Beggars Can’t Be Choosers

Kevin writes:

Hi TAPA! I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, but it has recently taken on more importance in my life.

I live right outside NYC and am trying to get jobs as a PA on some film or TV sets. While at college, I was focusing on Production Design and art department. Now, my question for you is when sending my cover letter and resume to production companies, should I apply as a general set PA or should I apply as an Art Department PA?

Ultimately, I would like to spend the rest of my working life in the art department, but I know that I may have to get there through different channels. So what do you think I should do?

I get this sort of question all the time. The fact is, at your age, you should take any job that’s offered.

First of all, you’re 22. You don’t know anything. The sooner you understand that, the sooner you’ll start learning something.

You think you want to spend the rest of your life in the art department. It’s good to have goals, and that’s as fine a goal as any to have. But keep yourself open-minded. You might land a job at a post facility or a camera shop or a God knows what, only to discover your true calling.

Or, you might hate it, and re-affirm your belief that the art department is for you. That’s great, too. At least you’ll know. It’s the same philosophy behind dating around before you settle down to get married. You don’t want to be 40 and have a lingering doubt that you could’ve had something better.

Secondly, you’re 22. What makes you think you’ll have a choice in what job you’ll get? You’re not qualified for anything. You need a job, and the best way to get one is to apply for every single one you see. Take the first non-porn shoot you get.

Also, keep in mind, you’re 22. You can do whatever you want, with little-to-no consequences. Don’t worry so much about your long-term career at this stage. Just get out there, meet new people, have new experiences, all that graduation speech bullshit. In the end, you’ll land where your talents and tastes work best together.

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4 Responses

  1. I got into the business as an Art Department PA. I was able to do that because I had experience working in a gallery/arts nonprofit as well as a museum bookshop during college. Because of that, I had a lot of skills that are specifically valuable in an Art PA. I would DEFINITELY try to leverage this sort of thing into a gig if you can.

    However, it’s true that beggars can’t be choosers. There will be at least 3 full time staff set PAs and probably another 3 full time staff office PAs on any job (not to mention day players, “everyday additionals”, etc). There will be one Art Department PA.

    Your best bet is probably to get any job you can, and then, when the time is right, go introduce yourself to the art department. Tell the Art Department Coordinator what your background is and that you’re interested in working in Art. Give her your resume. There’s a strong chance that this will be your in as an Art Dept PA, because it’s a pretty specific skill set and not really in that much demand. (It’s not like finding a writer’s PA or camera PA job, for instance).

    Key skills to highlight:

    – Experience doing research. This can be sourcing props, tracking down reference materials, clearances (i.e. the ability to figure out how to get in touch with Corporate or Marketing at pretty much any company), anything like that.

    – Hands on art skills like using a rotary trimmer, exacto knife skills, assembling presentations, using a plot printer, etc. Rudimentary graphic design and digital art skills are also not a bad thing to mention.

    – Support skills. Can they send you to an art supply store with a list and expect that you’ll come back with all the right items? How are you with accounting paperwork? Are you fast and thorough when it comes to running obscure errands? Like the production office, basic office skills like phones, the copier, lunch orders, etc. are very helpful. You will spend a lot more time going on runs and writing up petty cash envelopes than you will spend dealing with anything actually artistic.

  2. This is great advice, and should be required reading for all film school students. The hardest thing for a new film school grad trying to get started in the industry is to just calm down. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a career in film/television, so don’t panic or fall into the swamp of despair when you can’t land your dream job — or any paying job — for a few months. There are very few overnight-success stories in Hollywood, where a sustained effort over time is usually required to get anywhere. Take what you can get, then learn and move on to the next gig. Eventually — often without realizing it — you will find your place in the industry.

    And if for whatever reason you don’t or can’t find that niche, take it as a sign you were meant for something else. Not everybody is cut out for this life, and there’s no shame in that.

  3. You’re right on this TAPA. And the more he learns about production in general, the better off he will be. A production designer/art director has to know a bit about camera lenses; how much of the set is covered if a 50mm lens is covered vs a 85mm, and also have an idea about how wide a door frame has to be so that the dolly and can fit through on a tv show. Learning a bit about camera/ lighting and costume design helps; they’re your team. Production design/ art direction on bigger budget movies is incredibly different compared to college art direction/ production design which tends to be a lot more like set dressing; on bigger budget stuff, you have to understand how to work with things like vfx and green screens and how to help those people on your team, too. Heck, now they’re even doing things like 3D scanning and printing as part of the fabrication process; betcha that wasn’t covered in college!
    If anything, he could attach himself as an assistant to a set designer/ art director/production designer or look into the ADG Apprenticeship program (that started this year) in LA, but the truth is that even in a production shop (whether it’s miniatures, vfx, construction) you typically have to start from the ground up to understand things like construction and the pipeline, regardless of where you studied, and even then he may discover he is better suited to something else.

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