BE A PRODUCTION ASSISTANT
We’re going to level with you: being a production assistant is hard work! And we do mean hard! Fun? Perhaps. Exciting? Absolutely! And hard. Don’t forget hard!
Being a production assistant is the hazing one goes through before becoming initiated into the fraternity of the film crew and even, in some cases, Hollywood itself. Many studio chiefs, directors and nearly every single director of photography, film editor, lighting designer, etc, started out as a production assistant.
What will you do as a production assistant, you may ask?
Anything and everything!
It all depends on the department you are assigned to. If you work on the set, you may load and unload vehicles; assist security with crowd control and even escort actors from their trailers to the set. If you work in the production office, you will answer phones, file mountains of paperwork and make photocopy after photocopy. Working with the art department may provide you the opportunity to help build props and sets and work with the set decorator. Working with the costume department, you will assist in maintaining costumes; work with extras on their costumes; wash and iron clothes; and organize and label accessories. If you work for the transportation division, you will deliver and pick-up things and people as well as taking care of vehicles used on the film. Working as a location production assistant will afford you the chance to photograph locations, make and distribute signs directing workers to the set and clean up the location once the filming is complete. As you can see, the variety of tasks is immense.
There is one task that is guaranteed for every production assistant: YOU WILL RUN ERRANDS! You will fetch cappuccino and bottled water. You will run to the store to pick up emergency provisions. You will pick up and drop off people at the airport. You may drive an hour out of your way to an antique shop to pick up a much-needed prop for the set designer. You will be told to go to a number of different places at any given moment, so be prepared. And make sure you have a reliable vehicle. YOU WILL NEED IT!!
Here are some other things you will need:
- A good alarm clock! Being punctual and dependable is critical. In this business, being early is considered being on time. Just try and show up late even once!
- Understanding loved ones: 12 to 16 hour days are the norm. You will be there very early in the morning and you will get home very late at night. Once the film gets going, you will not have time for a social life – or any other kind of a life outside the film.
- Good hearing: You will need to follow directions precisely.
- A happy, humble, gracious and professional attitude. Being cheerful makes the whole experience more pleasant and increases your chances of getting hired again. And remember that as indispensable as you think you are, there are lots of other people who can, and would love to, do your job. You can be easily replaced.
- A strong familiarity with the area. Running all of those errands will be a lot easier if you know short cuts, or at least your way around.
- A VERY THICK SKIN!! This is a high stress business, and eventually, you will get yelled at, perhaps for no reason. You might also have an encounter with an actor that may shatter your illusion of him/her forever. Get over it. It’s not personal. Remember that this is a job, and everyone involved is under immense pressure to get the film finished on time and under budget.
You may notice that we didn’t mention “experience” as a thing you need. Experience is not necessarily a requirement for production assistants. You will be told exactly what to do. However, if you have a usable skill or trade, such as construction, sewing, accounting, typing, painting, photography, etc, make sure to make that known. It will increase your chances of being hired.
The best thing you can bring with you as a production assistant is a good attitude. Someone with a positive, can-do attitude will go much farther than someone with more experience who complains and is not pleasant to be around.
It’s also true that people prefer to hire people they know – or at least people that are recommended by people they know. Obviously, it’s important to get yourself out there, and known by as many people as possible. You can do this by finding an internship with a local production company or television station, going to parties and industry events, volunteering for student or indy films or simply sending a letter and resume to all the film and video companies in your area.
In Virginia, the Virginia Production Alliance is one place to meet people, and a comprehensive list of the businesses involved in film and video production in the state are included on this website under Production Services Directory. The Virginia Film Office also has an internship program you may be interested in.
Here are some other tips that you will find useful:
- If you end up working as a production assistant, dress accordingly. You will be spending a lot of time outdoors and doing lots of running around, so make sure you are wearing comfortable clothing and shoes. See what the rest of the crew is wearing and follow their example.
- Make the most of this opportunity! As in every profession, it’s usually about who you know. It is doubly so in this industry. Being a production assistant will afford you the opportunity to meet lots of people as well as establish a name for yourself. It is on your first assignment where the cornerstone for your reputation is laid. If you are lazy, unreliable or temperamental, your chances for another assignment are almost non-existent. Getting the job as a production assistant gets you in the door. Your professionalism and job performance determine whether you stay.
- Go for every experience that you can! This may mean working free. Big-budget productions will not trust a novice, but a low, even no-budget, production may. There are many award-winning (even Academy Award-winning) production workers who cut their teeth on non-existent budget films and eventually gained enough experience to work on a big budget production. Experience and education are powerful allies!
- As a freelancer, you must market yourself. You will need to take responsibility for making sure that the people who are hiring know who you are and what you can do. You can’t be shy about meeting people and promoting yourself. No one else will do it for you.
- You will need to have a “day” job that allows you a great deal of flexibility. Most production assistant jobs come along with only a few days (or a few hours) warning, so you need to be working somewhere that you can take time off without much trouble. Hopefully, it won’t be too long until you can support yourself by your work on film and video projects, but until that time, you need to be free to say “yes” when the phone rings. For example, you could try working at a temp agency, restaurant or retail store. These places tend to have fairly flexible scheduling policies.
Have we scared you yet?
Now comes the moment of truth: why would you want to be a production assistant? If you don’t know the answer, then this probably isn’t for you. Being a production assistant is the gateway into one of the most exciting and creative industries around. It is far from being a typical 9-to-5-sit-at-a-desk-all-day-long-punching-a-time-clock job! The work is demanding, promising and the possibilities for success are never-ending. Very few people who work in this field do so for the money. They do so because they love their work, because they couldn’t imagine doing anything else with their life. If only everyone could say that.
GETTING A JOB
If you are still interested, you will need to watch out for opportunities. You can connect with Virginia’s independent film community, offer your services to an area production company, or keep on the lookout for projects coming to the area. Below are some ways you can learn about what’s going on in the industry. If a feature film or television project comes to the area, they will first open a production office. They typically accept resumes and cover letters by fax, so be sure you have those ready to go!
You can find out what’s filming in the area through several sources:
- The Virginia Film Office website features an online hotline and more in-depth news
- Join the Virginia Production Alliance, an organization dedicated to the growth of Virginia’s film industry.
- Sign up for the free Virginia Production Alliance Listserve and share email information with those involved in the industry:
- Check Tales from the Grips a film and video informational website updated weekly
- Those interested in the Northern Virginia market should considering joining Women in Film and Video
- Read the entertainment section of your local newspaper which often lists casting calls in your area
Written by former Virginia Film Office intern Michael Jones, who’s gone on to bigger and better things. Thanks Mike!