Production Assistant (or PA) is an entry-level position in the world of television and film production. The job does not typically necessitate any prior knowledge or experience, which makes it a great way for aspiring members of production crew to get their foot in the door and start amassing some skills that will aid them in moving on to higher-level positions.
A production assistant is a fairly broad term, and the position generally calls for an extra set of hands wherever needed. As a PA, you may find yourself in (or steer yourself toward) any department or stage of the production process.
Although applicants generally need not have many specialized skills to get the job, being equipped with at least a basic set of skills surrounding the world of production will raise your chances of getting the job (and getting asked back). Additionally, being able to navigate the etiquette, lingo and equipment of a working film set will make your life, and the crew’s life, much easier.
Read on for a comprehensive guide to all things Production Assistant to make your first (or even your hundredth) day on set a little less scary.
A day in the life on a film set is long, fast-paced and demanding. Be sure to dress the part and bring basic essentials for yourself and your crew.
Clothing: In general, all-black is the standard uniform for any entertainment crew member, from theater to live shows and of course film production. Always look clean and professional, but be sure to also take comfort into account. The film industry is notorious for long days on your feet, so wear supportive footwear, and dress for the weather. Make sure you have pants with pockets, and with the ability to hold the weight of a walkie talkie, and other items you may need to hold.
On you at all times: In most cases, it generally isn’t expected that PAs arrive with any supplies or tools of their own. However, having the most basic necessities of yourself and the crew on-hand will show initiative and earn you brownie points, which could make you stand out for getting called back on the next job. Some things you or others may be in need of: Fully charged walkie batteries, extra call sheets, pens, paper and permanent markers, a multitool, work gloves, sunscreen, phone chargers, etc. Many crew members with lots to carry utilize tool pouches such as those found at Setwear. https://setwear.com/collections/pouches.
In addition, if you are expecting to be on a walkie, you will want to bring your own “surveillance” or earpiece. Productions may not supply this, and if they do they will likely be used – gross! Having surveillance is crucial. An “open walkie,” a walkie with its volume up so everyone can hear, is not simply poor etiquette, it can prevent you from being able to hear radio calls if you are in a noisy area, or worse, it could ruin a take!
Know the language
Production crew communicates on set with a standardized set of slang and terminology. Knowing this lingo will be essential for working on set – especially true if you will be on a walkie talkie. If you don’t know the terminology, someone asking you for a simple favor will be like being spoken to in a foreign language, almost certainly causing miscommunications, delays, and possibly even pose a safety hazard when crucial communications are not understood. Studying up on the lingo will give you a clear advantage, and ensure you and the crew are communicating effectively. The lists below are not exhaustive, but include the essentials.
Set lingo: (Spoken aloud, person-to-person, or announced to the set)
Abby Singer – The second-to-last shot of the day
Back to One – Called out by the director or assistant director, to ask everyone to return to their starting positions to be ready to do another take
Camera’s Up – This means that the camera is ready to begin filming, and asks everyone to get settled in and prepare to shoot a take
Crossing – This is said by someone crossing in front of the camera in order to warn the operator that they will momentarily obscure the frame. Crossing in front of the camera should be avoided as much as possible, and never, ever done during a take
Hollywood – To hand-hold something like a light or a flag, instead of setting it up in a stand
Last Looks – Usually called right before a take, allowing makeup and set design departments to get their last finishing touches in before the cameras start to roll
Martini – The last shot of the day
Points – Said by someone walking through set with a hazard such as a tripod or light stand. When you hear this, heads up!
Striking – Called out when a light is being turned on, to warn the crew not to look directly into it
Speed – “Sound speeds” and “camera speeds” means that the audio recorder or camera is ON and recording
Video Village – The area (or room) where the monitors are set up for viewing by the director, producer, clients, etc.
Walkie lingo: (Spoken over a walkie talkie)
10-1 – To be momentarily unavailable or off-set. For instance, to go to the bathroom
10-4, Copy or Copy That – Said when a message is heard and understood
What’s your 20 – Where are you?
Eyes on – To know the location of someone or something. As in, “Does anyone have eyes on Alan?”
Flying in – Bringing a person, group or object to set
[A] for [B] – Said by person A to reach person B
Go for [B] – The response given by person B to the above call, to say “I hear you, what can I do for you?”
Stand by or Standing by – Used to ask someone to wait for a response or the completion of something, or to convey that you are doing as such, and are attentive for a follow-up. As in, “A Cam stand by” and “A Cam standing by”
Radio / Walkie check – Said over a walkie talkie to ask for a response to verify that your walkie is working. Replied to with “Good check” to indicate that you’re heard
Objects you may be asked for:
Apple or apple box – A wooden box with holes cut into two sides for carrying. Apple boxes are used by every department on set for sitting, standing, propping up gear, and more. They come in an assortment of sizes, including full, half, quarter and pancake
Clamps – There are many different types of clamps that are used for securing and rigging objects and stands. Some of the most common types of clamps include: A-clamp, Mafer, Quacker, and Cardellini
C47 – A basic wooden clothespin. A versatile tool that can be used for anything light-duty needing to be held together. Most often used to clip colored gels onto lights
C-Stand – The most common stand you’ll see and be asked for on set. The C-stand is comprised of 4 components; the collapsible legs, the telescoping arm, the grip head and the gobo arm
Dirt – Sandbag. Use this to weigh down stands so they don’t topple over
Flag – A large, black, duvetyne (opaque black fabric) panel with a mounting pin, used for blocking and controlling light. Typically sized 4’x4’
Floppy – A flag, but with a Velcro tear-away flap for additional coverage area
Sticks – A camera tripod
Stinger – Extension cord
Light stands – Familiarize yourself with the various types of stands you may run into, including: C-stand, beefy baby, combo stand, Gary Coleman (a short C-stand)
Wrapping cables – Yes, there is a wrong way to wrap cables. Click Here to watch a YouTube video explaining the proper way to wrap cables.
Setting up and properly sandbagging C-stands – Much of this comes with hands-on practice. An important note is to always sandbag the highest leg of a C-stand. If the stand requires more weight, you can put additional dirt on the other legs, or opt for a heavier bag. Click Here to watch a YouTube video by Matthews Studio Equipment covering the basics of C-stands.
Have confidence and leadership skills. Although a production assistant is not typically a leadership role, PAs are often expected to oversee certain aspects of a production. Whether it be blocking off a street from pedestrians, helping crew call for quiet on set, or even wrangling some of the background actors, you need to be firm and assured in your role. PA may be an entry level position, but you are there for an important reason, and you should take hold of your responsibilities with pride and confidence.
Early means on time, and on time means late. Call Time is the scheduled time to start working, so make sure to allow yourself time to anticipate traffic, park, eat breakfast, and get yourself set up.
Silence your phone. That means fully silent, not vibrate.
Don’t touch the equipment – especially of other departments. It doesn’t matter if the equipment is in your way, or you have an urgent need for something – always ask for permission before touching or moving anything. (The exception is, of course, if a crew member directly asks you for help, or accepts your help upon asking.) Most equipment found on a film set is extremely expensive and fragile, and likely requires training to know how to properly handle and transport.
Don’t ever put anything on a cart. Drinks, food, your cell phone, jackets, personal belongings – it doesn’t belong on a cart – especially true if the cart doesn’t belong to you / your department.
Introduce yourself. Besides this being common courtesy, it also helps you with networking. Crew will remember you, trust you more, and therefore be more inclined to think of you first when future job openings arise.
Ask an electrician before plugging anything in, anddefinitelydon’t unplug anything. If you need a stinger for something, simply tell them what you need powered and they will handle it. The electricians are usually monitoring power levels carefully, and it is much easier (and safer) for both parties if you simply say “I need power for this fog machine” instead of just asking for a stinger to run the extension cord through set by yourself.
Find a spot, and stay there. Filming a take can be sort of like a choreographed dance. The cameras, boom operator(s), actors and other crew members will be swirling around, the 2nd AC will need to run out of frame quickly after slating, the Scripty, stunt supervisor, director and actors on standby need to be able to see the action, and countless others will be running around behind the scenes. The last thing you want is to get in someone’s way, causing frustration, posing injury hazards, and potentially even ruining a take. Find a spot where you are most useful and accessible that’s not in the way of any light, actors or crew – and stay there.
Respect The Actors
The actors have a very important, and difficult job to do. During a take, always take care to avoid meeting the actor’s gaze. Keep your head down, and stay quiet and respectful – especially important if the actor is preparing for or performing an emotionally-charged scene.
Stay in your department, and stay attentive & busy. There is always something to be done. Standing around will make you look lost, confused or worse, useless. However, do not wander away. Always stay with your department, and be on constant standby for anything someone might need – even better if you can anticipate what your crew might need and have it on hand and ready to go. Click here for an article suggesting 27 ways to stay busy on set.
Departments: Who do you report to? You’ll probably know when you get on set but if you don’t, ask.
Large scale productions can employ hundreds of people in dozens of departments working seemingly countless jobs. Here is a general list of the most common departments, and the crew members working in them, in respective hierarchy. Almost each of these departments typically have a PA assigned to them, whose title would include the name of the department (i.e, Camera PA).
The most important skills across the boards are to remain attentive, ask questions (at the right time) and anticipate anything.
While meeting people and having a good time are things that will naturally happen – you need to remember that you are there to work. Treat it as you would any other job. Come prepared, act professional, and remain eager and ready to help with anything.
The expected responsibilities of a production assistant will vary from each department, production, (and even each job with the same crew) so while we hope this article has been helpful, the only way to really learn is to get your hands dirty and start working.