The Different Types and Responsibilities of Production Assistants

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Every film and television professional was once a Production Assistant. It is a rite of passage shared by all, a necessary step on the way to most careers in film production. If you are looking to get into film, getting a PA job is a good place to start. But what, you may be asking, does a PA actually do?

It is commonly agreed upon that being a PA is an entry-level position, however, the term “Production Assistant” encompasses many responsibilities. While it is generally thought that a PA does “everything and anything, depending on what the production calls for”, a high budget production mandates that each PA hold a different set of duties to run a seamless set.

This great paradox is what makes it simple to be a good Production Assistant, and quite difficult to be a great one. Being prepared and knowing what is expected of you - whether it’s been voiced or not - will drastically improve your performance on set, especially when working on large productions.

In this article, we will break down the different types of PAs as well as the duties and responsibilities that fall under every type. Please keep in mind that every project is different, and you will be required to exercise good judgment based on the project’s needs to become the MVP(A) on set.

 

General Responsibilities

All PAs are required to handle small, menial, yet crucial tasks on set, and it can be hard to know what is part of your job description as a PA, what is expected, and what is a task technically owned by someone else. Miscellaneous tasks like trash duty, for example, are not part of the PA’s role on large projects. However on small projects, the division of labor is quasi non-existent.

 

Communication

The first major responsibility of any Production Assistant is communication. Examples of on set communication consist of:

  • Echoing the calls (“Rolling”, “Rehearsal’s up”, “First team”, “2nd team”, “Last looks”, etc…)
  • Monitoring lunch operations and calling for “Last Man”
  • Handing out “sides” at the top of the day, and whenever a new crew member arrives on set
  • Handing out and collecting radios
  • Checking in Background Actors

 

Why it’s important

The 1st Assistant Director’s role does not allow for much time away from the director and camera. Therefore, the first AD relies heavily on Production Assistants to be where he/she cannot.

 

Lock-Ups

The second major responsibility of a Production Assistant is to enforce Lock-Ups”. Whenever the camera is rolling, PAs must form a “net” that prevents unnecessary crew members or civilians from getting close to the set.

 

Why it’s important

“The camera doesn’t wait” is a popular idiom on set. What this means is “filming is very expensive, and we should be rolling the camera as often as possible”. It aims to prevent people from being “in the shot”, and not preventing this from happening is a very costly mistake.

 

General Care

A set is a busy place. As a Production Assistant, you get more time than anyone else to think about the overall care and safety of the crew. This includes many miscellaneous tasks, such as:

  • Handing out water
  • Looking out for safety issues (sharp equipment in tight spaces, live traffic…)
  • Trash management
  • Making sure that everyone has a place to sit down at lunch

 

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The Key Set PA

As its title suggests, the Key Set PA - also referred to as the Key PA - is a “rank” above all other PAs. A Key PA is expected to manage the other PAs but remains under the direction of the Assistant Directors. When a crew member asks a question for the “PA Nation” on the radio, the Key Set PA has the first opportunity to respond. If she/he abstains, the other PAs are expected to chime in.

A Key PA is also someone who is being “groomed” to become an Assistant Director (similar to a DGA Trainee). They take on minor administrative responsibilities as well as tasks that have a direct impact on what is seen in the shot.

The Key PA’s specific duties include:

  • Managing “Start Paperwork”. This requires checking the back of the call sheet or inquiring about new crew members with every departments daily to make sure each new crew member has received and completed their start paperwork
  • Handing out daily timesheets (not to be confused with time cards)
  • Overseeing Background Actors processing, and filling in the “Background Breakdown”
  • Helping the 2nd 2nd Assistant Director place Background Actors on set
  • “Spinning channels”. This means announcing important information on every radio channel, such as “2nd Meal”, the “Abby” and/or the “Martini” shot
  • Calling the production office to relay information like “First shot” and “First shot after”
  • Overseeing the loading of passenger vans when the crew is moving from point A to point B
  • Organizing “Lock-Ups” by making sure every PA has a strategic corner of the set under control

 

The First Team PA

“First Team” refers to the actors on set. “2nd Team” refers to the principal actors’ stand-Ins. Thus, the First Team PA is someone dedicated to caring for the cast and their extended family on set.

The First Team PA and the Base camp PA work more closely together than any of the other PAs. They must establish processes together to deal with the movements of the cast between base camp and the set.

Finally, the First Team PA is often tasked with placing and collecting radios in cars used on screen, as well as charging radios on set. The responsibility falls to the First Team PA because as soon as a company move happens and the cast has been sent back to base camp, the First Team PA is free to manage radios.

To recap, the First Team PA’s duties include:

  • Keeping an eye on cast members while they are on set and being able to provide their specific location at any given time (for this, the First Team PA can ask for the help of all other PAs)
  • Calling for transportation when a cast member is sent back to base camp or walking the cast member until they can be intercepted by the Base Camp PA
  • Alternatively, receiving the cast when they arrive on set and escorting them to the cast holding area
  • Talking with the sound department after a “blocking” has happened to figure out which cast needs to be “lav’ed” (being equipped with a lavalier microphone) and bringing the appropriate cast members to the sound cart
  • Making sure that the on-set Makeup Artist, Hair Stylist, and Wardrobe Assistant are aware of which cast will be seen in the next shot (and the shot after, ideally)
  • Providing general care to the cast (water, shade)
  • Note: on union shows, director chairs are provided to the cast by the Property Department, and not by the First Team PA.
  • Working with Catering (often with the help of the Base Camp PA) and Craft Services to provide special meals and snacks to the cast and their families
  • Placing and collecting radios in Picture cars (cars used on-screen)
  • Charging radio “bricks” (batteries) on set

 

The Base Camp PA

This position is equivalent to the role of a 2nd Assistant Director on a non-union show. On big projects, a 2nd AD can't prepare the next day of filming and put the cast “through the works” efficiently at the same time.

To solve this problem, the 2nd AD and 2nd 2nd AD rely on the Base Camp PA. Even though everything happens off-set, this position can be one of the most stressful in the PA world.

Like a Key Set PA, the Base Camp PA can provide administrative support to the Assistant Directors. It’s common to see this position assumed by the DGA Trainee if there is one.

All in all, the Base Camp PA’s duties include:

  • Managing trailers: checking that rooms are tidy before the cast arrives, placing names on doors, and placing “sides” and water in each trailer.
  • Getting the cast through Hair, Makeup and Wardrobe
  • Taking breakfast orders for the cast (and sometimes Hair, Makeup, and Wardrobe) and working with the First Team PA to send these orders if the caterer is on set
  • If there are minors in the cast, checking with the Studio Teacher how many hours of school have been “banked” each day
  • Calling for transportation when a cast member is asked for on set, or walking with the cast member until they can be intercepted by the First Team PA
  • Alternatively, receiving the cast when they arrive from the set and escorting them to their trailer
  • Letting the cast, Hair, Makeup, and Wardrobe know when lunch is called if they are still at base camp
  • Creating “sides”
  • Starting the Production Report
  • Keeping the day file - a binder that contains the documents collected each day (call sheet, PR, background breakdowns, timesheets, etc.) up to date

 

The Additional PA

When a crew goes on location (as opposed to filming in a studio), they tend to hire one or more Additional PAs to make sure that “lock-ups” are tight. These extra sets of hands are there to provide support to the Key Set PA with the matter of Background Actors, such as:

  • Checking in/out Background Actors
  • Working with Hair, Makeup and Wardrobe when Background Actors need to be looked at
  • Loading Background Actors in production shuttles or walking them to the set
  • Helping the 2nd 2nd AD place Background Actors in the shot

 

How Much Do PAs Get Paid

Being a PA is a minimum wage job. While a PA's general duties don’t change that much from set to set there is a strong distinction between the duties of a Production Assistant on a Union project and Non-Union one - and not just because of the pay.

Generally speaking, PAs on non-union projects have more responsibilities, but get paid less, whereas PAs on union projects are expected to perform at a higher level in the role they are assigned and are compensated slightly more through meal penalties and overtime.

 

Summary

PAs may be at the bottom of the film set hierarchy, but they are an essential part of making sure things run smoothly. They are relied on for “everything and anything”, but are expected to know what to do in all of these situations. When they do, they provide great stability for the entire crew.

Being able to do everything and anything is only as valuable as your capacity to properly execute these tasks. Just like a set electrician and a grip work together to reach a shared goal, Production Assistants on big-budget productions are expected to work together to guarantee a smooth run of show.

It is important to memorize the duties of each PA to avoid taking on a responsibility that falls onto someone else (unless they want/need you to). Although it may seem unnecessary in “normal” times, this strict division of labor helps mitigate hectic situations on set.

At Castifi, we are building tools to facilitate the work of crew members, including Production Assistants. Our unique technology allows PAs to manage Background Actors using digital vouchers instead of traditional carbon copy paper.

 

 

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With this system, you can track time, add bumps, and generate the Background Breakdown from your phone.

If you found this post helpful, please share it with your PA nation or urge your AD to try a digital tool that will make his/her life easier and put you in their good graces!

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