Stand-In 101

Stand-in.  We’ve all heard the term.  They stand-in for the actors, right. It’s right there in the name.  How hard can that be?  You just stand there, right?

Sort of.

I always thought stand-ins stood in place, so that the light and camera guys could focus the lights and the cameras.  And that is true, but there is more to it than that.

I arrived on set about a forty minutes early.  It would have been an hour early, but I waited in the car for a while until I couldn’t take it any more.  I had planned on extra time to get there in case I got lost, since I don’t know Portland at all, and also in case I ran into traffic.  Turns out neither happened. I took this opportunity to find the honeywagon among the rows of trailers, and pop in my contacts and relieve my nervous bladder.

When you get on a set the first thing you notice is that there are people, generally a lot of them, mostly dressed in black,  going this way and that. My rule of thumb is to find someone with a radio attached to them.  The people with radios know things, and if they don’t know what you need to know, they can ask over the radio and find out who does.  I didn’t see a radio person at first, so I asked a few random people, until I was pointed toward a guy with a radio. They were rolling at the moment, so everyone was standing quietly, and I patiently waited until “cut” was called so I could slide on up to him.  I said, I’m supposed to be a stand-in today, where do I go?

He got me over to the wardrobe truck to get my “color cover”, and radioed to find Matt the Background Coordinator to come and get me. Color cover is items of clothing that are the color of the clothing that the real actor is going to be wearing.  I had thought I would get a costume that more or less was what the person was really wearing, but as it turns out the color of the item is the important thing, rather than it match exactly in form.  So for instance, my character was wearing a hospital gown.  Did I wear a hospital gown?  Seems like an easy enough thing to procure, but no, I wore a button up dress shirt (three sizes to large) that was the color of the hospital gown.

After I changed into that, I met up with Matt who took me over to the soundstage, which was located in a big warehouse.  He kindly took a moment to give me a tour of the set when they were in between shooting set-ups. They section off different areas of the warehouse with the different sets they build. Some are just for one episode, and some will be used repeatedly.  Matt took me around the different areas.  It was the first day of shooting for this new series, so it was nice to get this orientation. I’d been an extra on Leverage and they have a similar warehouse set up, but no one took us lowly extras around.  I had settle for stealing quick glimpses as we walked through.

After the tour he took me to the background holding area, basically an office space attached to the warehouse that had a few well-worn couches to match the even more well-worn carpet.  I was to hang out until they needed me, which as it turns out wasn’t going to be for a few hours.  Hurry up and wait.

Which brings me to a special note.  Not that I’ve been doing this sort of work for a long time, so I wouldn’t consider myself an expert in any way, but I have learned that two things that will get you through the day are flexibility and patience.  If you don’t have these attributes, you will have a much harder time of it.   You will be called over in a rush, and then stand there for a half hour.  You won’t get your call-times for the next day until late the evening before.  They will tell you something and then it will change. If you are a person who needs to know how everything is going to be beforehand, well, you are going to be very disappointed.

So I chill in the holding area, until suddenly someone comes to get me. I’m on.  They take me over to the part of the warehouse where we will be shooting.  It’s a mockup of the inside of a camping trailer, the kind you would pull behind your car in the 1960’s.  I’m not going to go into a ton of detail because you aren’t supposed to talk about this kind of thing.  Don’t want to have spoilers and all.

Luckily the person asks me if I’d been a stand-in before.  I say no. So he explains it to me. He says, what you have to do is watch the actor you are standing in for, and then do what they do.

That’s it, in a nutshell.  A simple one-sentence description of what a stand-in does.

The actors and the director work out the blocking of the scene.  My job is to watch this.  This is hard because there are lighting, camera, sound, costume and makeup people standing around in front of you trying to do the same thing.  There are set people trying to get the last-minute things they need to do done.  There are PA’s running around doing what they are doing.  So basically there are 15 people standing in front of you, and you are trying to see around them and through them to see what the actors are doing.

My character enters the trailer.  Pauses at point A.  I count.  Seems like about three seconds, and then she moves to point B.  She looks at something, says something to the other character, then moves to point C.  She opens a cupboard and removes something.  She returns to point B. Then she does a specific movement.  This changes a few times, but basically by a few run-throughs this seems to be the settled on progression. Then she leaves.  Now it’s my turn.

I enter the trailer.  Stop.  Now I wait while the lighting and camera guys come over and look at me.  Really I’m pretty much the equivalent of furniture at this point.  How is the light hitting the sofa, I mean, um, person standing here?  We need more light here?  A little discussion, somebody radios for some kind of light to be hung. The Director of Photography tells the set dresser what he’d like to see in the background in the way of props.  Then, get someone to paint this door edge a little darker, it’s too bright.  OK, now back to me.  Go outside and enter again. Stop.  OK, now move to point B.  OK. Repeat process. Lights, set fiddling, props moved, cameras focused. OK. Go back to point A, then go to Point B.

Now I put in the pause.  The stop at Point B.  OK.  Go outside, then Point A, then Point B.  Put in my pause. Three beats.  Then move on.  I’m serious because this is a serious scene.  Something bad happens at the end.  I’m trying to recreate the mood.  This time I make it over to Point C.  I open the cabinet.  OK. Pause.  Fiddle with the lights again. Someone’s on the radio to get some blackwrap to block out a light.  Someone’s moving some props around to get a better foreground shot.  OK.  Back outside to move through the points.  A, pause, B,C, Open, return to C. Action.

You get the idea. Then when the camera, lighting, and props guys have everything worked out, and have rehearsed the camera moves with me a few times, the real actors come in and do the actual acting.  Then, when their takes are good, they leave.  We did the shot sequence Wide, Medium, Close Ups, from the one side, but now we have to get the other side. I go through my moves again, but this time the lights and camera have to be in a different place.  Props have to be moved. More fiddling.  Then the real actors come in and do their bit. Repeat.

You stand around, get stared at, and a bunch of people are moving around you constantly. You have to listen to the conversations around you because mixed in all that is a someone telling you to do something.  Move over here.  Back to one. You have to hit the same marks the actors do when they are doing their scene. I can’t imagine how the actors manage to do the movements and say their lines with any sort of emotion.  But then again, when they come on to do their stuff there isn’t this chaos, and everyone is quiet. All this is done with me instead, to make the actor’s life easier. And no doubt the crews life easier too.

I try to pay attention, and I also try to soak up as much information as I can.  I’m watching everyone as much as they are watching me.  I’m curious, and I also don’t want to get yelled at.  I try to joke with the crew as much as I can while I’m standing in one spot.  I joke with the other stand-in since I’m mimicking doing something painful to him repeatedly. I’m going to be here for three days so time to start learning names.  It’s hard to pick them out of the conversations, but eventually I get most of the people I’m interacting with names down, either by hearing them or seeing them written in sharpie on their radios.

During one of the changes in set-up I am standing off to the side waiting and I hear my name mentioned a few times.  Then a guy comes over to me and asks me if I have a place to stay in town.  I’m like yeah, thinking how late is this going anyway, I’m supposed to go back to Seattle and work the next day.  Then he asks me if blocks are OK?


You’re from Seattle right?


So blocks would be better?


I finally figured out that he meant blocks of time.  As in multiple days in a row.

Yes, blocks would be better.

They asked if you were local, but I told them you are from Seattle.  They really like what you are doing, so they wanted to work you as much as possible.

Wow, That’s great. Thanks

I realized that I have had a lot of experience watching someone and then trying to recreate movement.  I do Aikido, and the teaching methodology is that the sensei demonstrates the technique in front of the class.  We all watch, and then we try to do it the same way.  I’ve been doing that in Aikido for years, and now I can transfer that to something else.  Very cool.  I felt pretty flattered by the compliment.  Really what I was trying to do was pay attention and not get yelled at.  And do what I was told to do as best as I could manage.

Watch what the actor is doing, and then do what they do.

That’s all there is to it.


2 Responses to “Stand-In 101”

  1. Awesome column! I’ve never done stand-in work before, but tomorrow will be a first as I’ll be standing in for Richard Jenkins in Tom Cruise’s latest project, “One Shot.” This column gave me an idea of what to expect – and answered the question “What’s color cover?!” Thanx for sharing!

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