I was living in China and I came across an advertisement for extras for a "movie" on Facebook in December 2020. After sending an audition video and photos that I made there and then the "agent" said they would pay me 22,000 RMB/3,000 USD per month to go on set for a couple of months and be an American soldier. They described what we would have to do very differently to what transpired though. I was out of work at the time and said why the hell not, I've got nothing to lose, it's gonna be an experience. It was the longest 4 months of my life.

They told us after arriving at the hotel that the movie was called "The Battle at Lake Changjing" - the second highest-grossing movie at the box office worldwide last year. We were working for the director Dante Lam, a famous Hong Kong action director. Because they were short on foreigners in China let alone actors, everybody was just paid for their English level and whiteness or lack thereof. I got closest to the maximum as I'm from Ireland as did most other English native speakers. There were probably about 4 Americans in the whole bunch. About 30 native English speakers and the rest were from all over the world, the Middle East, Russia, Eastern Europe, Asia etc. The less white skinned people were, the less they were paid. I know some people who got 1/3rd of what we did. They kept us there by only paying half the first months wages, with the second half to be paid with the final months wages. Very few, around 10, of the total amount of guys got private rooms, everyone else was sharing a twin room between two people. Most people didn't know anyone else so started sharing with strangers. The hotel life was crazy, 500 guys partying every moment they could.

There were a few different bands of people involved above us. There were the Chinese "agents" who found us, who got a percentage of a cut, then there was the Chinse guy who paid us and his company who looked after us on set, he got 200% of our wages for each of us and paid us. There was the actual production company comprised of mostly Hong Kong people who were extremely professional, and there were all of the Chinese extras and workers.

We were corralled onto set for 4 months from January to May with very few days off, there were 500 of us at the peak all living in a hotel in the middle of nowhere. Mostly university students pretending to be at home studying during COVID. When we first arrived it was during stringent COVID measures and we weren't allowed to leave the hotel or get deliveries. We were given breakfast of a couple of boiled eggs, milk and bread, and 2 "lunch boxes" of barely edible bone-filled food every day. Except for CNY we got a chicken leg each. The restrictions only lasted a few weeks thankfully so we could order deliveries after that and the hotel did a BBQ for us every night but unless we had a day off it was too early to eat it.

Starting in January we had 3 weeks of "training" because they didn't know what to do with us before shooting started. We went to a desert near the movie set where a real ex-US Marine trained us in what was like basic training. Every day at 8 am standing at attention in -12 degrees celsius somedays, doing pushups, and running around the training field, if you were late you got extra pushups and all the other jazz you expect, finishing at 6 pm with an hour for lunch. During this time the stunt team came and tested us for "stunts" for 2 days to see who could do it - just dying to different bullet reactions. The driving team also tested and rated the people who said they could drive a manual or a truck.

Once we started shooting they separated us into two groups, 80 of us into the "action squad" who they gave featured extra roles (that changed every day!) and the rest were just a giant pot of people for when they needed to fill a scene. People very quickly realised if you didn't want to work you could just hide and they would always pick the same guys who wanted and had a chance to get on camera for the closeup shots. Those of us that wanted to be on camera died a lot of times in this single movie.

We were separated into groups of 10 with a "foreign language translator" leading each group as mostly nobody other than us spoke English. Some of the extras spoke good Chinese. These leaders were not movie workers, they were just people told to bring these guys to set where the production team would meet us and sort it out from there.

We spent around 3 months total shooting the village scene on the top of a hill in the middle of the desert at night time. Two rotations of extras, one left at 3 pm and got home around 2 am, the second left at 8 pm and returned as soon as the sun came up arriving home around 7 am. Sometimes you might work until 8 am, and then find out at mid day that you need to go back at 3 pm. They expected us to wake up and check the call sheet at mid day. Most days they sent the people requested plus 200 additional random dudes. The boss replaced people at will when the requested people weren't available.

The guys in the action squad got called to set a lot, and the rest of the guys spent most of the time in a heated tent with no internet hiding from the guys looking for extras every day. We were given our uniforms before we started shooting in January and handed it back at the end of the 4 months. They were not washed even once during this time. Every day when we arrived we got fed then get the weapons/helmets and guns, makeup and then to the tent/set. When it came time for blank guns people were given no or little training and handed the gun with blanks loaded. There were explosions at our feet and directed at us. People got injured all the time. The guns jammed a lot.

We spent roughly another month doing another couple of other scenes like arriving to Korea at the start of the war on ships and the camps when everyone was happy, and leaving Korea at the end after the defeat. I got to drive US Army trucks and jeeps because I could drive a stick shift and passed my training. The driving was probably one of the coolest parts about it. Driving a truck with 30 people in the back or a jeep with a "gun" and 3 passengers. We drove in formation for a couple of days straight. They were recreated vehicles by the Chinese team who were in charge of the vehicles. The tanks only had Chinese guys driving them and the tracks would break randomly.

The toilets at the training ground were like something you keep cattle in, long troughs in the ground in one large room with no separation. On set they were Asian squat toilets but in a horrible temporary fashion with a plastic bag that was closed after each use with a foot peddle.

Towards the last third of shooting people started to get really tired with it and a lot of guys started to drink all night on set. It didn't matter though as we knew who would be working and who wouldn't at this point.

I had the pleasure of shooting 3 featured extra/co-star roles, 2 of me talking, 1 to a room full of guys just after arriving in Korea introducing a Major who is giving them instructions, and 1 with a General who is wondering where the Chinese had come from when the Chinese had just entered the war. My third big scene was just blessing the graves as a priest with a bible and rosary beads in my hand at the end of the war. Only the General scene made the movie and they dubbed me. I was selected at random by different people for each role long after we started shooting, mostly Assistant Directors who had worked with us for months already and had selected the action team so they knew who was who and what we might be good at.

Some of the most amazing parts of this entire experience was the attention to detail, every single shred of paper on any set had proper notes on the Korean army for example, the food/rations and backpack contents were real, the toothpaste was real, the chewing gum was real, the cigarettes were real, the orange juice was real and could be opened and drank, the food was real, the best food we had the entire movie, the tins of beans and other rations were real. I didn't expect that at all.

In November 2021 we were asked by the same agents to go back to finish some scenes for the sequel which was already mostly finished but needed some more. A group of us went back to the same place to shoot but this time they hired us as "action team" for $150 per day or "extras" for $100 or less. I realised after the first movie I would be paid the same for much less work to just be an extra and I was only going to meet my friends so I did that. I was glad of my choice after seeing how much more work the "action" team had to do and we could just sit around on our phones all day. When we arrived at the desert from the original movie the local government told us COVID was too risky and we couldn't shoot there and didn't even let us into town. We spent 10 days being paid 50% wages to sit around a hotel while they moved the whole movie/tanks/artillery/set across the country. We shot for a month in Hengdian World Studios, this time it was large battle scenes with explosions and lots of blank guns misfiring everywhere. People were drinking and getting high on set which made it feel ridiculously dangerous at all times. They blew up most of the set again. That was cool for a couple of days and then just terrifying for the rest of the month. We worked mostly days but we found out the night before shooting if we were working or not, sometimes as late as 2am we were told to be awake at 6 the next day. Every day was 12 hours with only a couple of days off. During our time there two guys had a fight and one stabbed the other with a pen. The attacker was at work the next day because it was just a numbers game and our employer got paid for every person on set each day. He was fired after that though thankfully. We were treated worse than cattle for this entire movie.

In January 2022 an agent contacted me and asked if I'd be able to shoot a featured extra role in Wandering Earth 2. I accepted for roughly $425 per day to shoot in Qingdao Studios. It even has a sign like the Hollywood sign on a hill spelling Qingdao in Chinese characters. It was supposed to be for 3-5 days but after shooting wearing the crazy 20kg space suit in the attached image for a few days in a spaceship 2 meters up in the air ontop of some hydraulic rams that shook us about as we shot all of our scenes, a hydraulic ram exploded during shooting rendering our ship useless. We shot those first few days with just 5 of us and Wu Jing and his double, one of the biggest Chinese movie stars of all time in our little spaceship. The suits have a fan to blow air inside once the glass is attached. We had a headpiece so we could always hear the director speaking Chinese, the English translator and the Russian translator. We had mics attached inside to record our shouts of victory and then our moans and groans during a crash. I have a scene where I'm dead after the crash and the SFX makeup took a couple of hours each day we shot that.

We shot a few scenes with 100s of extras in the spaceport before "take-off" and a scene for the selection of our crew and then had to wait 10 days around the hotel for them to fix the spaceship. We shot another couple of days and finished on a high note. This was a really great experience, we were treated like royalty and had people looking after us all day. Food was awful but we could get deliveries from McDonalds etc and us featured extras had our own private rooms at the hotel.

On lunch on Battle at Lake Changjin

Waiting to be called to set on Battle at Lake Changjin

My speaking scene in Battle at Lake Changjin

Chinese extras advancing through explosions on Lake Changjin 2.

The toxic plastic they used as fake snow on Lake Changjin 2

Waiting to be called to set of Wandering Earth 2 with the space suit.

Proof it's me.

Comments: 113 • Responses: 38  • Date: 

PckMan66 karma

I never knew being a movie extra would be so much like being in the military, and I'm not saying this due to the training you underwent.

Overall sounds like a great experience and the money's decent enough. It's also nice to know that not all productions treat staff so horribly.

Very likely you'll be called again sooner or later, will you answer the call?

JayCroghan51 karma

It was worse than the military being honest, not finding out you're working until a few hours before a shift. Being sent on your "day off" at very short notice because some other guy didn't turn up, being just a number etc.

The experience was worth it though, and I made some life long close friends. The money is more than enough to live on here if one were to take that path.

I will not be answering any more calls, the agents take 75% of the money that the talent should get and I returned to my previous career in software engineering. I have heard accounts of people who have acted in major roles in movies here being told in the UK it's not worth anything and they need to start at the ground floor again if they were to move home.

pention45 karma

A general question to begin with.

How’s life mate ?

JayCroghan40 karma

Really, really good! Things have rarely been better than right this very moment thank you :)

opensourceguinea18 karma

Amazing. There were so many Russian and central Asian names in the credits, were they the repeat extras with roles or just the background guys in the General MacArthur ship scenes.

Funny when you say all the eager guys appear several times in different roles, and why.

Which set at Hengdian studios was used in the battle against lake changjin?

JayCroghan20 karma

The guys who got the featured extra bits and repeated roles were mostly native English speakers (Western European, North American, South Africa etc) or if there was no speaking involved then Russian/Eastern European. Every single scene was shot like we were going to use the original audio and then they dubbed absolutely everything, even the actual Americans.

They tried some weird stuff with makeup and hair dye before the movie started to make the Central Asian guys look more Western but it was an atrocity. Giving them blonde hair and white-face.

Some of the biggest scenes had everybody on set and Chinese people looking the other way wearing US uniforms. A good chunk of guys probably never even went to set once.

We were at one of the studios at Hengdian all night a couple of nights but never shot just sat in our chairs all night upstairs, I don't remember the number but there weren't many anyway so it was < 10. We also did the "training" for the second movie in the free space between the studios in Hengdian with mattresses to fall on etc. But the majority of it, such as the video I attached, were all shot outside at a huge couple of scenes they created from scratch with blue screen all around and the artillery and US base built and covered in the fake plastic snow.

wanda567816 karma

I think it is common in China to dub over everyone, even the Mandarin speakers and main stars. It helps production not worry about sound while filming because they can edit in the sounds and voices they want later. It's weird but some Chinese actors and actresses have go-to voice actors and actresses when they film dramas / movies because they are so good at getting the pacing right and they 'sound right' for their face (lol).

Thanks for sharing, this was very interesting to read.

JayCroghan6 karma

It’s weird we spent so much time doing what we thought was making the audio correct. We shot that one scene where I talk for half a day!

exem_one14 karma

Seems like they pay really well for your amateur roles? I mean a few of those per year and you are good, considering the low living costs in china? And it seems like you already slowly getting better paid roles as well? So maybe a carreer is possible there? :-D

JayCroghan39 karma

Yeah they really do because they need to attract people for even the most basic role, there are a very limited supply of foreigners in China right now. I know people who started their careers with me and are now making a very good living from TV/movies and commercials. I have gone back to my original career in Fintech though. For a start I probably always was, but after a year of playing the gig life, always looking for work, never being certain of it, and the "agents" here stealing most of your money, I was glad for normal work again.

exem_one9 karma

Yes the uncertainty of not always having a job and always moving around in the whole country is probably the hardest part of these sort of jobs. Over time it can be though with the social live.

How was it possible that there was so much alcohol and even weed involved in the very strict communist china? Have you felt the surveillance that the government is doing there?

JayCroghan11 karma

That was indeed the most difficult parts, moving around was painful too as you could get caught in a COVID outbreak and have to quarantine for weeks at your own expense.

I'm not sure why you ask about alcohol, alcohol is freely available here and the Chinese people that do drink love to drink very strong rice wine and a lot of it at once. There was only a little bit of weed and the people getting high were getting high on pharmacy drugs and synthetic weed but that has since been made illegal. I think it might have been illegal for the second movie but it was still widely available. Surveillance while endemic isn't instrusive if you're not breaking the law I guess. It's everywhere and if you just understand that you're a guest here and follow the rules you'll be fine.

SpudsUlik9 karma

Did you ever feel you were participating in propaganda on behalf of the CCP?

JayCroghan10 karma

A little bit. I mean, we knew what the movie was and what it meant for China. But not like you’re insinuating. It really was no different to being in a regular movie I guess. If you’ve ever seen the movie you’d understand.

D_Jayestar8 karma

What’s it like always playing the villain in Chinese movies?

JayCroghan15 karma

It's fine, it really doesn't feel like that.

Jollydancer8 karma

So you still live in China? How did your local friends react to you working with movies? Were they envious in any way?

JayCroghan18 karma

Yeah I've lived here for 5 years now. Local in China? Chinese people were extremely envious, especially seeing how close I was working to one of their heroes. There are so many people here that doing something so special is even more special.

Jollydancer7 karma

But did you actually have any contact with the real stars of the films? Did they talk to you at all?

JayCroghan12 karma

Yeah in Wandering Earth 2 I was a featured extra and 5 of us and the main star shot our scenes in a small little spaceship for a few days. We spoke but nothing personal just pleasantaries. I spoke to Dante Lam too, I mentioned in the OP he asked where I was from.

Jollydancer9 karma

Oh sorry, I thought I had read everything. But my memory isn’t what it was…

So when you write everything was dubbed later, you mean I won’t hear your original voice in any of the films, right?

JayCroghan12 karma

No an American guy in Beijing who I met later dubbed my character, you will hear me saying "fire" in the second Lake Changjing though they didn't dub that.

ArPak4 karma

Bruh you worked with Wu Jing.. Color me jealoussssssssss... How was he tho? Is he as nice as he seems?

JayCroghan4 karma

Yeah he was super , super nice. One of the guys I worked with went to his room to try and get an autograph and a helper told him he was too busy :(

ArPak1 karma

Did you at least get a photo with him when you guys were on set? Wouldve been a thing to remember for the ages

JayCroghan3 karma

No you got fired for taking photos due to being under an NDA.

Bertrum8 karma

I'm guessing they don't have a SAG union equivalent in China? So did you have to work really long hours all the time or did they give you guys breaks? Was the government involved in it or had any say in what was allowed to be filmed?

JayCroghan7 karma

No Union, almost all extras are working without the proper papers, long hours every day but the Chinese crew do more hours, they worked 16+ hours every day I don’t know how they did it. I’m positive the government was involved at some level but not like they had people on set or anything.

Nuke_A_Cola6 karma

Very interesting read. Were you subject to discrimination at all as it sounds like for the most part yall were not treated well? Or is it more just a lack of care to cut costs?

JayCroghan21 karma

In general, foreigners were treated better than the Chinese extras for sure, but for the first two movies we were treated quite badly, like cattle herded to the set. It was entirely due to what you said though, lack of care to cut costs. We weren't there to be movie stars. On Wandering Earth 2 though we were treated like royalty as I was hired to be a featured extra. There were some times when it felt like discrimination but in reality it was more to do with not being able to communicate with people because I don't speak any Chinese.

bjran88885 karma

As a mainland Chinese, it feels interesting to see foreign actors writing about what it's like to work for them.

I guess the Wandering Earth experience would be normal, but Lake Nagatsu is a war film, which does require some training, and they should reasonably pay you more (but the pay often depends on the film budget rather than the work you do).

I'm curious if you'll watch the movie you're starring in? How do you rate your acting?

JayCroghan5 karma

Yes of course, I watched both Lake Changjin movies in the cinema and I can’t wait to see Wandering Earth.

bjran88881 karma

I didn't think they would hire a software engineer as an extra, but China is not a country of immigrants and doing so can only be described as a no-brainer. Wu Jing is the most expensive actor in China, if you have quite a few scenes with him, you may have a lot of fame after "Wandering Earth 2" hahaha, (like mike Sui in the first one?)

JayCroghan8 karma

They hired anybody they could for Changjing Lake. Wandering Earth was different I was chosen for the role. I probably only have 10 seconds of screen time I don’t expect to be any more known than I am today!

omnichronos5 karma

Do you plan to continue with Chinese films or focus on Western films now? Would you be open to a part in a TV show or Netflix series? Also, were you able to meet any of the primary actors in the films?

JayCroghan19 karma

I did it for money, they paid well at a time I didn't have any work, I did a lot of television and internet commercials in the same year. At the same time it's going to be really nice to show my grandkids I was in a couple of movies. I started working again in Fintech (Financial Technology) a few months ago. I have read about other people who had much larger roles than me in Chinese movies who are unable to use that experience as a foothold into Western TV so I am glad I didn't intend on it being my career.

omnichronos2 karma

I had to Google "Fintech" to learn it was Financial Technology.

JayCroghan2 karma

Sorry yeah my mistake I thought I was more common. I will edit for clarity, thanks for pointing that out.

United_Blueberry_3115 karma

Were you always a sinophile or what led you to move to China?

JayCroghan17 karma

I never had any interest in China whatsoever until I met my wife in Ireland and after a couple of years of long distance, I decided to move here to be with her. I have a career in software engineering that I only took a break from for a year and did this as something to get by.

csd2csd23 karma

How do your parents feel about you living in China? Are they worried about any of the politics?

JayCroghan5 karma

They’re fine, they’ve been here for my wedding and we travelled around. They’re not worried at all. I’m from Ireland not the US. Ireland has a pretty good relationship with almost everyone. I’m a guest here. I lived in South America for 4 years and they were far more worried then.

punkerster1014 karma

Are you a toaster on the worktop or in a cupboard kind of guy ?

JayCroghan14 karma

I used to be on the worktop, but I moved onto in the cupboard because living in China now my kitchen is much smaller.

punkerster10110 karma

Interesting, howdy from Belfast, read your entire post it was good reading I don't really have a specific question but I found the entire thing very interesting thank you

JayCroghan4 karma

Thanks for reading, I'm glad you got something out of it.

DonaldTrumpTinyHands1 karma

I'd be interested to hear from both of you in this thread. Firstly your lengthy post is quite remarkable for an AMA about a movie that wasn't really a hit outside of china, scored 5.4 out of 10 om IMDB and is largely viewed as propaganda with pro-china views and historical inaccuracies. Notwithstanding that the US has made similar propaganda movies such as Pearl Harbor. From a Chinese national point of view, knowing that the movie is historically inaccurate and largely ignored outside of china, what is it that appeals to you about this movie?

JayCroghan3 karma

Absolutely nothing. I did a job for money.

LawStudent9898983 karma

Anything you’d change if you did it again?

JayCroghan11 karma

I wouldn’t do it again 😂

derluxuriouspanzer2 karma

How much Chinese did you manage to pick up and how difficult was the transition for you moving from Ireland to there?

JayCroghan1 karma

Absolutely none, I can count to 99, I’ve had my wife to translate for me all this time and she lets me away with too much god bless her. It was quite difficult to be honest, coming to terms with food was the wildest. But it got easier as time went on.

Swiss_James2 karma

Were film crews given any special COVID permission relaxations? Can’t imagine the complexity of trying to shoot a major film under a zero covid policy!

JayCroghan1 karma

Yes and no. We had to do COVID tests every few days in our hotel. Not the RAT a proper swab. But even allowing that many people to be in one place was probably against the rules. We shot some scenes in a city for a few days and the locals took videos of us that we found on Douyin (chinese tiktok) complaining about foreigners not wearing masks but we were in a bubble and on our way to work.

putrid_sex_object1 karma

Did you fart in the spacesuit?

JayCroghan3 karma

Yeah, it’s fuckin glorious.

snowletterH1 karma

Why were you living in china at the time?

JayCroghan5 karma

I said in another comment I’ve been living and working here for a number of years, I’m married to a Chinese woman.

MrPocketjunk1 karma


JayCroghan2 karma

I met my wife in Ireland and moved here to be with her. I’ve been working most of my time here in software engineering.

Handball_fan1 karma

Yes why were you living in China with no job ?

JayCroghan5 karma

I work in Fintech as a software engineer, I was out of work for a short while; I moved here to be with my girlfriend who is now my wife. We met in Ireland.

Ball10910 karma

Lisdoonvarna - is it legit?

JayCroghan2 karma

The competition? It used to be.

MarkGorZ0 karma

Did you expect a bigger reaction to your achievement from western people?

JayCroghan14 karma

Nope. It's not much of an achievement.

Studoku-1 karma

I'm in the other bit of the Isles but what advice would you give to escaping it and moving to China?

JayCroghan16 karma

Other bit of the UK? Ireland isn't in the UK. If you have a degree in anything and no criminal convictions you can get a work visa here to teach English. You can apply from home and they will pay for an apartment and a very good salary. I'm not sure about flights as I made my own way here. It's a good life and as a foreigner here you're treated very well in general, in some of the smaller cities you'd be a local celebrity just for being foreign. I live in a city of 11m people though so no such luck for me.

Studoku0 karma

Fair point. Can I say "The Isles" instead?

JayCroghan6 karma

The islands of Great Britain and Ireland I would say.

Studoku4 karma

The important part is that the bit I'm on sucks.

JayCroghan5 karma

Then get a TEFL course and go teach English anywhere else then. There are lots of countries who are willing to pay native speakers to teach them.

mintnoises0 karma

Lots of English speakers have been out of jobs and the CCP is pushing anti-english rhetoric lately though?

JayCroghan5 karma

What and where is the anti-English rhetoric? Where and why are English speakers out of jobs?

jocala-18 karma

Ummmm. Are you afraid of China seeing this?

JayCroghan20 karma

Why would I be?