Production assistants are the life blood of production. But what do they supposed to do all day, exactly? Are they really fetching coffee? Yes, sometimes, but there’s so much more! Production assistant responsibilities can change whether you’re working on a union or non-union set. In addition to those duties, set PAs are also assigned certain roles. I’ll dive into ALL of that.
Production Assistant Responsibilities on Union Sets
For union shows, the “set production assistant” falls under the department of Assistant Directors. Your main task is to assist your bosses, and yes, that is the assistant directors (there are office production assistants as well– that’s a separate post).
Some PAs will be assigned different roles, which I’ll cover in a bit. There are some general duties that all PAs are responsible for.
This is the main duty of all production assistants. It may be the most boring task, but it is also one of the most important.
Imagine you’re watching one of the dozen reboots of Spiderman or King Kong and some lady pushing a stroller in the background stops. She stares at the lens in confusion, pulls out her iPhone, and takes a picture. It completely takes you out of the movie, right?
A “lockup” keeps those curious people from wandering into the shot. If you have a camera and you’re shooting anywhere not on a sound stage, the public will want to know what’s going on. (True story: Someone asked me the name of the movie we were filming. I told him. He replied, “Oh, I haven’t seen that one yet.”)
Production assistants will be posted up outside of frame, or just outside the studio door, to prevent anyone not in the scene from walking into the shot. This includes random looky-loos or even members of the crew.
Lunch Duty: Fire Watch
On union shoots it’s often the production assistant’s responsibility to make sure all of the crew has departed set to head to lunch — whether via transpo van or on foot. One production assistant, usually a locations production assistant (but sometimes a regular set PA), will hang back on set to “fire watch” — make sure the gear doesn’t walk away or catch fire.
Lunch Duty: Counting the Line
Another production assistant will leapfrog to the catering tent for the purpose of “counting the line”, which means that PA is responsible for two tasks: 1) Counting the number of people that go through the catering line, and (2) set the parameters for the official half-hour.
Counting the line ensures production has been budgeting for the right number of people per day, and also to check the caterer’s count. The other important task this PA has is determining when the official lunch break starts and ends. The true thirty minute lunch break does not begin until that last crew member has gone through the line and sat down. The PA in charge of “counting the line” needs to figure out who this is, wait for them to get their plate, and sit down.
This final crew person is referred to as “last man” (or “last woman”, I guess?). The production assistant who’s been counting the line will then alert the ADs and anyone else on Channel 1 the exact timings over the walkie: “That’s last man at 12:34, we’re back in at 1:04.”
Note: Occasionally, lunch will be served in a 3 hour block, and it’s the responsibility of each department to rotate out who goes to lunch (referred to as “French Hours”). This allows filming to continue, since the entire crew never breaks at the same time.
Announce Rolls and Cuts
The director’s (or 1st AD) isn’t the only one who gets to say “rolling” — all set PAs do, as well. The first AD announces over walkie that the camera is “rolling”. All set PAs all over set will also announce, “ROLLING!”
Why? A large production can have a crew size from thirty to hundreds. Different departments will use different walkie channels to communicate. (Can you imagine if all two hundred people were on the same channel? Yikes.) A nearby grip may need to move some stands, and in the process, bangs them around quite a bit. It’s not their fault — they have no idea the camera’s rolling, or when it cuts. As a set production assistant, it’s your job to make sure your fellow crew knows exactly when the cameras are rolling, and when they aren’t.
Tip: As a general rule, don’t say anything over walkie while rolling. You need to be able to hear when the 1st AD announces, “Cut!”
Specific Roles of Production Assistants
When working on a movie or television series, each production assistant is assigned a role in addition to the aforementioned responsibilities. These roles are standard from union to non union shows.
Key Production Assistant
The Key PA is the ringleader of set PAs. The amount of control the Key PA has varies from set to set — sometimes it’s purely a title thing, other times, you’ll hear the Key PA in your headset more often than the 1st AD.
Generally, the key production assistant find out from the 1st AD what the next set-up entails. Which actors are involved? Are there any background? Is this a wide or a tight, and what is in frame and what is out of frame?
From there, the Key PA will relay the information to the rest of the production assistants. The Key PA will set lock-up positions and reiterate who will be seen on camera.
First Team Production Assistant
A production assistant will be dubbed the “First Team PA”, meaning they’re responsible for keeping track of the main actors of the shoot while they’re on set (or, any actors of the day that have lines and are listed on the callsheet). This PA is responsible for knowing the whereabouts of the actors. They also keep the actors and styling team up to speed on which scene is up next. This PA will also alert the hair/make-up team when the AD calls for “last looks”, and if and when there’s a close-up coming up “moving in for coverage”.
This is the role I had the most, and I loved it. Extras, especially in smaller cities, are regular people getting a chance to be on camera. They’re so excited to be there, curious about the filming process, and eager to do the best they can. They’re nervous, they’re giddy, and they look to the background PA for guidance. You’re the one who knows how this filming stuff works. Take them under your wing, and help them out.
As a background PA, my duties were:
- Sign in All Extras: At the beginning of the day, you’ll receive the day’s “skins”, a list of all of the background with their phone numbers. Check off this list as extras arrive, usually by call time, and help them fill out their paperwork. If not everyone shows up, make a call to the casting director to get replacements.
- Help extras “go through the works”: On some shoots, the wardrobe and hair and makeup needs approval from each department. Make sure every extra goes through this process.
- Place background: Sometimes, an AD will “place background”, other times, that duty can fall on the PA. “Placing background” is assigning extras a task during the scene. “Crosses” are the most common– asking one extra to walk behind the actors, asking another to count to a specific number before they walk, etc. It’s also the background PA’s responsibility to keep track where in the script each extra walks to make sure the extras’ movement is consistent throughout the scene and for all camera angles.
- Sign out background: Once the day is over, the background PA signs out all the extras. Notate their out time, and initial it.
I really believe whoever runs basecamp, whether a PA or 2nd 2nd AD, has one of the toughest jobs on set: You have to make sure all the main actors are ready on time. You’re responsible for making sure they have the correct sides for the day, know what scene is up first, and making sure they go through hair, makeup, and wardrobe in the correct order. Fortunately, the majority of actors take their jobs seriously and they’re punctual. Then there’s the one that has an ego and it all gets shot to hell.
Note: “Basecamp” is where all of the trailers live away from set. This includes all actor trailers, hair & makeup, wardrobe, the AD trailer, and the honey wagon.
Other Note: The 2nd 2nd AD usually runs basecamp, but I’ve seen a PA also run it a couple of times.
Walkie Production Assistant
One PA is in charge of ALL of the walkies. This PA will start a few days before shooting begins, and they begin by assigning all crew members a walkie and headset (if they need it). On a day to day basis, this PA is responsible for keeping “hot bricks” (extra batteries) on set, keeping batteries charged, and for signing out additional walkies during filming. At the end of production, the PA will then have to account for every walkie. Yes, that part of the job sucks.
Note: Walkies are EXPENSIVE. Losing a walkie costs about $500-$600, and production does not like it.
Distro Production Assistant
During the course of a production, different departments will receive memos, paperwork, or packages (collectively known as “distro”). Since the mailman doesn’t deliver to film sets, one production assistant is responsible for making sure all of these items make it to the right people, or departments.
Examples of distro: Props, pieces of gear, new script pages, or travel movements.
And yes, “distro” comes from the word “distribution”.
Production Assistant Responsibilities on Non-Union Shoots
PA duties on non-union shoots are much more varied and random. While some union tasks may apply, you’re more likely to get pulled into any department that “needs hands”. There aren’t any union rules prohibiting you from picking up a C-stand, for example. It’s all good, though: Helping out other departments is how you learn. It can also help you figure out which niche or department you want to pursue.
When I was a PA on non-union gigs, I did a bit of everything: Assisted art department (look mom, I steamed those purple curtains!), helped grips move stands and sandbags, stood in for lighting, took behind-the-scenes photos, acted as a chauffeur, herded pigeons, and even was a second (uncredited) boom operator.
Some standard non-union responsibilities of PAs:
- Pick up crew breakfast: The most important part of the day. Don’t be late!
- Go on runs: This could be anything from gear pickups to last-minute prop or crafty purchases. And, of course, the afternoon Starbucks run for the EPs/client. Sometimes, being the runner is an entire job in itself.
- Transportation: There isn’t a transpo department on 95% of non-union shows, meaning production assistants are responsible for driving a box truck or a 15- pass van. It’s important you have experience and are comfortable driving larger vehicles, and DON’T TRY TO PARK IN THE PARKING GARAGE.
- Babysit talent: Keep track of talent for the day and get them anything they need. This could be anyone from the hero A-list talent down to the 40 extras.
- Help any department that needs it: Usually art department or crafty.
- Help the producer/coordinator collect crew paperwork: At the end of the shoot, collect timecards and make sure the crew fills out their paperwork properly.
- Make FedEx runs. It’s helpful to know where and when the last drop off time is.
- Deal with trash/recycling: Throughout the day, you’ll find coffee cups, chip bags, and half-full water bottles. As a PA, you’re never supposed to be idle or sitting around. Doing trash sweeps are a great way to stay busy and make a positive influence.
Plus thousands of other combinations of random tasks.
This was written with “set production assistant” in mind. Different departments can have their own production assistant, such as:
- Camera PA
- Art Department PA
- Wardrobe PA
- Locations PA
Being a production assistant in a specific department is the fastest way to move up within that department. If you love being a set production assistant, you may want to become an assistant director. It’s a bit tricky moving up in the AD realm. If you eventually want to work on cool motion pictures and television shows, you’ll need to join the union — the Director’s Guild of America. This is NOT an overnight process and can take several years.
To be added to the DGA’s Qualifying List (QL), you need to work a certain amount of days, the exact number depending on the part of the country you’re in. Keep track of EVERY day you work on set. Save all paperwork: Call sheets, pay stubs, and deal memos. Or, you can try to skip this process by applying to be a DGA trainee.
- How to Get a Job as a Production Assistant
- How to Not Get a Job on a Set
- Film Gear for the Prepared Production Assistant
Photo credit: Jeff S, Brian M, Jen B.