I’m writing this from Newhall, California, on a location not far from the former Melody Ranch, where the filming of a network police drama is underway.  

I have a guest starring role in this episode which, besides being my largest dramatic role to date, is also a lot of fun.

Just outside I can hear 100 or so atmosphere performers (extras) doing their best to evoke a rabid crowd of sign-waving protesters.  Later on this morning I shall be wading thru them, cheered by one side and jeered by the other. 

Should be fun!

Something occurred to me that you might not immediately be aware of– how crowd scenes are filmed for TV and film.

When Hollywood wants to create an illusion, they have, after 100 plus years of experimentation, a collection of “best practices.”

In the case of crowd scenes, where the principal actors are surrounded by lots of extras, such as a scene in a bar, restaurant or a courtroom, or a street full of noisy protesters like today, a specific procedure is followed in order to create the illusion of a riot, while still being intelligible.

Since the leading characters in a scene are usually the only ones whose dialogue the audience is supposed to listen to, their voices need to be audible or “in the clear.”

How does that happen when they are in the middle of a crowd of screaming, rabid actors?

The secret is an old one: pantomime.

When “Action!” is called on a scene involving a crowd of extras, they are directed to act like they are yelling or conversing, but silently.  That way any dialogue between the main characters in the mob can be cleanly recorded.

In another take, the extras will be allowed to shout and make all the hullabaloo they want, and that audio track can later be combined with the cleaner tracks in editing to bring off the illusion.

Almost anytime you see a scene that takes place in an office, an airport, a rock arena or a grocery store, this method is used.

It’s pretty amazing to watch a bleacher full of cheering fans in a football scene, for example, yelling and gesturing without making a peep.

Illusion!

Hollywood, of course, is all about illusions.  The various technologies of cinema Illusions were developed in the service of storytelling, and are plentiful.

I was one of those kids who, once I discovered a few of the tricks used by filmmakers, would habitually scrutinize the movies I watched, searching for seams, any telltale clues of the fakery going on.

Of course, in that pre-digital age of my childhood, those seams were sometimes pretty apparent.  A guy standing up in a speedboat talking to a pretty girl, for example, was shown as completely stable, while a projected roiling wake moved jerkily and incongruously behind him.  

He also never seemed to have to raise his voice above a whisper to be heard over his own outboard motor.

If a bad guy threw a knife at the hero, it didn’t require a high definition TV set to see the wire the knife was hanging on.

Nowadays, the seams have been practically eliminated.  Watch any blockbuster film involving the destruction of a major city, and you will be hard pressed to discover anything unrealistic, down to the smallest shattered pane of glass in an exploding skyscraper.

Long gone are the days of an actor in a Godzilla suit ripping into a cardboard high-rise, casting his reptilian shadow faintly onto the painted skyline behind him.

Much progress and innovation has lead to our current ability, as a species, to fool one another with audiovisual effects.  

Whole industries have emerged that serve the need of studios to create seamlessly convincing illusions, and the credit roll of any big budget film contains names of thousands of individuals whose job it was to contribute in some small or large way to their creation.

But, as any group of disgruntled writers or actors will assert, story is the main thing, and the mechanics of telling it will always be of lesser importance.

So much of the nostalgia we have for shows of our childhood exists in indirect proportion to their production value.  

That cheesy quality of early TV shows actually added to the experience, since the viewer had to fill in the gaps himself, in effect helping to complete the final product, in the same way a child with a piece of wood creates his own convincing experience of being a soldier.

Having a more expensive stick to play with, (or a real weapon) doesn’t necessarily add more charm to the experience.  
We eagerly anticipate reboots of shows from our childhood, but when we finally watch the over-produced, computer animated version, with every hair of, say, Underdog’s head vividly displayed, despite the time and money spent on verisimilitude, something rather important may be absent.

Filmmakers today seem to be rounding a corner about special effects, and many are attracted by the challenge of “practical effects” that do not involve hundreds of hours of post production digital manipulation.  

Innovative directors like Wes Anderson even have a signature style involving actual objects in actual interiors, with complicated, stylized camera moves within those spaces, rather than cyber space.

With Anderson, story is rarely hijacked by the special effects. Instead, the story is served by whatever is happening onscreen.

Actors of my generation today commonly find themselves working in a technical world, rarely going to actual locations,  interacting with computer generated actors that will only be visible when the film is done, having their performance “captured” in ways they never dreamed of when starting out.  

The quest for seamless entertainment has changed filmmaking considerably, and the lives of those who participate in it.

I find I am still the kid who was fascinated by movie tricks and shortcuts, but as an actor, I prefer the old, timeworn, traditional illusions that are just slightly more expensive versions of the not-very-PC “cowboys and Indians” I used to play with my friends out in my backyard.

Well, I’m getting called to the set now.  I can be sure my character’s dialogue will be heard above the shouts of the crowd, at least on one take.  

Ironically, our location is very close to the old Melody Ranch, where countless silent movies, like those of the cowboy star Tom Mix, were shot a hundred or so years ago.  

You can almost not-hear the silent hoofbeats.