Category Archives: How To Be A Good PA

How to be a Good Production Assistant; Part 9

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a tip on How to be a Good Production Assistant, but if you remember from last time, I gave a long list of useful set terms. This next section is all about the very necessary function of Craft Services.  I’ve always said that a well fed crew is a happy crew, and it continues to be true.  Learn more in Part 9.

As a Production Assistant, you will often have the job of not only buying, but setting up and maintaining the craft services for the duration of the shoot.  Many times, you’ll have a table that you’ll set up and tend to periodically throughout the day, although I’ve seen craft services being toted around in coolers, in plastic drawered towers, and even just in plastic bags. Although that last scenario isn’t ideal, there are some things you can do to ensure everyone’s happy with the crafty.

But first let me tell you a story. I was on a month long shoot as a Production Manager, where my Production Assistants were apparently incapable of setting up a craft service table. I mean it was one of the first things we did every single day, and yet every single day after I would remind them once again that it needed to be done, 45 minutes later I’d be lucky if they had even set up a table already.  If they did have a table up, it would only contain about half of the items it was supposed to have with no coffee brewing yet, no hot water, nothing.  And what was set up was very shabby indeed. 

So with that in mind, I urge you to learn how to set up a craft service table.  And quickly.  Unless you’ve been hired as the dedicated Craft Service person, you’ve got other jobs to get onto.  Every craft service table will be different, but what never changes, is the importance of keeping it organized and clean.  That means individual snacks are in baskets or lined up neatly.  Keep snacks fairly segregated.  You can have a variety of chips and granola bars, but generally speaking keep the chips with the chips, the fruit with the fruit and the granola bars with the granola bars.  Coffee should be located directly next to the coffee cups, sweeteners, creamers and stirrers, not halfway across the table. The cooler(s) should be stocked and filled with ice.  A trash can is near by.  There are napkins and they are weighted down if you’re outside.  Also, if you’re outside, be sure any open items are covered, yet still accessible.  Make sure you check back periodically to see if anything needs to be restocked, any trash needs to be thrown away and to just tidy up.

Once in a while, you may be given the unhappy duty of buying craft services for the cast and crew without a shopping list.  Such pressure!  You want to do a good job and stay within budget but you may have no idea where to start.  Let me give you a sample shopping list.  This list is not comprehensive and every crew and set is different, so remember that this is just a starting point for those without a clue.

First, see if you can find out any dietary restrictions or preferences.  I’ve had such specific requests as gluten free diets, non-sugar-free gum (harder to find than you might think), lots of Diet Dr. Pepper, no yogurt with refined sugars, Starbucks coffee only, and the list goes on.  Also, determine what kind of set you’ll be on.  Inside or outside?  One location or multiple?  Constantly on the move or not?  Grocery stores nearby?  After that, here’s where you should start.  Remember that unless otherwise stated, everything should be individually wrapped.  Nobody wants to reach into a chip bag that every other person on set has reached into with their dirty fingers.

Your Basics

Fruit (something that doesn’t need to be refrigerated and easy to eat like bananas, apples and oranges)

Chips

Granola bars 

Cookies

Trail Mix

Gum and/or Mints

Sodas (Regular, Diet and Caffeine Free)

Bottled water

Sports drinks

Hand sanitizer

Napkins

Trash bags

If you want to get a little fancy

Veggie tray with dip

Grapes

Bagels and cream cheese

Yogurt

Plasticware

Small plates

Sliced bread (for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches)

Peanut butter

Jelly

Fruit Tray

I could go on and on about this subject, but I’ll leave it with saying that you really don’t want to ignore the craft service table.  Even if you’re not asked to take care of it, it’s always a good idea to tidy up around it any time you make a visit.  There is one positive, however, to doing a bad job at Craft Services.  You’ll probably never get asked to do it again.  Well that’s all for now.  Stay tuned for Part 10, coming soon!

How to be a Good Production Assistant; Part 8

Ok. So we’ve talked about how to act on set but what about all those strange terms you hear being thrown around? Every department has their own terminology and things may vary from set to set, but here are some standards you’ll hear on most sets in Part 8 of How to be a Good Production Assistant.

Learn set language and walkie talkie etiquette.  Here are a few terms off the top of my head.

Rolling, Speeding or Speed:  The camera and/or sound is recording so be quiet! 

Room Tone:  The audio mixer is recording the sound of the area you are in.  This means you have to be extra quiet.  That means no sniffing, shuffling your feet, turning pages in the script, whispering, breathing heavy or texting.  It usually lasts about 30 seconds and it will feel like the longest 30 seconds of your life.  Watch “Living in Oblivion” for a good example of this.

Over Under wrapping:  If you don’t know how to do this, learn, and don’t pretend that you do.  And don’t go wrapping any audio cables if you don’t know how.

Bogey:  Someone in the shot that shouldn’t be there.  Usually this happens when you’re shooting out in a public location and even though you’ve got an area fairly blocked off, someone unknowingly wanders into the frame.

Sticks:  A term often used for a tripod and sometimes for a slate.

Stinger:  A thicker extension cord specifically for lights and heavier duty gear.

Half Apple:  Apple boxes are a piece of grip gear that come in the following sizes:  Full Apple, Half Apple, Quarter Apple and a Pancake (1/8 Apple).

Lock it Up/Lock it Down/Lock-Up/Lock-Down:  All are terms used to mean, nobody should be coming in or out of the set, talking, whispering, moving around, etc.

What’s your 20?:  Where are you?

ETA:  Estimated Time of Arrival

Walkie check:  You say this when you first get a walkie talkie handed to you.  If it’s working properly, someone will respond with “Good check.”

10-100 or 10-1:  I’m going to the restroom but it should be quick.

10-200 or 10-2:  I don’t know too many people that actually use this one, but it means I’m going to the restroom, and I might be a while. Hint, hint.

C-47, bullet, peg, etc.:  Clothespin

Spike:  Usually a piece of tape that marks where the talent is supposed to stand.

Last Looks:  Last chance for the hair/makeup and wardrobe to make sure the talent is looking their best before the camera starts rolling.

Give me an On/Off:  Checking the usefulness of a light by turning it on, then off, then on, then off over and over until the DP determines if he wants to use the light or not.

Call Time:  This is what time you need to be there.  Actually get there 10 minutes before call time.

There are so many more that could be listed here and a lot of these you’ll learn on the spot. Remember, don’t be afraid to ask what something means. It’s a lot less embarassing to ask right away about a certain term than to pretend to know what something means and end up causing a problem, confusion or just looking silly.

How to be a Good Production Assistant; Part 7

In part 6 of this series, we talked about how and when to ask questions. No one expects you to know everything so you’ll most likely have questions, but there’s a big difference between asking questions to help you complete a task and asking questions because you think have a better idea of how to do something.  Part 7 of How to be a Good Production Assistant talks about why it’s important to be seen and not heard.

Be seen, not heard.  If you really have nothing to do and you’ve already tried all the suggestions from Part 4 of this blog series, don’t just slink away to a far corner where you can play Words with Friends on your phone assuming someone will call you on the walkie when they need you.  Being seen means you’re available to help and more likely to be in the right place at the right time.  Being “not heard” is just as important.  There’s nothing more frustrating than a PA (or any other crew member) trying to give suggestions without being asked.  If there’s something you really think is important to share, go to the person directly above you.  If you’re asked for your opinion then by all means share away.  That’s not to say that your opinion is not valid, but keep in mind that you were probably just brought onto the project for that day, while the director and client have been working on it for weeks and even months.  A good director will often pull ideas from his surrounding crew, but this isn’t always the case.

How to Be a Good Production Assistant; Part 6

In Part 5 of How to be a good Production Assistant, I talked about the unfair and unspoken rule of never sitting down. As I mentioned, it seems kinda cruel but it’s because sitting down gives the posture of “I’m bored” or “I don’t feel like doing anything.” When you’re standing and alert you look ready to go and take care of the necessary tasks. However, even having the right posture doesn’t mean you won’t have plenty of questions, so you shouldn’t be afraid to ask.  That’s what Part 6 is all about!

Ask questions if you’re unsure about something.  But try to keep it short.  Most people understand that as a PA you’re probably still new to the business and might not understand that when the AC asks if you can find him or her another marker, that they actually want a dry erase marker.  So just ask.  It could go something like this.

AC: “Hey can you get me another marker? This one’s dead.”

You: “Does it matter what kind of marker?”

AC: “Oh yes, a dry erase marker.  Not a sharpie.  It’s for marking the slate.”

You: “Any particular color?”

AC: “Black or blue would be best.”

You: “You got it.”

You return with both a black and a blue marker.

You: “Here ya go.  I brought you one of each just in case.”

AC: “Hey thanks!”

You: “Need anything else?”

AC: “No, but let me get your phone number.  I still get calls to be a PA sometimes, so I’d be happy to pass your name along.”

Shazam!  You just got yourself a new friend in the business who may just land you your next job.

How to be a Good Production Assistant; Part 5

Part 4 of “How to be a good Production Assistant” gave some good ideas for how to stay busy on set, even if you really have nothing to do. Staying busy and looking busy are very different and even though I’ve pretty much mastered how to look busy when in reality I was bored to tears, I’m not going to share those details here.  That’s really a last resort sort of move.  You’ll have to figure out how to do that on your own.  Here’s part 5.

Don’t sit down.  This one seems kinda cruel, but in all actuality if I see someone sitting down I assume they are not ready to take on a task.  It’s tough but as a PA, I’ve definitely gone 16 hours without sitting down even for lunch.  So if you haven’t done anything for 2 hours and the next 2 don’t look promising either, you’ve got to try and look engaged and whatever you do, don’t sit down.  Especially don’t sit in the director’s chair.  Yes I’ve seen this happen and it isn’t pretty.  Of course, if everyone else is taking a break feel free to join in but as soon as they’re back to the job you should be up on your feet as well.  It sucks, especially when you have nothing to do, but sitting down expresses to others “I don’t feel like being here and don’t bother me.”

Part 6 coming soon!

How to Be a Good Production Assistant; Part 4

The previous blog (How to be a good Production Assistant; Part 3) talked about how to take initiative and anticipate what’s coming next.  If you’ve already done all that and you still have nothing to do, here are some tips for what to do next.

Stay busy.  If you’ve already asked what to do and you’re still just standing around, find something useful to do without being in the way.  Ask if anyone could use a bottle of water or a snack brought to them.  Many times cameramen, talent, directors, ADs, sound mixers and others aren’t able to step away from their gear or their job and therefore forget to eat or stay hydrated.  Just make sure not to bug them when they’re in the middle of something important.  Depending on the shoot, you may not be able to address someone directly but there should be someone below them that you can check with instead.  Other tasks you could do without asking are picking up trash (soda cans and chip bags can end up all over the place), walking by each department and maybe even checking in with them to see if they need anything, tidying up the craft service table (unless there’s a craft service person on set), reminding folks to put on sunscreen (if needed), see if anyone needs a new walkie talkie battery and anything else you can think of.  Again, don’t be a nuisance.  Your job is to be useful without getting in the way.

Stay tuned for Part 5!

How to Be a Good Production Assistant; Part 3

Finding enough work in the production world can be very difficult but sometimes it can be as simple as being in the right place at the right time.  For example, I have actually gotten a job like this.

Me: (putting packets together for the next day’s shoot.)

Big Producer: (from another project talking to his Production Coordinator) “We need a craft service PA for next week’s shoot.”  (looks around, spots me working) “Hey what are you doing next week?”

Me:  “Uh, working for you?”

And just like that, I worked on that shoot and many more projects with that producer.  After you do land a job though, you need to work hard to get called back again and again.  Here’s Part 3 of How to Be a Good Production Assistant.

Take initiative and anticipate.  Over time, you’ll learn what things can be taken care of without being told, but if you’re really new to the scene, just ask.  Don’t be a nuisance, but check in with your direct boss (Production Coordinator, Producer, Assistant Director, Key PA, etc.) to see if there’s anything they need done.  As you get to know certain people you work with often, you’ll begin to learn what things they may need done and you can be on top of it before they even ask. It’s that simple.

How to Be a Good Production Assistant; Part 2

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked for advice on how to get started in the film/tv/commercial production business.  Well there are lots of ways to land that first gig (mandy.com, craigslist.org, contacting local production companies, asking around), but the most important thing is to make sure you get called again and again.  Here comes part 2 of How to be a good Production Assistant.

Carry a notepad and pen, everywhere, all the time.  As a PA, whenever someone would ask me to do something, they didn’t want to have to repeat themselves or answer a bunch of questions later on. As soon as someone would start talking, I would whip that notepad out and start writing, unless I realized they were just asking me for a bottle of water. Too many times I would think I could remember it all, but on my way to take care of one task, I would often get stopped again and again by others asking for other things to be done. If I didn’t write them all down, something would have gotten missed.

On that note, it’s also good to have lots of pockets to carry a notepad, pens, extra walkie batteries, etc.

How to Be a Good Production Assistant; Part 1

As I started to write this blog, I quickly realized this was going to be a lengthy one, so I decided to split it up into several parts.  This will be an ongoing series that I’ll update anytime I find new material to share.

I’ve often said that film schools should really have an entire class on how to be a good Production Assistant (PA).  My first real job in the industry, outside of independent films, was working for Nickelodeon as an Intern (where I then got hired as a Production Assistant) to the Associate Director.  This meant I got to do a lot of cool stuff like be a part of the team in the control room during the live broadcast every day, squeegee slime off the soundstage floor after each show (that’s cool right?), greet celebrity guests, and tag along with the head honchos when they wanted to go ride The Mummy, (did I mention this was at Universal Studios?).  But I also had to do a lot of not so fun stuff, like go on $800 Costco runs by myself, pickup and check every lunch order for accuracy, and make sure I used the same font style and size for every document I printed.  In all honesty, I loved every cool thing I got to do, but I’m even more grateful for all the tedious tasks, heavy lifting and endless trips to and from Starbucks, carrying a dozen various sized drinks by myself through the park dodging tourists and strollers.  At the time, I didn’t know that I was training under one of the toughest Production Managers in town, but it certainly helped prepare me for the future.

As a Production Coordinator, myself and part-owner of DUO Media Productions, I have a few things I’d like to share about How to be a good Production Assistant.  Here comes part one.

Have a willing attitude.  When I was a PA, usually the PA’s that complained a lot didn’t get called back very often.  Now, as a Production Coordinator, I’m much more willing to teach someone who might not know much about any department as long as they’re willing to learn and to try.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gotten eye rolls, sighs or mumbles of complaint when I ask someone to be on “fire watch” (that means to stay behind and watch the gear while everyone else goes to lunch or elsewhere), or when I’ve asked them to be on “lockdown” which usually means to stand outside of a door, away from the camera and lights to keep people from entering or making a lot of noise.  Just do what you’re asked to do with a good attitude and a smile and next time maybe we’ll bump you up to something better and get someone else to be on firewatch.