Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Life as a Production Assistant

Remember my post about the essentials of casting? Well, here’s another one to help you understand another role in the production business. This ladies and gentlemen, is the lowly position of the production assistant!

If you have been wondering why someone will want to start out as a production assistant, the answer to that is pretty simple. Many young directors who have made their digital video short films and are beginning to understand the fundamentals of filmmaking look for jobs on a feature film or a production company that makes TV commercials. This is because short films don’t put enough money in their pocket. However, the problem is, the production companies have already filled important positions like director, cinematographer (or director of photography), producer, editor and all the other cool jobs and don’t see where a punk a few shorts will fit except as a… yes you guessed it.. lowly production assistant.

Being a PA is not glamorous, but a great place to learn the ins and outs of production and make a meager living (compared to what the other members in the team get). It’s a place to learn the ropes as one executive producer (lets call her k) put it.

As production assistant or PA, you get see how ‘paid professionals’ interact on the set and get to see gear that would easily fill up several credit cards. We’re talking pro dollies, jib arms, powerful lights, c-stands, tracking shots and high-end camera packages.

But, how on earth do you land on such a job?

You need to start networking with production companies. You need to brush elbows with people who have been in the industry. Ask questions and make friends. If you impress them, you may have an in at a production house. I know friends who sent their resumes with degrees in film making, and like I said before, they had to start out as a PA! I shall not get into the discussion of the economics or the ethics of making it almost mandatory that new staff start low.

More interestingly, this is written for those of you who are trying to get into the business and more importantly, is about some tips about surviving once you are in.

Some important things to remember about your first pre-production meeting are:

1. When you get hired, don’t forget to ask for details of your job. For example, you need to know how to get to set, how long is the shoot, if there’s any thing that you need to take, your call time, etc. Some production companies require you to work with the before production (pre production) and during the production. Find out exactly what you are in for.
Confirm your rate! Some pay by the hour, some by project, some don’t pay PA’s and get work done by hiring interns.

2. Don’t walk in the door five minutes late with a lame excuse. Keep in mind, impressions (no matter how useless in the real world – debatable) count in this industry. So do make full use of impressions.

3. Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. Seniors tend to get nervous when the young punk comes up with bright ideas. I am not sure about the rest of the world, but this tends to happen in Malaysia.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask a questions. Every one knows that you are new so you are entitled to ask.

5. But, do not start ask a barrage of questions about every piece of gear. It will drive people crazy. Remember, you are not in class, it’s a paid job. Besides, if you pay attention, you will learn.

6. Don’t bloat about your latest DV short. Most of the time, these guys are spending more in 20 minutes than you did on the entire short. Besides, they are not interested in your art. Most guys are in this not for the love of film making (even though they will tell you other wise), but are in it for the money. So, don’t piss them off.

7. If you are asked to do something new, or one that you do not know how to do, do not try to bluff your way through. The production house will not call you for any more jobs.

8. Don’t start handing out your ideas on how to get something done. Production crews have been doing their thing for a long time. Even though your idea is really awesome, just shut up. They do not appreciate a “DV, punk” telling them what to do. I typically approach them when they are on break, and ask them for they “opinion” about my new idea.

9. If there is an issue with safety, then do be loud! But, confirm the threat first. I know PA who have gotten into trouble for not brining out safety issues.

10. On the set, you need to pay attention to the flow of things. Try anticipate a need. If you see a light being set, 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 them. If the set is starting to run low on something (coffee, food, water) be ready get some more.

Sounds pretty menial rite? It is! Remember, you are there to learn and this is probably the only way you are going to be on set, so enjoy the experience. It is probably not the most pleasant experience, but, a little bit of thick skin will take you the extra mile.

Make sure you have the following with you:

Comfortable shoes:
You are most likely going to be on your feet for more than 10 hours, so make sure you are ready.

Appropriate clothing:
Check out the weather forecast if you’re shooting outside. I’ve been on a shoot where we’ve started on a hot day and end the rain. Obviously, I wished I had prepared. If you’re going into a corporate office environment, you shouldn’t be wearing a dirty t-shirt that looks like you slept in a box. A hat however, is always handy.

Notepad and pen or pencil:
You may be asked to get stuff (coffee – remember thick skin) and you will have to know the 16 different flavors that was requested, and the 38 other instructions. Also, some directors get very excited when they talk to their PA’s and forget that the lowly PA’s are really nervous, and speak so fast that you might not be able to make out what was said. If you whip out a pen and small note pad and take notes, you will look prepared and may score points. Besides, excited directors don’t like to repeat and offer to speak in other languages for clarification.

Always have some change for parking meters if you sent to run errands.

A map of the area:
keep this in your car (or any other place). Getting lost on set, and come back late will get you on the bad books with a lot of people. Most modern production companies will have specialized personal taking care of catering, and transport, but, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

A fanny pack:
You can cram goodies that can be used when lunch is late. Though some production companies have their own junk food, you probably wont have time to be helping yourself. M&M’s, Mars bars, and jelly beans are my favorite!

Cell Phone and Charger:
Some production companies will abuse your phone and you’ll end up using up all your minutes with no reimbursement. So, you might want to check if you are being reimbursed before you offer to whip out that phone.

I learnt too late that gloves are good for protecting your hands if you have do heavy duty dirty work. I had to coil cables that were running though a drain. I Will let your imagination fill in the rest.

A Leatherman Multi-tool or similar tool:
They just come in handy in all kinds of circumstances. I did not have this until recently and the micro leather man that I am now using has saved my life several times.

You just might want to label things.

I carry a small mag light. You may end up wrapping up at night, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere and...well, you get the picture.

For those sunny days. It will save you from skin cancer. Use one that is water proof (cause you just might get wet), and one that has a SPF greater than 70.

Bug spray:
Mosquitoes can get mighty nasty where ever you are. On a recent shoot, I was nailed twenty times in one minute by the bloodsuckers. On another shoot, I found too late that sand flies had gotten me about 50 times!

In case you have to do some grip work, make sure you have the following with you. Most production companies will have these items in their tool box so you do not need to get them. So you might want to check before you go.

3 prong adapter:
(Sometimes called an Edison adapter) so you can plug lights into 2 prong outlets. On a recent shoot, I discovered too late that I absolutely needed an adapter too keep the baby-talents entertained.

Cloth pegs:
Used to attach gels to lights. They come in handy. And its kinda cool to whip one out when the chief grip asks for one ;)

Gaffers tape:
This amazing product can be used for anything from securing cables, marking start positions, creating labels, sealing reel cans, you get the picture. Make this your best friend on set!

A cheap circuit tester:
You can test to see if an outlet is hot before running a light to it. I always carry one, especially on location scouts.

A belt clip:
I don’t own one yet (dont have long terms plans here). But I can see that it will be useful to carry all your tools + the very essential bottle of water.

Once you survive the first day (you will), make sure you thank the production team for taking you on. If the crew’s going out after the shoot, you may want to go along to get in with the crew. This helps in finding outer opportunities to work on the team.

Once the shoot is complete, 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 ;)


Steph said...

Had fun reading this:)

Not sure if job like is my cup of tea but it sounds pretty exciting and challenging!

Glad you took the opportunity and I'm sure the experience is rewarding!

astrorat said...

Hai steph,

i have a lovely time. It was more physically challenging than mentally... in the long run, its not my cup of tea either ;)

But, i learnt so much about the AV world! :D and made a little bit of $$$ *cachinggg!!*

Anonymous said...

hi there,

i am in the dilemma of choosing a job position in broadcast industry. im a fresh grad, of course, getting a job in malaysia is no longer an easy task for degree holder.

im opting for a job in production house. with my skills in planning and pr knowledge tat i had learn in my college, i could apply for a production assistant where like u said, the lowly rank among all. on the other hand, i do feel sorry for myself tat i hv to be a runner despite learning sooo much in college about editing..

i do not say im a very very good editor but, at least, i know i can a pretty good job in editing. yet, sitting within a room with noone would realise if ur dead or alive is a nono for me. i enjoy meeting up with people.

its a very lame question here asking if i would to join the production house as a pa or an editor.
yes, pa i would hv a good networking as time goes by, but, would tat mean its a waste that i will throw off my editing skills as well?

to tel u the truth i like film making. of course a dream of being a famous director or an editor is my goal when i enter college. the fame of entering red carpet into cannes film festival gives me goosebumps even i think about it now....

im abit lost here, like, editor or production assistant? i do not mind travelling, oh, i would LOVE to travel. young gals like me, who doesnt...

gimme some verdict, please?,

i would like to know more about ur life in the industry.....