“What Do You Do Again?” is Stareable’s new weekly column profiling the different film production roles. Spoiler alert: a gaffer won’t escort you to Mordor to destroy the One Ring, so don’t ask. What roles should we profile next? Let me know in the comments!
This week, we’re talking about assistant directors, or ADs!
What does an assistant director do? Lightning round:
- Run the logistical and scheduling portions of set so the director can focus on creative decisions
- Makes and sends out call sheets, or the document based on the director’s shot list informing people where to go and at what time they should go there, to the cast and crew.
Assistant directors are second in command of scene direction. This is something I thought for the longest time, and while technically the AD assists the director, it’s not for the creative stuff. The AD knows where everyone is, coordinates bringing talent to set, makes the schedule, keeps people on schedule, and liaises with the various on-set departments to ensure a smooth shoot. Depending on the size of the production, these responsibilities get split between the 1st AD, the 2nd AD, and so forth, but for our purposes, on a low-budget web series, you’ll probably only have one person in this role.
However! I discovered in a Wikipedia article about assistant directors that according to SAG-AFTRA rules, directors aren’t allowed to directly address background actors on set, so it’s the AD’s job to convey what they need to be doing.
Assistant directors get the director coffee. Basically, it’s a common Dwight Schrute confusion- they aren’t the assistant to the director, they’re the assistant director. They work with and answer to the director, but they are not responsible for the director’s every personal need. My baby brother Vinny Castellini, who works as a PA and AD out in Los Angeles, explains that “AD's are essential crew members who don't get the director coffee, but instead run the set and make sure that the director has everything in place by the time they say ‘Action.’”
Being too timid. As with any sort of leadership role, you can’t be timid and an effective AD. In many ways, the AD has to be fiercer and more confident than the director themself, because in general, the AD is dealing with more people at any given moment. Since it’s the AD’s job to keep to the schedule and make sure everyone else is doing their jobs, they have to maintain an amount of authority and respect that timidity can’t muster.
Being too strict. One of the most annoying (and vital) parts of assistant directing is calling out the time. The creatives on set aren’t paying attention to how long a scene is taking to shoot, and it’s the AD’s job to make sure that the schedule they set is being stuck to. However, it’s important to be flexible and quick on your feet, because filmmaking takes the time it takes, and the time it takes isn’t always according to plan. With this in mind, approaching your director between takes and letting them know you’re running behind is good, but approaching with a contingency plan in case you don’t get back on track is better. Have plan A, B, and Z prepared before you get to set and be willing to change course for the sake of the artistic project you’re working on.
Not accepting some things are out of your control. Vinny admits that this was a major learning curve for him. “When I first started ADing I would freak out when the set got behind and pressure the director and DP to work faster with my nervous energy,” he says. “Over the last year, I have come to realize that the AD is more of a consultant. In that, I mean that once you have done everything you can to correct ship, the end product is ultimately in the Director's and Producer's hands. I've worked sets where I have done everything I can but the Director and Producer still moved at a sloth's pace and, in the end, that was their call.”
How can I learn to be an assistant director?
While articles like this and many others are helpful, especially for a newcomer, there’s no substitute for actual on-set experience. Vinny suggests starting as a PA and moving your way up, paying attention to the way the ADs conduct themselves. “After some PA experience, you can start trying to get in as an AD on lower budget productions to hone your skills, hopefully with people you trust so you have room for error.”
In many ways, the assistant director is the on-set producer, especially on smaller sets. I know I often end up in both roles on projects both that I write or that I’m hired on, and it’s an unnaturally natural transition since both are highly logistical that require authority, quick thinking, and organization. If you like being in charge and being in the middle of all the action, then assistant directing might be for you.