Recharge Your Batteries

I’m always looking for new ways to be useful on set. Anticipating the needs of the cast and crew is the best way to keep your job, and get hired in the future.

So, when a fellow PA suggested I keep a portable phone charger in your ditty, I thought to myself: “Duh! Why didn’t you think of that before?”

If you’re on stage, there’s probably a million places to plug in your phone, except… you’re on set. You shouldn’t be using your phone. You can probably plug your phone in at the AD trailer, but that limits your mobility, which is kind of the point of a cell phone. I can think of at least a dozen times when my phone was out of juice, and I was nowhere near a place that I could charge it.

An office PA might have less use for a portable charger… unless she’s on a run, when you’re expected to be using your phone all the time. A cigarette lighter adapter can be useful if your car doesn’t come with a USB plug, but you might find yourself in a circumstance where your car shouldn’t be running.

Those are all reasons a portable phone charger would be useful to you. But that’s not the point. The point is to make yourself useful to others. When the producer’s phone dies, and you’re the one with the immediate solution, he will remember your name.1

Turns out, there are a lot of different external battery packs. So, I did a little research, and I’m passing it on to you, dear TAPA reader.

The two numbers to pay attention to are the capacity (measured in mAh) and the output (measured in A, so that’s not confusing at all).

It seems to take about 2,000-3,000mAh to charge an average cell phone. That’s why I’d recommend something in the 10,000mAh range; remember, you’re not going to charge just your phone. (On this same subject, it’s handy to get a charger with more than one USB outlet.)

For the output, you absolutely want a battery pack that is at least 2.0A, per outlet. This (basically) measures how fast it will charge your phone. 1.0A is common, but is slow as molasses. The price difference is negligible, but the speed difference is noticeable.

(Don’t worry about getting a pack with too high of an output. Smart phones have a way of regulating that, so they don’t explode.)

One of the best deals I found was this 11,000 mAh USB battery charger, because it also comes with a bunch of cords and adapters for most any kind of phone. Again, you may have an iPhone, but the lead actor might have an Android.

Personally, I bought this 10000mAh charger, because it also has a solar panel. Solar panels charge incredibly slowly, it’s true. I go hiking a lot, and in an emergency, it will still power your phone (and its GPS, hopefully).

If you’ve found a better portable charger, let me know in the comments.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. For at least a week.
Posted in On the Job | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Sometimes, You’re Wrong

A couple months ago, I wrote a post about giving yourself extra time to complete tasks:

Whenever you’re given something to do, you need to factor in “shit happens.” If you think you can get something done in five minutes, say it’ll take ten. If you think it’ll take an hour to get across town, say an hour and a half.

A.J. (of Hills Are Burning fame) recently commented:

One caveat to the “shit happens” buffer is if you’re a best boy and are asked how long it’ll take you to wrap out for the night if they’re worried about turnaround or permit times. If you say an hour and a half and end up being tail lights an hour later, sometimes they get pissed because they “could’ve had time for one more shot.”

Every department probably has some variation on this. For an office PA, it’s the question of when to pick up lunch. Order too early, and it’s cold by the time lunch rolls around; too late, everyone resorts to cannibalism, and you return to an production office that resembles 28 Days Later.

I love this movie, but a "rage virus" is kinda dumb.

I ordered my burger animal style. Did you get it animal style?

This is, unfortunately, a hazard of living in a universe where time moves in one direction. You can’t reliably, unerringly predict the future.

And sometimes this means that, when you try to give yourself a little wiggle room, you might give yourself too much wiggle room. As AJ pointed out, the higher-ups will be upset by this, even though, really, you made a sound, measured decision.

In a way, I empathize with the hypothetical producer in AJ’s example. She doesn’t care about process; she cares about results. And the result was a spare half hour that could’ve been used to improve the show.

There’s no real advice to be had here. Even with years of experience, you’ll miscalculate like AJ or I (hypothetically) did. The only option is to accept that you are a fallible human, and that, sadly, doesn’t count for much in the producers’ eyes.

You’ll just have to take the chastisement, and promise to not make the same mistake again.

Posted in On the Job | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Personal Lighting

Germainicorn1 replied to the PA shopping list I created–

This a great point, and I wish I had mentioned it earlier. Obviously, a headlamp would be useful if you’re lugging around a big crate or cooler. Probably more often, you’ll use it when doing paperwork outside of your trailer at base camp.

The electricians will generally have work lights set up at night, but you’re not the only person they’re trying to light up. It’s more important that the lead actor can see the label on the coffee maker than you can read the extras’ skins. (Also, the extras in question may, inadvertantly, be standing in the way of the light.) A headlamp will ensure you can read every tiny word on the page.

Still, for PAs, I actually recommend getting both a headlamp and a flashlight. For one, I just don’t like wearing anything on my head unless I have to. It’s uncomfortable.

Just as importantly, the light isn’t necessarily for you. Sometimes, you need to point something out in the distance to someone, in which case a flashlight that can be focused will come in handy. Sometimes, it’ll be your job to direct people through the dark, like when you’re on location in a rural or wilderness area.

What kind of flashlight do you recommend?

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Awesome name.
Posted in On the Job | Tagged | 1 Comment

The First Time You Get Paid For It

Lauren writes in:

How many things/what sort of things did you have on your resume when you started applying for PA jobs?

PAing my be the bottom rung of the ladder, but unless you know somebody, your first day on set will not be paid.

Before I ever applied for a real PA job, I worked on at least a dozen student films. Through work study, I had experience managing the school’s sound stages, maintaining equipment, and covering the front desk. I also interned every summer for three years.

Even with all of that, I couldn’t get a paid job. I PA’ed for free on three independent movies. They were not very good movies, but I learned a quite a bit that film school never taught me, and I made lots of friends.

Guess who got me my first paid gig?

As usual, everyone’s story is different. I know a guy who somehow landed a producer’s assistant job right out of college. The producer’s company shot five movies during his tenure there; he asked to work on set for each one. When he left the company to become a set PA, he didn’t put “Assistant to Big Shot Producer”; he added five set PA credits.

He’s a 2nd AD now.

My general rule of thumb is, at least half of your resume should be film and television credits. Early on, many of those will be student films; that probably means you’ll get unpaid gigs. Do enough of those, and eventually someone will pay you.

Posted in Finding a Job | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Names Are Important

Did you catch the mistake in the tweet I responded to yesterday? No? Here it is again:

Who the hell is Jerry Bruckenheimer?

His name is Jerry Bruckheimer.

Not pictured: Jerry Bruckenheimer.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t notice the misspelling at first. It’s easy to miss, since it’s almost correct. But I promise, someone at Bruckheimer Films sure would spot it right away.

I grant you, a name shouldn’t be important. It’s just a word that signifies the person, but it’s not the person himself. CJ clearly meant the powerful and talented Hollywood producer pictured above.

That doesn’t matter. People assign talismanic value to their names. You can remember everything about a person, their physicality, their whole life story, but if you forget their name, they’re insulted.

Spelling their name wrong is almost as bad.   It’s especially bad if their name is easily Google-able.

Not to pick on CJ, but copy/paste is your friend.

The issue isn’t so much lack of knowledge, but over confidence in your knowledge. As David Mitchell1 puts it in one of his soapbox videos

Is this terrible, snobbish discrimination against people who just don’t happen to be good spellers? Well, no, I don’t think so. If you’re a bad speller, surely everything you send should be spelled2 perfectly, because, without the arrogant assumption you don’t need to look things up, you’d look everything up.

I’ve been your friendly neighborhood TAPA for a couple years, now, and I still double-check “ananymous” every now and again.

Don’t be too confident in your spelling, especially with names. Even a simple name like “Price” might be spelled “Pryce.”  And if you misspell Jonathan Pryce’s name on the cast list, you’re going to catch hell from the producer.

Not because he read the cast list, mind you, but because Pryce’s agent will, and he’ll call the producer to complain. The producer has better things to do than check your spelling.

Which is why you should do it, first.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. I had to check whether his name was spelled with one L or two.
  2. I refuse to write “spelt,” which I’m sure is what Mitchell said. My ancestors fought and died in the Revolutionary War so I wouldn’t have to end a past-tense word with “t.”
Posted in The Industry | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

There’s No One Way to Make It

C.J. tweeted at me:

Film school is a topic that comes up often on this blog. There are some good reasons to go to film school,1 but a degree isn’t one of them. As the OG TAPA put it:

Being a filmmaker, from the biggest producer to the lowliest PA, is not like being a doctor or engineer.  If we screw up, nobody dies.2  You’ll just end up with a bad movie or TV show.

Because of this, there’s no need for a film board or cinematic bar association that certifies you as a filmmaker.

There is, unfortunately, no clear path to becoming a producer. I often refer to PAing as the bottom rung on the Hollywood ladder, but really, it’s the first step on a long, winding hike that could lead to a tangle of brambles or a beautiful vista.

Because I like looking down on people.

My current favorite spot in L.A.

The only sure-fire way to become a writer, director, producer, or actor, to get above-the-line, in other words, is to just do it. The trick is, getting someone to pay you for it.

This involves not just creating a quality project, but getting people to actually see it. That’s where networking comes in. Networking can begin in film school, it’s true; but it can also happen on set, at film festivals, or just any random coffee shop or bar in L.A.

The truth is, you never know. You need to recognize that there’s really no advice I, or anyone else, can really give you about how to reach your career goal. There’s too many factors. Film school might help you; it might not. Whatever your situation, don’t worry about it. Just keep plugging away.

Eventually, if you’re talented, hard-working, friendly, and a little lucky, you’ll probably make it as a producer. Maybe.

I hope.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Click on any of the preceding links to read them.
  2. Nobody dies on a responsible set, anyway. There are dangers, and dangerous people, in this business.
Posted in The Industry | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

One Subject Per Email

The One Subject Email

You probably noticed people are busy. Like, all the time. Even when they have a moment to relax, they’ll probably spend that moment whipping out their cell phone and checking Reddit.

I’m not criticizing or praising this trend. It’s simply the way life is now.

You need to deal with this fact when you send out emails, especially ones from which you need a reply. A long, rambling email isn’t going to read well on a tiny screen. And, just as important, Instagram is just a click away.

But worse than a long email is a long email about seven different things. No one is going to process all of that, because again, they’re busy, and you’re boring.1

If you send the UPM a provisional crew list for approval and tell him where his new parking spot is and ask what he wants for lunch, you’ll be lucky if he tells you the ham sandwich belongs in the electrical department.

Break your emails up. Each email should be about one thing, and one thing only. Tighten that information up as much as humanly possible, to ensure the recipient reads the whole thing.2 If at all possible, ask only one question.

Also, for the love of God, write a clear subject line.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. I don’t mean you you; I mean, work emails in general.
  2. Pro tip: If the email fills the window on your desktop browser, it’s too long.
Posted in On the Job | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

How To Randomize A Crowd

Most of the time, you’re not going to deal with more than a handful of extras in any one scene. That’s because extras are people, too, and people cost a lot of money.

Still, every once in a while, you’ll get a crowd scene. The problem with a crowd of extras is that, at a certain point, they stop being individuals and become a single mass of humanity. From the extras’ PA position, it can become really easy to be a jerk.

Don’t do that.

But that’s not what this post is about, anyway. Most likely, the director isn’t going to want them to act like a single, uniform mass. You’ll be instructed to break your extras up into groups, so they can be given separate directions (this section cheers, that section boos, whatever).

Your first thought might be to just walk into extras’ holding and split the room up by where they happen to be sitting. “This half of the room is Group A, this half is Group B,” or something like that.

There’s a couple problems with this. First, in any group of fifty people, at least five of them will forget what group they’re supposed to be in. If you have a lot of extras, that’s quite a few idiots asking you what they should be doing.

Plus, this division won’t be truly arbitrary. People like to sit next to their friends, and so you’re likely to create groups that look and act alike. This is probably not what you want.

There’s a better method– divide the extras by their birth months.

There are twelve months in a year, and the fun thing about the number twelve is,1 it’s divisible by 2, 3, 4, and 6. That covers most of the ways a director might want to divide her crowd.

Just as importantly, everybody remembers what month they were born. When the AD calls over a megaphone, “Everyone born in January, February, or March, stand up,” (approximately) a quarter of the people will stand.

Birth months are also useful when you need a reaction to build. For instance, maybe the hero gives a rousing speech in front of a theater. After a moment of stunned silence, the villain begins slowly clapping. Then a few people join in. Then a few more, and a few more, until the whole room erupts in applause.

Again, the number twelve comes in handy. First, cue everyone born in January…

Then, everyone born in February and March…

After that, April, May, and June…

Finally, everyone applauds…

This is only useful if you have a fairly big crowd; say, over 50. If you have only 20 extras, by mere coincidence, you might get five or six people born in the same month.2

Bonus! If the AD hasn’t already thought of this (even though it is fairly common), you’ll get brownie points for being clever and organized.

* * *

Hey, did you know it’s Prime Day? Amazon has exclusive deals for Prime Members. By clicking that link, you also support TAPA, with no cost to you.

Don’t have Amazon Prime? Try it out for free for 30 days.There’s also Amazon Student, if you’re in college, and Amazon Mom if you’re expecting.

Okay, that’s enough of a plug. Go out there and wrangle extras!

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Yes, I’m a big enough nerd that I think some numbers are “fun.”
  2. Strangely, if you have 23 extras, odds are better than even that at least two people will share a birthday.
Posted in On the Job | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Did You Do Wrong?

Not even a week into the new season, and there’s already drama behind-the-scenes on my show. Sigh.

Does this remind anyone else of Hexadecimal from ReBoot?

Mainly the left one.

I was hanging out in the wardrobe cage, as I am often wont to do. Partially it’s because wardrobe is a department I know next-to-nothing about, and partially because I’m fascinated by the sheer number of outfits required for a TV series. Why is it that characters never wear the same outfit twice, unless it’s specifically commented on? How come no one has a favorite skirt or something?1


Our lead actress is kind of a diva,2 and she was unhappy with the choices the wardrobe shoppers had brought her. She was very vocal about her unhappiness. I could hear her outside as I rolled up in the golf cart. I offered her a ride back to her car (on the other side of the lot), but she just stormed off in a huff.

I poked my head in the wardrobe cage,3 and overheard the costume designer talking with the two shoppers, who had apparently been on the run together. In contrast with the actress, the CD is a calm, philosophical-type (another reason I prefer talking with her, instead of my rather yell-y boss). “What do you think you did wrong?”

The younger of the shoppers defensively replied: “I said [actress] didn’t like capri pants! [Other Shopper] said she did!”

“So, what can you do to avoid this in the future?”

“I guess I won’t fucking listen to [Other Shopper].”

Bickering ensued, until the designer finally calmed them down and sent them out on another errand. Then she saw me with my envelope of paperwork and waved me in. “Did you hear all that?”

“Yeah,” I admitted. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. Did you notice something about [shopper]’s answer?”

I handed over the paperwork and shrugged. This is a good lesson for readers– the costume designer clearly wanted to impart some wisdom on me, and guessing what she was getting at would only interrupt her flow. Two eyes, two ears, one mouth; use accordingly.

She continued: “She said her problem was, she was right. And someone else was wrong. There’s no lesson to be learned from that. She can’t change her behavior based on that.”

“So what did she do wrong?”

“What do you think?”

I thought. “She didn’t buy an alternative style?”

Love this movie. Never understood why the title was misspelled, though.

You just say, “Bingo.”

“But how’s that different than saying she’ll ignore [other shopper]?”

“Because what happens when she’s wrong, next time? She’ll ignore [other shopper], and we’ll once again not have enough options. You need to reflect on what you can do, not on what others should have done.”

This is good advice, I think, for everyone reading. Don’t dwell on mistakes; don’t feel guilty or kick yourself. But try to learn from them. Assume that everything that went wrong will go wrong again. What will you do differently?

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. On the other hand, would you even notice if they did wear the same outfits throughout the season?
  2. Although she does bring eyeballs to the screen, so in the final cost/benefit analysis, I’m happy to put up with her nonsense if it means another couple seasons on the air.
  3. In case you were wondering, I did have a legitimate purpose for being there– almost every person in the department had done their start work wrong, and I was tasked with getting it corrected.
Posted in On the Job | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Do Foreigners Have To Start Over?

Raúl writes in:

I’m an immigrant with a background in film production (TV Commercials). I worked in the films department of a leading advertizing agency for five years before going on to become a producer for a TV Commercial production company.

So here I am in Los Angeles, looking for jobs. My question to you is: should I be looking for / applying to entry level jobs or can I hope for something better – the kind of job that would take my previous work experience into account?

I don’t mean to skip any rungs on the ladder here. I just want to know where I might stand in terms of job prospects. What should my expectations be?

I don’t see why this would be any different than moving from New York or Atlanta. Every region has their own idiosyncrasies, to be sure, but honestly, every set does, too.

Were I in your position, I wouldn’t necessarily play up the fact that all my experience was outside of the US. That might give some potential employers pause. But it’s safe to say you probably have skills most other candidates don’t have, like speaking a second language.

Everyone has to start at the bottom,1 but Raúl already has. He’s paid his dues. As long as you present yourself in the best possible light, there’s no reason to pay them again.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Well, almost everyone. Sigh.
Posted in On the Job, The Industry | Leave a comment