To Be Sort of Human Furniture (Or: A Quick Guide to Your Time as a TV Extra)

To Be Sort of Human Furniture (Or: A Quick Guide to Your Time as a TV Extra)

To Be Sort of Human Furniture (Or: A Quick Guide to Your Time as a TV Extra)

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Imagine a large and complex machine. The machine has hundreds of individual parts and, for the machine to work, each part must perform its own exact function and align with all its neighbouring parts perfectly.

So far this really shouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination, but I want you to now imagine this machine from a very specific perspective.

You’re one of the machine’s littlest parts and it’s your first day on the job, in this particular machine, and so you’ve got only a vague idea about your function and what the machine actually does. But no idea about how you align with any other part of the machine, not really. So all the neighbouring parts have to somehow give you the information you need, and keep you on track, all while performing their own functions perfectly so the whole machine doesn’t grind to a complete halt.

This is, more or less, what it’s like being an extra on a TV set.

Filming does strange things with time. You lose your sense of it when you enter a set. The main reason this is is complex and a little hard to explain, so please bear with me.

There are basically two kinds of time on set: now (and its distension, which the entire apparatus of crew is designed to avoid, and that (said distension) simultaneously necessitates and negates its (now’s) being signified as “now”; to the chagrin of anyone who’s anyone important on set) and what I call the moment.

Now is basically the time spent between shots during which every single person on set has an impossibly high number of important things to do in an impossibly short amount of time. Because trying to explain why now is now will involve probably a couple-K words about all that worrying-looking stuff in the paragraph above, I’ll leave it to the dramatization below to try and just illustrate it.

Everyone’s reason for even being on set in the first place is the moment. It’s what we’re all there to create. Consider the phrase “being in the moment” and all it connotes. The moment is a brief period of time – like almost always between 30 and 120 secs – where human drama unfolds between characters, who may or may not speak some lines or perform some actions, to further some narrative, develop their characters etc.

But the moment’s a lot more than that. It’s magical, literally magical, when briefly a moment of make-believe becomes 100% real, the actors disappear inside themselves to give expression to the people they pretend to become, they will become, for just a moment, and the entire universe seems to turn inward to focus on them doing it.

The entire “time” spent on set consists of a purgatorial kind of oscillation between these that looks like this.

Once everyone’s roughly where they’ll need to be, the director starts making various high-level gestures and commands, setting in motion subsequent chains of gestures and commands, actions and tasks and just a whole lot of busy activity. There’s a reason it’s called production.

This is now – there’s conferring and delegating between director, ADs and department heads. Everyone needs something done or brought or relayed now.

The camera guy is doing something with his steadicam harness while another camera-related guy changes a lens. Main cast are blocking, which honestly just looks like pacing around and mumbling. Yet another camera-related guy is measuring the distance between the lens and peoples’ faces. One guy keeps placing bits of coloured tape on the floor and it seems like it’s important that he does. Wardrobe adjusts, hair and make-up joosh, tend to wounds, spray sweat and powder as needed. You’re peripherally aware of lots of other set and lighting and administrative-type things happening.

In normal time, now is a singularity. It can only be now now. But in studio time, as you stretch the now out, it approaches a kind of event horizon where the now becomes denser and denser with activity. More frenzied, say.

And then suddenly the director’s pronouncements all become very short, clear direct statements. The noise and the activity on set just die away. A clapperboard is clapped. And time just… hangs.

And then we have the moment, and when that finishes we’re back to now, to do it again and again.

The second and, frankly more down-to-earth reason – that your sense of time just gets so messed up filming – is that you just cannot orient yourself, temporally speaking. Whether you’re filming int. or ext., a set is always totally self-contained. At the very least, professional and high-grade lighting will (by design) obscure the passage of the sun or stars, if you can even tell the time by either of these. I can’t, but at least I can tell time is passing in any normal sense when I can see them.

It probably goes without saying that you won’t have a watch or, god forbid, a phone on you to be able to tell the time. Phones are verboten for obvious security and pre-release embargo reasons. Watches are slightly less obvious, but please be apprised that the likelihood that any watch you own will resemble a WW1-era trench watches (which are a thing, and are cool) is virtually: 0.

As a related aside, everyone in wardrobe and hair and make-up (and even sometimes an observant AD) will be so devoted to making you look authentic that you won’t even be allowed to wear a wedding band on set unless it’s very conservative and plain gold. So even if you have a plain platinum wedding band it’s gotta come off, which generally means stowing it in your glasses case (which you also can’t wear – your glasses – and have to try really hard not to squint at everything while you’re on set) while you’re in costume and trying to remember that’s where it (your ring) is when you get changed back into your own clothes at the end of the day so you don’t just snap open the case and spill the ring onto god knows where on the costume tent’s muddy floor.

What’s in hair and make-up’s bags – just as another quick aside – is one of the most interesting things you’ll get to see on set. Most of what they’ll put on you is edible – corn syrup is like the main ingredient of “stage” blood, sweat is water (when it’s on clothes) and olive oil (when it’s on skin), snow is Splenda or Sweet n Low or similar. The only thing that mightn’t be edible is the fake dirt, but the cool thing about that is they seem to have every kind of dirt you could think of. “Trench dirt” was a popular favourite.

The Anzacs had to have pretty nasty, dirty hands but somehow mine would always find their way back to squeaky-cleanliness quick-smart, plus my hands do this thing where they’ll turn completely blue if it’s halfway cold, which is why I got to get such a good look inside hair and make-up’s bags (with whom my hands earned me a bit of a reputation and love-hate relationship) and know all this.

While I’m off topic anyway, I really should say a few things about a couple of the other people you’ll see on set.

Extras’ Wardrobe

I mention these guys first because, seriously, as an extra, these are going to be the most important people you see on set.

The figurehead of the Extras’ Wardrobe Department and just about everyone’s favourite person on set was a guy called Nat or Nate.

Nat(e)’s official job was to make sure all the extras looked like perfect little soldiers and seemed to oversee absolutely everything that went on in Extras’ Wardrobe (I should mention that I don’t know if the department is actually called “Extras’ Wardrobe”) including fit, accessories, puttees (don’t even ask), and really cool stuff like “break down”.

Unofficially, Nat(e)’s job, along with the rest of the department (who were all so unbelievably lovely I feel terrible for not remembering their names) was the very welfare of his extras. This meant (that even though he had to dress us in undershirts and tiny little shorts and spray us with simulated sweat in like two degrees C and high winds) doing terribly nice things like sprinting from extra to extra between takes with blankets and hot water bottles, sneaking hot packs and thermals into our costumes and just generally, you know, making sure we were all a-ok.


Because I was a bit negligent in explaining this earlier, it stands for Assistant Director. The ADs (there’s a team of them – you’ll understand when you see what a mad-house a set is) are the ones you’ll be staring at with poor confused dinnerplate eyes as they very clearly and very slowly (and probably not for the first time) explain just what you’re supposed to be doing and where you’re even supposed to be (you’ll probably get this latter point wrong at least once).

Don’t worry about being able to spot an AD. They’re the ones who look like they’ve got everything perfectly under control without even trying.

DP, Camera Crew, Lighting, Sound

Basically any crew. Important. Do not get in the way, do anything they tell you, don’t make them repeat themselves. Also important: they eat first at meals.


Hard truth: extras are not cast. Cast are cast. If you auditioned and have been given lines and your character has a name and your own personal name appears in the credits, you’re cast.

There’s a whole lot of aura and mystique and “don’t do this, don’t do that” around cast, and it’s hard to find anything new that’s meaningful to tell you. Joel Jackson was cool, Sam Worthington was intense – but cool, Hugh Dancy was lovely, Jessica de Gouw was pretty cool, Dan Wyllie was just about the funniest person I’ve ever met. I didn’t meet Charles Dance. That’s all I’ve got.

The Director

I don’t know if being personally spoken to on set by the director is special, but you do get a warm fuzzy special feeling out of it.

Extra Casting

The person sitting knee deep in mud in a tent being pounded by rain, in freezing cold and tapping away at a Macbook on the most tedious administrative task you can imagine – but who is also the happiest person on set – that’s the person who’s ultimately responsible for the extras, for you.

Is this some kind of personal essay?

While I’m trying to be as general as I can, where I can; it’s pretty apparent that I’m really talking about my own specific experiences here. And in the spirit of not being totally disingenuous about what this article’s really all about, I should talk about this a little.

If you aren’t a Foxtel subscriber and therefore haven’t seen Deadline Gallipoli, I’m betting there’s still a good chance you’ve heard something somewhere about a Gallipoli-related show being filmed down under with big-name stars like Sam Worthington, Hugh Dancy, Charles Dance (the best Lannister, rest in peace), Jessica de Gouw and a whole host of great Australian talent.

Adding to this cast were several hundred (I’m told it could even be more) extras, mostly W.A.S. men 18-30 (ish) and probably all under 75kg (each). I was one of them and so got to play dress-ups, make-believe, point a real gun both in the studio and on location, rub shoulders with celebrity, get fed top-notch grub (for free) and get paid pretty handsomely for the privilege.

I won’t lie though, there was plenty of hard work involved: like 16 hour days that begin at four am, hard physical labour (try carrying 20kg sandbags from one pile to another every time you do a take and then having to literally run to put them back on the first pile between takes – for four hours), uncomfortable costumes, sustained uncomfortable positions on set. Everything you’ve heard about “harsh filming conditions” is true.

Full disclosure: I had to dig deep for the above gripes. The good outweighs the bad, you’ll have more fun than work, and the whole experience is great for your ego.

What an extra actually is

Here’s the full 205 word quote the article’s title’s from:

And the wraith on the heart monitor looks pensively down at Gately from upside-down and asks does Gately remember the myriad thespian extras on for example his beloved ‘Cheers!,’ not the center-stage Sam and Carla and Nom, but the nameless patrons always at tables, filling out the bar’s crowd, concessions to realism, always relegated to back- and foreground; and always having utterly silent conversations: their faces would animate and mouths would move realistically, but without sound; only the name-stars at the bar itself could audibilize. The wraith says these fractional actors, human scenery, could be seen (but not heard) in most pieces of filmed entertainment. And Gately remembers them, the extras in all public scenes, especially like bar and restaurant scenes, or rather remembers how he doesn’t quite remember them, how it never struck his addled mind as in fact surreal that their mouths moved but nothing emerged, and what a miserable fucking bottom-rung job that must be for an actor, to be sort of human furniture, figurants the wraith says they’re called, these surreally mute background presences whose presence really revealed that the camera, like any eye, has a perceptual corner, a triage of who’s important enough to be seen and heard v. just seen.

The quote supra is, unsurprisingly to anyone who knows me, from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest  (p834-5) and if you ever get to see your work as an extra on screen you’ll realise, excepting the clause containing the term “bottom-rung”, it’s 100% true. Maybe even more so if the silent figurant is you.

This is also a good way to get back to what is, I guess, this article’s main thrust. I asked you earlier to consider the phrase “being in the moment” and all it connotes. The filming process consists of iterations of a moment – the moment­ – but the iterations don’t stop when filming does. And this is the third way that it really messes with your sense of time.

Imagine you’re an actor who has succeeded in being in the moment, again and again during filming – for the same moment, so that by the nth time you do it you’re so completely present with the moment your self has kind of fused to it – and then being exposed to that moment again, months later, from a perspective that is totally outside yourself. Utterly external to your own head. Try to imagine what this would be like.

It’s weird is what it’s like.

But then it’s good too. It’s good to see a story come to life you’ve only seen the innards of. It’s good to have whole constellations of near-forgotten memories evoked by a couple of frames. It is good to get outside yourself. Isn’t that what you were trying to do back on set, all along? It’s good to be able to point to a screen and say, “Hey, that’s me.”