Lift With Your P.A., Not Your Back: What is a Production Assistant and the Importance of a Good One
“Runner”, “Go-for” (pronounced gopher), and “P.A." are all names for the same crew members. The name you are probably most familiar with though is P.A. P.A. stands for “production assistant,” and it is the job title of many individuals who are starting off in the filmmaking industry. It certainly isn’t the most glamorous position, and it is the epitome of an “entry-level” position that is the start of most people’s career paths in the film world. It’s often a thankless job, however, it is also an integral cog in the production machine. It’s hard work, but it is a fantastic way to get a crash course in how a film set is run.
Much in the same way that someone in the trade industry will begin an apprenticeship if you want to be a plumber, electrician, or carpenter, a Production Assistant is essentially the equivalent of an apprenticeship on a film crew. Now you might be thinking to yourself “what exactly does a Production Assistant do?”, and that is a very good question.
To be honest, there really isn’t one specific thing that a Production Assistant does. A Production Assistant has a wide variety of tasks, that as the title clearly states, center around assisting various departments of any given production. This could be as mundane as running errands or getting coffee for the assistant director, or as involved as picking up a cube truck to load all the camera equipment into it and driving that truck to set because the camera operator is busy. Either way, a production assistant is guaranteed to work long hours and learn a great deal of communication skills navigating the work environment of the different departments.
Typically, the type of job, or task, that a Production Assistant gets assigned to depends on their level of experience not only in production, but also their familiarity with the production heads, such as the producers, but more specifically the production managers and production coordinators.
If you’re fresh out of film school or internships, and brand new to the film industry, you will most likely be assigned to easier tasks that aren’t as complicated or require you to know various vendors and other department heads. Some of these tasks assigned to a less seasoned Production Assistant include, but aren’t limited to the following: setting up and filling out time cards for the crew, running to get coffee and lunches, picking up the cast or crew members from the airport or their hotels, picking up various production supplies as they’re needed, making copies of call sheets, watching over production equipment while the crew is on lunch (typically this is called a “fire watch”), taking out the garbage from various locations around set, labeling walkie-talkies and any other number of random tasks that serve to make a production run more seamlessly.
Moving Up the Ladder
On the flip side of these “easier” production assistant duties, there are the more complicated jobs that are usually given to Production Assistants with more work experience. Often, and this also depends on the Production Assistant’s working relationships with the heads of production, a more seasoned Production Assistant will be assigned to assist a specific department in which that Production Assistant would like to eventually work full time. These various departments include grip and electric, camera, wardrobe, props, craft service, production, art department, and finally locations. If, and when, a Production Assistant is assigned to a specific department, the nature of what they’ll be assisting that department with varies greatly. However, it is typically a task that makes all the other crew members’ lives a little easier in that specific department. This is a great way to get film production experience as an entry-level job in the department the Production Assistant wants to work in, and a fantastic way for the Production Assistant to begin to develop relationships with crew members that are a part of the production “family”.
That last part, about developing relationships with crew members, just might be the single most important part of any Production Assistant’s job (at least to the individual Production Assistant). Perhaps more so than any other industry, the film/video industry is just as much, if not more so, about who you know as it is about what you know. Don’t get me wrong, it is invaluable to be knowledgeable about the film/video industry, but it helps a lot to know people in the film/video industry too.
There is also a delicate balance between relationship building and maintaining the relationships you have with the people in production who hired you in the first place. You want to develop those working relationships in the department you aspire to work in, but at the same time, you do not want to strain the relationship of the people in production by getting tunnel vision and thinking you only need to help the specific department you were assigned to.
There is certainly a difference between a “good” and a “bad” Production Assistant, just like there’s a difference between any other individual who is either “good” or “bad” at their job. However, typically with regard to the quality of a Production Assistant, the distinction can be less obvious.
There are many factors that go into what makes a Production Assistant “good”, or “bad”, at their assigned jobs. At its essence, a “good” Production Assistant has the same qualities, and work ethic, that makes anyone good at their job regardless of what they do. But it’s the intangibles that really make a good Production Assistant stand out. Being able to anticipate needs, knowing when it’s time to give feedback, and knowing when it’s time to listen, and perhaps most importantly; simply being a person that other people enjoy working with and being a person people enjoy being around. When you’re working on set, it can be some pretty long days, to say the least, and the last thing anybody wants is someone that is constantly getting on people’s nerves or “rocking the boat” if you will.
Essentially, Production Assistants are like the Marines of the film/video industry. They are generally the first people to arrive on set, and they are generally the last people to leave set. Yes, it is an entry-level position that at times can appear to be an afterthought. However, they are a very important part of the greater picture when it comes to film/video production. Also, the really “good” Production Assistants are essentially invaluable!
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