Industry Spotlight: Working as a Production Assistant on Set
So you want to break into filmmaking? Working as a production assistant is a great way to get started. So what does that mean?
Grunt, gopher, runner, coffee kid — there are many colloquial names for production assistants on set, but despite being the most . . . upwardly mobile positions . . . on a film set, PAs keep filmmaking operations running smoothly.
So, today, we’re taking a look at the role of the trusty PA.
The PA is the entry-level position for a filmmaking career. You rarely need any hard-and-fast pre-requisite skills or experience to land a PA gig, which means most new PAs are starting out on relatively equal footing compared to other crew positions. If you want to get started in the film industry, a PA job is your best bet.
Because anyone can get the job, PAs are replaceable. If you mess up badly enough, the crew leadership will have absolutely no qualms about replacing you with another candidate from their list. This is a tough fact to face, but few other roles offer the level of access and insight into the ins and outs of a film crew’s operation.
PAs may be called upon to assist any member of the crew — from other PAs all the way up to the director and the producers. With the right attitude, preparation, and energy, there are few quicker ways to make an impression on the members of a production with the power to hire you again for a better role in the future.
So, what do you need to know to ace your first gig?
The PA’s Job Responsibilities
The job description of a production assistant is probably the simplest on the set. PAs do all sorts of things, such as escorting talent, getting water and snacks to crew members, running errands, making coffee, or anything else that would pull a dedicated member of the crew away from their tasks.
In short, your job as a PA is to keep the production running without a hitch. Be ready when the PA call goes out, and you’ll be starting off on the best foot possible.
All you need to succeed as a PA is the phrase “I’m on it.”
Beyond a simple can-do attitude, there are a couple of things I’ve picked up over the years that will put you at the top of the list when the next production rolls around.
What Makes a Great PA?
Every member of the crew should be able to communicate with everyone else on set. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Regardless of the tensions that exist, stay above them and give your fellow crew members the benefit of the doubt. Always ask for clarification if you haven’t understood a request — even if you catch a little heat for not understanding, you’ll be light years better off getting clarification than doing something incorrectly.
Always take a moment to consider your question or response before distracting anyone on the crew. Know what information you need to get and then formulate the fastest way to get it. Take an extra second to make sure you are about to address the correct member of the crew.
Sets can get crowded quickly, especially when shooting on location. Know the main paths to and from set and position yourself near them. However, don’t stand or set up where people will need to ask you to move in order to do their jobs.
Train your ear to the sounds of the assistant directors’ voices because they are usually the ones making calls for PAs. Don’t get competitive, but do everything you can to respond immediately to a call for a PA. If you’re in the middle of something when the call goes out, wait for a break in the action, then ask the person who made the call if they got the help they needed.
Many low-budget sets will fill their craft services tables with inexpensive, simple carbs. Avoid sugary, carb-heavy foods like the plague because they will dramatically reduce your ability to operate effectively throughout the 12+ hour day. Nutrition advice is always take-it-or-leave-it, but in my personal experience, you should prioritize protein for sustained energy and use fats (and, to a much lesser degree, carbs) for small bursts of energy when you need them.
Avoid sitting idle whenever you can. As a PA, you should be relatively free to roam the set while the cameras aren’t rolling. Check in on people as you do to earn some brownie points while you rack in those steps.
If you’re staying mobile and on task, you will likely be one of the most in-the-know crew members with regards to the “20” (or location) of key members of the crew. If you hear a call for a 20 go unanswered several times, and you know where the person or object in question is, chime in.
Know When to Work
Some of the most fascinating people you’re likely to ever meet work on professional film crews. Don’t get so caught up in the work that you forget to make friends and connections with your fellow crew members. Just listen attentively for the “quiet on set” call — the second you hear it, plant your feet and shut your mouth. If others around you aren’t responding to the call, politely inform them that quiet was just called. If they don’t silence themselves, get away from them as quickly as your little feet will take you. Guilt by association is real.
Don’t Touch Anything
A good way to think about equipment on set is to assume that any single piece of equipment likely costs more money than you made during the previous year. You don’t want to be responsible for a lost or damaged piece of equipment. If someone needs your assistance with anything, they’ll let you know.
Don’t Get Called Out
You want your name attached to attentiveness and your professionalism, not something negative. Goofing off at the wrong time can undermine weeks or months of hard work.
Stay one step ahead of the production, and think through what the most likely PA requests will be. Make an effort to be prepared. When the call goes out, nothing is more impressive than a PA having already taken care of the need before anyone else has even had the time to respond to the request.
“Hurry up and wait” is one of the truest axioms in filmmaking. Never lose your cool, even if everything around you is going wrong. When panic sets into a crew, those who can stay calm and operational absolutely get noticed.
If you feel frustration building, let a few people know that you’re going to step away for fifteen minutes — and then make sure to work through or isolate the frustration. It’ll be better for you and everyone on set, especially if other people are making a scene.
Have a Plan
Finally, the most important piece of advice I can give you is to go in with a plan. What aspects of filmmaking interest you most? Have you always dreamed of becoming the next Deakins or Fincher? Then make sure you’re getting to know the camera and directing teams. Be on the spot and attentive — you’ll work your way up the ladder in no time.
Production assistants are easily some of the most undervalued members of a great film crew. Never let your frustration build — remember, everyone pays their dues. If you can stay attentive and keep learning, your hard work will pay off down the road.
Cover image via Agatha Kadar.
Looking for more articles on the film industry? Check out these articles.