Should I Start as an Office PA or a Set PA?

Raisa writes in:

I just started interning on an independent film and the producer has asked me whether I want to be on set or in the office. This is my first time working in the industry so I don’t know anything about anything.  I think I eventually want to be a producer or an AD, but given my lack of experience I’m just not sure.  Would you recommend being an office PA or a set PA to start learning the ropes and figuring out where I want to be? Also is one better for networking?

I’ll level with you– being on set is more fun.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times when sitting in a nice, air conditioned office can be preferable. (It’s 76 and humid as I write this, climbing up to 97 by the middle of the day.) But by and large, most people enjoy being on set. For your first film experience, I’d start there.

Plus, on an indie movie, there’s not really going to be a lot going on in the office. On a tight budget, producers tend to focus their money on the most vital departments– cast, camera, lighting, make-up, costume. Art department tends to get short shrift (“Let’s just shoot at my apartment! And not do any set dec at all!”).

The office will be cut down even more. Someone has to take care of payroll, and order lunch (you probably don’t have a caterer). You’re not going to have a full office staff for that.

Besides networking, there’s also just learning what you want to do. While every department will be smaller than usual, you’ll at least get a sense of what grips are like, or costumers, or make-up artists.

If the movie is small enough that the producer is directly interviewing interns, you probably won’t be learning much about office life at all.

Make the switch to the production office in and when you get tired of the set, and you have enough credits to be hired on a big show.

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Production Supervisor Kelley Sims

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Our guest today, Kelley Sims, has had a long a varied career– from actor to accountant to production supervisor to, most recently, co-producer.

These are the kinds of jobs you don’t necessarily dream about when you’re in film school, but they’re vitally important to the running of a show. And, as Kelley points out, working in these office-type roles doesn’t mean you’re giving up your dreams of being an artist. After over a decade learning and experiencing the practical side of the business, Kelley is on track to produce his own films, soon. And I’ll bet he brings his movie in on time and on budget, unlike certain other producers I could name.

Today’s episode is brought to you Caps Payroll; they’re not just for background anymore.1 They’re giving away two pairs of tickets to Crew Call listeners for their VIP suite at the Staples Center. The winners will get to choose from a range of events (concerts, sports, etc).

Winners will be chosen at random on Sept. 21st during the next TAPA networking event. (You don’t actually have to be physically at the event to win; just pay attention to your Twitter feed, wherever you are.) You’ll have to listen to today’s episode to find out exactly what you have to do to win.2

CAPS Payroll – their focus is your success.3

Chris Henry not only produced today’s episode and wrote the theme, he also conducted the interview, since I was unavailable. Basically, Chris did all the work this week. You should thank him on Twitter.4

If you like the show, please rate and review us on iTunes. You can also subscribe via Stitcher, or with the Crew Call xml feed. Back episodes of Crew Call can be found on the Anonymous Production Assistant website.

To help support Crew Call, simply click on the Amazon banner before you go shopping.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. They asked me to say this.
  2. To help you with the spelling, they are @CAPSPayroll, and I’m @TheAnonymousPA.
  3. They asked me to say this, too.
  4. I didn’t tell him I was doing this; it’ll be hilarious when his Twitter account blows up, and he doesn’t know why.
Posted in Crew Call, Podcast | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

10 Mistakes New Production Assistants Should Avoid

If you want to know what a PA does, you’ve come to the right place. Various TAPAs have been telling you what to do for a long time. You can still buy the TAPA T-shirt with the definition of a PA.

But it’s not often that I tell you what not to do. So, as a public service, here are some common mistakes I see freshly minted PAs make all the time:

1. Thinking You’re Still in Film School

No one wants to hear your opinions about the mise en scène, or how this movie fits in the director’s oeuvre. You’re here to get coffee and lock up the set. There’s an old saying– “A PA needs a car, a computer, and a phone. Notice I didn’t say brain.”

This is the real world, where we actually, physically make movies.1 Save the theory for after work; right now, we have to shoot.

2. Being TOO Helpful

A PA’s duties can be fuzzy and undefined. If pretty much anyone asks you to do something, you should be prepared to do it. Film school and low-budget productions also encourage fluidity between the departments.

But on a union show, everyone has a job, and every job has someone to do it. If it’s not your job, don’t do it. Not because you’re lazy or want to avoid work, but because you don’t know how to do it right. Even something as simple as coiling cable can be screwed up, if you haven’t heard of over-undering. Or, if you do know how to over-under, but didn’t know that only applies to audio and video cables, not power cables.

3. Talking Too Much

There’s a time and a place for conversation. This is not it. This is the time for paying attention.

As Joaquin Sedillo put it on Crew Call: “You have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth. Use them proportionally.”

4. Being Unprepared

Ignoring the pithy sarcasm in #1, there are a few things you should always keep handy, whether you’re on set or in the office: pens, Sharpies, a small flashlight, sunscreen, a multi-tool. Some of these the production will supply, others not.

It’s also not a bad idea for set PAs to have their own surveillance mic. Production may provide one, but it’s been used.2

5. Not Knowing What’s Going On

Everyone assumes the PAs have special, inside information about what’s happening, and more importantly, what’s going to happen next. This is often true. But you shouldn’t tell anybody the stuff you heard while carting the producers around from the office to the stage.

On the other hand, you should know all of the official information. Keep a callsheet and one-liner with you at all times. Know what scene is coming up next. Know what the next set-up is, if you can. Know if lunch is going to be early or late. Know the actors’ call times. Know everything. (See item #3.)

And if someone asks a question you don’t know, say, “Let me get back to you with that information.”

6. Not Networking

“Networking” is a shitty term with a shitty reputation. Deservedly so. It’s often used by that guy who hands out business cards at lunch.

The Piven knows all.

Listen to Piven.

What you should be doing is making friends. Both on set and off. This is how you get jobs. Not by blindly sending your email to every show on the production weekly. You land gigs through recommendations and referrals from people who actually know you.

And this is when I remind you that you should come to the next TAPArty, at the Craftsman in Santa Monica, on the 21st of September.

7. Being a Downer

Everyone thinks they have the hardest job. Including you. That’s totally fine.

Don’t tell anyone that. Even if you’re right, even if you’re having the worst day imaginable, complaining will only make things worse. No one likes a downer. They won’t want to be around you, and they won’t recommend you in the future. (See #6.)

Every day should be the greatest day of your life. You know why? Because you work in a goddamn dream factory. Quit complaining.

8. Asking Too Many Questions

Your boss wants you to handle things. When she asks you to do something, just go do it. Don’t ask why. For the love of God, don’t ask how. Figure it the fuck out.

9. Not Asking Enough Questions

You don’t want to talk too much (cf. #3); you don’t want to ask too many questions (cf. #8). But sometimes you need clarification. Sometimes you don’t even know that you need clarification.

And there’s the rub. Think carefully about what you know, what you don’t know, and what you can figure out. Only then should ask a question, if it’s merited.

But don’t be afraid to ask. You want to be right, not just fast.

10. Saying No

I can’t believe I have to say this one. You’re a production assistant. Your job is to assist. Everyone. All the time.

But I constantly hear PAs saying, “Go ask So-and-so,” or, “Do I have to?” or just straight up, “No.” I mean, honestly, how is this person employed?

There is only one time to say no, and that’s when there is imminent, physical danger.

* * *

Share this list with any new PAs you know, and maybe we can eliminate some of these in the next generation.

If you have any more Don’ts to add to the list, leave them in the comments below!

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Or virtually. But you know what I mean.
  2. Ew.
Posted in On the Job | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Visual Effects Data Integration Lead Viki Chan

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Today’s guest has a job you’ve probably never heard of– Viki Chan is a Data Integration Lead in the visual effects department. She’s worked on such big film as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Ender’s Game.1

Viki is not a US citizen, and she tells us a little bit about getting sponsored for her work visa. Then she goes into the technical aspects of working for visual effects on the actual set. If you ever wanted to know how they get those amazing effects to fit into the real world, now’s your chance to find out.

She also has a great story about one of my favorite directors, David Fincher. He’s pretty much exactly like what you’ve heard.

The producer of today’s episode was Chris Henry, who also wrote the theme.

If you like the show, please rate and review us on iTunes. You can also subscribe via Stitcher, or with the Crew Call xml feed. Back episodes of Crew Call can be found on the Anonymous Production Assistant website.

To help support Crew Call, simply click on the Amazon banner before you go shopping.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. She worked on the effects, not the scripts; if you didn’t like the movie, don’t blame Viki!
Posted in Crew Call, Finding a Job, On the Job, Podcast | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Show Title or Job Title?

Today’s a good day to buy a t-shirt, don’t you think?

* * *

Mitch writes in:

My current predicament is probably a caviar problem.

I got hired to PA on a network talk show earlier this year, which was great, I really enjoyed it. Then we went on hiatus for the, and I began looking around for a new gig in case things fell through when the show came back.1

Fast forward two months and I’ve just been offered an Associate Producer position at a much smaller network. I’d honestly never even heard of the company before they offered me the job. It produces a lot of syndicated content though, and has even had 1 or 2 daytime Emmy noms over the last few years. Apparently, they largely hire young non-union kids in their 20s and pay a much lower rate than what they’d get an experienced person for (they may have gained something of a reputation for it, but very few people have heard of them to begin with). For me, this job means a small pay bump from my PA salary and a pretty great title jump. Also, a ton of creative freedom (writing, graphics editing, casting, etc) since the place seems to care more about quantity than quality.

The question is, do I stay with the well known and reputable network show that I’ve been working for as a PA or do I hop on board with the content mill as an AP and cross my fingers that I’ll be able to continue working at that level when I move on?

Take the promotion.

If you were shifting from one type of show to another (say, hour-long scripted to game show), you’d have to stop and think. You may end up working in a field you don’t like.

But getting a promotion on the same type of show on a smaller network? That’s totally fine. That’s how lots of people move up in the world. It’s no different than an AC on a TV series stepping up to DP on an indie movie.

Take the credit (and raise!), do a good job, then look for the same job on a better series, or a better job on another low-level show. Always move upwards, in at least one of those columns. The one thing you don’t want to do is take a lateral move voluntarily.

You’re much better off having a long-term relationship with your current show than making new relationships on new shows. Why? Three seasons from now, people from the first show aren’t going to remember you if you were only there for nine months. The will remember you if you were a fixture on the series for three years.

I’ve noticed readers who contact me about my resume service tend to focus too much on the people around them, and not on what they themselves did. They list the director and producers of the show, like they have any real association with those people.

Yes, you should use the name of the biggest company involved, but beyond that, I don’t really care who you worked with. If I’m looking to hire an associate producer, who’s resume do you think stands out more? Someone who’s been an AP on a shitty show, or someone who was a PA on a big show?

The first one, every time.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Always a good idea.
Posted in Finding a Job | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Let Me Get Back to You II

It’s the last week to buy your TAPA T-shirt! Wear it to the next TAPArty.

* * *

Last week, I wrote a post titled Let Me Get Back to You.

Reader Sam (an assistant production supervisor, so you should listen to him)1 wrote in–

From the title, I thought this article was going to be about the best practice of not explaining too much on the phone when someone offers you work, and you aren’t simply available.

What I mean is, when a POC calls and asks, “Can you work Saturday?,” you should never say “Well, I’ve got this concert, I’m going to, let me see if I can sell my ticket, or well, I don’t know, it’s an awesome concert… is this for just one day of work?”

Because you will sound like you don’t really want or need the job. It will sound like it’s not that great of an opportunity to you. Remember, you are a PA, and there are thousands of people in this town who would kill to get this call.

So what you do is you say, “Let me get back to you. I just need to make a call.” Don’t be specific. Let them assume whatever commitments you are rearranging are SUPER important. Then get off the phone, weigh the options, make the calls you need to make. Then call the coordinator back to say either “I’m available” or “I’m sorry, I’m not available. I really wish I was, I would love to work for you. Thank you so much for keeping me in mind!”

It’s an industry of workaholics who have missed a LOT of concerts/birthdays/soccer games/bar mitzvahs and who think if you really give a shit about your career, you will too. So don’t insult their lifestyle choices by letting them know work isn’t the most important thing to you. Even if it isn’t (and let’s be real, it shouldn’t be).

But just keep that shit to yourself.

I think Sam2 would agree when I say this advice applies well after you have taken the job. Don’t ask for the night off to go to a show, or take a whole day to go to Disneyland. No one else is doing that shit. Unless your parents died or you’re getting married, don’t take time off for personal stuff.

The exception is, of course, doctor appointments. Everyone knows you can’t go to the doctor on the weekend, so they’ll be understanding.

Now, if you schedule a doctor’s appointment on the same evening as that big concert, who’s going to know?

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Her? Sorry, Samantha!
  2. -uel? I’m confused.
Posted in Finding a Job, On the Job | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Next TAPA Networking Event – Free Drinks With TAPA!

You read that right, free drinks!

Gratafy is the app that lets you send drinks, dinner and more as gifts to your friends, from local bars and restaurants. Download it for free in the app store before or at the TAPA networking event, and they’ll send you your first drink! Check out this video to learn more, and watch them on KTLA.1

They’ll be there from 2:00pm until 4:00, so don’t be all LA and arrive at 5:30.

It’ll be on Sunday, September 21, starting at 2:00pm, as per usual. This time, we’re meeting at The Craftsman in Santa Monica.

This will be right in the middle of happy hour, too, so there’s plenty of deals.

 Here’s a link to the Facebook event page. Invite your friends!

It was this or an Xzbit meme.

It’s at 2:00pm, but yes.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Yeah, this is the boilerplate they gave me. Still, free drink!
Posted in TAPA Meetup, The Industry | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Stunt Rigger Joe Ross

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Today’s guest is a stunt rigger, and also a co-owner of Action Factory Stunts.

Joe Ross started out as a stunt man at stunt shows (what he calls “Blade Runner meets Cirque Du Soleil,” which is definitely a show I want to see). Now, as part-owner of Action Factory, he coordinates and rigs stunts.

Joe also tells us about their amazing fire gel. This is one of those specialized tools that I knew nothing about, but Joe and his team have made even better in the last few years.

The producer of today’s episode was Chris Henry, who also wrote the theme.

If you like the show, please rate and review us on iTunes. You can also subscribe via Stitcher, or with the Crew Call xml feed. Back episodes of Crew Call can be found on the Anonymous Production Assistant website.

To help support Crew Call, simply click on the Amazon banner before you go shopping.

Posted in Crew Call, Podcast | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Let Me Get Back To You

There’s certain key phrases every PA should know: “Yes.” (Except when the answer is No.) “It won’t happen again.” “It’s Thursday. Yes, payroll checks are coming today.”

Here’s another one to add to your quiver: “I’ll look into that.”

Just like your boss doesn’t want to hear your excuse/reason1 for screwing up, she also doesn’t want to hear “I don’t know.” She wants an answer to whatever her question is.

Of course, become you’re not an omniscient being, there are going to be times when you don’t know the answer. But so what?

Do something about it. You hold the entirety of human knowledge in your hand.

Wikipedia trivia: if you take any article, click on the first link in the article text not in parentheses or italics, and then repeat, you will eventually end up at

Kids these days. Amiright?

By saying, “Let me research that” or “I’ll find that out for you,” you are absolutely implying that you don’t know the answer. But the point is, you’re going to actively resolve that issue, hopefully as quickly as possible.

The problem with saying, “I don’t know” is that you’re adding an extra step. The one and only response you’ll get is, “Then go find out.” Just skip ahead to doing what she’s going to ask you to do, anyway.

I hate the word “proactive,” but it actually applies here. This is an opportunity to show the coordinator or 1st AD that you’re always ahead of them, always ready to solve any problem.

You’re taking a negative (not knowing the answer to a question) and turning it into a positive (being the kind of PA who springs into action immediately).

* * *

Have you seen the cool, new TAPA t-shirts? You should totally get one.

Teespring is pretty awesome.

Comes in a range of colors, too!

 * * *

If you haven’t been reading the Hollywood Juicer, you really should.

Learning to Work” relates to the topic above. It’s all about those crucial early years in the business.

And, sadly, “Enough is Enough” is about yet another tragedy caused by the long hours television series submit us to.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Exceason?
Posted in On the Job | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Don’t Move!

This is a long post. Before you read it, check out the funny production assistant t-shirt I’m selling. It’s pretty great.

* * *

I have a hard time getting into the Emmys. Unlike, say, the Oscars, there are way too many nominees for me to have seen everything worth seeing, and to therefore have an informed opinion on who should or shouldn’t win.

I mean, I loved Peter Dinklage’s speech in the courtroom in Game of Thrones, and Aaron Paul did amazing things while saying almost nothing in the last season of Breaking Bad, but I’ve never seen a single episode of Ray Donovan. Maybe Jon Voight was better than both of them. Who knows?

Instead, I mostly watch in the hopes that the presenters will land a few good jokes, and to watch the pretty, pretty dresses. Sometimes both at the same time.

Also, can you imagine doing that in heels? She should get an extra Emmy just for that.

I get the joke they were going for, but still… this was awkward.

And, occasionally, I see someone I know win an Emmy. And by “know,” I mean “worked on the same show at the same time as her.” Gail Mancuso is one of those great TV directors I love.

But I’m a little disappointed that she won for a single camera show, rather than for her multicamera work. I honestly believe that multicamera is where real directing happens in television.

Settle in, this is going to be a long essay before I get back around to this point.1

Fifty years or so ago, some French dudes decided that the director is the author of the film. (I’m summarizing here.)

Before this, the director had two main jobs– choosing the shots, and staging the actors. Everything else was left up to the department head to decide. We actually trusted that, for instance, the costume designer would know what the appropriate costume would be, based on the scene, the character, the setting, and so on.

You could argue that choosing the shots would fall under the purview of the DP or camera operator, but their main goal is to create the best version of a given shot. The director has to make sure that all of the pieces are available for the editor to assemble later.

Once upon a time, movie directors had very little to do with editing. The producers and editors did all of that, while the director was on set on the next film coming down the studio pipeline. (Kinda like TV, now.)

Along with choosing the shots, the director dealt with the actors. Because actors are the only people on set who can’t observe their own work. They need someone to tell them if what they’re doing is good or bad.

More importantly, they need someone to give them context. Actors should live in the moment. They shouldn’t be worrying about where the lights are, or where they are in relation to the  rest of the cast from the perspective of the camera. Even the best actors in the world needs to be told, “Cheat a little to the left, so the camera can see your face better.”

But now that the director is the “auteur,” it logically follows that the author should be involved in every aspect of the film. Instead of just letting the prop master create the best business card for the character, the director insists on seeing samples first.

Does anyone really believe the movie will be improved by adding this layer of approval?

More gallingly, the director now believes he has made the decision on the correct prop (or costume or car or location). The fact is, the prop master still did all of the work. The director chooses from among three or five options. That’s no more “creative vision” than an SAT test.

I don’t deny that there are polymath directors out there who do really do the creative work. Steven Soderbergh acts as his own cinematographer; Kevin Smith edits all of his movies. By all accounts, Ridley Scott designs his films, much to the chagrin of his actual production designers.

But most directors just choose from among the options that others have created. As my predecessor said years ago:

Telling someone to do something is not the same as actually doing it.  If you’re going to conflate managing with creating, why stop at the director or producer?  What about the production executive who oversees the production and tells the director to make it edgier?  Or the studio head who greenlit the movie in the first place?  Or the CEO of the entertainment conglomerate who hired the studio head?

We’re now in a place where the director is considered the author of the film, so everyone does what she says, even if the film suffers for it.

At least that’s not the case in TV, right? There, the writer is king! Who cares about the director?

Not so fast. Even though we don’t consider the director to be the author, the directors still have their fingers in every pie of a given episode. When you work in a production office, you’ll see the prepping director (and her AD) go in and out of dozens of meetings over the course of a week– props, costumes, locations, make-up, visual effects, special effects, on and on and on.

What is the director not thinking about while all of this is happening? Shots and staging. Instead of creative angles and inventive blocking, we end up with is a bunch of tight singles of actors standing in place, reciting their lines.

Here’s a long quote from my favorite film theorist, David Bordwell (he’s talking about movies, but I think it’s doubly true of TV):

Breaking the scene up so much has interesting rhythmic implications. Paradoxically, our movies are cut very fast but they feel rather slow (and run very long). When we need a cut to see a character’s reaction, a scene plays out more slowly than if the characters were held in the same frame for a significant period. Then we might see one character’s reactions while the other is speaking, rather than having to wait for them afterward.

But my main point is that the actors are planted in one spot. [Directors] have felt no need to imagine the characters’ interaction through blocking. Indeed, when shooting a conversation, most of today’s filmmakers seem happiest if the actors stay riveted in place—standing, seated, riding in a car, typing at a computer terminal. Improvised cinema or storyboard cinema: Both camps are refusing the challenge of staging.

In some books and some web entries (most recently, here and here and here and here), I’ve tried to trace the rich tradition of ensemble staging. From almost the start of cinema, filmmakers have explored creative ways of moving actors around the set, aiming at both engaging storytelling and pictorial impact. Since the 1960s,2 on the whole, this tradition has been waning. Now, I fear, it has nearly disappeared.

It’s one of those things that once you see it, you can’t un-see it. From big budget action flicks to micro-budget dramadies, almost every scene is shot the same way– wide shot, two shot, close-up, close-up. This is what Tony Zhou called “lightly edited improv” in that Edgar Wright video that went viral a few months ago:

Honestly, this is why I say TV directors don’t matter. Any kid in film school can get basic coverage and obey the 180 degree rule. The department heads don’t need the director’s opinion, which is at best a lateral move from their idea, and at worst, more expensive, more time consuming, and less practical.

The director adds nothing in television…

Except in multicam.3

Multicamera sitcoms are shot like plays. Why does this matter? If you’ve been to the theater lately, and given any thought to staging, you’ll understand just how hard directing a play must be.

You get one angle– the front of the stage; you get one shot– the proscenium. Now, move the actors around for two to three hours in a way that’s visually interesting, conveys the story, and is consistent with the characters.

Hats off to stage directors.

Multi-camera directors get four set-ups at any one time,4 and the frame is whatever the hell the director and camera coordinator like. But still, there is a limit as to where they can place the camera. And just as importantly, the show must be entertaining for the live studio audience.

Because of the limited camera options, lighting is also less time consuming than on single-camera shows. Most sets have a “day” look and a “night” look, which are set from the pilot (or first regular-season episode). Minor adjustments have to be made every day, and there are swing sets every episode, but for the most part, the grips and electrics aren’t starting from scratch every single scene like they are on single camera shows.

This gives the director and actors (and writers and producers) time to actually rehearse the show. Over the course of a week, they’ll stage and re-stage every scene at least once a day; sometimes many, many more times than that. The director and actors regularly come up with new ways to move about the set, interact with each other, and generally act within the space.

Seriously, go back and watch The Dick Van Dyke Show. No one ever just stands still for an entire scene. People are always crossing from one side of the room to the other, getting in each others’ faces, pulling apart, and so on.

I had the privilege of watching Gail Mancuso direct a few episodes on the first show I ever worked on. She’s very funny, and helped the actors find the absolute best way to deliver their jokes on camera.

But she also helped them figure out how to exist in the space. Gail was never satisfied with a character just sitting on the couch while another talked at her. There was always funny business going on, and motion, and acting.

Gail is great, and totally deserves her Emmy for Modern Family. But I think she really shines as a multicamera director.

I hope you, too, can appreciate this dying art.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Or rant.
  2. Right around the time auteur theory started to have an impact on American cinema. Hmmm…
  3. I told you I’d bring it back.
  4. We still call them three-camera shows, for… reasons.
Posted in The Industry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments