Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Your First Day on Set

Below is a reprint of a guest post I wrote for the Work in Entertainment blog. If you’ve never worked on set, you should give it a read. It covers everything: where to go, who to talk to, what you’re going to eat.1

And if you haven’t heard of Work in Entertainment, you should definitely check them out. They list all kinds of jobs, not just in production, but for studios and production companies. All over the country, too! They’re quite a resource, if your show just finished its season.

When you work in film and television, you have a lot of first days. You might work on three or four movies in a year, with totally different crews. Television shows are canceled all the time, and you’re constantly finding new series.

As daunting as the first day on a new series or movie might be, they’re nothing compared to your first day on anything. Not only do you not know who anybody is, you probably don’t even know what they do.

So, if you’re fresh out of film school, or just decided one day that you like the idea of getting paid next to nothing to work 60 hours a week with no job security in a business that’s teetering on the edge of collapse, then here’s what you can expect on your first day.

I’m going to assume you’re a set PA. There are other kinds of PAs, but set PA is the most common place to start.

Unless something screwy is going on, crew call will probably be at 7:00am. Your call will likely be anywhere between a half hour and three hours earlier than that. And you should arrive fifteen minutes before that. If you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late. Plan your sleep schedule accordingly.

Dress appropriately. This means: comfortable, close-toed shoes; shorts or jeans, but definitely not a skirt; a comfortable shirt; an extra layer that you can remove without showing off the goods; jacket/coat/gloves, if that’s the kind of weather you’re in; a hat. Not just a warm hat in cold weather; if it’s hot, you’re going to be on your feet and standing in the sun. You need a big, floppy hat that will keep you from passing out from heat stroke.

The night before, you should’ve receive a call sheet that includes the addresses for the set (or sets), crew parking, and basecamp. What’s “basecamp?” Hang on, Ms. or Mr. Antsy Questions, I’ll get there in a second.

You should obviously park your car at crew parking. Don’t go to any of the other addresses; there’s only enough parking for the people who have to be there. If you’re lucky, crew parking and basecamp are in the same place. If not, you’ll have to hop in a shuttle van that will take you there. (This is one of the many reasons you should be early.)

Basecamp is the gathering of trucks and trailers that are unlikely to move for the entire day– cast trailers; hair, make-up, costume trailers; the AD trailer; and the transportation trailer, ironically. The grip, electric, camera, props, crafty, and special effects trailers are, hopefully, closer to set.

Also likely at basecamp: catering! (Side note: catering is not crafty, and crafty is not catering. Catering = meals; craft services = snacks. Remember that.)

Don’t go there first, as tempting as breakfast burritos and greasy potatoes might smell. Head directly to the AD trailer. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. (Unless you’re on a commercial; then you might actually get $200 for the day.)

Report to the second AD; the first is much to busy for the likes of you. If you haven’t met yet, introduce yourself politely, then ask if she needs anything. Since you’re early, she probably doesn’t, and will send you to get breakfast.

Now you can go get breakfast.

As a new PA, you’re going to get the shit jobs. Sorry. One of the most common is “locking up.” This means preventing people (both civilians and crew) from entering areas where they might be seen by the camera. If possible, you should offer an alternate route for passers-by.

Locking up also involves a lot of shushing. A shocking number of people don’t take the words “Quiet on set!” as seriously as they should.

Another task you’ll likely be assigned is walking the actors from their trailers (or the vans) to set. I’m not just talking about location shoots, either. I worked on one show for two seasons, and in that time, the lead actress never learned how to navigate the office where her character worked. She was on that set 12 hours a day, four or five days an episode, for 44 episodes.

So, yeah, don’t expect the actors to know how to navigate their own sets.

Other than that, you need to be ready to do… just about anything. You’re a production assistant; you’re there to assist the production.

The director wants coffee? Run back to crafty and fill up a cup. The grips need time cards? Pick up a stack from the AD trailer. The star needs a hooker and an eightball? Well, sometimes you gotta say no.

You also have to know your limits>. On any show, but especially a union show, you should not touch other departments’ equipment. Don’t fold up C-stands; don’t unplug lights; and for the love of God and all that is holy, absolutely do not even think about even looking at the lens cases.

If someone asks you to lend a hand, by all means, lend it. But don’t take it upon yourself to do someone else’s job. You don’t know how. Best case scenario: you’ll screw up their system. Worst case: you’ll hurt someone, including, but not limited to, yourself.

After six hours of running around, the AD will call lunch. You can’t relax exactly, but you can take a breath. Grab your food from catering, have a seat, chew slowly. But keep the walkie headset in your ear. Someone might need you.

Lunch will be over before you know it, and then you’ll have another six hours of work. Or seven. Or eight. Basically, until someone up the food chain tells you to go home.

This is, perhaps surprisingly, the most dangerous time of your day. It’s late, you’re tired, all you want to do is get some shut eye. But you need to focus on the road. Driving tired can be just as dangerous as driving drunk (i.e. super dangerous). Don’t feel bad about grabbing a coffee or soda for the road. A little caffeine won’t hurt you; or at least, not worse than driving off the road into a ditch.

Once you get home, it’s time to feed the cat, take a quick shower to rinse off the grime you’ve accumulated on set, and then hit the sack, dreaming of the magical dream factory you now call work.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. Basecamp; the 2nd AD; lots.
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