Imagine a scene without extras, only the main actors that are needed in that moment, and nothing else. That sounds kind of boring unless that’s what the movie calls for. Extras are placed in movies for various reasons, but one of the biggest among them all is to keep things realistic, and to give the lead actors a backdrop to work with, or against depending on the movie. Sometimes the extras conceal the lead actor by offering up one distraction after another, or sometimes they’re no more important than the scenery, but the point is that they’re there to provide contrast, context, and a sense that this is the real world that’s being viewed and not some inner monologue where the main character is the only person that matters at that moment. Lighting, certain angles, and different shots are all just a few examples of how extras are viewed and put on display in movies. A good director will know where to place their extras and about how many they might need for each scene, while a great director will know all that and how to position and place the extras so that the lead character either stands out or is concealed just enough that they won’t appear until they make a move. There are so many reasons for extras and so many different ways to use them that it’s kind of accurate to say that they’re just another part of the canvas that is a movie, albeit a part that can be shifted and moved around as needed.
When you think of movies like The Shawshank Redemption, or a big-time war movie like Saving Private Ryan, you get to see how this all comes into play since in Shawshank there are easily hundreds of prisoners, but a person is only ever drawn to a few of them at a time. Extras are moved about in a way that makes sense but also fits an aesthetic design at times in order to make it feel real but also highlight certain characters and the situation they’re in. For instance, this picture of Brooks at the top of the page is a good indication of what the situation is like. Brooks is in the forefront, he feels alienated from a world he no longer recognizes, and as a result he feels saddened, afraid, and lost. It’s written on his face, in the look of his eyes, and in how he’s gripping the backrest like a man being led to the gallows. In the meantime the extras pay him no mind, they have other things to think about, other concerns that are driving them, they represent a part of that world that’s left him behind and just doesn’t care what happens to an old convict. How the extras are placed and how they’re instructed to act around the lead characters in any scene is what sets up the the movie in a very big and meaningful way. If not for the extras it’s possible we wouldn’t care as much about the main character in a lot of movies since there’s less of a backdrop to rest all that emotional context against. Plus, without the extras in this particular scene, we might not care about Brooks at all, or we might wonder why he’s so important to the story without any benefit of the extras that could lend us that needed support.
The extras are typically there to give the movie depth as well, since singular characters walking across the screen don’t necessarily keep the movie grounded or even realistic in a big way, but instead tend to give a sense of the unreal, as the isolation of a single character or even small number of individuals can make the movie appear to be beyond the scope of what people were expecting. People moving in the background, the foreground, and surrounding the lead characters either close in or from afar, or both, gives the scene a great deal of texture and makes it feel far more real than just one or two individuals making their way across a landscape. Take the movie Dances with Wolves for instance. John Dunbar spends much of his time in the movie alone in the wilderness once he’s reached his post, and while the lack of extras isn’t an impediment it’s because the understanding is that this is a personal journey, extras would only muddy it up. Once he meets his Native American neighbors the opportunity for extras is taken and the movie begins to fill in around the edges as the isolation slowly but surely starts to fade, and he becomes one more member of a community. Extras are, for better or worse, window dressing at times and a textural tool used by the director to highlight the lead actors and give them a backdrop to work with. Otherwise a lot of movies might be kind of boring.