Industry Interview: Advancing Your Career from PA to AD
Anthony Milton has worked in the professional film scene in Dallas for the past decade. We sat down to talk shop and collect his tips on building a career.
Anthony Milton worked as a production assistant for about five years before beginning his transition to a Director’s Guild of America-certified 2nd assistant director. His focus lies in Dallas commercial work, and he has worked for nearly every department. He’s worked on commercials directed by Barry Levinson and Shawn Levy for companies like JC Penney, Under Armour, and Nissan, and on several FOX shows shot in the area (The Gifted, The Good Guys, and Lonestar).
We asked him about his career and how he built it.
PremiumBeat: Hello, Anthony! First off, what got you interested in the film industry?
Anthony Milton: My interest in the business, like most people, was spawned from just being a fan of movies. My dad would take me to the theater several times a week, sometimes for a repeat viewing of some pretty terrible popcorn movies, but we loved it. I didn’t know why they fascinated me so much, but they did. Then I grew increasingly more curious about the process and why the stuff we shot on home movies looked so much different than what I would see at the theater. I knew then that I wanted to be involved. I wanted to learn the process, technical and creative. So I went to film school and never looked back.
PB: Did school help prepare you for life on a set?
AM: For me personally, yes. I went to Full Sail, which if taken advantage of properly, truly prepares you for life on set. I came in knowing set etiquette and knowing who to talk to and who not to. How to move, what certain terms were. It really benefited me when making my own projects. But I feel like it gave me more confidence when i stepped onto set the first time, I didn’t feel completely lost. Film school isn’t at all necessary to work on a film crew, but it helped me personally.
PB: What are some of the things that Full Sail taught and prepared you for?
AM: Full Sail is different from typical film schools. I personally felt like I walked away with a great deal of knowledge on how to work on a set. I was also in a position to be able to direct a 16mm and a 35mm project while in school. So I got the best of both worlds on the technical side of things — and how to crew in every department, an invaluable experience to fast-track your way to a skill position department (like grip/electric, art department, camera department, etc.). And if you take full advantage of everything they have at that university (which is a 24-hour facility), you could walk out as a decent cinematographer. I was always more of a creative initially, so I gravitated more toward that in college. Overall, for my goals and aspirations, I feel like I walked out with a rounded knowledge of how to bring a story to the screen and how to work on a set.
PB: How did you get your first PA job?
AM: When I graduated Full Sail and moved back to Dallas, I knew there was a market but had no idea how to break into it. Before I left for college I did a small internship at The Studios of Las Colinas, where I met a stage manager. He was the only person I knew in the business, and, more importantly, he was the only one that knew me, if he even remembered me from three years earlier! So when I moved back into town I found him on MySpace and messaged him in regards to finding work. “Check Craig’s List” was his response. He wasn’t being short or dismissive; the fact was he wasn’t very well connected, after all, and needed work as well in a market that was currently experiencing a slow period.
About two weeks later, he asked me if I wanted to help him and his friends make their entry for the Doritos Super Bowl contest. His friends were also small-time players in town, and one was a producer, so I figured it couldn’t hurt and sounded fun. I exchanged info with that producer, who hired me on a real job a few weeks later. From there, I met a production manager who also hired me on a few more projects. From there, I looked up production companies on the internet and made cold calls.
PB: The film industry is definitely geared towards the charismatic, extroverted personality. From your experience and knowledge do you have any advice for those introverts who wish to make a successful living in the industry?
AM: That is tough in this business, but it can be done. Being on set is a good way to break out of that a little bit, and if it’s something you really want to do, allow the business to force you to be social. The freelance life is scary and can leave you with a great sense of self doubt when the phone isn’t ringing. It definitely helps if you know someone in the business who can throw your name and number to a production manager or coordinator. Honestly, even if you are an extrovert, it can be difficult to break in.
The key is to be patient and don’t get discouraged. If you have absolutely no connections, go to Google and look up local production companies. Call them, tell them you are looking to break into the business as a PA. If they don’t have anything available, they know local production managers and coordinators who do the hiring. Ask them to pass along your info. You would be surprised how many people want to help. There are also production Facebook groups local to your area. Look them up and join one. There are always people looking to crew up indie and short films, and that can lead to a connection to the commercial or TV world. Once you’ve made it on set, you don’t have to step too far outside of yourself to chat everyone up.
PB: It can be tricky to get consistent work in any freelance job, especially when starting out. How did you manage to book a steady flow of jobs?
AM: Network, network, network. Don’t underestimate anyone you come across in the business. You never know when they will be the source for your next job. Have business cards and actually distribute them. Text fellow PAs, coordinators, and managers from time to time to remind them you exist. It’s not that they didn’t like you, or that you’re not a memorable person, they just have a lot on their plates and meet a lot of new people on a daily basis. Be early to work, be ready to learn, be ready to sweat and have a good attitude about it all. That’s the first step. Attitude, attitude, attitude. They know a lot of PAs come in very green with no knowledge of the business whatsoever, so as long as you’re willing to learn with a smile on your face, you will get another job.
PB: From your long career as a PA, any advice on how to stand out from the rest? Certain etiquette to adopt or behaviors to avoid?
AM: I can’t overstate this: be early to your call time, and have a good attitude! Pay attention to your walkie talkie, and learn walkie etiquette and protocol. Good communication is absolutely key. As a PA, you are an extension of the ADs and the managers. You are often asked to be a vessel of information through various channels throughout set. Be concise and professional when you speak on the walkie. If you have something long to say, go to channel 2. When someone calls for an available PA, always be the first one to your walkie — if you aren’t already assigned to another task. If no one responds (no quicker way to get on an ADs bad side), speak up and let them know you are busy on a task and what the task is; they will then let you know if what they are asking for takes priority.
I know that’s a little detailed, but it’s important! If you aren’t on a task, be near set and paying attention. Anticipate needs! If you see an AD about to carry things, offer to carry them. Same with managers and coordinators. Be ready to assist other departments if necessary. As you grow wiser and more comfortable, become self sufficient, know your duties, and carry them out. Show initiative but not so much you overstep your bounds — it’s a fine line! And understand that every manager and coordinator is different. They have different things they like in a PA and different pet peeves. Learn their quirks; it will get you far. Impress your fellow PAs. In the beginning, a lot of your work will come from them recommending you. Teamwork makes the dream work.
Don’t offer the director advice on his shot — or the DP, or the gaffer, or anyone. You’re a PA; be a PA. Be humble and realize you will get your chance one day. Don’t ask when you can go home. (When we are done — that’s when!) We work long days, so strap in. Don’t sit down on set. If you have to take a break, do it out of sight for a few minutes and let a fellow PA know. Don’t hide — that will leave you forgotten. You can be social; it’s easy to get caught up on set, but keep it professional and stay mindful of what is happening on set. Be smart about it.
PB: The PA schedule can be a bit difficult to deal with — long hours and getting last-minute calls for booking jobs. Is there a best way to deal with this hectic schedule?
AM: Dealing with the PA schedule is a little different for everyone. It’s whatever works for you because there is nothing easy about it. You will work a lot of back to back to back 16-hour days and question everything in your life. Then you might have a week off! You have to cancel plans when jobs come up, which makes it hard to plan things in the first place.
You will know after about five jobs if this life is something you really want. It’s fun, it’s different, you can have a lot of time off in between on commercials. If you plan to work on shows, know that your life belongs to them for six months, 16-17 hour days, five days a week. Some people love that hustle, but I prefer commercials.
The best way to deal with it is to be aware of it and be willing to accept it. Be willing to stare down the barrel of an 80-hour week with no sleep, and be ready to deal with the downtime in between without feeling like you’ll never work again. It’s a unique life, but it can be a lot of fun.
PB: How long did you work as a PA?
AM: I was a PA for nine years, which is an abnormal amount of time, but I switched gears on going grip/electric to going AD halfway through. And I only wanted to AD on commercials, so my route was a little longer. Everyone’s PA lifespan is different, depending on timing and which department you want to move up to.
PB: What inspired you to move on to a different department?
AM: I was inspired the moment I stepped on set. Some people come in with a specific department in mind. I eventually want to direct, but I wanted to be able to make a living as a crew member while I directed my own things on the side. The AD department fit my personality and my skill-set. So if you are one who doesn’t know what department you want to join, then just keep floating around and talking to those people; you’ll figure out what best suits you.
PB: The typical advice for learning the craft of a new department is “just shadow them,” which can be tricky as a PA when you’re always being called away to work on something else. Any advice for gaining experience and knowledge in your desired department?
AM: If your desired department is technical, do research, ask the guys questions on set when you can, watch them and truly pay attention. Get your hands on the gear any chance you get; volunteer at a rental house. Make friends with someone in that department; offer to take them out to lunch and pick their brains. If your desired position is creative, write, shoot, create — by any means necessary. Doesn’t take a lot of money. Just do it. Even if you don’t show anyone, make it. You’ll never develop a style if you don’t write or make anything.
PB: How do you move on from being a PA and into your dream department?
AM: Build relationships in those departments, and be as knowledgeable as possible. No better advice; no better way. I can’t stress how crucial those relationships are, no matter what department you are in. And when you feel like you are ready for a specific role, and I mean really ready and confident, tell people you are no longer a PA, and you are now a 1st AC, or an AD, or whichever role you’ve been training for. But like I said, it’s wise to wait until you are fully confident and have already been hired in that department a few times.
PB: How does one become an assistant director?
AM: Being an AD is based on your personality. You can have the most organized and logistical mind in existence, but if you are a poor or timid communicator and don’t have the confidence to lead a platoon, then you won’t make it as an AD. Past that, the process to become an AD is PA, PA, PA, and then PA some more. Make sure you are on set paying attention and anticipating needs of the ADs. Watch how they move and operate. Make sure those ADs know you want to be an AD, and they will start to use you in that capacity and eventually start throwing you a chance when their first-call 2nd AD isn’t available. It takes a while to work in as an AD. There aren’t as many spots open, and you need to be knowledgeable about the operation of a set, watching every detail.
PB: You mentioned you took the longer route to becoming an AD. What was your process for becoming a DGA-certified assistant director?
AM: Getting into the DGA is all about getting a certain number of days on set: 150 for third area (not CA or NY) commercial 2nd, and 600 days for television 2nd AD. A lot of PAs will put in their time on TV shows to get their days quicker. I don’t like working on shows, so I took the slower route on commercials. But really, it’s all about having the right personality and putting in your time.
Most jobs on set are based around a technical skill. AD is one of the few that is personality-driven as much as it is skill-driven. It’s a lot of stress and an incredible amount of responsibility when you step into the 1st AD role. Everyone needs to have confidence in you and the orders you are giving them.
Images courtesy of Anthony Milton.
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