advantages. But sometimes it gets lonely and boring. Then I just need to get out and do something else.

When I moved to Leipzig to study here somebody told me about the filming being done in and around Leipzig. It is mainly the MDR studios that produce different TV series and movies here, but filming is also done by students or by other national and international production companies for the cinema, in some cases even for Hollywood. Not only is Leipzig a very dynamic and young city but it is also rich in culture, nice architecture and beautiful scenery, which is perfect for any backdrop, even for the setup of historical films. The potential backgrounds are very diverse and the city is compact regarding travel distances – film teams can shoot in an empty road with deserted buildings and smashed-in windows right after filming inside or in front of an impressive baroque building or a hip street café, and then capture some nature in one of the many scenic parks.

Leipzig was called “Little Paris” by Goethe, and the fact that this is not just a nickname is confirmed by the recent filming of a historic movie here, pretending the streets of modern Leipzig were the busy streets of the French capital back in 1900.

But for me it all started when I signed up with one of the agencies constantly looking for extras to bring the plots to life.

Without extras, almost every film would be lifeless and less authentic, except maybe the ones with dinosaurs or those boring ones about two people having a long conversation in just one room. One day I saw that they were looking for backgrounds for the most famous hospital TV series in Germany, called “In aller Freundschaft”, which is also my granny’s favourite TV show. In the last three years I have been on TV more often than I have watched it, as I do not even have one at home. This way, besides experiencing a refreshing change in my daily grind, I gain some extra money, experience and friendships, while keeping my granny happy when she sees her granddaughter arresting one of the doctors or pushing a wheelchair as a nurse.

As the British TV series “Extras” captured in a funny and slightly exaggerated way, the life of an extra is not always an easy one. You are literally at the bottom of the food chain here, and there are certain rules you must obey in order to please the team, the actors and the producer, and to be booked again:

1. Resilience: Never complain about your unfavourable outfit or the torturing high heels that you have been wearing in the wrong size for 14 hours five days in a row or the freezing fake rain or the early start or the late end or the air temperature or the food or the missing travel compensation in front of any team member… just suck it up! Also, even after hours and hours of standing in the same spot and taking one step forward and one step back a hundred times, never sit in any chair or on any box; you’d better find out beforehand if your desired resting place is the producer’s chair or expensive camera equipment before you put down your tired behind. Also, never change your costume in any way, even if you are a little bit cold after 147 takes in your summer dress in minus two degrees Celsius.

Peggy also gets to play a patient in productions, and make her grandma happy appearing in a medical TV show, even if very briefly. Photo by P. Spitzner.
Photo courtesy of Peggy Spitzner.

2. Compliance: Never ever do anything you were not told to do, like starting to walk before your cue or talking when there is supposed to be silence or making grimaces or staring right into the camera. If a team member screams at you, try to merge with the background immediately and follow all orders for the rest of the day. If you do not understand the orders because there were none or you were forgotten, just do anything. When asked what the hell you think you are doing there, just say that another member of the team told you to do this. They never have time to investigate.

3. Etiquette: If you are new to being a background and could not sleep the night before your big appearance and cannot wait to tell everybody that you have been on TV, do not push yourself to the foreground in order to be in line with the camera all the time. You will be taken out of the shot or, even worse, be told off in front of the team and laughed at by the old hands in the extra group, and that hurts even more than discovering the disillusioning truth of life as an extra. Even if you have been an extra for a very long time, do not bother your fellows with a recital of every movie you have been in and every actor you met and every line you were allowed to say, just pick the best stories for the next long waiting period. Especially as a newbie, do not freak out if you see a famous actor. Do not scream or run up to him and ask him for photos or autographs. Even if it is a very hot one, do not shorten your skirt length in secret or blink in a supposedly sexy way or play with your hair while the camera is running, except if you were told to do so. While on set, do not take pictures so the team can see it. Most extras have developed extraordinary techniques to capture a moment of glory as a trophy to show off and for the grannies, so it is easier for them to spot their grandchildren on TV later.

Make sure you don't eat or drink what you're not allowed to on the set. Photo courtesy of P. Spitzner.
Make sure you don’t eat or drink what you’re not allowed to on the set. Photo courtesy of P. Spitzner.

4. Eating and drinking: The worst offense, though, is if you take what is not yours, especially if it is food. Never have food or drinks used in the scenes; it has to look exactly the same in the next take, which will undoubtedly come. If you are allowed to drink the fake bubbly for once, make sure you have a bottle of real bubbly to replace it accordingly. Even if there is no bubbly in the scenes, you should always have a bottle at hand. Although humans usually go for the food that looks best, as an extra, always do the opposite: Go to the table or truck with the worst food, as this is the one for your lot. You’d better be happy if there is coffee, because you will need it after yesterday’s 15-hour day at the set or the hangover from the party last night. Be happy if it looks somewhat authentic, and do not even expect it to taste like real coffee. If in doubt, go with water, if there is some. With food always be quick! Find out who the responsible team member is as soon as possible and keep an eye on them. When they get instructions and turn around, choose the perfect position for the attack and as soon as they come back and the foil is lifted from the tray, jump in and get more than one snack, especially if you are vegetarian. In this case you might have to go with either nothing or just buttered bread anyway.

5. Stealth: If it is not your turn and you were put to the side, always move carefully and silently like a cat after the magic words “Leise, wir drehen!” have been spoken. There is nothing worse than silence during a shot and you knocking over the lamp after stumbling over a cable. If you are bored, do not use props to kill time, as this could end in similarly embarrassing situations.

But rest assured, there are always people on the set who are worse off than you are, for example the car-park people, who sometimes stand in one spot for 10 hours waiting for at least one car to go the wrong way so they can tell them to fuck off, or the make-up people, who sometimes have to do things like pubic hair checks and if necessary customize wigs for these private areas. Not every movie has hot actors and extras! Or the poor guys who have to represent imaginary moving objects like horses or cars for hours, while running to and fro with a flag for the extras to look their way.

The good side is the extra extra-family – the locations, costumes, teams, producers and actors change, but the family stays more or less the same. Every time you arrive at a set in the greater Leipzig area it is a happy greeting of old friend and an introduction to new friends, who are then looking forward to creating a whole new world together. If the team is in high spirits too, this can lead to a very special experience.

The plots are mostly everyday scenes and easy to play but sometimes you get to do a historical movie, or a science fiction film, and then it gets very exciting. This is in a way a dream come true for me, as I have always loved to dress up, go through my mum’s closet or choose the perfect costume for a theme party. As my friends know, I take the process very seriously and am a perfectionist. If the film set is nice and the costumes are genuine, it can feel like time travel. As an extra you add to the authenticity of the atmosphere and for this you have to use your imagination and go through with it.

Slipping into different roles is a little escape from reality and it gives you new perspectives on your actual life. I have already been a patient, a nurse, a policewoman, a mother, a rich horse-race visitor in the 1920s and today, a journalist, a pedestrian, a shop assistant, a woman in a café, an artist in 1900, a game show candidate and an airline passenger. Flexibility is the strength of us extras because we can be asked to be anyone and to do anything at any given moment during filming. We are like chameleons, we are very good at blending in and not drawing attention to ourselves, although it can be tough if you have not yet finished your first “coffee” or stumble over the cable and knock over the lamp.

What I also like about it is the social aspect of hanging around at a film set, which can make up for a lonely work life. The extra community in Leipzig/Halle consists of people of all ages, nationalities and ways of life. There also is off-set communication via Facebook groups and organised parties. At times the interactions within the scenes or during breaks become real friendships. Sometimes you even introduce yourself to people twice when you are talking to someone who has just returned from make-up after filming because you did not recognise them. And after all, you sometimes change spouses very quickly during filming.

You also get to know each other pretty well if you have seven hours of waiting time to exchange life stories. Then you can also catch up on the complaining you could not get off your chest in front of the team and finally showcase the highlights of your career as an extra, making it sound like one day you are going to be discovered as a real actor. This is probably also what your granny is convinced of… at least mine is.

By Peggy Spitzner

Peggy Spitzner is a locally-based translation and editing specialist, and is also actively involved in social causes.

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