The Truth about being a Production Assistant: A Day in the Life (Part 1)

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Film Terminology Used in This Post

basecamp = where all movie trailers are located: actors, makeup & hair, wardrobe, assistant director department, etc.

call sheet = outline of which scenes will be filmed with what cast; also has a crew list with each crew member’s call time

call time = time when you’re due on set

transpo = transportation crew; the shuttles that move crew to set are 15 passenger vans

sides = miniature script, reflecting the pages that will be shot that day

skins = list of names of all background extras and the roles they’re playing

 

A Day in the Life of a Set Production Assistant on a Feature Film

 

4:20a. Rise and shine in the black of night. Think about who else is awake at this godforsaken hour. Shower, get dressed in layers.

5:00a. Leave home, teeth chattering, in the brisk morning air, thinking It’s too early and too cold to be awake.

5:45a. Arrive at basecamp.

5:46a. Stagger into the AD trailer, bleary-eyed, where the 2nd 2nd AD is already sitting and working feverishly on their laptop. Wonder if you ever really want that job. Grab walkie talkie and fresh bricks; fumble the simple task of putting on the walkie talkie headset/earpiece.

5:50a. Run over to catering, order a delicious, customized breakfast burrito with avocado. Mmm. Get much needed coffee, choose from 10 different kinds of coffee creamers. Think this breakfast alone is worth getting up in the morning.

5:55a. After scarfing down burrito, run back to AD trailer. Grab a few callsheets, sides, and “skins”.

5:56a. Make small talk with transpo driver while riding to set. Enjoy the heat spilling out of the vents and this brief moment of comfort. Get a little too hot just in time to-

6:00a. -clumsily climb out of transpo van into the bitter cold,  and drop half the sides in a puddle. Try to wipe off mud from the back of the sides, smearing it more. It’s 6am, call time, the time you’re due at extras’ holding. There’s already a few extras waiting outside the door. Quickly run inside the door at extras’ holding, which is an abandoned building that used to be a strip club. Look at the pole in the middle of the floor and think once again it’s too early for this.

6:15a-7a. The majority of the extras start to arrive. Muster up a cheerful smile to welcome them. Say Hello to a few of the regulars by name. The newbies are giddy with nervous excitement. Explain to them how to fill out their paperwork. Explain the Exhibit A & B sections on the paperwork two dozen times, because that stuff is confusing before 9am. A few are too nervous to think critically. End up filling out their entire paperwork for them.

7am. Take extras in groups of 10 to the back of the wardrobe trailer to get approved.

7:45a. Send first batch of extras to set in a 15-pass van. Get asked by several remaining extras why they weren’t in that first van, and shouldn’t they have been? Assure them that the last extras to arrive are sometimes thrown in front of the camera at the last minute. This seems to calm them down a little.

7:45a-8:15a. Send remaining extras to set, one 15 pass van at a time. Walkie to your counterpart on set that the first batch of extras are on their way. Climb in the last van to ride to set. Get asked by one oblivious extra what time wrap will be.

8:15a. Arrive with extras to set, exchange Hellos with your fellow background-PA-in-arms. Depending on how rigid of a set this is and how well behaved your extras are, one of you stay with the background. The other one goes to set for lock-up duty.

8:20a. Win lock-up duty. Set is across the street in a bar. While crossing the street, a grip asks for “slides”. Hand him some “sides”.

8:25a. Walk onto set, which is a flurry of activity. Think for a moment how crazy it is that this is your office. Art department is adding a few more beer bottles to the tables; the gaffer and the DP are standing together and examining the positioning of the key light shining onto a pair of stand-ins as an electrician perched on a ladder makes adjustments; the 1st AD is walking through the scene with the director. Electricians bustle in and out of the doorway toting items such as lunch boxes or 100amp cable; grips pass by with combo stands, flags, and sandbags. You want to help them, but union rules forbid it.

8:27a. Make a mental note that video village is located on the upstairs balcony. The key set PA spots you and assigns your lock-up position, which is outside the main door. You’re grateful you’re wearing your warm jacket today and pray it doesn’t rain.

8:29a. Receive a walkie transmission that “first team is traveling” from basecamp. Since your lock-up is just outside the main door, you acknowledge you’ll “catch them”.

8:30a. A sleek black SUV rolls up outside the main door. Open the car door and the main actress and actor slide out. Give them a friendly smile but refrain from making unnecessary chatter. “Right this way,” you say, leading them through the maze of flags, combo stands, and duvytene that are blacking out the bar’s windows. Announce “First team is on set,” over walkie, 1st AD and director walk over to greet them. The actor and actress look composed, flawless, and out of place amidst the sea of sweatshirts that continue to bustle around them. The first team PA arrives and takes over “keeping eyes”.

8:32a. Resume your lockup position outside the front door. “Hold the work, rehearsal’s up!” the AD announces. Like a parrot, you repeat these exact words loudly, as you’re the mouthpiece for channel 1 to the surrounding crew. Grips and electricians continue to receive orders from their boss and quietly try to maneuver gear and talk amongst themselves. They line up outside the door and wait for your word on when they can enter.

8:50a. “Cut on rehearsal!” — grips and electricians head inside for last minute tweaks. A camera assistant sneaks outside to grab a cup of coffee for the DP. The executive producers roll up in their own black SUV, and calmly get out of the car as if they don’t have a care in the world. They too seem out of place. “Where’s video village?” they ask. “Inside, right on the balcony,” you explain, but these words mean nothing to them. You wait as they stop off in craft service to prepare their coffee. The craft services person has prepared a tray of goodies, and just in time for their arrival. They fawn over the selection much to crafty’s delight and can’t make up their mind.

8:57a. Realizing the camera is close to being ready, you delicately usher the EPs toward video village (TIP: make it seem like it’s their own idea). They make their final crafty selections and decide to head towards video village.

8:58a. The EPs stop to say Hello to the actors and make brief chit chat. Wait. Point the EPs in the direction of the staircase and resume lock-up.

9:01a. “Last looks, picture’s up!” you relay.

9:02a.  Camera rolls. “Quiet please, ROLLING!” you announce. Work stops. Grips and electrics find or make places to sit and check their smartphones. Medic offers you a chair. Politely decline. Pass the time by reading over the day’s sides fifteen times.

9:45a. Camera cuts; going wider. 10 background need to be added to the scene. Your background PA counterpart sends over a pre-determined group. (NOTE: dealing with extras and the psychology behind it warrants its own post. Coming soon!)

10:00a. Help position the background on set.

10:15a-11:21a. Camera rolls, stopping down occasionally to reload. Continue to lock up the front of the building; do stretches to keep warm. A kind-hearted locations PA gives you your own gas heater.

11:21a. Camera cuts, going wider. More background are needed. You receive them and guide them inside of set as key PA position them. Return to lock-up. Realize this is going to be a very long day.

12:45p. Camera cuts for lunch. Make sure all crew get into transpo vans. One PA goes in the first van to get a head count and notate “last man”.

1:05p. Get in the last van and head to lunch.

1:10p.  Arrive at lunch — and realize the day is only half over…

 

Stay tuned for Part 2…

.   .   .   .   .

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Author: Laryssa

Laryssa has spent 6+ years working on an assortment of film and television projects. She writes about her experiences to help (and amuse) others. If she's not working, she's either traveling, reading or writing about travel, or planning travel. Follow , Twitter, or Facebook.

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