Category Archives: Cactus Patch Productions

News and plans for the creative company in Spain

Being an Extra

Being a supporting artiste/background artiste/extra can be interesting, lucrative and educational.

You can meet interesting people, work on fascinating sets and in wonderful locations and you can learn a lot from it. You sometimes get great food!  It can also be very dull, hard work, soul destroying, badly paid, cold, wet and miserable and in some cases extras are treated like sheep and given very little respect or consideration.

Don’t choose it as a “stepping stone” to featured/speaking/lead roles.  Very occasionally a background artist is given more to do and very occasionally a background artist has progressed within the same organisation/soap opera and had a speaking role.  This does not normally happen and you shouldn’t go into background work hoping that it will, as you are likely to be disappointed!  Not only that, but if you try to get noticed as a background artiste you are likely to make yourself very unpopular.

If you are an adult actor you should not include background credits on an acting CV.  Treat the work as an SA like any other part time job, like working in a pub or in an office.

If you are a child actor and you feel you want to mention your experience, just be a bit careful about how you use the credit on a CV and ensure that you make it clear that you understand that it is different from an acting credit.

The reason for this is not really to do with snobbery (well, perhaps a little bit) it’s more to do with how actors and background artistes are chosen/cast.  The work you do as a background artist is valuable BUT  in most cases the background artists are not auditioned, they are selected and sent along as a “type”.  This means that your acting skills as an extra have not usually been assessed by anyone (even though you may be brilliant) and so the work  is not regarded as an acting credit.  It’s really important (if you are hoping to work as a professional actor) that you recognise that the people you hope will eventually employ you as an actor will not regard SA experience as relevant.

The truth is that you don’t have to have any acting skills to do SA work.  Many SAs are actors (some may be brilliant actors) but they could be on set with someone who has no acting skills at all – and they’re both employed to do the same job.  That’s why telling someone you’re an SA (or that you’ve worked on some big blockbuster) doesn’t give anyone in casting any kind of clue about your acting ability.  Mentioning your SA work when you are pursuing acting work won’t do you any favours .  It could work against you, because you will give the impression that you don’t understand the industry (or casting).

Some people get really upset by this, but it’s important not to take it personally.  Just keep the two experiences separate and enjoy them for what they are.

If anyone offers you an “IMDB credit” as an incentive (especially if they offer it instead of pay) then they’re taking you for a ride.  IMDB credits for SA work don’t mean anything and once you get into acting work, they can do you more harm than good.

I cannot see any advantage in doing extra work for no financial reward – unless you’re helping out a friend.

The best way to get extra work is to join an extras agency – or more than one.

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Shot from scratch showreels – an opinion.

Several opinions, if I’m honest.
Pull up a chair.

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I love screen acting.

I haven’t done much of it compared to many actors, but I’m fascinated by it.  I love to watch actors’ showreels and I’m constantly intrigued by what makes actors “stand out”.

Really good showreels are a wonderful combination of terrific acting and great editing.  From a casting point of view the best ones are those that show both great acting AND that people have already been cast in broadcast work.  It’s a useful filter for casters and obviously reduces risk: as a CD or Director you can be reasonably confident that the actor has a clue, knows how to behave on set and has already been judged capable by someone in the industry.  As an agent, it shows that the actor is employable…

However, for lots of actors starting out you can’t showcase your screen acting to a caster unless you have at least something on screen – hence the explosion of “shot from scratch” showreels.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have seen some absolutely shocking examples of shot from scratch.  Some of them are so bad, I can scarcely bring myself to watch them all the way through – even for research purposes.

If you are considering paying for a shot from scratch reel then you are likely to be investing a lot of money.  It’s worth spending plenty of time doing some research.

I think the very best research you can do is to watch lots and lots and lots of showreels one after the other.  It’s what casting directors do.
CCP is quite a good source of showreels, but I’d also suggest looking at the Spotlight pages (and showreels) of some more established actors – you can often get access to these via agency websites.  Watch the showreels put out by shot from scratch companies by all means, but make sure you compare them to those actors who have showreels compiled from broadcast clips.

Imagine you’re an agent, deciding whether or not to take on a new client.  What helps you to make a decision?  What annoys you, gets in the way?  If you watch scores of showreels in one sitting, you’ll soon see why CDs and agents will often only watch a few seconds before moving on.

I’d also suggest getting some screen acting experience before you try a shot from scratch reel.  Do some student films, or get together with friends and shoot some footage on your phone.  Do a short course if you can afford it.  Having some experience is likely to help you to get the best value for money in a shot from scratch reel.  It’s important that you know what you want – and what you hope to capture.

I think there are some obvious pitfalls and reasons why some shot from scratch reels are terrible – and perhaps some less obvious ones.  Some of the following don’t make them terrible acting showcases – but some of them do make them very obviously shot from scratch. Where possible, when trying to interest a caster (and therefore from an actor’s point of view) I think it’s preferable to avoid announcing its shot from scratch nature.

1.  Bad acting.  Sometimes it’s that simple and quite possibly there’s not a lot that can be done to rescue these.   However, I think that sometimes – maybe more than sometimes –  it may be a case of reason number 2 – or at least that number 2 can be a huge factor:

2.  Lack of direction OR lack of direction by someone who understands the acting process.  Shot from scratch showreels – by their very nature – are undertaken by actors with little professional screen experience.  Actors may have had very little screen acting training.  Some will have only done theatre.  Some will have only done amateur theatre.  Some may have done very little acting before at all.  Helping actors get a good shot from scratch reel means understanding their limited experience from an acting and technical point of view and watching for the pitfalls.  Sometimes “talk faster” is all that will be needed for the scene to work better  – but there needs to be a way of helping actors to do that without making them self conscious.

3. Bad writing.  Oh my word, there’s a lot of this!  I could write an entire essay on this subject – but I won’t… at least, not now 😉

4. Cliched scenarios.  Oh good grief, there are SO many of these! If you watch lots of showreels, you’ll soon see what I mean.  Guns and people tied up in cellars feature remarkably often – but there are plenty of others that are likely to make a CD squirm.

5. Actors choosing “characters” (or scenarios) they’d love to play – rather than acting in scenes that allow them to showcase something in their acting/casting bracket.  This is such a giveaway of shot from scratch.

6.  Over-ambitious scenes.  Choosing something that requires far more time/money/expertise than is available.  Period drama (without the budget or design skills/knowledge to match) is one of those I see most often in shot from scratch.  Casting Directors are interested in your acting – not how pretty your frock (or frock-coat)  is.

7. Poor production values.
This happens occasionally when an actor hasn’t chosen the company wisely.  Sound/lighting can be crap and/or the company doesn’t have much technical expertise.  I suspect this is what annoys the good showreels companies the most .

However, unless it’s *obviously* bad (and sadly sometimes it is, and therefore detracts from the acting) then I think this is actually less of a problem than most of the other points  – from a caster’s point of view.

In any case, this is an easy thing to watch out for when you’re researching companies.

Many shot from scratch companies spend a lot of time in their marketing telling actors how great the equipment is – I sometimes wonder whether this means that they don’t concentrate on other equally important elements.  Most showreels are viewed on computer screens – not on cinema screens.  It’s important that showreel companies recognise this fact too.

8. Lack of background/extras in locations where there definitely SHOULD be background.  Another dead giveaway of shot from scratch. So many empty cafes and streets…

9. Lack of screen acting technique from the actors (but see point 2). Inability to hit marks, poor grasp of continuity etc etc.

10.  Bloody guns being waved around by people who have no idea how to even hold one (see point 4!)

11. Wooden acting partner – ruins the scene for the capable actor.

12.  Scenes that are basically a monologue with someone sitting in and nodding in response…

13.  The same locations used in lots of different showreels; the same bridge, window, sofa, potplant – even the same mugs.  When you watch lots of showreels this is horribly obvious.

14. The same scripts used for different actors’ showreels.  This is also horribly obvious if you watch lots of showreels.

15.  Having the same screen partner in different scenes on a showreel.

16. Recreation of an already-released film or tv scene.

17. Lack of time – especially the time to help inexperienced actors to improve their on-screen performance.

There are probably more. ☺

Then there are the editing issues:

1. Bloody montages…
2. Not knowing who we’re supposed to be watching until 20 seconds in.
3. Not enough dialogue or close ups.
4. Inclusion of clips with “famous people” even when it doesn’t show the actor in question actually acting …

Other pitfalls:
In my opinion the following three issues are pitfalls that you may need to insist on the company addressing for your benefit – because addressing them may not be in the company’s immediate interest:

The resulting showreel is far too long.  Between one and two minutes really is plenty for a shot from scratch reel – and the scenes don’t need to make narrative sense.  I think companies like to think they’re giving “value for money” when they provide a reel with 3 scenes each 60-90 seconds long, but it’s so much better to have a minute of excellent work than 4 minutes of adequate work.  It costs the company the same to deliver the one excellent minute – and it’s important for actors to recognise this too.  Don’t judge the worth by the length.

The resulting showreel publicises the company as well as the actor.  If you’re paying for it, you shouldn’t need the company’s details anywhere on the showreel – or certainly not prominently displayed.

There is not enough time on the shoot for you to practice/rehearse as an actor (not just the technical stuff).  On a real shoot you probably wouldn’t get much rehearsal time at all – but if you’re paying, you should be able to insist on it.  Whether or not you choose to have a look at a “take” before moving on should also be the actor’s decision if the actor is paying . You don’t usually have this option on a shoot either, but you’re paying, so you should be able to decide, providing it’s been agreed beforehand.  There are pros and cons to looking at your work as you go along – the more screen acting practice you get, the more you’ll become aware whether this is likely to help or hinder you.

If I had to choose just one thing that would improve most shot from scratch reels, it would be the writing.  Good screenwriting isn’t easy – and of course it’s not just dialogue that makes the difference. Good dialogue is a doddle to deliver and can help to make everyone look good – but a credible, original, interesting scene is far more that just great dialogue.

As part of the research you do before choosing a company and script, it would be worth looking at some TV screenplays (BBC writers room has a great selection).  You can see just how much goes into them.



Have a question?  Send me a note via the Contact page.
If you find my blogs and website useful, I’d be delighted if you’d consider buying me a virtual coffee.  Just click on the button.  Thank you!

You should be on the stage…

…the next stage out of town.

The opening of AWFF
The opening of AWFF

We went to the Almeria Western Film Festival last week.  The opening parade reminded me of Buxton Carnival.
There were floats and home made costumes – some wonderful, some a bit thrown together – there were enthusiastic children and self conscious teenagers and quite a few adults who fitted very clearly in to the enthusiastic or self-conscious pigeon holes too. Continue reading You should be on the stage…