Archive for the ‘Production Assistant’ Tag

The Life and Times of a Production Assistant

I once made my production assistant go and buy me new socks.

Now, in my defense, it was Friday morning, and I’d been at work (and awake) since Wednesday morning. I was producing the VFX for a film that was due to screen in Trafalgar Square in a few days time, and while I was holding up surprisingly well, the same couldn’t be said for my socks, which were a swampy morass from being worn for forty-eight hours straight.

Sometime around 4am, in a sleep-deprived fugue, I sat down, took my shoes off, and threw my socks away. I sent my PA (who was asleep at home) a text asking him to pick me up new socks on his way in to work at 9am.*

He thought I was joking and turned up to work without new socks.

I made him go back out and get them.

But you know what? This doesn’t come close to being the worse thing a PA has been told to do in the film industry. Heck, this is probably not even the worst thing I’ve told a PA to do. It’s no secret that production assistants get the worst  – and weirdest – tasks in the film industry, having to do everything from buying birth control, to babysitting the director’s children. Daniel Day Lewis famously made the PAs carry him around on the set of My Left Foot to help him stay in character.

There’s very few other industries that would get away with treating their junior staff the way the film industry does.

So, why do we do this? Do we have our heads so far up our own asses that we demand to be waited on hand and foot?

Well, maybe a little.

But there is more to it than that.

First, a bit about myself. I’m a visual effects producer. This means my job is to manage the budget, schedule and deliverables of high end visual effects for film and television. I’m ultimately responsible for taking the budget the studio has for VFX, and turning that into high quality VFX shots. The hours are long, the stress levels high, and the dollar amounts I deal with in the “lots and lots”. If I screw up, I could potentially send the company I work for under.

So, that’s fun.

When I’m in the thick of a show, my day normally starts about 3 minutes after I wake up, when I check my work emails as soon as my eyes can focus properly. I’ll head in to work early to catch up on any budget or resource issues I need to deal with, then, once the team is in, I’ll spend pretty much the rest of my day putting out fires before finally heading home sometime between 10pm and 2am.

I won’t take lunch. Instead, I’ll use that hour when everything is quieter to catch up on the less oh-my-god-the-world-is-going-to-end-if-this-isn’t-fixed-right-now problems.

There is never enough time in my day to do all of the things.

As you can imagine, that means that some of the not-as-urgent items slip through the cracks. Unfortunately, those not-as-urgent items tend to be things like paying my phone bill, picking up a package from the post-office, or taking my car into the mechanics. The bad news is, life doesn’t stop just because I’m on a film – the phone company still wants their money, my boyfriend would like his birthday present, and the car really probably shouldn’t be making that noise when I brake.

That’s where a PA comes in. They’re hired to take care of all the little problems, so that I can focus on the bigger ones. The little problems can range from restocking the office kitchen, to, well, anything. One time I got lost on my way to a location scout, so the locations manager handed me a PA for the day. All that kid did all day was sit in the car with me to make sure I didn’t get lost between locations.

I’m pretty sure that was not what he expected he would be doing when he was in film school.

On the plus side, spending six months as a PA is a great way to see if you really want to be in the film industry.

You see, a lot of people want to work on movies. It’s seen as exciting and glamorous, all Hollywood red carpets and mingling with stars.

In reality, it’s long hours and egos. It’s missed birthdays and divorces. It’s financial uncertainty and politics. I mean, it’s still amazing – we do get to paid to make movies, after all – but there’s definitely more to it than just the celeb-fest that Variety would have you believe.

And, because a PA’s skill set is pretty minimal, we’ll hire almost anyone who wants a job and can put up with being treated like a PA for six months. I’ve known baristas, waitresses and bartenders who have all gotten their foot in the door because they served a producer who was looking for a PA at the time.

Of that flock of PAs that we’ve hired, not all of them are going to want to stay in the film industry once they’ve seen behind the curtain. And that’s what makes being a PA a good entry level job – if you’re not okay with having to get coffees for a group of executives, you’re really not going to like some of the things coming up later in your career. Better to get out early, in that case.

But, for all that, being a PA can actually be a fun job. Sure, the pay sucks, but it’s (relatively) low stress, every day is different, and it’s a great opportunity to see the whole film making process. Also, most people on the crew were once PAs, so they’ll (generally) be pretty nice to you.

PAs also work across departments, meaning they get to know everyone on the crew, in a way that most department specific crew won’t. Not only does this make the PA role a lot more social than other crew positions, but it’s a good chance to decide which direction you want to go in your career. And because you know everyone, it’s usually not too hard to wrangle a gig in that department on the next film.**

If you get the opportunity to work on a film as a PA, don’t be put off by some of the stranger jobs you have to do – the person getting you to do that job probably had to do something worse when they were a PA.

And don’t worry – the pay does get better.

* Fortunately for both of us, my underwear was surprisingly okay.

** Just don’t be a jackass. In fact, that’s such good advice, I think I’m going to do a blog post on that topic.

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