Why Production Assistants are Vital to a Film Set

From coffee runs to helping set up a shot, here’s a breakdown of the job of a Production Assistant.
Production Crew
By  · Published on December 23rd, 2019

If you’re at all familiar with the film industry, you’ve heard the term Production Assistant, or PA, quite a bit. You know that it’s the go-to entry-level film set job, you know that every functioning set has to have a few, and you know it’s a really tough yet rewarding job. But what does a PA actually do

The RocketJump Film School YouTube channel breaks down the job of the PA in a video titled “A Day in the Life of a Production Assistant.” RocketJump Film School gives professional PA Colin West McDonald a GoPro as he makes his way through a day on the set of a short film. Through this video, we are offered an authentic glimpse into the world of a PA, including the problems they face, their responsibilities, and some cool set lingo as a bonus, (did you know that “hot bricks” means fresh batteries in the world of a film set?)

The job of a PA is, essentially, to perform any task that will help things run smoothly on the set. Yes, we know that that’s a broad description, but that’s kind of the point. The video highlights this notion by explaining that in one moment you can be holding up camera cords so that a dolly doesn’t run over them and in the next, you can be helping the art department set up glass bottles for a shot. So, if you aren’t willing to expect the unexpected, this job might not be for you.

PAs have to be flexible, adaptable, and skilled in many areas. A PA might be asked to handle film equipment, run errands (sorry, coffee runs are very much not out of the question), facilitate communication between departments, do basic office duties like printing and copying, or coordinate extras (or “background”). Sure, some of the work is grueling, but without a PA, a film set would be a hell of a lot more difficult than it already is. And, with a love of film, even the most mundane tasks can feel pretty darn exciting when they’re working toward a final product. 

In addition to being adaptable and skilled in many areas, McDonald also describes the job of a PA as thinking of things before people ask you to do them. You don’t want to be in a position, for example, where someone needs a battery and there aren’t any charged ones or where someone needs to write something down and you can’t remember where you put your Sharpie. In addition, film sets are often immaculately clean because PAs will often clean up as they go along. You basically have to be the brains of the set when it comes to small things that keep a production functioning. 

It’s no secret that, if you want to work professionally on a film set, a job as a PA is a great first step. Many people who have jobs on film crews started out as a PA. It’s busy, hectic, and rewarding as hell. So how do you get that job? 

A lot of becoming a PA involves being close to the action. A good amount of films are shot in Los Angeles, New York, or Atlanta. So go to one of those cities. In addition, a lot of the film industry is about connections, so it’s important to forge those early on because they will help you get a job as a PA. Film sets — especially for independent short films — will often put up online listings for PA work, so another approach is to check on Craigslist and subscribe to pages on Facebook and other social media sites that function as networks for people looking for work. 

In short, the job of a PA is an excellent way to break into an exciting industry. Though they can, at times, go unnoticed, a PA really does keep a film set functioning and all of its moving pieces running together like a well-oiled machine. Without the job, who knows what kind of problems a shoot would run into. And, for that reason, being a PA is one of the most rewarding jobs in the world.

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Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.