The ( not so ) glamorous life of a historical SA

 

Apart from making a lot of historical clothing   we also get to wear them a lot as we do a lot of work as Historical interpreters (shows, demos, talks etc 0 ore info here!). But sometimes  we take it a step in a slightly different direction –  and work as SA ( supportive artist, or a extra)  in film industry.

Obviously, the work is quite specialized – we have extensive wardrobes from Viking to about 1900, so our range is best fitted for costume productions. And so in the last few years we worked for film both in our SA capacity and a costumier one, hiring period clothing for other actors and SAs.

Our experiences varied a lot, as we worked for amazing teams and some rather less organized ones, but over the last  5 years we have clocked up quite a lot of film time!

We have worked for private productions, NBC and BBC, sometimes hired individually, sometimes by event organizers

Filming for BBC with David Starkey  and Lucy Worsley programme – A Night at Hampton Court

 

   

still from Regency Christmas feature for NBC   ( there is a separate post on that one here )

But most of our work has been for Horrible Histories – we feature in about 4 seasons I think! Season 7 is just about to be released – and we have done A LOT in this one….

We started by doing a single day, being subcontracted by another company, for acting and clothes hire. Although the work was great the contractor wasn’t – we ended up not being paid for months, with our items not returned  till months later, and even then not all of the items were returned and some of them were damaged. Lesson learn…. That company went bust a few months later – not surprising….

Still, it was my first  work for HH and  I liked it – and it looked like they liked me, as we did  more work in the following years….

Here at Dorney Court, for HH 5 and 6 – doing Tudor and Elizabethan stuff. Unexpectedly we ended up working with a star – Rowan Atkinson!  Check  this out- Mary Rhapsody and  Terrible Tudors – My big Fat Tudor Wedding

 

then at Weald and Downland Living museum   –  more Elizabethan ( Shakespeare this time)

 

and then The Great Fire of London – that was one of the most exhausting shots – running round over cobblestones, in dense smoke, screaming……..

 Then last year we were all over filming for about 2 weeks over 2 months – Kent, Sussex, Bedfordshire, London –  lots of travelling – and now often with friends 🙂

HH in my experience was amazing to work with – the team was superb, mostly due to the fact that over the last few years they all worked together, got to know each other and  moulded into a very efficient and professional team – who got on together and maintained a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.  The Directors, Steve  and Adam, were superb – patient, approachable, open to the actor’s suggestions, with a sharp sense of humour (goes without saying really, prerequisite for the job!), and working tirelessly long, hectic days – 7am start, 7pm ( or later) finish.

The costume department and the make up one were great at transformation – you would often see the same actor looking unrecognizable from this morning look to the afternoon one.  ot all the looks were 100% historically accurate, and some did not make up pretty – but they were suitable for the show and reflected the designers take. and boy, did we get a few interesting faces over the years!

 

And as people are always asking us for advice – a few things we have learnt over the last few years – maybe they will be of use for any budding extras, actors  or re-enactors!

  • It is always  a ‘hurry up and wait ‘ job.  You may have to wait for 30 minutes in full kit – or 5 hours. if even then you may not go on set if the plans change. So take some  thing to occupy you – books, needlework, laptop – anything that will allow you to pass the time quietly .  Nap, or chat quietly is not on set – do some other work, but be ready to go in seconds. The main cast have mastered the skill of waiting to a perfection…. 

 

  • Generally – do not speak unless spoken to. All the team, directors, runners, sound, managers, actors – they  are there most of the time whereas you may be there for a day or so. Even if resting, the actors may be rehearsing their lines – or just getting a nap – some of them were up since 4 am, let them rest. If they want to talk to you, they will.  If you have a genuine concern as to what you are to be doing, do ask politely, but make sure you pay attention when the scene is explained.
  •   If possible ask for a copy of the call sheet on the day – once you puzzle it out, you will be able to have a faint idea of what actually you are doing and when.  It will change  on the day in some ways or another, so don’t think of it as a done deal – but it does help knowing who is in charge on that day, where you are supposed to be etc.

 

  • Most sets forbid phones. Obey.

 

  • If phones permitted, and you can take selfies, make sure they are generic and do not betray any of the content. It is still safer to publish any more detailed shots after the programme has been aired. Check  your contract if in doubt.

 

  •  don’t take photos of the crew and actors, unless they are fine with it. Ask, but don’t be offended if they refuse. Often they are too happy to oblige, make the best of it 🙂
  •  some sets have amazing catering – enjoy but be prepared to let the main crew eat first. Always take snacks and water with you just in case   if you are on a new set – sometimes catering is less than perfect!
  •  Forget your ego. You are most often a background.  If you specialize in historical clothing, weaponry, hairdressing etc – just relax and remember this is not  about you, and you are not hired as a consultant to preach on the historical accuracy.  The Make up and Costume department will not  appreciate it – very often they are all too aware of the shortcomings but they too need to abide by the script and the designers/producers ideas. Remember TV and theatre does have different set of requirements, and you may not be aware of them. so ease up, and relax. A good relationship with the costume/make up department makes the whole experience invaluable – and may result in making friends and also, getting more work. I was very lucky to work with Ross Ebbutt from Cosprop over the last few years – and we both  understand  different perspective and different   focus  for living history and film. AS a result  not only we got on well and developed a good working relationship, but I also went on to do some more costuming work for Ros later on ( secret so far…)

    and you get to help out too, when last minute changes are needed! here adapting a bonnet for a mourning rather than bridal look…

    Hair and make up doing their magic…..

  • Have a contract – most companies will issue one for you , do make sure what is required before actually coming on set.  Make sure you read it all, small print included. If you haven’t agreed to doing any stunts or any activities not mentioned in the negotiations, don’t agree to the  the spot.  Some productions insure their extras  for special stuff, some don’t – so don’t do anything risky if you are not insured and it hasn’t been agreed on.

 

  •  Using extra / casting agencies. A good idea if that’s what you want to do for a living and are available at a day’s notice ( so not something we can do -I am usually booked up with work for up to 6 months or more…). We tried once – with the results being that we immediately chucked the agency and treated separately as the agency was not only not providing us with the information, but also not updating the  film crew – in once case I only found out we are on the next day by calling  the HH point of contact directly – and then discovered that we are apparently booked for several days more – something that the agency completely forgot to mention. So choose your agency wisely, ask for recommendations etc.   and when you find a good one, stick with them!

 

  •  Respect all the members of the crew.  there are dozens and hundreds people involved, and although it is the actors/directors that usually are basking in the glory, being on a set makes you distinctively aware of how much work  goes into the production, and ho many different people and jobs are involved. they are all people working at the best of their professional levels, and they are ALL essential.

all that stuff!!!!

  • If asked to bring your own clothing, have a few options available – much easier for the costume department to choose the look they need!
  • needless to say, if you are nervous in front of the camera, this is not a job for you….

 

  •  Enjoy. Tiring and often boring as it often is, it is also a great experience.  You get to see lovely locations, you will observe  top people working magic, your will contribute to this magic too. I  learnt so much about different jobs on the set – it is mind blowing. Seeing actors being able to adapt different accents and personalities at a switch of a scene and repeating it over and over again, with ( apparent) fresh enthusiasm; admiring  the make up, hair and costume guys who would work wonders transforming people from a 20 year old  medieval knight in the morning to an 80 year old Soviet soldier in the afternoon; marveling at the light and sound guys and the technical department harnessing the laws of physics  to their purposes; and just being impressed by  the sheer hard work everybody was putting in –  it is not a light work, but the effects are amazing.

 

Hope you found  it an interesting read  and maybe a useful one – and hope I didn’t scare you too much from having a go if you ever considered it 🙂

 

5 thoughts on “The ( not so ) glamorous life of a historical SA

  1. That sounds like so much fun!!! That’s totally something I would love to do! I love dressing up in historical fashions. I don’t have as many as I would like though. Thank you for posting your experience! Makes me hopeful that I can do it too!

    • not sure you read it thoroughly ;-)- it is 12 hours day job, mostly alternating between hours of boredom and hectic performance, if that sounds like fun – have a look at local extra casting agencies. if not – be glad you were spared it 🙂

  2. This is a pretty good summery of life as an extra – it’s NOT glamorous, it’s tough – long hours sitting in tents or buses waiting to be used, standing around on sets whilst hair and make up fiddle around with details. And you are often asked to repeat an action, time and time again, so you have to remember exactly what you did for each take, which could be from a different angle. I worked on Keira Knightleys P&P and some of those dance sequences took 12 takes!
    I used to ask my agency for ONLY period work as l wasn’t interested in Crime or Police dramas. Unfortnatey this means very long hours as you often have to be on set at 6am to have hair and make up done before the main actors arrive and they don’t usually start shooting until midday.
    And DO use a reputable agency, unless like Prior Attire you are a company. They are there to support you and iron out any issues. Some are better than others, but the more you are loyal to them, the more work they will give you. Don’t worry if you can’t do all the work they might offer all the time – sometimes it’s with very little notice – but that’s th nature of the game. If you hear a period production is being made, find out who is doing the SA casting, or if it’s your agency ask if you can be considered but remember, they are often after a particular look and it’s unlikely you will be used for several different scenes due to continuity.
    You can’t afford to have an ego either, or care about your personal appearance. Ok everyone wants to look their best, but you are a canvas to be painted or shat on – if you can’t accept being the ‘lowest of the low’ then extra work is not for you!
    And actors – most are charming, but they have little time for small talk. They have lines and actions to remember, or other issues like egos (never look Tom Cruise in the eye) so unless it’s a break and you happen to be sitting around with them, which is highly unlikely on a big film production, but does sometimes happen (l managed to have a conversation with Scarlett Johanssen on a Woody Allen set, just by chance, lucky me!)
    What’s impressive is the amount of creativity that goes on to produce, what is in the end, a piece of fantasy – and you might, just might, be part of it on screen, but even if not – you were there!

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