5 Tips for Every Indie 1st AD

    I heard once that the career life of a feature film director was 40 years, whereas the life of an Assistant Director (AD) is only 20.

    It’s not hard to believe.

    The AD’s overall responsibility can be incredibly stressful and if you’re not already a super organiser, trying to schedule a full length script can be overwhelming.

    As an independent filmmaker, I’ve had the privilege of being the 1st AD on two feature films and countless short films over the past eight years. In many cases I had to learn the hard way and probably shaved off at least 10 of those 20 years of life as an AD.

    There are so many tools at an AD’s disposal, but some can be costly and become another stressor in an already over complicated brain. I’ve put together a few tips that will help relieve some of those stressors.

    1. Find a good scheduling program

    In order to not go completely crazy, you will need a good scheduling program.

    One of the more notably used among the pros is Movie Magic Scheduling. I’ve heard a lot of great things about this product, however for those indie filmmakers reading, it’s definitely going to be a big expense.

    When every cent counts it can be hard to pour money into something so pricey. So if you’re like me, a penny pincher, then try finding a free program.

    I’ve found scenechronize, a web-based scheduling program, to be incredibly helpful. You can sign up for free, which makes it great for indie filmmakers because there’s a lot of functions you can use without paying a cent.

    2.Become a jack of all trades

    While you can be a great first AD without being a jack of all trades, I think becoming one is incredibly helpful. One of the main responsibilities of an AD on set is making sure you have time for all the scenes you’re meant to shoot that day.

    If you go overtime or have to add more days to filming that means the producer is going to be breathing down your neck about where the funds are going to come from for those added hours and days.

    The more efficient your time management, the better. One way to know when to push someone to move faster is to have an awareness of how long something is going to take.

    For example, on our last film, The Out of the Woods Project, we were running behind on the schedule and our cameraman had to set up his camera on the Ronin gimbal stabilizer. It was the first time I’d worked with a Ronin, so I had no idea how long it would take for him to set it up and so I made a judgement call and said we’d be shooting in two minutes.

    What I didn’t factor in, is that attaching the camera is only part of what he had to do, there was still the job of balancing the camera and then getting several focus points so that as he walked toward the actor, the shot stayed in focus.

    It took longer than two minutes.

    The more you know about all the different departments, the better you’ll be able to give them a reasonable amount of time, while still keeping to the schedule.

    3.Keep your eyes peeled

    An assistant director is responsible for the shooting schedule, arranging logistics and creating daily call sheets, as well as overseeing the health and safety of all personnel on set.

    Often set is a very chaotic place, but the more an AD keeps their eyes peeled for potential risks or scheduling errors the more the AD can put a stop to any issues that may arise.

    This can be as simple as seeing a mess of cords in a high traffic area and making sure they’re organised and gaffed down as soon as possible. To making sure a grip is holding on to the ladder where their gaffer has just scrambled up to rig a light.

    An AD, must be watching everything at all times. There is no down time for an AD.

    An Assistant Director is responsible for the shooting schedule, arranging logistics and creating daily call sheets, as well as overseeing the health and safety of all personnel on set

    4.Be a team player

    I never wanted to be a 1st AD, because I’d always heard they were the most hated on set. I don’t want to be hated for doing my job, so I did a little digging. I asked people around me, what it was about a 1st AD that they hated so much. Nine times out of ten it had something to do with their attitude and how the AD was always yelling at them.

    So my solution to this?

    Be a team player. It’s possible to delegate and organise a massive group of people without snapping at them or yelling.

    Yes, sometimes it probably would feel better to yell, but the more you can put yourself in their shoes, and realise they may not have thought of laying out the cords straight and putting the gaff tape over it was because they were rushing to save their DP from falling off a ladder. You never know.

    Give them the benefit of the doubt before you write them off.

    After all, teamwork is the most important part of filmmaking.

    5.Get to know your Director

    Above all the AD is there to serve the Director’s vision. Making sure they have the time to create those beautiful shots and get the performance they’re looking for.

    It’s important to anticipate the Director’s needs and the best way I know how to do this, is to listen intently to the Director and DP about the next set up. They hash out the plan and then I follow up with, “How long do you need?”

    Based on what I’m told, I use that time to make everyone get the job done efficiently. Giving the Director the time to talk with the actors or reflect on what he wants to do next.

    It takes practice and I still don’t always get it right, but I think knowing is half the battle and tenacity is the rest.

    Being a 1st AD, especially for an indie project can be a very rewarding job. So, what are you waiting for? Go shoot something.

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    • Charis Joy Jackson

      Producer, Director, Writer, Actress

      Charis Joy Jackson is a writer, director, producer and teacher working with The Initiative Production Company. During the day she makes movies and in her spare time is writing a novel. She's a self-proclaimed nerd who wishes she could live in Hobbiton. You can follow her on Instagram @charisjoyjackson

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