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Working as an extra in China’s Hollywood

American photographer Darcy Holdorf says aspiring actors in China’s booming film industry spend a majority of their time waiting for work.

Based in Shanghai, she recently visited nearby Zhejiang province to look at the lives of extras at Hengdian World Studios, one of the world’s largest film studios.

“Since it is one of the lowest paying jobs in the country, those who choose working as an extra as a dedicated career are truly passionate about it,” she said.

Tan Qing Long, 31, moved to Hengdian last year to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming an actor. Holdorf met him through the local actors guild and says Tan took the work more seriously than most of his peers.

But like them, he earns a standard rate of 5 yuan (80 cents) an hour. It’s barely enough to afford the cheap room he rents near the center of town.

“He seemed satisfied to have the chance to do what he loves and takes pride in his work,” Holdorf said. “Even after he suffered from heat stroke after a grueling shoot, I never heard him complain about what he does.”

With long, unpredictable hours and little pay, the majority of extras go unnoticed. But many of the young people Holdorf came across were in it more for the experience than a shot at fame.

During breaks from school, some students go to Hengdian just for the thrill of trying something new.

“I was reminded of my youth, and there was an air of carefree optimism that I haven’t experienced anywhere else in China,” Holdorf said.

She has been living and working in the country on and off for the past five years. In that time she has learned enough Mandarin to do all of her research and reporting without a translator.

To practice her comprehension of the language, she would sometimes watch Chinese soap operas, a huge part of the industry in Hengdian.

Since its first set was built in 1996, the film studio has transformed the local economy and turned what was once a poor farming town into a thriving tourist destination.

Nicknamed “Chinawood,” the area now boasts a theme park and more than a dozen movie sets, including a full-scale replica of Beijing’s Forbidden City.

But people who arrive with dreams of stardom are often faced with a harsh reality.

“One thing that I heard from most of the extras is that if you don’t have connections in the industry, it’s nearly impossible to make a breakthrough as an actor,” Holdorf said.

- Brett Roegiers, CNN