As productions have grown in complexity and scale over time, so has the need for a specialist in managing the day to day operations and ensuring a safe, efficient, and effective set. To address this need, the role of the Assistant Director (AD) was born.
ADs are the department on set responsible for organizing the day’s work, and for communicating throughout the production in order to synchronize the cast/crew/production’s efforts towards completing the project. ADs work hand in hand with the Director, the Producing team, and the department heads to coordinate and plan for the physical production component of filming. In this regard, it would not be totally wrong to think of ADs as the Project Manager of a production. They are the producing team’s primary representative on set, and routinely communicate back to the production office throughout the day on how things are progressing. The department itself is headed by the 1st AD, who is then supported by the Key 2nd AD, 2nd 2nd AD, and Additional ADs as needed depending on the size and complexity of the project.
The 1st AD is the Director’s right-hand person. They are overall responsible for organizing the schedule, the running of the set during production, and the overall safety of the cast and crew. They have to be simultaneously thoroughly prepared and organized, as well as possess the ability to improvise and adapt as the situation may require.
Along with this sharp mental acuity, they must also possess the interpersonal skills to manage a variety of strong and diverse personalities, ranging from the creative (Directors, Actors, Writers) to the more technical trades of filmmaking.
Beginning in pre-production, and through physical production, the 1st AD supports the creative team and works with the producers to ensure the project is on track. In pre-production, the 1st AD will break down the shooting script and create a schedule based on various requirements to accomplish filming, then continue to revise and adjust it throughout the course of the production. They will also help organize and participate in scouts and meetings aimed at selecting different sets, props, costumes, and other various aspects of the project prior to filming.
On set the 1st is like the Director’s First Officer of the ship. They guide the crew through the day and execute the Director’s vision on a practical level, allowing the Director to focus on the creative aspects.
The Key 2nd AD is there to support the 1st AD and assist in coordinating the production. They will typically be the main point of contact for the crew regarding questions about current and upcoming filming. Key 2nds are exceptionally organized individuals. They have to track a number of details and tasks while being able to simultaneously conceptualize how changes in any one part can affect other parts of the production.
During pre-production the Key 2nd will work with the 1st AD to plan for production and ensure necessary decisions are made before the beginning of filming. Once filming begins, the Key 2nd is responsible for creating the call sheet as well as ensuring all the logistical aspects of filming are coordinated and communicated. Their focus is typically more on the next day and future upcoming work, while the 1st AD and 2nd 2nd AD manage the current day of filming.
The 2nd 2nd AD’s main role is assisting the 1st AD on set during filming. They will help in managing the crew and running the set, and are typically responsible for organizing all the Background Extras action during the scenes. 2nd 2nd ADs are generally newer to the profession than 1st/Key 2nd ADs. However, they require the same kinds of organizational, problem-solving, and communication skills, and are also expected to cover for the higher-level ADs when needed. Additionally, the 2nd 2nd will often be responsible for supervising wrap, as well as completing and submitting the Daily Production Report at the end of each filming day. This ensures the producers receive an accurate accounting of the day’s work in terms of what was shot and what it cost.
Additional ADs are generally only involved in filming and provide support to the team in a variety of ways. They can run basecamp, manage the extras, supervise rehearsals, and generally help augment the AD team when the scale or complexity of a project requires extra help.
The ADs’ typical workday will differ based on whether they are prepping in pre-production or have already begun actively filming. During pre-production the majority of the AD team’s time is spent attending meetings, scouts, and working with departments to organize all the various details associated with a project to ensure a smooth and efficient filming schedule. These days can vary in length depending on a lot of factors, but they are still generally longer than your average “office day”. Once filming begins, the AD Team will manage the set and coordinate current and upcoming work - while also continuing to revise and refine the various schedules and details needed as the project continues. This can include not only running the actual filming set, but also facilitating a number of side meetings and discussions that may be required to allow departments to prepare for upcoming work.
ADs are known for having exceptionally long working days during filming, with a representative from the department being required on set from the first cast/crew reporting, to the end of the wrap out at night. This can easily stretch from 12-16 hours on most typical projects, and even more so on exceptionally large or complex ones.
For those interested in the process of becoming an AD, the place most people begin is as a Production Assistant, or PA. PAs are the foot soldiers of the AD department and assist in a variety of other tasks during filming. For the ADs, PAs assist in managing the set while also serving as the eyes and ears of the department.
Working as a PA is a great opportunity to see and observe what the ADs do and how they do it, as well as work with the ADs to learn from them directly in order to begin developing the skills necessary to move up into the AD role. Once someone moves up into the AD role, they will typically start as an Additional AD or 2nd 2nd AD while they continue to learn and develop the necessary experience to assume more responsibility.
Generally, PAs and ADs find and get hired on projects through a network of those they have already worked with/for, and through recommendations by those they know to their friends. For those starting out, job boards specific to the industry, like Castifi, can help you break-in and start to gain experience and make connections.
Within the United States, the union governing ADs is the Directors Guild of America (DGA), it is a national level union with offices in New York and Los Angeles and counts Directors, Technical Directors, and Assistant Directors amongst its members.
Currently, you must submit proof of 600 working days as a PA to the DGA in order to be approved to work on sets that have signed agreements with the guild. This includes TV, Film, Commercial, and Live Tape (talk show) formats. However, not all projects are DGA, and opportunities to work as an AD on non-union projects are available.
Non-Union projects function in largely the same way as DGA projects do, and require the same kind of skills and capabilities in the AD department. In this way, they can be a great opportunity to develop your skills as you progress towards joining the DGA.
For their efforts, ADs are some of the highest paid crew members on set. The average pay for a union AD in the United States is between $3,000 to $5,000 per week, depending on the budget of the project, location of filming, and length of days. Membership in the DGA also provides top-tier health insurance and pension based on receiving a qualifying amount of income. Non-Union ADs pay scale is variable depending on what they negotiate with the Producers, but can average between $200-500/day based on the size of the project.
The path from PA to AD is not an easy one by any stretch. It requires several hundred days of work and many thousands of working hours across a variety of projects and positions to accrue enough work experience to qualify to work as a union AD on set. While Assistant Director is one of the most under-recognized positions in the mainstream public, their efforts are renowned by their team. Many directors and actors praise the A.D. as the most important person on set.
Wherever you are in your career journey, it is Castifi’s mission to provide a helping hand, especially when it comes to navigating the complexities of a career path in the entertainment industry. If you found this post helpful, please share it with others and subscribe to our newsletter for more content like this, as well as upcoming events, product updates, and new product features.