The extra’s union Screen Extras Guild – SEG

A short review about SEG which controlled the extras place in the studio world in the 1950s to 1990.    The SEG contract covered nearly every possible character we might be booked for.  There were categories for dancers, cowboys, flashy dressers, bums, etc.   Then it further described details within a category.  Let’s look at cowboys for instance, cowboy leading a horse, cowboy sitting on a horse, horse with cowboy walking slowly, horse with cowboy slow trot, running,  a chase.  Got it?  Each increment demanded an increasingly higher level of pay.

In addition to the base pay for the day, we had adjustments, one in particular fondly refered to by us as a “whammy” and officially entitled as “special business”.  The whammy was a kind of catchall negotiated between the extra and the AD.  Although the whammy was a fixed amount there was no limit to the number of whammys that could be accumulated on any single booking.    For instance in The Ten Commandments when I was in the mudpits, all of us in the pits negotiated and were awarded two whammys for stomping in the mud.   Some whammys were listed in the contract.   Again in the Ten Commandments getting sideburns pasted on added one whammy, full body makeup added one whammy as specified by the union contract.   So in that movie I got four whammys each day I was in the mudpits. All accumulated whammys were added to the minimum daily wage and formed a new base pay for the day. This new base was then used for penalties and OT calculations.

In 1953 when I became an extra, our daily base rate was about $19 slightly above minimum wage.   This was paid for any part of 8 hours.  Even if we only worked for one minute (there were exceptions of course) we got the daily minimum.    The whammy added $2 to our base for the day.  If we worked one minute past 8 hours we got another 2 hours pay based on the adjusted base for the day.  After 10 hours another 2 hours pay.  etc.   Another union rule was the meal penalty.   At exactly 5 1/2 hours to the minute from our booking time we had to break for either a 1/2 or full hour for lunch.  (It could have been 6 hours until a meal penalty, the memory weakens 🙂 )  If we went one second over that time, we received a meal penalty which renewed every 15 minutes.   I think the penalty was 1/8 of our base rate for every 15 minutes of meal penalty.  However, if the camera is rolling before the penalty, it can continue the scene so long as the camera does not stop recording without penalty.    The same penalty applied for dinner time.

Some of you want to know what the exceptions to our daily minimum were based on.   Two conditions come to mind.  First the ‘Weather Permitting” call which allowed the production to cut our daily minimum in half if for instance it is raining for a non-raining location call or vice versa if the sun is shining in a “rain or cloudy” call.   The second exception – if for some reason a production is cancelled within 30 minutes of our call time and no camera has been turned on and there have been no rehearsals a half check can replace the daily minimum.    The second exception happened to me only one time that I can recall.  I was booked as a college student to watch the court proceedings in “A Star Is Born”. 15 minutes into the call time the production was cancelled and we were notified the half check exception was put in force. It turned out Judy Garland was too sick to appear that day.   But wait…. that was not the end.   A few weeks later I received the other half of my daily minimum with a note which explained that Judy Garland had ordered that the entire set was to receive a full days pay with the difference payed out of her personal account.

 If we worked in the studio we had to buy or bring our own lunch.   If we were on location lunch must be provided for us which back in the 1950s was a box lunch usually a sandwich, some fruits and unlimited drinks.   In today’s world the catered lunches are very elegant and tasty.   Under SAG rules we (union) extras must get the same lunch as the principals.   Non-union extras are not treated so well and their lunch is somewhat sparser.

Generally speaking our SEG base rate was about 20% higher than the minimum wage for any given year. Keep in mind that we always had a daily minimum guarantee of 8 hours regardless of how few hours we actually worked. On average about half of my bookings were less than 8 hours before I was wrapped. So if you want to be technical we really averaged somewhere around 50% above the minimum wage for the entire year. And don’t forget that often our base for the day was increased with one or more whammys.

Another category was the “silent bit”.  This is where we actually became a part of the cast and really acted but were not allowed to utter a sound.  And this called for a big adjustment, in fact a brand new base pay for the day, which was $50 (in 1954) plus whatever whammys we had accumulated.

To round out the major pay categories “Hazardous Pay” was the bridge between ordinary extra and stunt man. This was an upgrade when an extra was asked to perform a possibly dangerous act but not quite dangerous enough to cause the producers to book a stuntman. In the movie “Hit The Deck” with Russ Tamblyn, I was booked to double Russ when he and Vic Damone and Tony Martin jump into the orchestra pit while being chased. Two other extras doubled Vic and Tony. It was a jump of about 6 feet from the stage to the pit. We had to jump into the violin section. The bottom was layered with mattresses. So you can see it was not very dangerous except for the presence of the violins. I will post a blog about that scene when I can find a copy. At the time of this shoot, Hazardous Pay was $50 plus any whammys accumulated. I also received Hazardous Pay during the Helen Of Troy filming about which you can read my blog.

Some examples of whammys and silent bits.   These were in the official SEG rule book.   If you work directly with a star, you get one or more whammys.  Example, a student getting a diploma from a principal player in a graduation ceremony.   A principal player as a waiter filling your glass with water or bringing you a meal or taking your order garner you a whammy.   In fact any kind of business you do with a principal player directly.   However, if you are identified in the script such as a principal player calling you by a name you are upgraded to a silent bit.  Example:  A group of extras standing around a coach.  He says “Fred you can leave now” and looks at you and you walk out or the student getting a diploma called by name.  Of course all as instructed by the director.   When you got the name “Fred” you became a part of the script and became a silent bit recipient.   If the director has you say “OK”… zap… you get signed off your extra voucher and become a day player under SAG jurisdiction.  🙂   See two of my blogs that were silent bits:

feeding the chickens in Pork Chop Hill, https://ralphm1999.wordpress.com/2013/12/20/pork-chop-hill/ 

and playing a court secretary in a Black Saddle episode: https://ralphm1999.wordpress.com/2010/05/03/black-saddle/

If you are upgraded to a silent bit and you get called back for one or more days, you will be on a silent bit base pay for as often as you are called back for the same movie.

If you work nights you get 10% extra.

If we got a line during the day, we would be wrapped from our background contract and issued a ‘day player’ contract under the jurisdiction of SAG (Screen Actors Guild).   And of course be paid for both categories.   The day player minimum in the 50s was about $150.

This happened to me one time on the weekly Men Of Annapolis series.   This was filmed at Ziv productions and each episode took 2 1/2 days to shoot.  In this particular episode, a day player had been signed off for the day.   It was then discovered he had one more line to say.   It was fruitless getting hold of him.   In the 50s there were no pagers or cell phones.    Time was running out.  We had to be off the stage in about 40 minutes so the next episode could begin filming.    A quick audition was held among the 7 extras on the set that day.   I went to the end of the audition line to rehearse the line.   It paid off, I was selected.

Here’s my line:

I enter the commandant’s office, snap a salute, stand at attention and briskly announce: “Barracks inspection completed in all battalions, Sir!  No unauthorized absentees reported, Sir”.   Another salute, a snappy about face and out I march.   Fortunately, this was not long after my discharge from the Air Force so I still retained my military bearing. 🙂    I received residuals for my line for nearly 5 years after that each time the series was shown anywhere in the world.   Each check was not very much, about $23, but added up after a while.

SEG had several union reps who investigated claims.   Any union member could file a claim against any production the member was booked on.   This was usually a disagreement between the extra and the AD regarding an adjustment.     In the producers/SEG contract it was agreed that the guild could demand the producer show them any portion of a film being contested by a SEG member.   If a review proved the producer was in violation of an SEG rule, the producer would immediately reimburse the member with an attendant fine to the guild coffers.    In practice it was not often an extra would file a claim unless it was a very apparent violation.   Some extras filed claims on nearly all their bookings. Their bookings diminished accordingly.  Most claims I was party too were mostly filed by other members on behalf of the entire booking.   They generally disputed OT problems that we were signed off a minute or two before we would be on OT etc.   Yet in the 1950s there were so many productions using extras that the investigators were  kept busy full time in reviewing claims. The investigators  were not SEG members but staff hired by the guild.
In comparison, the 2010 SAG extra  minimum wage is $135  for any part of 8 hours.  OT is computed from the highest base for the day in 6 minute increments.    After 16 hours we go on Golden Time.   A full day’s pay for each hour of Golden Time.   I made Golden Time several times most noteworthy on Ed Wood.   We worked almost 23 hours in the theater set in downtown Los Angeles.    My check for that day and night came to over $1,200.   Meal penalties alone came to over $400.

I mentioned non-union extras  earlier.   May I expand on this a bit.   In today’s world, production companies may book non-union extras provided that they first hire a minimum number of union extras.    Not sure of the numbers but somewhere around 45+ extras must be union before a non-union person is hired.     This opens the doors for a person to get a SAG card.   Because all the union vouchers must be given out, what does a company do if a booked SAG extra does not show up….. his voucher must be given to a non-union extra.   For that day, the extra is treated the same as a SAG extra.   When a non-union extra gets 3 union vouchers, he becomes SAG eligible and must join the union or never accept another SAG voucher.   Back in the 50s, there were no non-union extras.     Instead the union allowed a category known as waivers.     The rules for hiring a waiver were very strict as follows; first I think it was that 200 SEG extras had to be hired;  a waiver could not wear a costume; a waiver could not wear make-up; a waiver could not be recognizable in the final cut of the film.   So you wonder what good was a waiver?   He was generally one of a crowd at a sporting or political event sitting or standing way off in the distance.    For example in the movie “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World” there were hundreds of waivers in the park scene. Each time you see a close up of a group extras around the principals, all these extras were carefully selected on the basis of being SEG members. No waiver could be in the groups close enough to have their features recognizable.

SEG was a closed union and very difficult to become a member.   The most common way was through Central Casting.   CC held an audition once a week for accepting new members.   There was no limit to how often you could apply.   In fact it was usually by repeated attempts that one was ultimately accepted but only if you were young – ideally  looking younger than 18.   The audition process was swift.  You stood in a fast moving line that passed by a long counter behind which sat 3 casting directors.   Their main interest was your looks.   A couple of routine questions.   A few days later you received a letter with the result of your audition.

Obviously the pool of members at CC was heavily weighted towards older members.   Even with normal attrition enough members remained to overflow the over 18 character demands.
I was accepted on my 4th attempt. Once accepted to become a member of CC you almost immediately were booked and continued to be booked to make sure you had the necessary finances to join SEG.   From the moment of your first booking you had 30 days (Taft Hartley) to join SEG and pay your initiation in full.   Unless you were very rash with your finances this was easily accomplished by successive bookings.  Once a member of SEG the bookings were not as forthcoming.   But even so until you lost the 18 year old or younger look there was plenty of work available.

Rather than have you fall asleep, I will end this topic here reserving the right to add to it in the future should there be more questions about our working conditions and wages.

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6 thoughts on “The extra’s union Screen Extras Guild – SEG

  1. I worked as an assistant director trainee, then a 2nd and finally a first in the 1970s and 1980s and, for some reason, held onto s copy of the SEG basic agreement of 1983, so I can probably answer some of your questions at least for THAT time period, if it helps. I do not recall the term “whammy” being used in my time, but such terminology changed over time so I am sure you right.
    I wonder if any of you guys recall a crusty 2nd named Wally Jones? He was the first second A.D. I ever worked under (as a trainee). This was in 1973. My name is Skip Surguine. I’m taking a chance by creating an email address just for me to chat with you and anyone interested in this stuff.
    I don’t imagine there will be that many, but one never knows. It is adsurguine@gmail.com

    • Although I have not been active for a couple of years now, I believe $25 is the standard rate for using a car. I always liked working with stuntmen. It’s always exciting and am amazed what they can do without getting hurt.

      • It’s also amazing what the actors can do without getting hurt. I was an extra on a given blockbuster several years ago, and while at the studio in Burbank, a vintage car accidentally hit the lead actor during a chase scene. Luckily, the guy was on an adrenaline high and took the connection at the right angle, because he bounced right up again, apparently unhurt, and went on to finish out the day.

        • Hi Me … just a note to say we lost Ralph in March 2016 … His blog lives on as a testament to old Hollywood and the stories of others are welcome 🙂

          Ralph’s Friend, Stacye

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