“What Do You Do Again?” is Stareable’s new weekly column profiling the different film production roles. What roles should we profile next? Let me know in the comments!
Want to work on a film set? More than likely, you’re going to start as a production assistant, or ‘PA.’ But what does that even entail? Onward!
What do production assistants (PAs) do? Lightning round:
- Set PAs take direction from various departments and go where they’re needed
- Office PAs keep the kitchen stocked, do various administrative tasks, and run errands
- At their core, PAs provide general assistance to the rest of the crew, usually sticking with individual departments
All PAs do the same stuff. Just like any other film role, PAs can be highly specialized, assigned to specific departments. An art department PA might assist in setup and breakdown of sets while another PA was hired specifically because she has experience driving 15’ vans. Most PAs eventually align themselves with very specific aspects of productions depending on their skillsets and interests, though of course everyone usually starts as “the person who gets people coffee and lunch and makes sure cars don’t drive through set.”
Being on set is glamorous. “It’s not,” warns Lauren Wells, PA on a variety of Netflix’s Marvel series, “wear layers, wear your work boots, sunscreen, a hat, and always pack extra layers, hand warmers, etc. Drink lots of water and make healthy eating choices to keep energy up. There’s an endless amount of food on set, and it can be so overwhelming that you either forget to eat or eat the world.”
You’ll have a healthy work-life balance. Haha. Nope! The hours for PAs can be the most grueling of all. According to Lauren, “you never really know what your schedule for the next day will be until the call sheet goes out after wrap, so it’s nearly impossible to plan anything ahead of time.”
PAs are lazy or unskilled. Just because PAs are some of the lowest-paid members of a crew does not mean that they work less hard or at a lower skill level, but sometimes, even other “higher level” crew members will forget this. Lauren advises that you “remember it’s not a reflection of you personally, it’s more of a reflection of them. People develop egos sometimes, and they tend to lash out because of their own personal reasons, not necessarily because of anything you did.”
Brains PA Aidan Wallace in the wild
Not using common sense. My baby brother Vinny Castellini has worked as a PA on several high-profile projects (I’m very proud), and admits that “being a PA is a strange mix of being both one of the easiest jobs you could ever have while also being so easy to mess up, so I think the biggest mistakes tend to be moving too fast and not using your common sense.” He offers an example of a lunch order he once had to take for the cast and crew that ended up being an hour late and incomplete. The lateness wasn’t his fault, but he explained that the missing meals definitely were, because he got stressed out and prioritized the problem that wasn’t within his control (ie- the restaurant being slow) instead of the problem that was (verifying the orders being complete).
Sitting. From Lauren: “Unless it’s lunch, don’t sit. It drives people nuts.”
Timidity. A lot of PA duties involve stopping random people, involved or not involved with the project, from walking through a shot or talking while the cameras are rolling. As such, you have to be firm, because while telling someone to shut up and walk in a different direction is awkward, allowing a shot to get ruined on your watch is worse.
Asking the wrong questions. Asking questions of your superiors is never a problem, because there’s nothing less helpful than a rogue PA. However, keep in mind that everyone is just as busy as you are, and try to limit your queries to the ones only they can answer and ones that you cannot move forward without answers for.
Vinny offers another food-related example. “When told to buy crafty [craft services] for set, it’s natural to ask what kind of food and drink the coordinator or producer wants to provide, but don’t ask a question like ‘where is the nearest grocery store?’ That’s a question Google can easily answer for you and you’re just going to annoy your boss if you ask questions like that which you can answer yourself.”
How can I learn to be a production assistant?
Because being a PA is the most entry-level position on any project and because so many PAs are needed to keep a production running smoothly, almost anyone can become one! You’ll have to start by doing the least-fun work but eventually, if you work hard and make friends with people higher up the chain, you have a lot of options. Also, keep in mind that different kinds of productions have different PA needs. Vinny breaks it down, stressing that “the hard part is getting the first job so you may have to work for free, intern, or network to meet someone that can hire you.” Lauren agrees, adding “it’s all about building relationships. People will hire you if they like you and know you’re a hard worker. Once you work one job, your network grows exponentially.”
Who does the actual hiring? Vinny made a helpful list:
On Hollywood Features/TV shows
Assistant Directors hire - Set PAs
Production supervisors OR Production coordinators OR assistant production coordinators OR production secretaries hire - office PAs
On Commercials/music videos
Coordinators hire- Office AND Set PAs
Assistant directors hire - set and AD PAs
On Reality TV/game shows
Coordinators hire- office and set PAs
It’s no surprise that often the most thankless jobs on projects are the most vital, and no set would be complete without the aid of hardworking and eager to learn production assistants. Even a single PA can positively transform an indie set in terms of efficiency and productivity.