When I took a voice class last summer, I found that one of my classmates was a trekkie – a dedicated trekkie, with a huge collection of trekkie memorabilia! As we chatted I found that Joe has been an extra on a lot of movies & TV shows – and was a double for Bryan Cranston, the star of the acclaimed “Breaking Bad”. Wow! I know folks who dream of getting on a set in any capacity! How’d he get there? So I asked him.
When the original Star Trek aired, young Joseph Griffenberg stayed up late to watch. He’d stage Star Trek scenes using a local cemetery as exotic set locations, with him playing Capt. Kirk (of course). He’d use lines he remembered from the series, already showing a love for acting.
After a tour in the Navy, he returned to his family in Las Vegas, New Mexico. American Playhouse’s “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” was shooting nearby and Joe got work as an extra. That led to work on the original Red Dawn, with then unknowns Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen. Meanwhile Joe had gotten a camera and went around filming everything – even a praying mantis eating its mate! Yuck! He found he wanted more control of a film than he’d have as an actor. Actors play out the role of the writer/director’s story. Joe wanted to be telling his own stories, so he enrolled in the University of New Mexico, focusing his Fine Arts degree on television production.
Joe was still a trekkie, starting in the ’80’s a notable collection of action figures and Star Trek ornaments. Star Trek Next Generation came along. Like me, Joe resisted but got hooked. He’s also followed each of the Trek shows since – Deep Space 9, Voyager, Enterprise. And included them in his collection, filling a whole room! Thankfully, his wife colludes in this “hobby”.
I asked Joe what advice he’d give to someone who wants to get picked as an extra.
“Persistence! I put in a picture for every call.” Joe said he follows social media, joining facebook groups that pass the word about calls coming up. He reminded me that in New Mexico the film industry has a website where casting calls are posted: http://www.nmfilm.com/Casting_Calls.aspx. Joe points out that extras don’t need any special qualifications. The casting director is simply looking for “a look”. When Joe hears of a production coming up, he finds who the casting director is and checks out their website. Most will say what look they need.
Joe also recommends building your own network of contacts and your own experience by volunteering to work with school groups and with small indie efforts. “You meet more people that way – and they remember you.” Joe says that half the things he’s done have been through word of mouth.
Joe also maintains a page on IMDb, a site where people in the movie and tv business post their resumes and contact information. Joe includes on his page pictures showing that he can adapt to several different looks. With all his experience and training, Joe’s page is very impressive! http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2445713/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1 “I’ve been on set 50 times. Every time I learn something new.” For example, he watches the actors and how they adapt to different directors. “Some directors let actors do what they want, allow them to improvise. Others control everything, like Alfred Hitchcock did. Like James Cameron does.” Joe also continues to take classes, on the different aspects of film making. “Even if you know you want to direct, it will help you to know how to act.”
Do you need to have professional headshots? No! Joe points out that local film oriented organizations usually have a yearly general casting call. Also there will be open casting calls for each show or film, advertised on the local news or local film website. At a casting call, you stand in line, an hour or more. When you get to the front, they have you fill in a card with your name, contact number, type of vehicle (if you’re willing to have it used), your sizes. They’ll take a picture that will go into a file. They keep it forever! When a shoot comes up that needs extras, the casting director will scan the file for people who match the need. Aha! I did this once – and got called a couple of years later! Unfortunately at a time when I couldn’t go.
During our chat, Joe has mentioned several terms: background, stand-ins, doubles. I ask him what each means.
“Background is another word for extras. They are part of the background of shots – people walking by on the street, people in shops or restaurants, the crowd. They don’t speak and don’t need any qualifications other than fitting in with the scene. Let’s say you’re shooting a scene set in Manhattan. You need people who have the typical clean-cut look to be in the background, just as there are always people around on the street there. If you’re shooting a scene set in Eqypt, your background people need the darker skin tone you’d see there. If the people have particular clothing, casting will look for extras who can fit the costumes they have.”
So what is a “stand-in“? “A stand-in substitutes for a leading actor for setting up lights and camera angles. A stand-in doesn’t have to look like the actor, but needs to have the same height and build. The director or actor may first demonstrate the action needed – ‘walk from there to here”. Then the stand-in mimics that action over and over while the crew arranges the lights and angles.”
“A double has to look like the actor – same height, weight, hair style, general face type. A double is used in place of the actor for distance shots for shots from behind.” Joe ran in a Walter White look-alike contest Bryan Cranston held in Albuquerque, adapting his appearance even to shaving his head. He looked enough like Cranston’s Walter White that he was hired as his photo double. Having a double is a great relief to an actor since a 20 second scene may take 4 hours to shoot! Makeup and costume tried their effects on Joe first to get them finalized before replicating them on Cranston. So Joe got to hang out with Cranston a lot more than an extra or stand-in would.
Can you be an extra and still hold down a regular job? How much notice do you get? “The amount of notice depends on the situation. One casting agent called me for the next day. I couldn’t work it out that quickly with my day job. For ‘Night Shift’ I got several days notice. When they contact you, they’ll tell you when to be there and how many days they’ll need you. Maybe if you turn them down a few times, they’ll stop calling – I just make sure to send in my picture again.”
Let’s say someone has done what you suggested and has gotten a call to be an extra on a picture. What’s it like on location? Joe laughed, “It’s a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’. You might arrive at 5am and sit for 13 hours without ever being called. At least you still get paid. Bring a book and your cell phone – just don’t take them on the set!” The tone of the location varies. Joe’s experience was that on Night Shift they were pleasant, knew his name. Others may treat extras like cattle. I ask about makeup. Joe says that usually background people need to come “hair and make-up ready” – looking acceptably generic. If it’s a western, someone from make-up may make you look dirtier.
Joe emphasizes that observing good location etiquette is key to getting more work. “How well you get along is more important that how good an actor you are. Make sure never to burn your bridges.” The rules of set etiquette include:
So are you ready to go out and fulfill your dream of being an extra, just as Joe did? If you are, let me know how it goes – and where to look for a glimpse of you in the background! And if you hear of any Star Trek shoots in New Mexico, let Joseph Griffenberg know. He’s ready!
If you’re interested in Behind-the-Scenes movie making, tune into “The Chair” on Starz, starting Sept. 6. Two novice directors compete with each other in creating a movie. The directors are Shane Dawson, a prolific YouTube personality, and Anna Martemucci, writer/actress in “Breakup at a Wedding” and other vids by Periods Films. Both were given a starting script and a budget to go forth and create. Their process was captured – that’s what the Starz series shows – their actions and anxieties as well as the coaching they get from the more experienced producers. Their resulting films will be judged by the audience.
Both had available high-class coaching. Chris Moore (“Goodwill Hunting“, “Project Greenlight“, etc) brings his experience of a lot of hits under his belt. In contrast, the Before The Door coaches are newer to the scene, yet have already created two Oscar nominations – “Margin Call” and “All Is Lost”! Before The Door is the production company of Star Trek’s Spock, Zachary Quinto, and his business partners Neal Dodson, Corey Moosa, and Sean Akers. I’m as interested in their coaching as I am in the directors’ processes.
I attended a panel for “The Chair” at the San Diego Comic Con 2014, where we compared how the directors addressed the same scene. Zachary Quinto and an actress read the scene as originally written by Dan Schoffer. Then Chris Moore showed Dawson’s and Martemucci’s versions of the same scene. I was amazed at how different they were! For example, Dawson’s focused more on him – he played the character and most of the camera was on him. Martemucci’s focused more on the story, on getting across the situation and relationships. My guess is that Dawson will only be able to “do his own thing”, which is probably just fine to his many followers. Martemucci is my bet for a more versatile future as a director. She appears to have the discipline to be able to give form to someone else’s idea. We’ll see, eh?
Tune in – and let me know your impressions!
Oh my! I’ve been fascinated by virtual reality since seeing demos in the early days. It was crude. Very crude. Not enough computer space for any but the most basic block images. I had to wear a heavy helmet and stand in one spot. But still. I could fly!!
Now a step closer to a real Star Trek holodeck is happening! Still crude by Next Generation standards, but a step that would have been unbelievable a few years ago!
“The closest thing to Star Trek’s ‘Holodeck’ – a large scale tracking lab with VR headsets used to develop everything from redirected walking to quadcopter control algorithms.”
I’m not even sure what all those words mean, but check it out! Thanks to Sara for alerting me to this YouTube vid: http://youtu.be/7ZPs7knvs7M
UPDATE: At SDCC2014, I found out there really was a man inside of the 10 foot high robot! I hadn’t though so, but at a demo of another big active model, I met Zennie Abraham, who had watched the robot setup last year. Zennie is a prolific blogger and did a great interview with the man behind the robot. It shows how the man & machine come together: http://youtu.be/ScNIWqiOv5Q
Check out Zennie’s blog at http://www.zennie62blog.com.
I’m off to Comic-Con! I have tickets for only 2 days but just seeing what is going on outside the convention center is worth the trip. Here’s clip of something I wandered into last year – a “rehearsal” of a 10 foot high robot!!
During the demo, they unhooked the robot from its support, making sure it could balance itself. Then they tested how well it walked. What fascinated me about the robot was how sophisticated its balance was. It didn’t stand like a statue; it stood like a human, with all the little motions and adjustments we do automatically.
You can see a little of that here: Robot
Once they’d tested the basic movements, they rehearsed a brief scene – an interaction with a person. The robot’s motion and voice were controlled remotely. If you’re a total robot geek like me, you can see all 16 minutes here: http://youtu.be/LAl5tj0lP84
I have to admit I kept thinking of all the movies in which a robot being tested started attacking the crowd. In this case, me!
Listening to filmmakers talking about their work gives fascinating insider tidbits. Here are two such talks.
On Feb 3 2014, Chris Moore (“Good Will Hunting,” “American Pie” series and “Adjustment Bureau”) and Corey Moosa (“All is Lost,” “Breakup at a Wedding”,“Margin Call” and “The Banshee Chapter”) discussed the very practical side of making films.
Chris Moore is well established with a number of successes under his belt. In contrast Corey’s company, Before the Door, is a relative “new kid on the block” – and as such can relate to the issues in getting started.
Corey is one of the founders of Before The Door with Zachary Quinto (the young Spock) and Neal Dodson. He heads up their graphic novel side – Lucid and Mr. Murder is Dead so far, both of which got accolades. Corey also was the onsite producer for the horror movie “The Banshee Chapter”. Before the Door has been listed as one of Hollywood’s “new mavericks”, picking projects that push the boundaries of the art in some way. They also choose to work with new directors – such as JC Chandor who got an Oscar nod for his first effort, the brilliant “Margin Call”. Before the Door also likes working with their Carnegie-Mellon classmates and fellow Pittsburgh folk, so their collaboration with Park Point University on “The Chair” is a natural! For this talk Corey filled in for Zachary Quinto who was scheduled to talk but couldn’t be there (this time! – see below).
The talk on Feb 17, 2014 was the second part of the series. Zachary Quinto showed up unexpectedly with another Before The Door founder, Neal Dodson. Neal is producer for “All is Lost“, an amazing movie with only Robert Redford – and no dialogue! – and “A Most Violent Year“, both written and directed by JC Chandor. While this talk is titled “Creative Side”, I found they had quite a few business tips as well. Zachary is delightfully articulate about his art and viewpoint. I enjoy hearing him talk from his right-brain & collaborative view about aspects I know from a more left-brain, task view.
If you’re looking at this blog, you probably have heard of the San Diego Comic Con. And maybe about Nerd HQ – a happening parallel to SDCC that has panels & demos & parties galore! Nerd is a fun alternative for those without an SDCC ticket for a day or for those seeking refuge from the convention hall lines. Many stars show up at Nerd panels, which are reasonably sized events, the ~$20 ticket proceeds going to a charity.
Nerd HQ however costs money. Money which founder Zach Levy has been fronting. But he needs help. He put together an Indiegogo campaign asking for support – and got enough that there will be a Nerd HQ at SDCC2014! Here’s the link to find out more: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/i-want-my-nerd-hq-2014/x/641260
I was impressed with Nerd at SDCC 2013 – lots of gaming computers, neat robots & virtual reality demos – and a darn good party! I’m also fascinated to see how crowd funding is growing in popularity and in the amount of $ it can raise. Look at the Kickstarter-funded movie “Laura Mars” which quickly reached its goal and went on to raise over $5 million!
Personally I prefer to back Kickstarter projects – if the organizers can’t get it together enough to reach their goal, I get my money back. Producers and directors I’ve talked to prefer Indiegogo – they don’t have to reach the goal in order to get whatever dollars are contributed.
If you or anyone you know is considering a crowd-funding effort, I strongly recommend reading The Secrets of Crowdfunding by Sean Akers. It is packed full of useful information about what to consider when seeking funding – and some very good project management tips. Sound weighty? Delightfully it is an easy book to read – an hour, maybe? – a plus in the entertainment world where many confess to low attention spans! You can find this on Amazon: http://amzn.com/B00AF3LBDC
“I must say, it’s not actually the oscar nomination that interests me. It’s the environment that surrounds it. The people. It’s absolutely inspiring to be part of a group that is banding together to make something big that will echo throughout almost every country in the world. But this group of people doesn’t really focus on the distribution (the fame of it- for that is all fame is, distribution). They focus on the perfection of their individual craft. And how they use their time and efforts to help others outside of work. And what sorts of large projects can also be contributed to.
“I’ve never met a group of people with so wide a reach, that you can see the culture and shape of the world changing as they move. And I don’t mean just that I have seen girls tattoo Megamind on their bodies (which I have). I mean this: The tech groups volunteer with NASA after work to mentor kids in robotics at local high schools. Or we have a toastmasters on campus where we face our fears of public speaking so we can reach out to more people. Or when we have great mentors from competing company’s, such as Pixar’s Pete Doctor who come and share their story and freely give advice. To us! their competitor! It’s that kind of open attitude and collaboration in the larger things that makes me inspired and my world gets just that much bigger. I wrote an article on more of the details of inspiring innovation for a magazine (I don’t have the link since I’m on my phone but see jonathanleaders.com for a link to the article of you’re interested in innovation-creating from the campus.)
– from the business side animated films are hard because their cost is so high. $30 million isn’t a bad budget for a non SFX based film. But 3D animated films now are in the $160,000,000 range. That means we have to nail it. Also there’s a lot of mid-to-high level math involved in programming the 3D world. It’s emulating real world physics and how light bounces and that is based on the real math behind their respective sciences. Plus the tech changes every film! Contrast that to traditional media, where it still changes but slower.
Q What do you think of online script writing competitions? Are they legit?
-The best competitions in general are the ones showcasing the whole process. In other words, your local film festival. Find or build a team and work your way through the circuit to sundance! There’s a few steps between here and there, but just take one step. Then the next.
– Script writing in general is difficult because remember that scripts are, in effect, business plans. They should get a return on a $20m to $120m investment. (That’s not including marketing/distribution) I did not write the script but I have friends who have done script writing. What I suggest is that new script writers go to live events where they can perform short monologues and get recorded and noticed that way. Also to try to publish books and get a following because that has a lower barrier to entry. I have not heard of online competitions getting noticed out here but, again this is not my exact specialty :)”
You can follow Jonathan Leaders on twitter:
We all know that our favorite Vulcan wasn’t really lowered into a volcano in Star Trek Into Darkness. We know it was a visual special effect – VFX. If you’ve seen a movie in the last 20 years, you know that VFX have played an increasing role in movies. What you may not know is that the business model in VFX and in studios has driven an appalling number of VFX companies out of business.
One of the most bizarre examples is the brilliant company Rhythm & Hues, creator of VFX since 1987, including such beloved movies as Babe and Life of Pi. As Life of Pi was winning an Oscar, Rhythm & Hues was entering bankruptcy. How could this happen??
This video, Life After Pi, talks about what happened: http://youtu.be/9lcB9u-9mVE
If you’ve ever run a business, you know that being held to a fixed price while the scope grows will give you nightmares. Early in my training career, I made my mark as a project manager by refusing to expand scope without more pay. Too often people feel they can’t do that, especially if their client is the “only game in town” or can blackball them.
Adding to the problem is that in spite of the long time it takes to develop VFX, directors hesitate to define what they need until the last minute. If some new effect captures the public’s attention, they want to be able to include it in their movie.
As the video mentioned, no longer do directors do the detailed planning up front that used to be required. I’ve found that many people in the business recoil in horror if I suggest project planning – “Oh my god, it would stifle our creativity!!” Hmm, research scientists in weapons and pharmaceutical organizations have said the same thing when their unlimited expenditures were curtailed. Instead they got more creative AND learned to plan their work. But right now we have enormous amounts being spent on studio tentpoles – and their suppliers being forced out of business. Hmm.
While we’re on the subject of strange business practices, I asked a Hollywood contact about accountability – wouldn’t the studio be held accountable if they used deceptive business practices on a movie? No!! Each movie is done as its own corporation – which is disbanded at the end of the movie project. Sure you could sue, but by the time anything happens in the judicial system, the work is done and that company no longer exists. Good luck on getting any judgment that has teeth, no matter how flagrant the violation!
Seems change is overdue and inevitable.
Suppose you were considering casting Thor and the Avengers – and Chris Hemsworth walked in the door! Would you have seen his Star Power?
Casting Director Randi Hiller says “Chris is 6ft 5in and ridiculously handsome. You look at him and think ‘Thor’,” but Randi says that at first he just didn’t have “The Strut”. Clearly Chris was clearly someone to keep an eye on. So how did he end up as Thor?
He got cast as Kirk’s father in the 2009 Star Trek reboot – and that changed things. Randi said that after that “his skin fit”. Now he was ready for Thor!
Star Trek 2009 had me hooked from the beginning with George Kirk. He WAS our Capt. Kirk’s father without doubt. Later in Thor, Chris was perfect. It never occurred to me that long before, someone had to see that potential in the actor to cast him – until I had an opportunity to learn more about casting.
2013 was my first San Diego Comic Con. I loved the costumes and characters and huge halls with panels of movie and TV celebrities. I was just as delighted to find that one of the events was a panel of casting directors. Aha! The guys and gals who see the hopeful actors and pick the ones that might be matches for the leading roles. How do they spot the magical potential in the actors?
I found that it’s more involved than I thought. It isn’t just matching Looks X to Role Y. As one panel member said, “Our job is to have ‘actor fluency’.”
The moderator of the panel was Lora Kennedy (Warner Brothers, EVP, Features Casting. CD, Man of Steel). Panelists were Roger Mussenden (X-Men: Days of Future Past), Sharon Bialy (The Walking Dead), David Rapaport (Arrow) and Randi Hiller (of Walt Disney Studios, VP Casting. CD, The Avengers). Our current superheroes started here!
So what are Casting Directors looking for?
– For a lead in a multi-million picture, they need a known actor, someone with experience. “The Studio wants someone famous – at least someone who won’t FU their project!” TV is a good place to get known because an actor doesn’t need a name to become a TV star. I thought of Zachary Quinto, cast as Spock for Star Trek 2009. He was the first role cast, even though he had no movie experience. But he did have TV experience, getting star status as Sylar in Heroes. Zachary has also said that he spent his early years in Hollywood getting to know the Casting Directors. What about smaller roles? The panel said that for those the actor can have less experience.
– Actors with representatives get looked at first. Un-repped actors get looked at, but not first. It is very rare to pull someone off the street, as was claimed to happen in the early days of Hollywood. If the actor picked drops out, will they go to the #2 choice. Almost never, alas. They are more likely to start over.
– Casting means going through tons of headshots. I knew that every actor had them. The few I’ve seen looked very glamorous. But the panel said not to send a glamor shot, but something that captures the actor’s personality. Sharen said that first they look for the given age & type range. Then for the training. If someone doesn’t fit the current project but has potential – an “It” factor – they’ll note him or her in their “black books” for later roles.
– Tapes act as a pre-audition. Tip: check the tape! Casting gets many tapes with no sound or other glitches. Not good! Casting Directors have to go through a lot of material, so they favor something where they can click a button and look at a short clip quickly. Randi said, “Long montages don’t get you anywhere. Put your best foot forward. I don’t want to see a scene from your acting class.”
– Whether headshots or tapes, they are looking for someone unique. The panel said that actors shouldn’t try to be who they think the casting director wants.
– They look for someone who acts professional and looks proud of what they do. Casting Directors prefer actors who show up and are on time. An actor in the audience said, “These days if you want a job in Hollywood, you need a British passport!” Randi replied that it wasn’t a matter of nationality, but of work ethic. She gave an example of a project with 5 Brits, 5 Australians and 10 Americans. The Brits and Aussies showed up on time and were fully prepared. Half of the Americans often didn’t show up – car trouble, sick – lots of excuses. Those that did weren’t prepared. Wow! The American work ethic has deteriorated even in this highly competitive field!
– A killer audition is what got many current stars remembered. Several on the panel said it’s important to play the character that is presented. If auditioning for someone with super powers, to play the person – not the power. Sharon said, “Your job is to make the story move forward. It is not about you!”
OK, even if an actor meets all the criteria, is that it? Who makes the real casting decision? Sure, the casting director presents his or her choice but who makes the casting decision? The director? The studio producer? The show runner (the person responsible for the day to day operation of a TV series)? Turns out that it varies.
Sharon said that for her series the show runner has the final say, but usually all are on the same page. Being cable, they don’t have a committee decision. David said that with Arrow on The CW it is similar. But for the networks and movies, it’s like forty-five (!) people have to sign-off on a co-star. They end up going back to the drawing board a lot. One panel member told of a meeting with twenty-five people, each of whom wanted to say something about each decision – agonizing!!
Sometimes there are union issues or things outside the actor’s control that means he or she can’t be cast for a role. For example, if the shooting is in another country, they may not be able to get the actor accepted in the role or get them there in time.
What a fascinating job! Not all is just looking at gorgeous actors. It sounds like Casting Directors need a lot of patience.
Are you an actor? There’s more you may find helpful on the full panel discussion here.
Do you have any experience with casting actors? Or being cast yourself? What was it like for you? I’d love to hear your comment.