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Reporter finds little glamour in being an extra

Elizabeth McMillan
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, April 14, 2010

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - It's not often this reporter can be found up and ready at 6 a.m. on a Saturday.

NNSL photo/graphic

Extra Jena Jones gives the victory sign after trudging down 48 Street, midway through an eight-hour day of shooting for a German yogurt commercial. Yellowknife residents acted as extras leaving the office for the day. Jones said it was tiring but a fun experience. - photo courtesy of Jena Jones

But somehow a casting call for a German yogurt commercial had me rummaging through my closet this past weekend for office-appropriate clothes well before it seemed healthy to be awake.

With 13 other semi-enthusiastic would-be stars, I reported to the YK Centre at 6:30 a.m. The only directive we received was to dress in business casual wear and bring briefcases or laptop bags.

They didn't want us looking like Yellowknifers on a Saturday; we were supposed to be German office workers.

At that early hour, more than 30 crew members were already in the process of transforming the doors of the mall entrance into an office building in Hamburg, Germany. This consisted of dumping several inches of fake snow made of cornstarch.

The production company filming the ad for Zott yogurt chose to shoot in Yellowknife because they wanted an urban winter scene. Elsewhere in the city, natural snow was more readily available.

By 8 a.m., we began rehearsals. The extras found out the hard way that cornstarch is not only sticky, it's also slippery when dumped on ice. Most falls happened off camera.

Dreams of becoming part of a YouTube sensation glimmered under the surface as we waited, hour after hour. My hopes for making it to a morning yoga class faded with each repeated take.

Numerous times filming was delayed as the wind shifted or fake flurries failed to co-operate. The commercial didn't have speaking lines, so it was a matter of capturing the right expression, in the right light.

The premise of the ad - or the portion filmed on Saturday - was a wholesome, family moment.

A fresh-faced young woman leaves work for the day amidst a throng of busy people (cue extras rotating in and out of the mall's doors.) Instead of trudging into the cold with disinterest (as extras did so convincingly,) she looks up in rapture and opens her mouth to catch a snowflake. Moving stuff. Moments later (in commercial filming time, this translated into several hours and a lunch break), she turns to see her husband and young son approaching in a sled. The little boy is holding, what else, a basket full of yogurt. Cue melting hearts.

There was no actual yogurt on set, but some mock-up containers were nestled in the basket, beside rolls, apples and sprigs of cilantro. I couldn't help but wonder if sub-zero winds in Hamburg treat fresh herbs better than the gusts whipping down 48 Street.

The Toronto-based actors had a makeup artist - who did touch ups after every take - and a wardrobe assistant, who in true Hollywood fashion was dressed entirely in black and wore oversized sunglasses at all times.

The crew was for the most part gracious, though we learned at lunch there is a clear pecking order on a film set. People who got paid substantially more than the $50 extras fee got to eat first, and were willing to cut in line at the buffet if necessary.

By 11 a.m., I was shaking with cold, at the mercy of the wind machine. The thought of having my red scarf show up as a blur in the background was little motivation. By 4 p.m., my back ached and my mind was numb.

The final "That's a wrap, folks," was so long overdue, it was anticlimactic.

My hair may still harbour some fluffy fake snow but I have a newfound appreciation for the painstaking attention to detail that goes into every second of cinematic magic - even if it isn't vying for an Oscar. And at the very least, I may get some off-focus fame in a 30-second television slot ... in Germany.

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