Be the Best Production Assistant You Can Be

If you want to get a foot in the door of the film industry, getting a position as a Production Assistant as part of a film crew is the way to go. I interviewed my good friend Hanna McDermid who’s been a PA on quite a few sets now. Want to get an impression of what to expect, have a read:

What did the process of getting the job look like?

I got a start in the film industry through my husband, who’d been working in the industry for a year already when I came along. Knowing someone in the industry is the most likely way to get in.

The good news is, if you end up getting a project, even for a just a day, and you do a good job, people will remember you and call you back when they need help.

What does a typical day look like?

Every day can be so different, depending if you shoot in a studio, on location or if there’s a company move (meaning you move from one location to another within the day). Currently, an average day is 15 hours – they might still go longer, but after 15 hours you get paid overtime. And you must get at least 9 hours between the end of your shift and your next call time.

What kind of work did you do throughout the duration of the project?

As a Production Assistant, you’re part of the Locations department which is generally responsible for maintaining the location and safety of the crew. More common tasks for PA’s are taking out the garbage, sweeping, guarding things or doorways and calling out “Rolling!”, “Quiet on set!” and “Cut!” to the crew around set.

If you film on location, you help with setting up tents and locking up streets or sidewalks during the shot so that pedestrians don’t walk into the scene. Besides that, I’ve had a wide range of tasks to do, e.g.: sitting in a freight elevator, making sure it wasn’t running and making noises while the camera was rolling or guarding a studio gate all day, ensuring only cast and crew entered.

You never really know what to expect, they might need you for the craziest assignment.

But that’s really what being a PA means: assisting the production (in whatever form necessary).

What was the biggest challenge? And what helped you accomplish it?

Pushing through and staying professional and diligent despite feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Working 15 hours is physically, mentally and emotionally challenging and you won’t always be treated fairly. I’ve had many situations where I broke down, cried from exhaustion and wondered why I’m doing this to myself. But the truth is, things get easier (to a certain extent).

A big part in enjoying it comes from your mindset: if you go into work with a servant heart and willing to do the best job you can, you will enjoy yourself a lot more.

What advice could you give to other filmmakers who are just starting out as PA’s?

PAing might be one of the lowest positions on a set, but it still takes a lot to be a good PA!

Be on time! Make sure you get to wherever you need to be ahead of time, having gone to the bathroom, having eaten breakfast etc.

Be prepared. Here’s a list of things I bought since starting work as a PA: a headset (make sure you buy a good one with an ear piece and a mic), proper work shoes that won’t hurt your feet after standing and walking for hours, a water bottle, snacks, proper rain gear, an umbrella, extra socks and clothing (to stay warm or cool, depending on the season), a cap (keeps sun, rain, snow etc. out of your eyes), a pair of work gloves, headphones, deodorant, phone charging cable, chewing gum, paper napkins and sunscreen and bug spray in summer.

Listen to your walkie (also called radio) and make sure you respond immediately if somebody calls you.

Always be available. A big part of working in film means “hurry up and wait”.

Don’t sit down (if you are anywhere near set), it looks unprofessional and you’re not paid to sit around.

Don’t complain – it’s toxic and doesn’t make people want to hire you again, so stay friendly and professional.

And don’t go crazy when you see a celebrity – do not approach them or ask for a photo or a signature, do your job and let them do theirs.

Any other comments or advice you would like to share with us?

I’ve grown a lot as a person since being a PA. First of all, you are literally a servant, doing very basic jobs for long hours in any type of weather, so you learn patience and perseverance.

I’ve grown in confidence – which is inevitable when you’re thrown into tasks like stopping people on a busy public sidewalk to ask them to wait for a minute until the camera stopped rolling, or keeping disrespectful paparazzi and fan girls from walking onto set.

You also learn to appreciate your time off and your family and friends whom you hardly get to see when you’re busy working on a show for a few months in a row.

Thank you Hanna for sharing this valuable filmmaking advice with us, we wish you all the best with your future projects.

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  • Annette is part of the acting team with The Initiative Production Company. She is a German South-African, loves the smell of freshly baked bread and constantly has a list in her head of countries to visit and more languages to learn.

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