By Valli Herman
Costume Designer Camille Jumelle stocks her tool kit with special supplies that work like magic to fit costumes expertly not just on principals, but also on those essential minor characters, the extras.
She has rubber bands in all sizes to function like garters to instantly shorten sleeves under jackets, massive amounts of safety pins, fusible non-woven interfacing for fast fixes and every manner of tape, from toupee to gaffer’s to prevent wardrobe malfunctions.
But if nobody really sees the extras, why bother? “If extras don’t look right, they can make or break your film. The one extra that you don’t take care of, he’s the one that somehow is going to get pulled on set and get a walk-by or more camera time than you ever planned,” said Jumelle, who showed her retro flair on the spoof “Psycho Beach Party.”
Costume Designer Julie Weiss would like to see a change in terminology for the actors who are essential to creating atmosphere, mood and an all-important framework for the main object of contemplation. Instead of calling these cast members “extras,” she prefers the term “background,” but finds even that term lacking. Very often, she said, these actors appear in close proximity to the principal actors, providing important context about the location, time period, demographics and tone and authenticity of the story.
“Background actors aren’t the focus of the scene, but they’re important to the scene. We as costume designers are there to support the directorial concept and to enhance and clarify the principal actors through their costume,” Weiss said.
Dressing background characters can–and perhaps should–require as much attention as principals, especially when scenes call for fantasy figures, crowds of spectators, swarms of soldiers or even Playboy bunny cocktail waitresses.
For the 2011 TV series, “The Playboy Club,” Costume Designer Isis Mussenden applied the first rule of dressing background characters–make sure you’re well staffed.
“We had 22 bunnies and 86 changes for them, plus 220 extras dressed in ‘60s nightclub clothes. “You have to get a team in place that’s working on just your background when you have a show like that,” she said.
The second rule: Make your color palette work for you. “As I started putting it together, we realized that many of the cocktail dresses in that era were the same color as the bunnies, who were in emerald green, red, canary yellow and sapphire. So I eliminated all jewel tones from the extras stock in the club and put them in anything but–silver, gold, lace and icy blue. Now the bunnies were really the focal point,” she said.
The art of dressing background characters is further complicated by technology. Mussenden has had to match the look and feel of actual news reel footage that was inserted into “Thirteen Days,” about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. For “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” she had to plot the costume elements that could dress real-life, three-dimensional ogres that would be the foundation for multiple computer generated characters.
“When I am designing those 10 ogres, I am creating pieces like Colorforms so we can mix and match in the computer, so when we go from 10 to 60 ogres, we don’t have the same look,” Mussenden said. Each ogre is scanned and the various costume pieces can be rearranged in post production.
Through the wizardry of post production editing, she’s also able to make a crowd of 100 humans look like 800 or 1,000.
“When you have a thousand people, you don’t look at every single person. I dress 100 people with different pieces–change a hat here, put a cloak on another and move him to another place and keep shooting,” she said. And for when the camera comes in close? “You make sure you have an A crowd,” she said. “They’re done to the nines with good faces, good clothes.”
For the 1940s-era film “Little Boy,” Costume Designer Laura Jean Shannon knew she would be facing substantial challenges to create the multiple fantasy sequences featuring scores of exotic soldiers.
“On that project, I had my background be the very first thing I addressed. I knew it was something that could become a real Pandora’s box if we didn’t have a real plan in motion,” she said of the shoot, which took place on the Mexican coast.
She headed to American Costumes in North Hollywood. “I struck a deal where I pulled almost all of my background from their warehouse and shipped it to Mexico. Then I had extras casting send me 300 people that I prefit in three different looks for the film,” she said. “I always try to think ahead to have three or four approaches for each situation.”
Not only did Shannon have to create period-correct clothing and ship it across the border, but she also had to design elaborate Mongolian and Samurai warrior costumes, an effort that required shipments from across the globe.
“When you’re doing a project like ‘Little Boy,’ the extras end up becoming a huge part of the manpower, the creativity and the budget,” Shannon said.
Weiss concurs that, while essential, the background actors and the ADs are often put in difficult positions.
“My perspective about background actors has changed over the years. Be kind to your ADs–they place the extras–and be kind to your background actors, too.” Both aren’t often given adequate resources. “There is never enough time to dress background, or enough time for A.D.s to place background, or even have enough background for a shooting day,” she said.
As a result, it can be hard to suppress the urge to continue refining each background actor’s look.
“Hopefully, once the backgrounds are addressed, try not to change them,” Weiss said. “Go to craft services, leave the set no matter how difficult it is, use your iPad or find a hiding place where you can make motions to your trusted set crew to bring your favorite background character to the forefront.”
Even the best prepared designers encounter situations where an extra is the wrong size, wrong look or a last-minute script change leaves everyone scrambling. In those cases, quick thinking is imperative.
Costume Designer Julia Schklair recalled an incident where she needed to dress an extra in a skirt–but none were to be found.
“So I took fabric, I wrapped it up, stapled it and put it on set,” she said. The actor had special instructions: Keep your staple-side view away from the camera.
Of course, there is the theory that the reason background actors are called extras is because they’re a lot of extra work. That’s the nature of the beast–or bunny or warrior.
“If you don’t love a challenge and are in this business,” said Shannon, “then you need to change businesses.”