Working on Movies: How to Be a Production Assistant
What is a Production Assistant?
Imagine going to work at a different place every day, tackling new situations every day, and meeting new people every day -- and, a few months later, seeing the fruits of your labor on the big screen.
Thousands of people work in the film industry all over the world. There are several different career paths: director, director of photography, camera, electrician, grip, make-up artist, set costumer, assistant directing, production coordinator, etc. The entry-level position into this vast field is referred to as a production assistant.
Production assistants fall in the "Assistant Director" category of a film crew, therefore, their main boss is the 1st AD. They also take orders from the 2nd AD, 2nd 2nd AD, 3rd AD, and Key PA.
Production assistants are the lifeblood of a show. Without them, it would be impossible to make a movie.
Production Assistant Roles
There are multiple roles a Production Assistant may have when working on a major motion picture.
» Key PA
The Key PA acts as a mouthpiece between the 1st AD and the rest of the production assistants. It's the Key PA's job to find out from the 1st AD what a certain camera angle entails, what will be seen in the shot, what background will come into play, and several other details necessary for getting the shot without any interference or confusion. The Key PA then delegates responsibilities to other PAs, such as setting a lockup, counting the line, or placing background.
» First Team
One PA is usually assigned to "First Team", any actors who are on the call sheet or have lines. This PA must keep track of the whereabouts of the actors at all times, make sure the actors are aware of what scene is up next, and make sure hair, make-up, and wardrobe is aware of what scene or close-up is up next so they can make sure the actor is ready.
At the beginning of production, one production assistant will be designated to work with the extras (referred to as "background") throughout the duration of the show. This PA's duties include:
- Signing in Extras: Making sure their paperwork's filled out correctly and everyone arrives by their call time, if not, calling the extras casting director to find appropriate replacements
- Putting extras "through the works": Making sure every extra has been approved by a representative from the wardrobe department and the hair and makeup department.
- Placing background: Once on set, the Background PA will assign every extra their role in the scene. Usually, it involves telling one person to cross behind the lead actor as soon as "Action" is called, telling another to count to 4 before crossing in the opposite direction, so on and so forth.
- Sign out background: Just as this PA signed in all background, they also must write the out time for every extra and initial it. Sometimes, more than one PA will be assigned to this task, especially if there are hundreds of extras on a particular day.
One PA is designated to be in charge of distribution ("distro") of documents or packages sent to set from the production office. This can be anything from travel movements, new script pages, or equipment a department has requested be delivered to set. Every piece of distro arrives at set with the name of the department and/or person it needs to go to.
Shortly before the film begins shooting, one production assistant will be the designated Walkie PA. It is this PA's responsibility to go through the crew list and assign every crew member to a specific walkie. This PA will also create a walkie sign out sheet to keep track of any additional walkies that are handed out during production. At the end, this PA will collect all walkies and will attempt to track down any walkies that were lost.
"Basecamp" is where all of the trailers are parked, including the AD trailer, wardrobe trailer, make-up trailer, hair trailer, etc.
Typically, one PA will "run basecamp". They will greet actors when they arrive, make sure they have a copy of sides for the day, and go through hair/makeup/wardrobe in the appropriate order and are ready when the 1st AD and set are ready.
Note: There are typically 3-4 Set PAs that are on the run for a show, therefore, a PA could be responsible for multiple roles, the most common combination being walkies & distro.
General PA Duties
There are some jobs that all PAs are responsible for, and sometimes additional set PAs are brought in to support the existing core PAs.
If the crew is filming down a long hallway, in a room with several doors, on a public sidewalk, etc, not all crew or the general public will be aware when the camera's rolling and inadvertently walk right into the shot. To prevent this from happening, production assistants are placed at key points right outside of frame to prevent random people from entering the shot.
» Counting the Line
When the crew breaks for lunch, it is standard for one production assistant to count the number of people who go through the catering line in order to make sure the production company is budgeting the correct amount per day -- and also to doublecheck the caterer's count. More importantly, this production assistant will effectively keep track of the entire crew's "lunch break", by noting at what time the last crew member has gone through the catering line. This person is referred to as "last man" -- and this is when the official half-hour lunch break begins. A typical walkie transmission would be: "That's last man at 1:47, we're back in at 2:17."
Note: It isn't uncommon for larger movies to have French Hours, where lunch is served for a three hour period and all departments rotate which crew member goes to lunch. This allows the crew to carry on with filming.
» Announce Rolls and Cuts
The single most important job of all production assistants is to yell "Rolls" and "Cuts". It's simple: When the 1st AD announces over Channel One that the camera is "rolling", production assistants all over set will yell "Rolling!". This is done in order to alert other crew to be quiet, as they are typically on a different walkie channel and don't hear the 1st AD. At the end of a take, the 1st AD will transmit "Cut", and all PAs will yell "Cut!" and the crew will go back to work.
The best production assistants follow instructions well and work with a positive attitude, even if the work may seem to be beneath their potential.
Do not ask for autographs or try to befriend the actors. This is unprofessional and could even get you fired. A safe rule is to not make small talk unless the actor initiates it. If you are walking an actor to set, being friendly is OK, but it's important to be aware of what scene the actor is about to be in. If it's an intense emotional scene, being quick and professional will suffice.
Keep your eyes open and relay information. The best PAs are ones that know exactly what's going on and what's coming next. For example, knowing what scene number you're on, who's coverage your on, who will be on camera next, etc will help your crew should they have questions.
Always carry extra sides, call sheets, and hot bricks. People will expect you to have spare sides, call sheets, and hot bricks on you. Do not disappoint! Also, PAs should carry a small notebook, a pen, and a Sharpie, and if it's an all-night shoot, a flashlight.
When dealing with actors, be firm -- not rude. Being too friendly can give the impression that time isn't of the essence. Be firm, but not pushy. If an actor blows up at you, shrug it off. This often happens with diva actors, and most of the time your ADs will recognize you're not at fault -- as they typically encounter the brunt of diva attitudes.
Grin, learn, and bear it. PAs are likely to be mistreated by some crew, especially ones who've been in the industry for decades. Regardless, realize these folks know their craft, and try to watch them to learn from them. Assuming that one already knows everything about making a movie before having worked a full show will prevent any actual learning and will also give the appearance of being a bad employee to the bosses, the ADs. Regardless of whether you've been in the business a week or two years, there are countless scenarios and logistical challenges that pop up several times per day-- and you will learn something new every day.
Know your place. You may be smart, and you may have a better idea than anyone else... but there is a time and a place. Suggesting to an executive producer the best way to deal with an actor is a prime example of speaking out of turn. Eventually, you will get to make the decisions, and you can make mental notes on how you may do things differently once you move up-- but as a production assistant, rarely will voicing your opinion earn you a promotion.
You didn't go to film school. Along the same lines... unfortunately, no one wants to hear how well your student film placed at your school's film festival, or how you already know how to use the Alexa Camera because your film school provided it. Giving this information unsolicited comes across as being arrogant, and film school experience doesn't equate to real film experience. You can showcase your competency in other ways.
Realize: It's only a movie. The energy and stress of a complicated scene can prevent coherent thinking and lead to errors, which can lead to termination. It helps to remember that while there's always a severe time crunch, it is only a movie, and it is not life or death. This will help prioritize tasks and maximize efficiency.
Remember to enjoy it. You're on a film set, and getting paid! The film set IS your office. Most people would pay for the opportunity to experience the things you're privy to, so remember to appreciate the craft and savor the experiences. Though there are bound to be bad ones, they will all make for great stories later in life.
"background" - extras
"call time" - the time which crew arrives on set
"call sheet" - a legal-sized piece of paper containing all pertinent information on that particular day of shooting, including scene number, shooting order, locations, when actors arrive, etc.
"channel one" - the walkie channel the AD department communicates on, announces "Rolls" and "Cuts", etc.
"coverage" - an actor's close-up: "Moving in for coverage on Hank."
"come into play" - seen on camera
"crew call" - the crew's call time, sometimes referred to as "call". "What's tomorrow's call?"
"eyes" - Pretty self-explanatory. Do you see ___?: "Who has eyes on first team?"
"hot brick" - a fully charged walkie talkie battery.
"lands/landing/landed" - used to describe when actor arrives on set. "Let me know when Tom lands."
"show" - the film, project, movie: "What's the next show you're working on?"
"sides" - a small copy of the pages of the script that is being shot that day.
"through the works" - having hair, make-up, and wardrobe done