In the scene but not heard

Last updated 05:00 28/09/2011
Shortland Street
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ACTION: Roimata, TK and Henare film a scene while long-time extra Tabitha Avery is seen clearing plates in the background.

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Come early November, those who know me might recognise my profile for a fleeting moment in a couple of scenes on Shortland Street.

If you miss me, bad luck. But you could just as easily miss me even if you are looking; as one of several extras in the IV Bar, chances are I'll be merely a colourful blur in the background of a couple of scenes, one of a clutch of ordinary people making up numbers as bar patrons.

Backstage at South Pacific Pictures' Waitakere City studios, actors come and go, meeting, greeting, rehearsing. Pua Magasiva (who plays Vinnie Kruse) is running through his lines in a side room. Virginie Le Brun (Dr Gabrielle Jacobs) shies away from conversation and takes her sculptured cheekbones through to makeup. Russet-haired Jacqueline Nairn (mother-of-three Wendy Cooper) beams with interest in this story, and handsome young Ido Drent (Daniel Potts) is polite and welcoming.

In other rooms, some of the show's seven storyliners work on outlines for future episodes and a pair of script editors tweak the content and sharpen the dialogue to keep it fresh and quick-moving. The character- based nature of the storytelling requires current idiomatic updates, and social references are plugged in where appropriate (a reference was made to Sonny Bill Williams's ripped shirt in the New Zealand v Tonga RWC game, for example).

While costume and makeup departments transform their charges, assistant directors and others bustle around with set-pieces to manoeuvre, props to organise, timing to co- ordinate, actors to wrangle. Everyone in the team is focused on meeting the tight daily schedule: five half-hour shows a week to film is roughly equivalent to shooting a feature film each week.

Meanwhile, down the corridor in the extras' room, 15 or 20 people sit quietly, eyes down, flicking through magazines, thumbing their mobile gadgets and awaiting the call to go on.

These individuals are bit players, not part of the integrated team beyond this room. He or she is there to be seen and not heard. Definitely not heard. If an extra, deep in mimed conversation, emits a sibilant or two, and the sound is captured by the powerful overhead boom microphone, another take is needed and time is money.

On-set, extras are paired or grouped, according to requirements. I find myself in instant intimate eye contact and strange soundless conversation with Dave, a man I don't know, facial features overacting silently. Next I'm paired with a younger woman and then in a "family group".

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Pay for extras starts at the basic wage and is scaled upwards if they are featured. Some I meet are working to support their university or polytech studies, others are professional extras, and one or two are actors doing this until they get a breakthrough role here or elsewhere.

Tabitha Avery is a longterm extra, who has been seen behind the bar at the IV for almost four years. The mother of a school-age son, she works in hospitality at night and on-set during the day. "Life imitating art," she says.

Because it's such a quick- turnaround programme, the show's set is open-fronted like a theatre set (rather than being fully built rooms), to accommodate all the equipment and technical crew. Three cameras capture the action from different angles simultaneously and the vision is called and mixed as it is shot, as in live-action sports coverage.

And rather than the take after dreary take of a film set, the daily soap is fast-paced. The players must learn their 15 or so pages of daily dialogue, then deliver them, immediately in character, under the lights and hawkeyes of the various operators in a mere handful of takes.

Shortland Street has been a nursery for many homegrown actors who've become successful nationally and offshore, and watching them in action in this demanding crucible of filmic arts, you can see why.

If my extra character had been wearing a hat, I would have taken it off to them all.

- The Dominion Post

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