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Being a Production Assistant

Through my mentorship program, I had the opportunity to work on a video shoot as a Production Assistant. It was my second shoot but the first where I played an actual role (versus just observing). In addition to running and assisting with equipment, I also functioned as the Boom Operator. Like many of you out there working to get your foot in the film industry, you may have read about being a Production Assistant being the key to ground floor entry. A half dozen articles may help give you an idea of what to expect but there were still a lot of things that only in the doing did I truly understand.

Tools of the trade

Everyone knows that there's a lot of equipment in use to make a film. There's even a ton of tools that are used to help get the job done. Do you know what everything is? If you do – chances are you've been doing this for a while. This may sound dumb but my big moment involved gaff tape.

What is gaff tape (aka gaffers tape)? It is the tape used to… tape stuff together. Like, yeah, I knew that. But then when I was asked to get some for actual use I froze. What makes gaff tape different from any other type of tape? There's more than one roll of tape in here! Which is the right one?!

I panic easily but by running with it and just acting like I knew what I was doing, by being confident in my decisions, I learned quickly which roll was the proper one to grab and some of the various applications it can be used for. Now on my next shoot, I'll know instinctively what to do with gaff tape and how to use it to my advantage. More than just a specific job, this can be a common Production Assistant task.

On-Location Video Crew in Northern Minnesota Bean Field

Lightweight vs weight

I've seen documentaries that show the Boom Operator. They hold the boom with a microphone at the end and follow the subject to record the needed sound. Easy.

Being on-location in Northern Minnesota on a bean farm, we had just a small camera crew. I was able to jump in and learn how to hold the boom pole for audio. It was my first time with a retractable lightweight carbon-fiber boom pole. I got this. I'm no spring chicken and though I've had some shoulder problems the last few months (shhh. I wasn't going to tell anyone that) it was nothing in the face the confidence in my body strength and stamina.

But that 12 ft pole fully extended, even if it weighed five pounds max with the microphone, felt really heavy really fast. We were recording our first interview out in the middle of a kidney bean field. We set up a medium-wide shot to show the farmer’s land inside standard interview framing. So here I am with the boom pole laid across the back of my shoulders resting my hands to control the angle and height of the microphone and then bam, the windiest day in six months hits and my right arm is straining to pull down to maintain height and my left is strained to keep it's horizontal position steady.

Within five minutes my shoulders were screaming. The wind picked up and I had no choice but to lock up my entire body to withstand the force. Do I signal that I need to take a break? Do I pause production? My thought was no but I think the answer should have been yes. Safety is important too.

Looking back I should have asked for more guidance or tips on how to hold things more comfortably. Acting confident is great but if you're doing something and nobody knows it's hurting you doesn't help anyone. Be vulnerable – ask questions (maybe not right in front of the interviewee but privately to other people on the crew). Simple tips like how to hold your hands on the boom pole, how to shift weight or even what order to extend the boom extensions all would have made things more comfortable.

After about thirty minutes we finished the interview. I lowered the boom, loosened my joints, the numbness throbbing through my arms, and then nausea hit. Lightweight carbon-fiber ain't no joke when you are working against the elements. Take nothing for granted. If you're feeling awkward or uncomfortable – don't act like everything is just fine – stop and ask for guidance.

Photo of boom pole.

One of the biggest jobs for a Production Assistant is running around. Not literally running (unless necessary). Sometimes that means running to the other side of of the film site to retrieve extra batteries or a piece of camera gear out of the truck. Either way – this is all about anticipating what's coming up in the schedule and getting things where they need to be so the production can keep flowing smoothly.

This requires understanding your location. I pay a lot of attention to my surroundings as it is, it's how I learn layouts of cities after just a few days of driving around. Filming on-site a farm – we were outside – and commonly far away from our vehicles. Constantly picking up gear and walking a fair distance away into fields – or driving from field to field – it can be easy to kinda "get lost" so paying attention to where people were at (and tractor equipment) is important to stay safe.

It's easy to get yourself turned around when at an unfamiliar location and when you need to run to grab new storage cards or a battery you need to not only know where the cars are you have to know where the crew is moving to so that you can do the job! It sounds like a no brainer but what if we were in a large studio with multiple rooms and floors. How easy would it be to get lost?

If necessary, pause – take a breath – keep your head screwed on straight – catch your bearings. You need to be in control of yourself first so you can be helpful to the team. So paying attention and not getting lost is your job as well.

The first rule of being a Production Assistant is to never be the bottleneck.

Can you remember where you are if you have to run off to get some equipment?

Prediction

Of everything I helped with there was one area I knew I was failing at and I had to get better: prediction. I needed to be able to anticipate what the crew needed to help keep things flowing as best as possible. I needed to be assisting even if I wasn't specifically called out to help out. The Production Assistant is there to assist, just get out there and help! The big moment for this for me was when one of the two cameramen left the shoot and went into an empty barn. I didn't hear him announce his departure or anything. I stayed on the shoot with the cameraman and director just watching the interview – kinda hanging out in case they needed help.

After about five to ten minutes I noticed the other cameraman had not returned. So I walked over to the barn to see if he needed my assistance. I showed up and found him going through the time-intensive process of setting up the full-body Steadicam rig with a cinema camera. This is a job that one person CAN do but how much faster would it go with two people? Much faster it turns out.

How much time would I have saved if I didn't wait that five to ten minutes just chilling during an interview? What cost to productivity did I cause? It's not a catastrophic error but just a learning process, getting a feel for the whole thing and understanding where a Production Assistant can and cannot help to maximize productivity.

One lesson I learned is that if you find yourself just sitting around when you know it's going to be 15-30 minutes of just watching people chat, maybe see if there's other things you could do to help set up for the next scene. Don't just act confident sitting there looking at your phone – instead, think of ways you can help and ask where appropriate. A simple "hey, should I go see if the other camera guy needs help? Looks like this is pretty good to go here" would have been great. If you're just sitting around – think to yourself – is there anything else I could help out with?

On-site commercial Steadicam operator in a farm in Northern Minnesota – ready for Action

Enjoy Yourself

You're there to do a job, right? You are a Production Assistant, a temporary Boom Operator, maybe a lighting tech or some other odd job professional. But you are on a video shoot and doing a job so you must take everything as seriously as possible, right? Kinda. You're there working on a video shoot because you love film. You're there because you love the art form, the medium. Why are you not loving and enjoying every minute you have?! Watch and learn. Discover for the first time how certain DP's/Cinematographers frame their shots and understand how to better frame the shots of the movie in your mind.

Thinking back – that's why I am in this mentorship to begin with. It's not about going to school to be a Production Assistant but to learn how to translate the movies I've watched my whole life and the movies I make in my mind to practical hands-on work. Setting up equipment and using that equipment is a bit of trial and error – but it really helps to be with and watching others while you learn.

Ask your producer if it's okay to pull out your phone and take some behind the scenes footage. Be the kid who is in awe that you are on a video shoot. That's who you really are right?! Maybe fulfill your own personal expression with your BTS footage. Take some shots that you want to see but maybe aren't right for the actual project. Have fun. You are there to work but also to learn and gain experience so that you can work on more projects. So you have the tools to create your own projects. Enjoy yourself.

Some Terrence Malik nature shots weren't appropriate but I wanted to see through those eyes.

About the Author:

Chris Kirby has been writing about stories from all mediums for over ten years. This has ranged from Film to Anime, Manga, Comics, and Music. He formally wrote reviews for The Fandom Post and is now digging back into his study of film. He recently began studying film under the Film Connection mentorship program.

BONUS Q&A:

What qualifications do you need to be a production assistant?

The qualifications you need to be a production assistant are mostly on-the-job training. Film schools may teach you the theory – but the most important element you can walk away with is a hands-on experience. You need to be a good listener, independent thinker, problem solver, clear communicator and self-awareness to be a production assistant.

How much do production assistants make?

Average compensation for an experienced production assistant in the US is usually in the $125-200/day range (meaning 10hr day breaks down to $15/hr to $20/hr). Some smaller companies like to pay up to $250/day for someone who may take on additional roles above a typical PA job description.

Generally your "day rate" doesn't pay overtime until past 12 or even 14hr days.

Sometimes when a crew finds out you actually know how to run a camera they may ask you just to watch an angle. Or if you mention you know how to boom audio, and they are tight on people – they may give you a shot to prove yourself for future gigs. If you end up doing a more advanced role than you were originally hired – don't expect to be paid more than originally agreed upon (unless you were there for more hours).

For future gigs – perhaps negotiate a higher role referencing your previous gig with them. Small crews hate being nickeled and dimed. If you want to be paid more on a job – then you need to clarify it beforehand. Don't come back and say "well, actually I did more work than a PA role – so I need more pay". You will not be called back and word spreads. If you prove yourself valuable, they'll try and put you into a higher responsibility role next time and be able to compensate you for that. The first time you play up – that's a proving opportunity for you.

Prove you are worth more than $15/hr or $20/hr – and either that company will pay you more for the higher roles or you'll find another company that is willing to pay more for those other roles.

How much does a production assistant make per hour?

The amount may increase or decrease based on the day. For instance, if you get $200 for a 10 hour day but they cut you at 6 hours – if you negotiated a flat day rate you still get paid $200 (or $33.33/hr) rather than the original $20/hr for a 10hr day.

According to Payscale, the numbers are weird. They say an average is $15.47/hr with 5-9 years experience, and those with 10-19 years experience make a penny less at $15.46/hr.

Is it hard to become a PA?

Call up the best video production companies in your area and just ask them if they work with freelance PA's, and if so what they pay for someone new as well as someone with experience. Over time – you should advance past this role. It's an entry-level role used to build relationships and experience for many people – so the pay isn't great. But it's a phenomenal way to get in the door.

Do you need a college degree to be a production assistant?

In some industries (think broadcasting or TV) may require some level of education for their corporate rules with hiring, it isn't commonly a requirement. What's more common is to ask for references to producers you've worked with or camera crews that can vouch for your work ethic and other skills referenced above in this article. You don't need a bachelor's degree.

What are different Film Occupations I can get in the film industry?

Depending on the different type of project you're on – like a commercial, movie/scripted television, reality TV or music videos

  • Producer
  • Director, Assistant Director
  • Production Designer
  • Art Director
  • Costume designer
  • Cinematographer
  • script supervisor, film crew, focus puller, grip, key grip, location manager, stunt coordinator, 2nd ad… The list goes on and on as potential roles on big projects.

The key to remember is that in smaller cities and smaller projects with smaller budgets – you may only have 10, 5, or even 3 people on a project (example a corporate interview). So you may have a director, a camera operator, and a PA to help haul/setup gear. All the expertise is done with the cam op or director – the PA is just helping out to make things run smoother. Small gigs are great to learn additional skills that big projects you normally couldn't touch.

Wikipedia also has a long detailed list with what different film occupations you can get in the film industry:

Credit Wikipedia

Here's a video explaining what it's like being a production assistant from Youtuber: