A job as a production assistant is the unofficial training program of the film and television industry. If you do not live next door to Steven Spielberg or Ron Howard, then nabbing a gig as a PA is the best way to break into film and TV. It doesn’t matter if your true aspiration is to be a director, audio engineer, or make-up artist; working as a PA is where you learn firsthand about life on a professional set and make the contacts to launch your career.
There is no such thing as a typical day at the office for a production assistant. By nature, the PA is a flexible catchall person for any miscellaneous task. A production office PA will answer phones, make copies of scripts, run errands, and do any other administrative task the staff requires. A set PA will help the assistant director by corralling extras, directing traffic, and escorting actors to and from the set—or fetching snacks from the craft services table. There are also opportunities to work full-time at news stations like CNN or MSNBC, where the PA might log tapes, sort through press releases, and even Tweet about the next broadcast. A production assistant does not operate camera, lighting or audio equipment; instead, the PA will grab an apple box for the electrician to set a C-stand on, or help keep the set quiet while the boom operator records ambient noise. The PA’s job isn’t glamorous, but the experience of being on set or working in a production office is an invaluable tool to the individual who wants to advance in the film and television industry.
Skills & Education
This is an entry-level position, and as such there are few educational requirements. A college degree in film and television production is useful, but not necessary. For a gig as a PA, a film/television degree demonstrates to the person reading your résumé that you understand the process of production and have a basic skill level for working on set. Avengers or The Walking Dead will require more experience as a PA than a pilot for a new show or a music video; as you build skills, you can work your way up into larger productions. The most important skills a PA must have are attention to detail, a “get it done” work ethic, the ability to follow directions, and a willingness to take orders. You should be organized, polite, and know how to anticipate needs on set before they arise.
What to Expect
The truth is that the production assistant gets the tasks that no one else on set wants. It isn’t uncommon to empty trash cans or bring lunch to the second unit who is running over schedule on location. Yes, production assistants also get coffee, sparkling water, and Diet Cokes for the leading man. Work as a PA is like boot camp for the entertainment business. If you can do this job well, you have proven you have what it takes to move up the ladder. Be proactive; pass out bottles of water to the crew; be standing by with towels when the director calls “cut” on a pool scene. Going the extra mile to find tasks before you’re asked to do them will impress the people around you. Remember that there are always hundreds of people in line waiting to take your gig. Finding ways to help out and make the crew’s jobs easier will catapult you from nameless face to go-to person. The PA’s name that gets called out most often is the one who will be on the next shoot. A good attitude will get noticed, so be respectful and show that you want to be there.
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After you have developed good relationships through your experience as a PA, this position can be a launching pad toward any mid-level position in film and television. Traditionally the next step up is as a production coordinator, but if your interests are in camera work or lighting, you can go after work as a camera assistant, electrician or grip. A good PA can also work toward entrance into the DGA (Director’s Guild of America) training program through recommendation by the production manager.