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Ben Yennie: 11 Rules to be a Fantastic Production Assistant on Set

Production Assistants hold a very interesting position in the film industry.  They’re the lubrication that keeps the gears of the set running, they facilitate communication of all the key members of the set, they set up the craft service area, and perhaps most importantly, they’re the runners that keep the set in coffee.  While nobody wants to be a PA for long, most people get their start there.   To celebrate the launch of the “Assistant” on ProductionNext, here are some rules to be a great PA on set.   

1. There’s no shame in being a PA.  

Everybody starts here, don’t be ashamed.  Nobody wants to stay here for long, but you’ve got to start somewhere.  Think of it as a stepping stone in your career.  You’ll learn a lot from viewing the way a set works at the bottom, and you’ll be better at your job as you rise the ranks.  

If you can prove you’re an awesome PA, you’ll be more likely to get a job in another department and begin rising up through the hierarchy.  You’ll meet people who can help you advance your career, but make sure to save the networking for after the martini shot.  If you don’t, it might not only be the last shot of the day but the last shot you’ll see for quite a while.

2. Think ahead

To be a good PA, you must anticipate is needed, and have it ready when asked.  To do that, you’ve got to think ahead.  

The day before the shoot, use your google-fu to scope out the area of the shoot, have an idea of what’s nearby. You’re going to have to grab something from somewhere at some point.  When you do something It’s much better to go to the supermarket 5 minutes away than the big box store that’s 15 minutes away.   

Know the call sheet schedule.  You’re going to have to set up meals, so if you know when that’s coming and can head over to make sure it’s ready then you’re going to be in a better position to impress your superiors.   

3. Be prepared.

You MUST have reliable transportation.  As mentioned above, you’re going to be running and grabbing stuff while you're on set. Make sure you have reliable transportation.  You don't want to delay the shoot because your battery died.

When you’re on set, periodically Walk around with water bottles, hot bricks (Batteries) Sharpies, pens, pencils, and other things.  keep a pad on you to take notes if you need to, but if you can keep it mentally for it may be better for the sake of speed.  Appearing prepared is going to get you noticed more than anything else.   

Have a portable battery for your cell phone, you’ll need it.  You need to be in contact constantly, and a dead phone is going to get you in trouble fast.

In writing this blog, I made up an amazon store with most stuff you’ll probably need to be a good PA in it.  Check it out here. 

4. Have a great attitude.  

When the vibe on a set works as it should, it can be amazing.  Everyone starts functioning like a well-oiled machine, and it impacts the quality of the movie in a tangible way.   One person with a bad attitude can kill that vibe very quickly, and have a severe negative impact on the end product.

Nobody likes working with a grouch.  Be happy be friendly, it will help you get a job on the next set.  PAs with a bad attitude are likely to be replaced very quickly.  

5. Know the Chain of Command

A set has a very rigid hierarchy.  If you’re a PA, the AD is your boss.   Their boss is the director, and while the director may not always admit it, their boss is generally the producer.  (Although the director may also be a producer.)  You need to learn the names and faces of as many people in the chain of command as you can, they will take notice.  

6. Be Observant

The AD cannot be everywhere at once but they do need to know everything that’s going on. Thus, they need eyes and ears elsewhere.   Those are the PAs.   You are the eyes of the set, and if something’s needs to be found you’ll probably be the one to find it.  

7. Be Engaged

If you’re not doing anything, find something to do. Walk the set and stay busy.  Unless you’re shooting, in which case freeze.   

This is another good time to mention that you should learn faces and names.  It shows you’re engaged, and people like it when you mention them by name.

8. Be Communicative

If you’re on a set with walkies, you always need to respond, even if it’s with something as simple as a “Copy”.  There is one time you don’t, and that’s if you’re in the bathroom.  In that case, just say 10-1 before you go.  

If you don’t know something, ask.  There’s a lot of jargon in Film, and you may not know the difference between a C-47, CTB, and CBB.   People will generally understand that you’re a PA because you’re unskilled but want to learn, so they’ll clarify it for you.  It’s much better that they clarify so you know you’re looking for some clothespins and a Color Temperature Blue gel than they think you couldn’t be bothered and the shoot gets held up.   

Last but not least in regards to communication, If you see something unsafe on set, SAY IT.  It’s not your job to fix it, but somebody might need to.  It might be something someone needs to do immediately or it may be no big deal.  

9. Be Tactful.

Know when’s a good time to ask questions and when isn’t.  Know when you should observe and when you should ask questions.  I worry about sounding too Elizabethan when I say this say this, but some advice on the matter is to be seen and not heard, or only speak when spoken to.

Personally, I think that’s taking the principle a bit far.  I think you should try to have as little impact as possible, but be there when you’re needed.

10. Track your receipts!

ALWAYS Track your receipts.  You may consider buying a receipt file.  They’re not expensive, and being able to track the receipts when you run somewhere will land you in good stead with the AD.  The AD will definitely have one.  If you lose a receipt, you probably lose your chance at another job.  There’s one of the ones I use in the PA Kit.  

11. Fill in the gaps

The weird thing about being a PA is that you are both important and expendable.  PAs make sure everything runs smoothly, but the work is largely unskilled so you’re easy to replace.   You will be doing a lot of different jobs, be ready for them. You’ll be doing a lot of different things while you do.  A good word to keep in mind is facilitate.  

Get things done.  If something needs doing and there’s no one to do it, that’s probably going to be your job.  Take direction and do things the best you can.  

Don’t get in the way, sit back and learn. If you find yourself gravitating towards one department, help where you can there so you can work your way up the chain.   Just make sure that nothing gets dropped elsewhere.

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