Jul 28, 2009

Rule Of Thumb: The Consistant Extra

Jul 28, 2009
I had this great moment recently when watching Band of Brothers. The writers had for whatever reason needed to start the episode with a small group of background characters walking through a meadow. I didn't know their names, they had had no dialogue that I could recall and for all intents and purposes they were nobodies, but they were familiar.

Because of the non-fiction nature of the show, mere 'extras' were able to be cast with names, personalities, and real consistency, so that subconsciously their faces had soaked into my subconscious. It made that universe real.

It's like school years, when you really only knew your friends and teachers by name, but as you walked the hallways, you could recognise with some familiarity all the unknown faces. If you were to go to a new school, yes everyone there was strange... but they weren't your strangers.

Background characters, if visually interesting and consistent, breed sub-conscious familiarity and depth in the world.

Now, I'm not talking about a large supporting cast like The Simpsons - think more Nurse Kelly from M*A*S*H. Unlike a supporting character, she never had her own Episode, theme, back story or even a full conversation - but she was consistently there, in the background. I like the idea of making an audience feel like there's a world beyond the 'Regulars'.

And of course, if as a writer you need someone new down the track, you already have a range of familiar characters, warmed up and ready to go.

Why, after watching the first Season or two of Voyager, there were times where I bet they wished there was a more interesting cast of 'nobodies' to draw upon. You always knew when there was an Episode coming up about a 'new Ensign', as they'd start setting them up two or three episodes before. It was always really obvious, as normal episodes would lead you to believe that there might only be ten people on the whole ship, and suddenly here was Ensign Ricky having his 15 minutes. But hey, at least they set them up.

Personally, I think there is some untapped potential using the idea of The Consistent Extra in animation, where I really haven't seen it used that much.

I just have to make sure I use it in a world where it is actually likely that characters will reoccur.


  1. i was watching csi (only cause my husband does) and theres only a handful of characters we know of, and for one episode we meet this"sexy" asain female agent whos been on the force for ages, but she was never seen as a back ground character, then she has this relationship with one of the Dr's and is used in this asian people smuggling bust, (cuz shes asain) and then we never see her again,

  2. Wedge Antilles is first played by Colin Higgins, and voiced by David Ankrum, and then played by Denis Lawson and voiced by David Ankrum, and then in the later films, he's played and voiced by Denis Lawson. He's played by two different people in two different scenes.

  3. Oh, they use consistant extras in cartoons all the time, but it's not because they're clever, it's because they run out of money. :P

  4. Jen: Good example. CSI, NCIS, NISC... pfft, close enough.

    Josh: Next time I see you, you get a nerd-punch... followed by a nerd-high-five.

    Luke: It's true, animations often have a generic passer-by 'palette'. However, I mean to improve on that in two ways:
    1. Location specific consistency
    Like there's always roughly the same group in certain bars. Or the audience gets used to a fairly small group of extras, then when they travel somewhere else, suddenly everyone is unfamiliar.
    2. Design/personality
    Extras are usually just bland variations on a 'standard model'. Which is a legitimate trick, one that should be used. But I also want to have the dynamic extras, who look interesting and have a personality. Like Nurse Kelly, she had a look, was interesting and always acted a certain way without being attention grabbing.

    I probably should have put this in the post, but whatever.

  5. did u guys watch the united states of tara last night?

  6. Oh crap! I forgot it was on!

    How was it?

  7. *impersonates Jen's voice*

    "united states of tara was good thanks for asking"


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