Production Assistant Essentials

I talk to a lot of young filmmakers who are just starting out in the business end of, well, the business. They’ve made their DV shorts and are beginning to understand the fundamentals of filmmaking, but are realizing that their neat short movies don’t put change in their pockets. They want to get jobs working on a feature film or maybe a production company making corporate videos and commercials. Well guess what? The production companies have already filled the fun positions like director, cinematographer, editor and all the other cool jobs and don’t see where some punk kid with some shorts will fit except in the position of a lowly production assistant. It’s not glamorous, but a great place to learn the ins and outs of the biz and make a meager living. You get see how paid professionals interact on the set and get to see gear that would fill up several credit cards. We’re talking pro dollies, jib arms, powerful lights and high-end camera packages.

First, how to you get these jobs? Well, you can start networking with production people in your area. It’s getting to the point where there is almost no place that doesn’t have somebody shooting video. Most hospitals have some form of video communications department. Also, there are companies that shoot local commercials. If there’s a local film/video making group you can brush elbows with professionals who sometimes stop into get a taste of narrative filmmaking and to share their professional experience. Ask questions and make friends. If you impress them, you may have an in at a production house.

Now you’re going to need a resume. This should list all your contact information, phone numbers and address, educational experience like film school and list production or associated experience. Sometimes a non-production job that requires organized business skills can be as important as a few DV shorts. If you have shot a zillion DV shorts, don’t list everyone. Just put the best ones on your resume.

Another thing you’re going to need with this resume is a cover letter. Cover letters are where you start slinging the BS about your skills and desire to work in the business. Don’t lie or exaggerate your skills in the letter or on your resume. Don’t put the BS on too thick, but be professional and business-like. Keep it one page or under. Talk about what your production experience and that you think you can help out the company. Also, you can talk to people who are freelancing about what they used to get in the door and maybe they’ll share. There are plenty of books on cover letters and resumes, so I won’t babble on about this.

Ok, you’ve put all this paperwork together, you’ve sent it out or hand delivered it to every production company in your area and out of some stroke of luck all their regular productions assistants are sick, booked or have moved up the ladder, and you get hired for your first PA gig, so what do you bring to the set?

Number one: a positive attitude. Don’t walk in the door five minutes late with some lame excuse or bitching about something or another. Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. Nobody likes a malcontent. Don’t be afraid to ask a question, you’re new to all this, but find a way to fit it into the conversation. Most crew folks will help you get your feet wet. Don’t start blathering on about your latest DV short. Most of the time, these guys are spending more in an hour than you did on that short. Now don’t start asking a barrage of questions about every piece of gear. That’ll drive the veterans crazy. If you pay attention, you’ll learn stuff as the day progresses. If they ask you to do something you don’t know, say you’re unfamiliar with that procedure or piece of gear. Don’t try to bluff your way through something, they’ll most likely see through the ruse and you’ll not work for that production house again. Hopefully you didn’t put that you knew that piece of gear inside and out. Again, like on the resume, tell the truth.
Here’s a biggie: as much as you’d like to, don’t start handing out your ideas on how to get something done. Most of the people on the set have been doing this for a long time and getting paid to do it and don’t need some “young, snot-nosed, DV, punk” telling them what to do. If you have really good idea find someway of getting it in there without being overbearing. If there is a safety issue, then speak up. Take it up the ladder if need be.
(Sidenote: don’t forget to eat a good breakfast. Sometimes you have to hit the ground running and being hungry doesn’t keep your mind on the job.)
(Another sidenote: when you get hired, don’t forget to ask about what kind of day you’re in for, like conditions and length of day or days. A day in the studio is a lot different from a day the field. Is it a full day or half day? Is there travel? Are there any special conditions? I’ve shot in some factories that required steel-toed shoes. Don’t forget to get the call time.)
(Sidenote #3: What about your day rate? Is it a flat rate or hourly? Some production companies will just tell you the rate. Some will ask you want to make? The scale depends on the size of the company and the size of the job. Usually if you ask the right questions you can come up with a rate. On low budget features the pay can be downright stinky, I’m talking $25 a day for 12 hours plus. On big budget shows you can make up to $150 a day with overtime pay.)

Sorry for all the sidenotes, but I had to fit those ideas in here someway.

Another thing to do on set is pay attention to the flow of things. Try anticipate a need. If you see a light being set, have a stinger (extension cord) handy or your hand on a c-stand if they need it. If the director calls for a camera placement where some items are in the way, be ready to move those items. If the set is starting to run low on something (think coffee or food) be ready get some more.

Now I’ll list of some items your should bring:

Comfortable shoes – I can’t stress this enough. You may be on your feet for 12 hours or more, so you have to take care of your feet.
Appropriate clothing – Check out the weather forecast if you’re shooting outside. I’ve been on shoots where we’ve started on a hot day and the temperatures dropped 30 plus degrees. It might not be a bad idea to have a jacket handy. If rain is possible a raincoat on hand is good. I was shooting on the beach in Malibu once and you think the beach, it must be hot. Nope, it was November and windy with temps in the 60s. The poor boom guy was wearing a t-shirt and shorts and couldn’t stop shaking during takes. I keep a sweatshirt in a plastic bag in with my spare tire in my trunk for just these cases. He was very thankful. If you’re going into a corporate office environment, you shouldn’t be wearing a dirty t-shirt that looks like you slept in it that has cartoon character giving the world an obscene gesture. A hat is handy for sunny days.
Note pad and pen or pencil – You may be asked to get a list of stuff (think coffee) and will need to write this down. If you whip out a pen and small note pad you will look prepared and score points with the higher ups.
Change – Always have some change for parking meters or pay phones if you’re sent out to run errands.
A map of the area – This should be in your car if you’re sent out to get supplies. Getting lost and coming back late does not score points with the producer. (If you’re in LA, get a Thomas Guide!!!)
A fanny pack – Ain’t a bad idea. You can cram goodies from this list in it. I like to have a snack hidden away for when lunch is late, etc. M&M’s (they don’t melt) and Starburst (they’re almost indestructible) are my favs.
Cell Phone – This is a maybe. Some production companies will abuse your phone and you’ll end up using up all your minutes with no reimbursement.
Gloves – good for protecting your hands if you have do some dirty work. I’ve heard of PA’s who had to coil cables that had been pulled through a cow pasture. I’ll let your imagination fill in the blanks.
A Leatherman Multi-tool or similar tool – They just come in handy in all kinds of circumstances. I have a micro leather man as a keyring which has saved my life several times.
Sharpie – for labeling things like packages
Flashlight – I carry a small mag light with me. You may end up wrapping out at night, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere and...well, you get the picture.
Sunscreen – For those sunny days and save you from skin cancer 20-30 years down the line. I know some seasoned grips who’ve had tumors cut off of them from skin cancer.
Bug spray – If you’re shooting in the woods, mosquitoes can get mighty nasty. On a recent shoot, I was nailed twenty times in ten minute by bloodsuckers.

If you might do some grip work:
3 prong adapter – (Sometimes called an Edison adapter) so you can plug lights into 2 prong outlets
Clothes pens – also known as C-47s or bullets. Used to attach gels to lights.
A cheapie circuit tester – these can be found at hardware stores for $2 and under. You can test to see if an outlet is hot before running a light to it. I always carry one, especially on location scouts.

Ok, you’ve survived the first day. First, don’t forget to say thank you a lot. Ask for a call time for the next day if you’re going more days. If the crew’s going out after the shoot, you may want to go along to get in with the crew.

On the business end, make sure to get contact information on how and where to submit an invoice. Some companies have pre-printed sub-contractor (that’s you now) forms that you fill out at the end of the job. They’ll need your contact info, address, phone number and social security number (very important.) If you have to make your own invoice, make it clear and easy to read. (If you have Microsoft Excel, it usually comes with a built in invoice template that can be easily adapted.) You should ask about the payment schedule. Some companies pay you going out the door (these are very rare.) Some pay as soon as they get an invoice. Others pay out in 30 days from getting your invoice. Get that invoice in the mail right away if you want to get paid in a timely fashion.

If you’re paycheck is running late, give them a few extra days and call to make a polite enquiry. As a PA you can’t make too many waves. If it’s really running late, try to talk to the other crew members to get the scoop.

Remember to thank who ever brought you onboard. Check in occasionally to see if there is any new work, but don’t be a pest. Once every two weeks or so should be enough. Become friends whoever does the hiring.

If you really start freelancing a lot, don’t forget to pay your quarterly taxes because no taxes are taken out of your paycheck by the production companies and Uncle Sam will want his cut. Consult a tax specialist or accountant on this front.

There are lots of other tips and tricks, but you’ll have to learn those as time goes by. The biggest thing to remember is use common sense, pay attention, be ready to work and say thank you a lot.

Scott Spears is an Emmy Award winning Director of Photography with 14 features under his belt. He’s also written several feature screenplays, some of which have been made into movies. You can learn more about him at www.scottspears.net