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HOW TO: Become a Background Performer in Toronto’s Film Industry

I have had a lot of people ask me about this topic in the past several months, so I thought I would lay it all out in this blog to give you the ins and outs of becoming a background performer in Toronto’s film industry. So here it is.

I have had a lot of people ask me about this topic in the past several months, so I thought I would lay it all out in this blog to give you the ins and outs of becoming a background performer in Toronto’s film industry. So here it is. I hope you find it helpful (And if so, please share).

OVERVIEW | SUBMITTING TO BACKGROUND AGENTS | THE BOOKING PROCESS | BEING ON SET | AFTER YOUR BOOKING | WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT TO BE PAID (UNION VS NON-UNION) | CATEGORIES OF BOOKINGS | A SMALL WORD OF WARNING | LIST OF BACKGROUND AGENTS IN TORONTO


OVERVIEW

When you watch a film or television show and the action takes place in a public setting, there is likely to be people moving in and around the environment in which the scene takes place. These are background performers (AKA extras), and they help create the world of the public atmosphere. It is a real job in the film industry and there are many people who make their entire incomes from bouncing from set to set doing whatever tasks in the background that are asked of them.

There is good money in being a background performer when the film industry is booming and in high demand (like Toronto is right now). However, this demand fluctuates throughout the year. Toronto’s busiest filming season is undoubtedly the summer and autumn months. It is during these months that an individual can generate a healthy living from background alone. Winter and spring tend to have less demand for background performers and thus the bookings become fewer and further between.

If you are thinking about becoming a background performer it is useful to become acquainted with what is currently in production. The ACTRA website provides a fairly up-to-date resource of what is filming in Toronto at any given time. That list can be found at: http://www.actratoronto.com/shooting/index.html

You’ll notice that ACTRA’s list of current productions is separated into categories. What you will be most interested in seeing are the categories: TV SERIES and FILMS. This is, of course, because these productions often require the use of background performers for their scenes filmed in public environments. The duties of the background performer are the same for both TV SERIES and FILMS. However, the distinction between the types is how long they are in production. The longer a production shoots, the longer the need for background performers exists. Films typically shoot anywhere between 4 and 8 weeks, depending on the budget of the project; TV series can shoot for upwards of several months if not more. Toronto has become somewhat of a “TV TOWN”, in that it has drawn many US network projects north of the border. This is a very good thing.

SUBMITTING TO BACKGROUND AGENTS

In order to start booking gigs as a background performer, you need to be represented by a background agent. A background agent is different from a principle agent and it should be noted that a background performer can be represented by as many background agents as they can find. I have included a list of background agents in Toronto to the end of this blog.

It is the job of the background agent to have as many individuals on their roster as they can in order to meet the high demands of the casting agents. Most agents’ rosters exceed several hundred individuals in which to contact. With this being said, it is easy to contact these agents and be added to their rosters as they are almost always looking to expand their human resource.

Submitting a request to be added to a background agent’s roster is quite simple; all detail the necessary steps for an individual to take on their respective websites. However, most typically the process is as follows:

1. Research the agent’s website for specific submission requirements. (Some provide explicit detail, others do not)

2. Contact the agent via phone, e-mail or in person (if they give their address and office hours). All methods of contact will lead to the same process: filling out a form with information including contact, sizes, ethnicity, special skills, etc., and giving them a recent photo (or having one taken by them).

    • If emailing: In the subject bar write “TALENT REGISTRATION” or something to that effect. In the body of the email say that you would like to be added to their roster and perhaps detail a bit of your experience in performance, but be brief. Attach your headshot (or recent photo) and resume to the email and send away.
    • If calling: Ask if they are currently expanding their roster (they almost always are) and if you can submit. When they say yes they will give you further details on how to proceed with the submission.
    • If in person: Bring a headshot and resume (just in case). Explain to the agent, or assistant that you will like to be a background performer. They will give you details on how to proceed with the submission.

3. All methods of contact will lead to the same process: filling out a form with information including contact, sizes, ethnicity, special skills, etc., and giving them a recent photo (or having one taken by them).

4. When all necessary paperwork and photos are submitted, stay tuned to your email and phone for calls, texts or emails from the background agent (this is where smart phones come in really handy). Calls for availability could come at any time. The faster you get back to them, the likelier you’ll be to book the gig they are calling you for. If they can’t reach you, they will move onto the next potential candidate.

THE BOOKING PROCESS

When a production needs background performers, the background casting director will contact a background agent with how many performers are required. They will also ask the agent for a specific type of look that they would like the performers to have. (For example, I was recently a background performer on Warehouse 13 and the scene took place in Italy, so all the background performers had brown hair.)

When the agent is given the number and type of performers required, they will look through their extensive roster and select the performers that meet the requirements of the production. They will then submit a picture of each performer to the casting director who will select what individuals they would like to book. Agents will usually contact you prior to being submitted for consideration to confirm availability and ask you to stand by for confirmation of the booking.

Things can get a little chaotic at this point. Make sure to write down the details of each contact from an agent, including which agent called (if you have more than one), what the production is and what date(s) the booking will be for. If you are asked to be on hold for a booking, several days could go by without confirmation. However, be sure to keep that date available until confirmation is received.

After receiving confirmation of your booking from the agent there is very little you can do to get out of it, so be sure that you are absolutely available for the entire day. Once booked, you will be informed to expect an email from the agent on the evening before the booking.

BEING ON SET

When you book a gig you will receive an email from the agent on the night prior to the booking. That email will tell you what your call time is, where you need to report (this can be anywhere, but they will always tell you prior if it is outside of Toronto), what you are playing and what clothes you need to bring. It is important to pay special attention to these wardrobe details. You will be required to bring two full wardrobe options to set with you.

When you arrive on set, look for signs that say “BACKGROUND HOLDING”; this is where you need to report upon first arrival. Check in with the A. D. (assistant director) on duty who will give you forms to fill out and find a seat. Make yourself comfortable because it’s likely to be a long day of sitting around.

Costume department will eventually come around to see what wardrobe options you brought and select what they would like you to wear.

Depending on the production, you could either be brought to set right away or left to sit in background holding for hours and hours. Bring things to keep yourself occupied to avoid the cabin fever.

When you are brought to set it is important that you stay attentive to the A.D. who will be giving to instruction as to what is required of you for the shot they are getting. Often it is simple like walking from point A to point B, or sitting and having a (fake) conversation with another background. Sometimes the tasks are more exciting, but each is different for every booking.

When your services are no longer needed you will be wrapped and signed out by the A.D. The form (voucher) you received upon signing in, having been already filled out, will be given to the A.D. who signs it and gives you a copy for your own files.

AFTER YOUR BOOKING

In about 10 days, you will receive your cheque from production for your work on set. At this point, it is your responsibility to mail, or hand-deliver your agent’s commission (usually in the form of a cheque). It should be noted that some agents prefer the cheque to be mailed to them so they can take their commission off the top and you go in to claim the rest from their office. Each agent is different in that regard.

WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT TO BE PAID (Union vs. Non-Union)

There are several distinctions between the Actra and cash performer, most notably in the pay scale. The Actra background rate is around $23/hour for the first 8 hours, pay-and-a-half for the next 4 hours, and several more increases in rate as the time goes on. It is possible to make upwards of $400 or more on a long day on set (12 or more hours). The non-union rate is around $11 flat regardless of how long you are there. In this scenario, it definitely pays to be union.

Also on some sets, Actra background is offered better food than Cash background. This only typically happens when there is a massive amount of background to feed. Also, Actra is allowed to line up before Cash for food and to sign out at wrap. Silly rules indeed, but this is actually how things work on set.

Also, most background agents chage a registration fee for new applicants who are non-union. There is no fee for union performers.

(Because it is very clear that union performers reap a large amount of benefits from their status, I will soon write a blog about how you can get into the union – if you are not already)

CATEGORIES OF BOOKINGS

Sometimes an agent will call you with a different booking than just the regular background. Here are some categories of bookings that may come up:

    • PHOTO-DOUBLE: This is a pretty sweet job. If you book this it means that you look enough like one of the principle actors that you could sub in for them in filming for distance shots, back of head shots, over the shoulder shots, etc. You might receive a haircut, wig or facial hair to complete the dopple-ganger look. Then you typically get holed up in your very own trailer (Don’t expect too much. It’s more of a walk-in closet than anything else).
    • STAND-IN: This job requires incredible focus and a base knowledge of filming terms. It takes a long time to perfect the look of each shot. While this is happening, the actors relax, eat, chat, learn lines or what touch-ups. The stand in, who usually has the same height and colouring as the actor, stands in their position so that the shot can be lit, framed and focused. Essentially you stand on tape all day. This job is cool because you remain on set consistently and can be hired to work for the length of the production itself (AKA serious money).
    • HAND or BODY-DOUBLE: This is exactly as it sounds. Your hands or body would be used in inserts like picking up a phone, shaking hands, etc. The nice thing is that you are likely to get a manicure for hand doubling!

A SMALL WORD OF WARNING

Becoming a background performer can be exciting. There is much to be learned from this experience as you travel from set to set, bringing different costumes required, playing different roles, meeting new people and hearing filming terms used over and over again. For these purposes (and also the insane money that can be made) should one get into background performance. I personally have been doing background for about 8 years and it is from doing so that I know as much about the filming process as I do, which facilitates my abilities in my own film projects. The warning, however, is this: Becoming a background performer will not help you advance in your career as an actor. It is a complete dead-end in that regard. Do not expect that you will show up on set, the director will see you and give you the leading role. It doesn’t happen. Additionally, most principle agents disapprove of their talent working as a background performer. If you have an agent, be sure you know where they stand on the topic and whether or not you are willing to risk your relationship with your agent to work background.

LIST OF BACKGROUND AGENTS IN TORONTO

APPLAUSE BICKERTON MODEL & TALENT

Phone: 905.457.7571 | Fax: 905.457.3048 499 | Main Street S., #208 Brampton, Ontario L6Y 1N7 | Agents: Favra Bickerton, AnGe Borges

MELISSA LEE TALENT AGENCY INC.

Phone: 416.651.6545 | Email: melissaleetalentagency@sympatico.ca  | 442 Adelaide Street West, 2nd Floor Toronto, Ontario, M5V 1S7  |  Agent: Melissa Lee | www.melissaleetalent.com

Y-H ACTING DIVISION INC.

Phone: 416.770.0420 | 161 Bay Street, 27th Floor Toronto, ON. Bay St. Entrance (elevators behind TD Bank) | Agent: Yvonne Heitier

IMRE BACKGROUND TALENT AGENCY

Phone: 416.405.9545 117 | Gerrard Street East #1007 Toronto, ON. | Agent: Kathy Imrie

MORGAN/RICKMAN TALENT AGENCY

Phone: 416.854.6697 | Fax: 416.698.2501 | Email: greyzebra@rogers.com | Agent: Adam Rickman | www.morganrickmantalent.com

BCAST AGENCY

Email: bcast11@gmail.com | Agent: Sherri Babbitt | www.bcastagency.com

TORONTO FILM EXTRAS (TFX)

Phone: (416)519-6848 | Agent: Ramin Emad | www.torontofilmextras.com

FACES AND PLACES TALENT AGENCY

Phone: 416.504.7892 | Fax: 416.504.8975 | Email: derek@facesandplaces.ca | 477 Richmond Street West Toronto, ON. M5V 3E | www.facesandplaces.ca

TWINS TALENT AGENCY

Phone: 905.479.5651 | Email: twinstalentagency@rogers.com | 125 Longwater Chase Unionville, ON. L3R 4A9 | Agent: Cindy Weedo | www.twinstalentagency.com


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Caleb McMullen

Written by Caleb McMullen

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of TheatreisforSuckers.com

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