Tuesday, March 29, 2005

So You Wanna be In the Movies -- Part 3

Personal note -- We're going to be on vacation for the next week, so no updates until the following Wednesday. Hang in there. -- Jim


The Austin Energy Holly Street Power Station resembles a giant erector set that was built in and around a mad scientist's chemistry lab, then dropped off by the Colorado River to rust in place. Pipes and tubing of all sizes snaked in all directions, serving perfectly inscrutable purposes around the large turbine stacks. Peculiar notes were scrawled on different bits in pencil and marker, messages like "Close A valve to open B valve", and "do not overpressure".

On this day, the station was standing in for some place called "Mid States Ethanol Processing Plant". A large tank had been repainted with the logo, which was also on all of our grey hardhats (the crew wore orange hardhats with the "Revolver" movie logo on them).

It doesn't seem all that big for a place that can generate 600Megawatts of electricity. Unless you're standing on top of it. Then it seems plenty big enough. At one point I and several other extras found ourselves near one of the plant workers, who gave us an earful about the place, and how it was slated to close down by 2008 because of complaints by the neighborhood.

It struck me that there was a great magazine article to be written about the plant's closing some day.


Of course, being on the set didn't actually mean we were going to do anything. Another thing few people know about making movies is the amount of waiting that goes on, especially for extras. Oh sure, some of the crew never seemed to stop the entire three days we were there, but there is still a lot of hurry up and wait in the movie business. I've been on shoots where a twelve-hour day had at most 2 minutes of actual filming, if that much.

On this day, however, we get to business fairly quickly. After some drizzle passes, our small group is set up in various spots and given props and marching orders. Some of us get tool belts and/or walkie-talkies. Everyone gets an id badge, labeled "Mid States Ethanol", with a picture of one of the production crew on it.

I'm in a group with two others. We are told to walk around a parked 18-wheeler, wait as another passes by us, then split up. I have to climb up some stairs and wander around the second floor. During all this, a pickup, ostensibly driven by Sarah Michelle Gellar's character drives by and parks. Gellar isn't doing the driving of course, its her stand-in.

We do this several times. Each time, we get a litany of yells from the director, passed along by the PA's. The first is always "picture's up". I don't know what that means technically, but for us it was basically "Get ready". Then, you get "rolling." Sometimes you can hear "speed" or "sound" but that generally doesn't get passed along. Finally, if we've made it that far (and sometimes things get aborted for various reasons), you get "background action" and "action".

The various "actions" could get messy. Depending on your location you might be going on "background", to give you a natural movement before the actors come in, but you might need to go at the same time they do, or you might need a completely different cue if the camera is moving and you come into view after action has begun. You might get cued directly by a PA, or just wait until something specific happens, like a vehicle goes by, or a character passes your location. Sometimes it was hard to hear cues, and you just had to guess.

Eventually, they have shots of the pickup driving up and its time for Sarah to exit the truck and walk over to talk to some guy. I'm pretty far away at first, and can only note that she is wearing jeans and her hair is a dark brown. Later, I'm amused by the fact that every single extra feels the need to comment on how small she is (Sarah is maybe 5'2" and quite petite. Small indeed, but you'd think she was a midget from the way they talked. I guess they expected Buffy to be more like a WNBA player).

We have no scripts (of course) so we can only infer what is going on. Sarah's character has some sort of argument with some guy. It's during this that the clouds, which have been with us all morning, begin to break up and we find ourselves with a dazzlingly sunny (if breezy) day. This is a problem, because all the shots so far are of a gloomy, cloudy day. The light is now wrong and the directors have to regroup. We break for lunch.

Friday, March 25, 2005

So you Wanna Be In The Movies -- 2

Most people think that being in the movies is incredibly glamorous. Most people have no idea what they are thinking. They know about the stars, the directors, and the producers. They may be aware that there are people who run the cameras, put on make-up and make costumes. And of course, the FX people usually get their own "extra" on the DVD. But even those people are dwarfed by the amazing constellation of skills on a major motion picture set.

You take, for example, set builders. These people can take an isolated piece of 4-lane road with a bridge and turn it into a major border crossing between two countries, complete with working electric gates, stoplights, booths equipped with cash registers, and clipboards that say "Dept. of Homeland Security" on them.

You have the prop guys. They obtain, make, and keep track of a thousand little things, from fake guns to badges to (in our case) hard hats. You have the electricians making sure the cameras have power, the lights are safely hooked up and the radios have batteries. The lighting people work with not just lights, but giant or small shades, reflectors, deflectors, and diffusers, to create the look the director needs.

There is a group of people who, when needed, can slap together platforms, or hook the cameras and lights to the most unlikely of objects in order to provide a stable place from which to film. There are drivers who bring in the equipment and ferry cast and crew back and forth from the set. You have the production assistants, those glorified gofers who become the most important people in an extra's world, who place you, tell you what to do and where to go, help handle props, bring coffee to the director, and a myriad other little tasks.


In the pre-dawn hours even Austin's awful traffic is pretty light, and despite initially turning the wrong way on Cesar Chavez Street, I managed to get to the gathering place (a city park pavilion) by 6:20AM. I was also very nearly whisked off to the set by a slightly over-zealous van driver before his partner managed to get someone on the radio to explain what I was supposed to do. And that was to go to the PA and sign in. This also included filling out your W2 tax form, something we had to do each and every day (said form has a littler mini-form on the back which asks for all of the same information you just wrote on its front -- I'm not kidding -- in addition to a series of boxes you check to indicate you are either a citizen, green card holder, or otherwise legally able to work in the United Sates. I'm not kidding about that, either). You need this to get paid, and extras don't rate having someone punch your data into a computer and getting it pre-printed.

After that, I grabbed a second breakfast (movie set food ranges from non-existent to amazing), walked over to Trailer City to get my overalls and a brief safety lecture from the power plant managers (lead paint, asbestos, explosive gases, don't mess with the controls, that sort of thing). Then we were off to the set.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

So You Wanna Be in the Movies -- Part 1

The following is part of what I hope to someday turn into a magazine article on my experiences as an extra on a movie set. Hope you enjoy it, I plan to have more installments at irregular intervals.

"Ya'll doing okay?" asked the baby-faced production assistant.

"Fine," I replied, with considerably more heartiness than I actually felt. It wasn't every day that I stood on an open platform eight stories up, hanging on to a "railing" made of 1-inch metal rods, and where the "floor" was a metal gridwork that did nothing to hide unpleasantly long distance to the ground.

That was bad enough. But when the director yelled "Action!" (they really do that) my companion and I had to climb up another flight of stairs and end up a nine-story platform, this one without walls of any kind or even the impression of a roof. As small a comfort as those things seemed down on the eighth floor, they were sorely missed on the ninth.

But it wasn't so bad sitting down in between takes, where I could look at the clouds and pretend I wasn't all that close to them.

"Pictures up!" said the PA, scrambling to his feet. With a groan, I did the same.


The internet has almost certain made it much easier for people to find out about movie shoots and get involved. Its what I did. A site called AustinActors.net has a place where people can post casting calls for all manner of plays, commercials, student shorts, and feature films. The governor's office also has a website that lists major productions in the state of Texas. It was on the governor's site that I found the listing for a Sandra Bullock movie about Truman Capote with the working title ""Every Word Is True" (most pictures have a working title that may or may not be the one that goes up on the theater marquee). I printed my acting resume (very scanty), included a couple of pictures, and sent it in. Some weeks later, I got a call, not from the EWIT people, but for another movie, "Revolver", starring Sarah Michelle Gellar of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fame. This is also fairly common, when a single casting company handles extras for several movies, for you to get a call for something you didn't even know was going on.

The caller asked if I was available for three days the next week, and if I was afraid of heights. I said I'd have to check back on the availability, and fudged on the fear issue by saying "not really". "Not really" was not really true. I am scared of heights, although it doesn't rise to the phobia level. I figured if I could handle being on a ski lift, I could handle whatever they were likely to have me do (extras don't "Tarzan from a vine" as Lee Majors once sang in the theme for his "The Fall Guy" TV show). As it happened I was right, but I surely did not enjoy it.

Next was a call to my wife, who is thankfully very supportive of my occasional forays into the acting world. This was important, as my life as a stay-at-home dad made it easy for me to show up for acting, but harder for us to have a place for our son to go after school. Arrangements were made, however, so my gig was on.


The next step was wardrobe. I showed up near the old airport with several combinations of "work clothes"; jeans, t-shirts, heavy boots, etc. I tried a couple combinations, put on a set of coveralls, and that was it. They labeled the overalls with my name, and sent me home to wait for a call time.

The "call time" is what time you are supposed to appear on the set or, more commonly, some gathering place nearby. My call time turned out to be 6:30AM Monday morning, at a park near downtown. The night before I packed my bags with stuff; extra clothes, some bottled water, a snack, a book, my notepad and a pen. I was ready.

Monday, March 21, 2005


One nice thing about being in a house full of people in school (Jacob in elementary, Trish teaching at the U) is that when its Spring Break, everybody gets a Spring Break. We traveled hither and yon, with weather that alternated between mild to sunny and cold to wet and icky back to beautiful again. And it is clear to me that Spring has finally sprung around here, with wildflowers popping up and increasing temperatures (this morning we're having a spring thunderstorm). I think the sweatshirts can go back into their drawer for another few months.

One nice thing about having a voracious kid reader in the house is that he's grabbing books from the "young readers" section of the bookstore that also interest me somewhat, but which I'd never have had the guts to buy for myself.

Last night he complained that school was teaching him too much stuff he already knew. This after a week off. It is really too soon for that sort of thing to start. Are we going to have to start sending him books to read if he finishes his classwork early? And how much of that did he really mean? Whenever I ask he has something new to relate that he learned.

Because of the aforementioned storm, I don't think I'm going to get to one my planned Monday projects, throwing up a lattice for some vines to climb up. Perhaps I'll just try and pick out a power saw for my birthday. No, can't do that -- yet. Need to mail off some legal stuff, make a call or three on business matters, deal with laundry issues, run by the bank -- your standard list of stuff when you've tried to take a few days off from the regular grind.

Friday, March 11, 2005


The cameras stopped rolling in my vicinity 36 hours ago, but I'm still tired. Since I'm in charge of the home fires, the next day I'm up at 6am (which actually was sleeping in, compared to when I got up on the days of shooting) getting Jake off to school and trying to catch up from three days of missed effort. Poor Trish had much to deal with while I was gone, and getting out from under that as well the normal stuff has left little time for rest.

I managed to scribble about 3 pages of notes about my experiences, which I'm thinking of trying to turn into an article-length…er…article. But that takes time, and since time is something I’m short on for, oh, maybe the next month, I'll let you have some tidbits.

I've been an extra a few times before, but one thing you never realize is the extent to which you simply sit around and wait. And you have no idea how long you are to wait. And even if you ask someone, they don't know, and if they do think they know, they are wrong more often than not.

The food on a commercial production is generally good. And on a major motion picture, it can be really good. Each day there was a full breakfast buffet, with sausage, bacon, eggs, biscuits, tortillas, cereal, fruit, doughnuts, bagels, coffee, juice, milk, yogurt, and probably some other stuff I've forgotten. Lunch was similar. I had grilled amberjack, an excellent chicken-fried steak, and pork roast, plus assorted veggies like roast potatoes, roast squash, grilled asparagus, etc. And of course dessert. We also (sometimes) had access to snacks during the course of the day; chips, candy bars, water, soda, pretty much whatever.

Something few people who haven't actually been on a movie shoot appreciate is just how much of moviemaking is about high-speed temporary construction. Platforms to film from, places for people to stand, reflectors for lights, shades to create shadow, smoke generating gadgets, "concrete" abutments, small offices…simply an amazing array of stuff that is built with surprising speed and attention to detail.

Years ago, I heard a grip say to one of his buddies about Hollywood "It ain't all sunglasses and cast parties", and that’s the truth.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Checking In

We had a good visit with my birthmother, who was walked, walked and walked over many of the area's pleasant trails. She has returned home now, and regular life resumes with its accustomed jolt. At least until Monday that is, since I am going to spend three days next week as an extra in a movie titled "Revolver" starring Sarah Michelle Gellar of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame.

That's going to play hob with routines, but its part of what I want to do, so Trish is, thankfully very supportive. Of course, that mean not much is going to be written here, though once I'm done I'll give you all the details, juicy or not.

Meanwhile, I've reviewed a recent book, "To Rule The Waves: How The British Navy Shaped The Modern World" over at my other blog. Check it out