This past week I was able to work as an extra on the set of Danny Boyle's new film 127 Hours. It's being shot here in Utah and a lot of locals are working in it. I had the great opportunity to observe an acclaimed director and how he operates a feature film set. I also gleaned some valuable lessons to use in my own movies.
One of the first things that struck me was how much money flows through a professional production. I arrived at 6:00am and by the time noon had rolled around, all of one shot had been completed. You can probably guess how many shots are in a feature and with all the crew and talent and extras being paid, I can see why budgets are so large. The lesson here is get things done ASAP or you will also be paying through the nose. If not in money, then time. We don't have the luxury of keeping people around for one camera angle. Be prepared and efficient. Get as many setups as possible in the time allotted. I realize Boyle has free reign, but this seemed extreme.
Gotta love those practical effects! In the story, rock climber Aron Ralston (James Franco) gets his arm pinned under a boulder then cuts it off to escape. I was a reporter in a press conference scene featuring Ralston's first contact with the media after his release from the hospital. In it, his arm is missing from the forearm down. No green glove and CGI trickery was used here, only a sling with a hole that allowed Franco to hide his hand inside of his shirt. Simple and effective.
I also liked how the "shafts of light streaking in the window" effect was accomplished. A smoke machine was placed just outside the door of the small room. Then a fan sucked the smoke into the room, blowing the fine mist everywhere. This created the subtle effect. It's one anyone with a fogger and fan could reproduce.
Later we in the Energy Solutions Arena where the Utah Jazz play, recreating a flashback scene. Earlier in the year I was in an Olympic commercial at Rio Tinto stadium where extras were "tiled" to simulate a stadium full of people. This meant moving all over the stadium as as group, then multiplied in post. Again, Boyle used the old school approach. For every angle of the the leads, crowd filled the frame just around them, whether straight on, or at an angle (which was more involved due to the depth of the shot). You may not be able to round up 350 extras for your movie, but the idea could still help you pull off something similar.
Finally, Boyle was a very nice and funny person who treated everyone (including lowly extras) with respect. His set was fun to work on, especially when he was close enough to observe, which was very often. He even gave me specific direction to react annoyed when Franco's co-star (a British girl I couldn't find on IMDB) stood up in front of me, blocking my view of the game. I'll probably be easy to spot in the film as a result. Overall, a good day for me. It was long perhaps (14 hours), but there was no better classroom I could attend to teach me valuable lessons to better my own skills.