What is a background artist? It might sound like a simple question, but the answer is a bit more complex than one might expect. The term ‘background artist’ can be used to label two different professions and both of them can be found working on a film set. We will break down what those two different meanings are and what each of them does.

Background artist jobs

First, let’s define background artist

There are two distinct types of background artist jobs as the term holds two completely unrelated meanings. We’ll give background artist job descriptions for both types, then dig deeper into each type. If you come across any unfamiliar terms throughout this post, our ultimate guide to film terminology is a great resource to look up definitions.


What is a background artist?

The first meaning of background artist is used to describe a person who uses traditional or digital artistic skills to design the backgrounds for animations, films, video games, or other visual storytelling artforms. In live-action filmmaking, the person in this position may also be called a matte painter. Animation background artist jobs are often divided into two types: 2D artists and 3D artists depending on the demands of a particular project. 

The second meaning of background artist is a non-verbal, on-camera performer who typically, but not always, appears in the background of a scene. Background actors in this sense is synonymous with the term ‘extra.’

Freelance background artist means

  • Someone who designs backgrounds
  • Someone who appears in the background

Background artist job description

Background artist as a performer

When used in relation to appearing on camera, the term ‘background artist’ is interchangeable with the term ‘extra.’ Some prefer to use the term former instead of the latter simply because it implies a bit more importance.

Watch some of the experiences of a working background actor in this video.

What to expect as a freelance background artist

A background artist position is a non-speaking role by definition. Even a single word spoken on camera can be enough to move up the food chain from being an extra to being a bit part. But what about if you’re interested in becoming the other type of background artist? Next, we’ll discuss 2D artist, 3D artist, and other types of animation jobs.

Cartoon background artist

Live & Animation background artist

Matte paintings have a long and storied history in cinema. Matte painting may not get used much these days because of CGI and other digital filmmaking techniques. However, the impressive work of matte painters lives on in countless classic films and in modified form in many new projects. David Fincher made stunning use of digital matte painting in Mindhunter.

The video below offers insights into how matte paintings are made and how they are implemented.

The History of Matte Painting in Horror

Outside of live-action films and television shows, these artists work frequently in animation. For an introductory course in background art for animated fare, check out the video below.

Cartoon background artist introductory guide

Background artists, in this sense, make use of traditional and digital art skills. This second type of background artist is far more specialized and demands higher qualifications. Next, let’s take a look at how you can begin a career as either type.

Animation background artist

How to become a background artist

Type 1 — Actors

Finding work as an extra is typically much easier than getting cast in a speaking role. Background actors rarely ever need to audition and the demands of the job are easily met as long as you can follow simple instructions and maintain a level of professionalism on set. 

One background actor gig might find you getting slathered in fake blood and zombie makeup, while another might find you pretending to eat food in the background of a restaurant scene. There can be a great deal of variety to working as an extra.

Responding to ‘extras casting calls’ is the best way to begin working as a background actor. For pointers, refer to guide to indie film casting or head over to SAG-AFTRA's page dedicated to resources for background actors.

Type 2 — Artists

It can be a bit harder to find work as the other type of background artist and required skills and experience levels are typically higher. Attending art school is a viable course of action for anyone interested in becoming a background artist for film or animation. But it is by no means a guarantee that you will find work. On live-action productions, a matte painter is a part of the art department, so networking with production designers and art directors can be a good way to make your way onto a set.

Whether for live-action or animation, if you already have the necessary skills but lack the connections, you can look for work on film industry job boards such as Production Hub and Mandy.

Cartoon artist earnings

How much do background artists earn?

Roles as extras may be either paid or unpaid, so be sure to look into the specifics of a particular production to learn the details. Even on small shoots, background actors are typically compensated in some way. It might only be a catered meal at lunchtime or some production swag like the complimentary hat that was given to the extras on the set of George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead. Compensation fluctuates from production to production but is typically quite low across the board.

What to expect as a background artist

Hear from a matte painter who worked on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them about how to get started as an artist in the above video. Background artists in animation earn much higher wages. According to Glassdoor salary surveys, the average income of a background animator is between $40,000 — $50,000 per year. The industry’s top artists can bring in closer to $100,000 per year. A matte painter for live-action films can expect to earn between $27,000 and $58,000 per year working full time.


What is a Grip on a Movie Set?

Now that you have an understanding of both types of background actors and artists, you can continue learning about different film crew positions by reading our post about the function and duties of a grip on a movie set.

Up Next: What does a Grip do? →
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