How to Fit the Production Assistant Job Description & Land a Film Crew Gig
Most of us have a strong desire to perform in an above-the-line role on film and TV sets. Those roles range from Producer to Director to Director of Photography. Many of us even desire below-the-line roles like Unit Production Manager, Assistant Director, or Gaffer. However, the film and television industry is still very much a blue-collar, apprenticeship-oriented vocation and it is very reluctant to let newbies and recent film graduates to just slide into one of those positions – and with good reason. Film school teaches you the basics in a student-level environment and until you work in the film and TV field, on professionally run sets, then you still have a lot to learn. That’s why Production Assistants – the often unsung, but extremely important – heroes of production are a necessary part of any film, video, or TV shoot.
So let’s dive into what it means to be a Production Assistant by explaining:
- Production Assistant job description
- What makes a great Production Assistant?
- Targeting the best department as a Production Assistant
- Finding work as a Production Assistant
Production Assistant Job Description
A Production Assistant or PA is a role that is far more important than most people know outside of the film and TV industry. A PA is often thought of as an assistant, and while this is true to some degree, this “Assistant” role is far-reaching and encompassing of several skills and abilities. A PA can exist in nearly every department including producing, production management, the writing department, casting, the camera department, the art department, locations, and even the wardrobe department.
What makes a great Production Assistant?
Attitude and gumption are everything as a PA. Here are the defining traits of an excellent Production Assistant.
Have a Fantastic Attitude: There is a lot of grunt work that accompanies almost any PA job. It’s difficult and PAs are pulled in several directions by department heads, Coordinators, and other production industry employees in lead roles. On any given day, regardless of the department, you may be asked to make copies, make and deliver coffee, label and distribute walkies, attend meetings and take comprehensive notes, take lunch orders and make sure they are correct, organize files, handle phone calls, and take out the trash. It is so important to roll with the punches and have a great attitude while accomplishing goals. Don’t take anything personally.
Be an Amazing Listener: A great PA keeps both ears open and listens carefully to direction. Producers, Directors, Production Managers, Production Coordinators, and various department leads are busy during pre-production, production, and post-production. They don’t have time to repeat directions, so pay close attention.
Write Comprehensive Notes: A successful PA takes comprehensive notes to make sure he or she doesn’t miss something. Write notes on a pad and then photograph your notes just in case you lose your note pad. I take notes on my phone, however, it’s important to keep in mind that writing notes on your phone may seem like you’re texting or distracted, so writing in a note pad sends a clear message that you’re writing tasks down. Then, email yourself those notes just in case you misplace your phone.
When in Doubt, Ask Questions: Yes, you should be paying attention and writing down notes, but sometimes, something doesn’t make sense when someone gives you a task. It’s ok to think about it for a moment and then ask clear questions that help clarify. A Producer would rather you understand the direction instead of just trying to wing it and get the task wrong.
Stop Obviously Competing: Some new PAs come off as competitive, trying to do everything in spite of the other PAs who are available to help with the workload. They jump on every task and never admit when they are overwhelmed. It comes off as desperate. Stop it and be a team player. Share the work and don’t bite off more than you can chew. It doesn’t mean don’t work hard – it just means don’t be too anxious and frenetic.
Anticipate Needs: After a while, a smart PA will anticipate the needs of his or her department. A PA will start to develop the ability to think 2 to 3 steps ahead, realizing when someone wants coffee, when lunch orders need to be taken, when script copies will be needed, and when an office will need to be set up for an incoming executive or new employee. The PA who can see what’s coming is invaluable and in demand.
A successful PA takes comprehensive notes to make sure he or she doesn’t miss something. Write notes on a pad and then photograph your notes just in case you lose your note pad.
Targeting the Best Department as a Production Assistant
Early in your career, you should have some indication of what you’re drawn to in the film and television industry. Therefore, you should be thinking about the type of PA job you want. Do you want to be a Producer or work in the Art Department? Do you want to get your hands on camera gear or learn the nuts and bolts in production management? Whichever department is most attractive, don’t be hesitant to seek out those roles and don’t be shy when asked, “What department do you want to work in?” Too many first time PAs jump into whatever role is available, and that may be OK. Sometimes, you just want to get your foot in the door and if all the production has is a Craft Services PA, then go for it. However, if they ask you about a specific PA role, go for the position that gets you as close to the department you eventually want to work in.
You should also be thinking about whether you want to work in the office or on set. Here are some basic departments to consider:
- Office: Production, Post-production, Casting, Development, Writing
- Set: Assistant Directing, Camera, Grip, Electric, Locations, Costuming, Craft Services
Here are some resources to find work as a Production Assistant:
- Facebook: “I Need A Production Assistant” Group
- Craigslist.com under jobs / tv / film / video and under gig / crew
If you work hard, show up 15 minutes early every day, listen, take notes, pay attention, and anticipate needs, you will be wanted by everyone who has worked with you. A strong PA is indispensable and in high-demand.
Should I Work for Free?
The short answer? No. However, there are exceptions. If you have zero experience as a PA, then perhaps volunteering on an independent production like a short film or webisode may be an option to gain some experience. Here’s what you should be wary of: job postings that promise an award-winning Director, name talent, and working with a professional crew. When I read that, my first question is: if they are so advanced, then why can’t they pay their crew? It sounds like nonsense to me. However, if you really need some experience, then perhaps volunteering on at most three free gigs will help build your resume. At least make sure they have insurance so that if you get hurt on the job, you can be covered. After three free gigs, stop working for free!
Tips on Rates
What should a Production Assistant be paid? Depending on the market, you should be paid at least minimum wage in your area. In Los Angeles, the general rule of thumb is $186.50 for a 12-hour day. That takes into consideration 8 hours of straight time plus 4 hours of overtime. After that, you should be paid overtime for the next 4 hours and then it goes up from there based on local labor laws.
The general rate for experienced PAs is $200 for a 12 hour day. The highest would be $250/12 to $300/12 for a Key PA or really seasoned PA, depending on the department.
How Long to PA
One to three years tops. After that, you should be looking into APOC (Assistant Production Office Coordinator), PC (Production Coordinator), or different types of Assistant roles like AC (Assistant Camera), AP (Associate Producer), 2nd AD (2nd Assistant Director), or Wardrobe Assistant roles. After three years, it’s time to advocate for advancement in your career. You can’t PA forever and you shouldn’t PA forever.
Learn While You Earn
Being a Production Assistant gives you insight into how productions and sets are really run and you will be able to learn while you earn. If you work hard, show up 15 minutes early every day, listen, take notes, pay attention, and anticipate needs, you will be wanted by everyone who has worked with you. A strong PA is indispensable and in high-demand. So, get out there and assist productions like a pro!
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