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How to Fit the Production Assistant Job Description & Land a Film Crew Gig

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:

  1. Production Assistant job description
  2. What makes a great Production Assistant?
  3. Targeting the best department as a Production Assistant
  4. 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:

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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7 Online Film Schools You Should Know

7 Online Film Schools You Should Know

Online film school has never been more popular. While traditional brick and mortar colleges and universities still hold appeal, many prospective students either aren’t interested in going to one or they simply might be unable to due to outside commitments or responsibilities. And that’s why online film school has become an essential part of today’s higher education for aspiring filmmakers.

From the comfort of their own homes, students can explore the medium and grow their skillsets within it. And given how easy it is for most people to get online, remote learning can extend beyond the home to the train, office or anywhere else with internet access. This benefit, coupled with the many colleges and universities that have come to recognize how remote learning can accommodate a large demographic, has resulted in a wide variety of online film school options from which students can choose.

These seven colleges and universities feature prominent online film school programs:

  1. Academy of Art University
  2. Arizona State University Online
  3. Full Sail University
  4. The Los Angeles Film School
  5. National University
  6. New York Film Academy
  7. UCLA Online Extension

Academy of Art University

Based out of San Francisco, Academy of Art University offers an online Motion Pictures & Television degree or MPT degree. As their website states, this program can prepare students “for a career as a motion pictures and television professional.” Given the broad nature of the program, it might be the perfect fit for someone who wants a wide-ranging education rather than more specialized training.

One reason why online film school continues to grow in demand is because the colleges and universities that offer it strive to provide an experience that mirrors traditional higher education, and Academy of Art University is no different. Among the benefits that the school touts for its online film students is access to and instruction from the same Teachers whom its onsite students learn from.

Arizona State University Online

Arizona State University’s online programs have been designated as among the best in the United States, making ASU a strong online film school option. At this school, prospective students can earn an online Bachelor of Arts in Film & Media Studies.

Like Academy of Art University, the degree offered through ASU gives graduates a well-rounded background in film that they can then apply to the specific field of their choice. However, for those wondering exactly how they can transfer their education to the real world, Arizona State University offers some insight into the career paths their alums have taken. The site mentions that their graduates have gone on to become “creative executives, Producers, Managers, and Writers.” They also work in “story and production development, exhibition, distribution and film, and television.”

Specifically, New York Film Academy offers non-degree 15-week online courses in screenwriting. So for those who simply want to be held accountable to a consistent writing schedule or freshen up on their screenwriting skills, this may be the right choice.

Full Sail University

Full Sail University, established in 1979, puts a strong focus on the arts, and unlike other online film school options, has several programs from which prospective students can choose. The school currently offers a Bachelor’s in Digital Cinematography, a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing for Entertainment and even a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.

Each of these programs is more specific in nature than those offered by either Academy of Art University or Arizona State University. So while other facets of the film industry might be discussed on occasion, those who decide to move forward with an online undergraduate or graduate degree through Full Sail University should already have a strong interest in either digital cinematography or creative writing.

Given that some individuals may recognize only after completing a more general degree the specialty they want to pursue, these particular degrees might also suit those who have already received their bachelor’s in another field.

The Los Angeles Film School

As its name implies, The Los Angeles Film School specifically guides students for a future career in the industry. And like Full Sail University, it offers several online film degree options. Individuals can choose from among its Bachelor of Science programs in Digital Filmmaking, Entertainment Business, Graphic Design or Animation. (The Los Angeles Film School also provides an Associate of Science in Music Production.)

Like those offered through Full Sail University, The Los Angeles Film School programs are highly specialized. Students may become better acquainted with other aspects of the film industry while in school, but they should be prepared to immerse themselves largely in the specialty for which they are enrolled.

One unique aspect of this particular online film school is that it is based in the heart of the entertainment industry. Though students are still learning remotely, this particular school may appeal to those who ultimately want to live and work in Los Angeles. Especially as online film schools generally allow for more schedule flexibility, students here can potentially network with their fellow students or even begin to work in the industry as they complete their degrees, giving them a head-start on their careers.

National University

Just south of The Los Angeles Film School is National University in San Diego. However, like Arizona State University, NU is a school that offers degrees and programs across the spectrum of different fields. Unlike any of the other online film school options mentioned thus far, though, National University provides interested students with a Master of Arts in Film Studies. Film studies students largely learn about the history and aesthetics of film, which can make this degree attractive to those who want to one day teach or become a Film Critic.

NU also offers several other undergraduate and graduate options. Prospective students can work towards their Bachelor of Arts in Digital Media Design, Bachelor of Arts in Film Arts or Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Through its diversity of programs, National University gives students who both are looking for a more generalized film education or specialized training the chance to earn their degree online.

UCLA Extension truly offers a spectrum of courses for students. Some provide extremely specialized instruction, such as “Copyright Law in the Entertainment Industry” and “Audio Recording Theory,” while others offer a more broad education like “Story Analysis for Film and Television” and “The Language of Filmmaking.” And given the lesser time and financial commitment, it could be an ideal option for those who are uncertain of the path they want to take and would like to try out different specialties.

New York Film Academy

Though called the New York Film Academy, this higher learning institution has locations not only in New York City but also Los Angeles and Miami. And like many of the other online film schools already mentioned — among them Academy of Art University, Full Sail University, and The Los Angeles Film School — New York Film Academy specializes in the arts. However, what sets this school apart from the rest is its online option that may cater better to students who aren’t looking for a long-term educational program.

Specifically, New York Film Academy offers non-degree 15-week online courses in screenwriting. So for those who simply want to be held accountable to a consistent writing schedule or freshen up on their screenwriting skills, this may be the right choice. Currently, the school provides six program options: Screenplay Story & Structure Workshop, Screenplay Workshop, Screenplay Rewrite Workshop, Television Spec Workshop, Television Pilot Workshop, and Television Rewrite Workshop.

UCLA Online Extension

Another option for individuals who want to further their education without a multi-year commitment towards getting an undergraduate or graduate degree is UCLA Extension. As its site states, UCLA Extension can help students upgrade their “current skills — or explore entirely new areas of interest.” And for those pursuing a career in entertainment, this online film school has nearly two-dozen different courses to give them a professional edge.

UCLA Extension truly offers a spectrum of courses for students. Some provide extremely specialized instruction, such as “Copyright Law in the Entertainment Industry” and “Audio Recording Theory,” while others offer a more broad education like “Story Analysis for Film and Television” and “The Language of Filmmaking.” And given the lesser time and financial commitment, it could be an ideal option for those who are uncertain of the path they want to take and would like to try out different specialties.

To further ease the educational experience for students, most UCLA Extension courses have open enrollment. Plus, once a course is completed, students have access to the large UCLA Alumni Association, which boasts of many high-profile film professionals.

Other Online Film School Options

Outside of the online film schools mentioned above, those interested in exploring or furthering their education of the entertainment industry may want to research their local community colleges or even independent businesses that offer film-related classes. Though they might not provide degree options, they may still fill the need of students who are looking for less intensive program options.

Regardless of the online film school, the decision to do a degree program or even just a course is not one that should be taken lightly. Each option is a commitment of time and financial resources, so before enrolling, prospective students should do their own research. Though remote learning can be incredibly convenient, students should make sure the program fits in with their career aspirations. By talking to the admissions office, school instructors and even former students, individuals can get a better feel for the type of education they’re potentially investing a considerable amount of money and energy into.

Another facet of online film school that prospective students should consider is that of time management. Yes, remote learning largely gives individuals the opportunity to study around their particular schedules, but students will still be held accountable even outside the classroom. Brick and mortar schools come with an inherent structure, which can be helpful to some students. So for those opting to learn from home, it’s essential that they create a structure for themselves that allows for consistent and uninterrupted learning.

That being said, online film school can be an excellent choice for a variety of reasons, including schedule flexibility and potential lower cost of learning. And as the above options demonstrate, prospective students now have more choices than ever before to get the education they want that will set them upon a successful film career path.

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