Your Survival Guide to Working on a Hollywood Movie Set
Breaking into the film industry.
While browsing on Hubpages, I've noticed that there are dozens upon dozens of hubs on the topic of Independent Film, Short Film and even Music Videos but there is little, if not nothing, on the bigger, more lucrative film industry, Hollywood.
As a resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico, there have been dozens of hollywood movies that have filmed in the state. I have been fortunate enough to be a part of several, including 2 Guns, The Lone Ranger, Longmire, and Breaking Bad.
There is no written rule book for working on set rather there is a complex unwritten doctrine that is rigorously followed. School will rarely prepare you for what may happen. In fact, most of what you learn in a basic film course will do little to none to prepare you for set. Worried? You should be.
Based on my own experiences, I've decided to create a guide for those who's biggest dream is to work on a big budget film. These tips will not only prepare you for the highly competitive world of Hollywood but if followed correctly, will leave a good impression on the producers to call you back for future productions!
The Reality of a Hollywood Set
A Hollywood Film Set is a money fueled freight train, charging full steam ahead while the crew perilously runs alongside laying down the tracks, digging tunnels and clearing forests. Nobody has the ability to stop the train safely but everyone has the power to derail it catastrophically. Tempers flare out of control, stress is rampant, and nobody wants to hear those words, "You fucked up!"
At any moment the train could claim a victim. You loose focus for one minute and the career consequences can be fatal. Too slow and you are left in the dust. Too soft and the train will run you down. Aggression, focus, proaction and professionalism are your keys to success on a big budget film.
The best comparison we can give to the scheduling and stress riggers would be the military. You receive your orders, you report for work, no questions asked. You do the work regardless of where it is or how long it takes. You leave only when dismissed, not before.
Questions to ask yourself when considering a career in filmmaking:
Are you prepared to work seven days a week?
Depending on the size and schedule of the project, movie productions can work up to seven days per week for weeks on end. Standard schedules are Monday-Friday with a predawn call on Monday and an overnight call on Friday, taking you into Saturday's morning hours. Working Saturdays or Sundays are not uncommon, especially if the production falls behind schedule or has enough money to burn on overtime. No, you may not request days off. No, you may not set your own schedule.
Are you prepared to work at least twelve hours per day?
The longest day I ever worked on a film set was 26.5 hours straight without a break. It was deep in the New Mexico wilderness 3 hours from home. My call time was 5:30AM on Friday and I did not begin the 3 hour journey home until 8AM the next morning. On average, a show will film at least 13 hours per day. With wrap time included, you're on the clock for an average 15 hours.
Are you prepared to work all night? For example, 5PM to 5AM?
Night shoots are a big reality of filmmaking, nearly every project has at least one. They are unavoidable and come with loads of challenges; rain, snow, wind, sub-zero temperatures. Sleep deprivation is a constant and very real problem. People have died as the result of the conditions.
Are you comfortable taking orders from someone younger than you?
Unlike other career or working environments, the film industry has absolutely no academic or age requirements. Requirements are set forth by individual unions and studios based on years worked in the industry and the people you know. As a result, if someone got an early start in the industry at a young age, they advance up sooner. It's common to see a boss giving orders to folks 10 to even 20 years older than they are.
Are you prepared to drop everything at a moment's notice and report to work?
The film industry is notoriously last minute. Schedules are drafted on the fly and are always in flux. A last second scheduling change can leave departments scrambling to find manpower often with less than 12 hours to find willing/available people. Because you are not experienced enough to be a full time hire, you are a dayplayer: someone brought in on an as-needed basis. As such you must be willing to be on call 24/7.
If you answered 'no' to any of the questions above, you may want to consider a different career.
What is a Production Assistant?
The Production Assistant is the infamous bottom rung of the entire film industry. PA's bear the brunt of all jokes, anger, and hatred. Often portrayed by media as the glorified coffee runner, hazed at every turn, fired after making a single mistake, and worked to the point of death. They are the pledge class of the set.
In reality, a production assistant plays a key roll in the efficient and successful running of a film production. Without them, a film set simply could not function.
Types of Production Assistants
There is no one overarching, all encompassing, position call a Production Assistant. In fact, the title is given to dozens of individuals throughout the production, hierarchy is established based on experience.
Key PA - Production Assistant with the most experience and the one who generally supervises and delegates all other production assistants under them. Responsible for relaying directions from the from the AD's. Note: Not all productions will use key PAs.
Staff PA - Staff PAs AKA Set PAs are hired for the entire duration of filming through the Assistant Director Department. Often charged with a specific task or duty during production.
Additional PA - Also known as a 'Day Player', these individuals are hired on a day-by-day, as needed basis. Their duties are restricted to very basic tasks, such as road lockups or extras wrangling. Additionals can be hired through any department.
Department PA - Individuals hired for the individual departments within a production.
Office PA - Production Assistants hired to work in the production office. Duties include running lunch, office supplies, mail and/or secretarial work.
RULE #1: Be prepared to drop everything, any plans, work, school, church or trips if you get the call to work on a big film.
Any hesitation will cost you your chance. The odds are in the house's favor, not yours. Any hesitation and the production will immediately move on to the next person on the list.
- "I have to check with my [wife, work, schedule]..."
- "Can I get back to you?"
- "What will I be paid?"
- "How long will it be for?"
- "OMG! Really!?"
- "Yes I can."
Members of the Hollywood film industry will often remark that film is their religion and stress is their spouse. That isn't much of an exaggeration. For big budget films, sundays are often the busiest days of the shooting schedule, especially when the production falls behind schedule. While some productions may accommodate religious requirements once you're established, as a no-name rookie, your chances are slim to none.
Clear your schedule, completely. There are no part time filmmakers. If you get the call to work on a picture, you must be fully prepared to commit days, even weeks on end. Say you're asked if you are free on August 1st to work. What they are not telling you that you may also be working August 2nd, 3rd, and so on.
My job interview to work on The Lone Ranger consisted of a text message from the Key Set PA.
KEY SET PA: You free to work tomorrow on Lone Ranger?
ME: Yes I am.
KEY SET PA: Ok putting you on hold.
2 HOURS LATER
KEY SET PA: Set is on XX west exit XXX you make a right at the gas station up the dirt road to Crew Parking. 6:00AM Call.
And with that, I was hired onto Lone Ranger.
RULE #2 Be prepared to work as a PA. Hard.
The workload is predictably overwhelming. You may find yourself working seven days a week at 12-18 hours a day, often for weeks on end. Burnout is very high, and is usually compounded by the family problems the job causes. Divorce and breakups are commonplace.
Feature films can shoot six days a week for an average of 15 hours per day. There are few if not any breaks during the day. For those working in any of the production departments, if you are a greenhorn or have worked less than 300 hours on a union feature film set, then your job will be a production assistant. That is an unavoidable reality and every member of the union crew has had to do it.
Tips Every Person Should Remember:
- Remembering Everyone and Everything: This will make you or break you. Asking people multiple times for their names is insulting and in some cases career inhibitive. You must be ready to remember everyone's name the first time you hear it, know which position they are and where you can find them. Several members of the crew had the same name and it is your job to know who is who. TIP: When a person introduces themselves, immediately look them up on your call sheet. It will help in the memorization process.
- Understanding the Radio: The radio is a never ending blurb of chaos silent only when the cameras roll. You must have a good ear and always be listening for when your name is called. In my case, it was exceptionally difficult as the department 'Location' often sounded like my name 'Jason' over the radio static. Never answer a radio call that is not yours. Productions will often use multiple channels: Example: Channel 2 for Calling, Channel 5 for Long Conversations.
- Be Aggressive: A PA is a lightening rod for hate and frustration. Many department personnel have their own agenda and will push past you regardless if there is a lockdown in progress or not. Your job is to protect people from themselves and be that repetitive voice that tells everyone to stay back. It is very taxing but you cannot stop.
- No Egos: A PA is at the bottom of the totem pole and nothing more than a walking eggshell. Regardless of how much independent film you've done or how old you are, your job is to do those jobs nobody else wants to do. It doesn't matter if you are a military veteran or a high school student, if your ego cannot handle being at the bottom, getting yelled at, or ordered around then you have no business being on a film set. Period.
- Thick Skin: You will be yelled at, everyone will. It is a fact of life. Especially when the production starts experiencing problems or if you are not doing something you are supposed to. Take nothing anyone says personally. At the end of the day, everything is water under the bridge. Holding a grudge against someone because they yelled at you, will only hurt you, not them. Never shout or talk back.
- Operating out of your Comfort Zone: If you have difficulty multi-tasking, hate surprises, or cannot think in the moment, then Hollywood probably isn't for you. One moment you could be sitting at a road lock up doing nothing, ten minutes later you could be thrown the keys to a rental car and ordered to pick someone up from the hotel or airport. Which hotel? It's up to you to find out. How? Ask lots of questions.
Rule #3: Distance Matters Not
One way to gain the respect of the crew, is to demonstrate that you are willing to go to great lengths, and distances, to work in the film industry. The final week of my extent on the Lone Ranger took place in Los Alamos, New Mexico, a full two hours drive from where I live in Albuquerque. For crew members that are hired on a day-to-day basis, you are rarely compensated for any costs that may be incurred, such as gas, mileage, food and lodging.
KEY SET PA:
"Hi Jason, I was wondering if you'd like to work on Lone Ranger this week. Now before you say yes, we are shooting in Los Alamos. Call is at 5:30AM so you will need to leave Albuquerque at 3:30AM. You will not be compensated for gas, lodging, or mileage. Would you still like to come?
I will be there.
KEY SET PA:
Thank you so much!
As with every movie production, you really don't know what to expect until you arrive on set for your first day. But you should prepare for the worst kind possible. I'm talking about standing in the same spot for eighteen hours straight, without any break, dying under the beating hot sun while getting blasted unmercifully by an unforgiving sandstorm while still trying to radio, do your job and without getting yelled at. Think I'm exaggerating? Just ask any member of the Long Ranger production staff.
The week of May 21-25 was a Dust Bowl. With gusts up to seventy MPH at times, the dust in the air blinded everyone and got everywhere. At times, my vision was reduced to just a few feet in front of me. Sand ripped into my sunburnt skin causing it to bleed in some places. It got into my ears, my eyes, my lungs, my mouth. It's such a wonderful crunching sound when you rub your teeth together. Filming was shut down a number of times as we waited for the wind to pause just for a few precious seconds.
The week of August 1-4 in Los Alamos was a nice change in scenery. As many of the full time crew remarked, it was the first location of the entire show to have shade! Not to mention a comfortable temperature and breathtaking scenery.
Duties of a Set PA
- Runner: The myth is true. Running coffee and food is the number one job of any production assistant. Each morning, the actors will give out their breakfast orders. Make sure you get exactly what you were asked to get. Don't ask useless questions, and do not complain.
- Lock Downs: When the set locks down, usually for filming or crew breaks, nobody and I mean nobody, is allowed in or out. If you boss (Key Set PA or AD) says, "Lock it down." you, under penalty of termination, cannot allow anybody past the lockdown point. It does not matter who they may claim to be or what title they try to force down your throat. A lock down is a lock down.
- Flushing/Bleeding: Always ask, 'Who?' 'What?' 'When?' 'Where?' and 'Why?' Herding or 'Flushing' as its called on set, of people and vehicles is a never ending grind. 90% of your time will be directing an endless caravan of people or vehicles whose passengers range from the executive producer to the extras. You need to be vigilant and know exactly who is in each of the vehicles at all times. Only if they are crucial to the scene, then they are given priority on a traffic flush, if not, then they must wait.
- Emergency Vehicles: As per strict Osha, union and insurance requirements, all emergency vehicles must be free of obstructions at all times on set. Department personal continuously park in front of emergency vehicles and it is your job to always insure that a path is open.
- Call Sheets/Sides/DOODs: A never ending task of a PA is to pass out call sheets to the crew for the next day's shoot. Sides are generally distributed at the beginning of each day. Day-Out-Of-Days or DOODs are passed out when required.
LADY: "I have a 3:00 PM flight to LA I cannot miss."
ME: I'm sorry but we are Locked Down.
LADY: "Do you have any idea who I am? I am a representative of the DGA and I cannot miss this flight."
ME: "I'm sorry, it's a Lock Down. AD's orders."
Best Ways to Get Hired.
By now, you are probably asking, "Well how do I get hired?" The answer is rather complex. There is no official way to get hired onto a production. 9 out of 10 times, it is because you already know somebody who works in the film industry who can recommend you to a production coordinator. Occasionally you'll get lucky and find a posting for a basic PA job on Craiglist or a film forum but those are rare. Here are the most common and most effective ways to break into the film industry.
- Get to know someone who already works in the industry. There is a big difference between getting to know someone and simply asking the first person you see. Members of the industry are literally bombarded daily with requests, and in some cases, demands for work and jobs. Like the junk mail in your email, those requests are ignored. Taking the time to get to know someone first shows them that you are willing to make a respectful effort and, most importantly, show you are willing to be as patient as possible.
- Working in the Production Office. On set, it can be very difficult to network, especially since everyone is busy, there are problems, or people are too tired to remember. The production office, while not the most glamourous job, is an easier opportunity to network. Office PA jobs are also easier to obtain. The responsibility is much higher, as is the stress and chances of making a career threatening mistake. The trade off is you are working directly with the Production Coordinators whom are responsible for most of the production's hiring and may even work directly with the film's producers. You are constantly interacting with people from multiple departments and even other productions if you are working in a studio environment.
How long does it take to break in?
Simply because someone works a day or two on a big film does not necessarily mean your establishment in the industry. An individual would work a day on The Lone Ranger and then not be called back, either until months later or not at all.
Some of the most common reasons you were not called back
- You didn't connect with enough people. If you are not on salary, numbers and contact information are rarely passed on. The individual who hired you could leave the picture for a better offer and your number will quite literally leave with them.
- You assumed instead of asking questions. Repeatedly assuming answers instead of asking for the correct one will get you fired faster than any other mistake or behavior. For example, say your boss, the APOC (Assistant Production Coordinator), asks you to deliver an important document, usually a check or memo that requires a signature, to a specific individual on set. You arrive and find that said individual is busy with a shot or is otherwise unavailable. Another individual approaches you and says "I'll sign for him" and you say "Ok". That seemingly innocent gesture could, under the right circumstances, just got you fired. This is because you assumed that the document would reach its target person instead of asking for further instruction from your boss.
- You were not aggressive enough or failed to make a good impression. There is a fine line between being aggressive and being egotistical. The crew has a very tough skin and can handle just about anything that someone says. But you can still offend someone if you complain, attack someone personally, use profanity or slurs. Professionalism is your key to a good impression.
- Wrong Attitude on Set. A film set is hard and chaotic enough, especially when the sixteenth or seventeenth hour rolls by. The last thing the crew needs is a self absorbed individual who complains for any reason. "I'm bored" "I don't feel my skills are used properly" are death phrases on set and will win no sympathy from the crew. Silence, Obedience and Patience will win respect not Complaining, Attitude, or Arrogance.
- You made a serious 'harmless' mistake. There is no job training for a film set. Film School will do little to train you in basic jobs than are more likely to get you fired. A harmless mistake such as accidentally filing papers incorrectly, getting lost while running an errand or forgetting double checking a lunch order before delivering it can cost you your job in the right circumstances.
Expect no real progress for at least several years and your establishment is entirely on your shoulders. Unlike a traditional job where once a year you are up for review, promotion and advancement, in film some advance in three months, others take three years or more. Even union workers are not guaranteed permanent establishment.
Terminology of the Set
Just like in a restaurant, jargon has been coined that every member of the production team uses. Knowing the most common slang ahead of time can greatly reduce the confusion you may experience on set.
- Hot Brick: A charged radio battery. Everyone should have at least two extra batteries with them at all times. If someone asks you "Do you have a hot brick?" You best have one.
- Landed: Arriving on set. This term is used to describe things that have arrived at the immediate filming location.
- Flushing or Bleeding: Transporting people or equipment across an active film set.
- French Hours: No meal breaks! Food is passed out on set and people stuff it down whenever they can, where ever they can.
- Honeywagon: Toilets. This one's important!
- Gator: ATVs used on set for any purpose. Despised for always getting in the way of shots or ruining photo terrain.
- Ten-O-One: "I need to use the toilet."
- Football: The accordion folder that contains all important paperwork at the end of each shooting day. Files included in the football are: Schedule G, Daily/Weekly Time Cards, Catering Receipts, Production Reports, Script Reports, Camera Reports, Lost/Damaged Equipment Forms and Injury Claims.
Paid or Unpaid?
Unpaid postions exist on all levels of production, from low-budget to blockbuster and can be equally as valuable as a paid job. The reality is that there are far more unpaid opportunities than paid opportunities for a beginning production assistant. The rule of thumb is never turn down an opportunity when you are starting out, regardless if it's a paying job or not. Of course, one has to evaluate their financial situation when considering an unpaid position. Some unpaid positons can last for weeks, even months and are rarely part time. Union hours can still be earned on an unpaid job if the production is union accredited.
Building Your Set Kit
A set kit is an essential part of any staff set PA. While the exact contents of which vary from person to person, having a kit on set is a crucial part of making your job easier especially during those hell days where you have little time to think. Most set kits are created at personal cost. Some completed kits can be passed down from those who no longer need them such as PAs who have finally gone DGA.
The Set Box. A simple accordion style football which contains the most-frequently-asked-for paperwork of a production. There is no requirement as to exactly what is inside but forms that you should consider including in your set box are:
- The Script
- Script Revisions
- One Line Schedule
- Day-out-of-Days or DOODs
- Photo Releases
- Crew Lists
- Start Work
- Extras Vouchers
- Extras Breakdowns
- Daily Time Sheets
- Incident Reports
- Loss & Damage Reports
- Workman's Comp Forms
- Box Rental Forms
- Petty Cash Envelopes
- SAG Forms