The duties of production assistants on major motion pictures and scripted television get divvied up into four main responsibilities: first team PA, walkie PA, distro PA, background PA. (Sometimes walkie and distro are combined.)
When you’re the background PA and there is no background, you may be asked to assist with “keeping eyes on First Team”. What is “keeping eyes on First Team”, and how do you do it?
“First Team” – Definition
First Team refers to the main actors of the movie or television show, plus any additional players that have lines on-camera. If you’re not sure who “First Team” is on a given day, consult the “CAST” section on the front of your callsheet:
Looks like an easy day, only 4 people on first team today!
First Team: Dissecting the Call Sheet
The # column: These assigned numbers are how characters are kept track of for paperwork purposes — such as AD breakdowns, schedules, etc.
Cast column: The actor’s name. For super-famous actors — let’s say, Tom Hanks — the 2nd AD may change the name here in the event that the call sheet fall into the wrong hands.
Note: The AD will occasionally change the name for up-and-coming actors as well. Don’t make the mistake I almost made and refer to the actual up-and-coming actor by their made-up name.
Character: Self explanatory… the character’s name.
Status: This column makes you aware of whether the actor is beginning, in the middle of, or finishing their stint on the project.
WS: Starts Work (first day); W: Working, WF: Work Finished (last day), SWF: Start Work Finish (dayplayers: their first and last day), H: Hold (technically not working, but may be called in).
WD: Work drop (actor works today and will then be off the project for seven days or more), PW: Pickup work (actor returns after being dropped), PWF: Pickup Work Finish (actor returns after being dropped and completes task).
Call: This is the time that they are due in basecamp. Pickup times are notated in the following column.
Set: This is the time the actors are due– makeup and wardrobe ready– on set.
First Team Duties – Start of Day
The 2nd 2nd AD (sometimes first team PA) will check in with all the actors in the morning. They’ll make sure the actors have arrived to basecamp and are “in the chair” (hair/makeup trailer). First Team PA either gets the breakfast order for the cast if they have time, but usually they will need to stay in basecamp. They will then relay the orders to another PA.
First Team Duties – On Set
Once camera is ready, the actors needed for that scene will be shuttled to set. If it’s one of the leading actors, they’ll likely be shuttled in an Escalade. The First Team PA follows with the actor’s glam squad in a transpo van. If the First Team PA is unable to accompany the talent to set immediately, they relay to a PA already on set to stand by to “catch/receive” first team.
Watching First Team (Without Being a Creeper)
When the crew needs to reset for a different angle, or a closeup, or if props needs time to rebuild, then first team will step off set for those minutes while second team (stand ins) takes their place. If your assignment is to “keep eyes on first team”, this translates to knowing their whereabouts. This DOES NOT MEAN talking to them or staring at them from five feet away. Pretend you’re a secret agent and be stealthy: Steal a glance every few minutes. If they wander, follow, but keep a safe distance to give them their space.
The majority of actors are professional and stay close, but there are rebels that take great pleasure in making your job difficult by “disappearing” as often as possible. Enlist the help of another PA if you’ve got an actor prone to wandering, or if you have a massive first team roster to keep track of.
When An Actor Asks You if they Can Go Back to their Trailer
And then there are the actors that know it isn’t your decision to let them leave set, so they’ll test you.
“Can I go back to my trailer?” they’ll beg. (Remember, they’re actors, so they can lay the charm on thick).
The appropriate response: “Let me check.” Check with the 1st AD the first time, maybe the second time if enough time has passed. If they’re limit-testing you and ask every 5 minutes like a small child, explain the set will be ready very soon.
Reminding Hair/Make-Up for Last Looks
Most hair and makeup folks are professional and on point and ready to step in the minute the 1st AD calls for “last looks”. Some, though, are completely aloof and need a bit more guidance. You’ll usually find them socializing at video village until receiving instruction. Follow along in your schedule and sides. Let them know if the upcoming shot is going to be a wide/medium/tight. If it’s a complete scene change that will take a while, the actor and glam squad will want to go back to their trailer at basecamp. (Check with the 1st AD and then let transpo know.)
Keeping Eyes on Second Team
It’s wise to keep tabs on where Second Team (the stand ins) are while you’re filming. Have them check in with you before they go anywhere, such as the bathroom or crafty. This way, when you’re done filming a scene and need the stand-ins, you will know exactly where to find them.
Not Every Actor Wants a New Friend
Some actors are quite convivial, will chat away, even try to get to know you a bit. Others are method actors that “stay in the zone”. They will get completely annoyed if you try to make small talk. Do your job first, make small talk second, but only if the actor initiates.
Don’t Be a Fan
You’re there to do a job. Don’t fawn all over them, ask for an autograph, or even a photo. Towards the end of the shoot, taking a photo is likely fine if you’ve established a relationship. Check with the 2nd 2nd AD first.
Don’t Post Pictures of First Team on Social Media
A lot of major motion pictures and scripted productions have banned all crew from taking on-set photos. I never take photos of anything super-discernible: The actors or any part of the “hot set”. When in doubt, I don’t post photos of anything. Never take photos of first team unless your job requires it!