EDIT August 2018: I’ve filmed a video version of this article! Check it out here!
Pretty much any film industry position is almost guaranteed to completely consume your life. As the first in and the last out, this is more true for production assistants than anyone.
You wake up, work all day, then go home and straight to bed. After the first month you’re probably having dreams of being at work. My spouse woke me up one night, saying i said something along the lines of “Is this shot 360?” in my sleep.
I had found that my old life was almost difficult to remember. On my day off I would wander around and stare in wonder at all the normal people doing normal things. It was hard to process that there was a world going on off set where people did more than just get coffee and tell people to be quiet.
When your life is completely invested in something, a lot of things change. You break old habits and forge new ones. New skills are gained, and by the end of a full length show you are dominating each day.
Many of these improvements are to be expected, like getting better at answering your walkie, or handling paperwork. When you do a job you get better at it.
However, there are some interesting “side effects” I started to experience during my first job. These skills were not necessarily things that you’re taught as a PA. Rather, they are unexpected byproducts of the incredibly demanding job. Some of them are kind of obvious, and others really took me by surprise.
So without further ado, here are 9 unexpected things that working as a production assistant made me better at.
1. Carrying Stuff
Before I was a production assistant one of my biggest hobbies was powerlifting. I could deadlift and squat double my body weight, and had a very solid frame. That said, my conditioning and endurance was total garbage. I would struggle to lug gigantic pelican cases across the set, needing to put them down several times before reaching my destination.
I would watch other PAs considerably smaller than me carrying tents and equipment much farther distances without any difficulty. Most of the other PAs were either unhealthy-fat or unhealthy-skinny, but they were durable as hell.
It took awhile, but the longer I carried tents and sandbags around, the easier it got. It was like I was developing a part of my muscles I never had worked before.
Now not only am I able to carry two tents half a mile to set, I can carry all the groceries into the house in one trip. Bet you want to PA now huh?
2. Talking to Strangers
I’ve always considered myself pretty decent at socializing. Working on a film set takes confrontation to a whole new level. If you aren’t good at talking to strangers, you’re either going to get good or be quickly replaced.
Every single day, standing on a populated street I’d have to practically dive in front of total strangers. Then, after diving in front of them, I’d have to tell them they were going to have to walk an extra 10 minutes to go around where we were shooting.
People are often less than thrilled by this news.
Even less thrilled are some of the crew members in other departments that I am required to keep quiet. It really sucks when your first impression with a potential contact is “could you please keep it down a little?”.
But, on the plus side, after locking up a set and pissing off total strangers for days at a time, approaching a girl at a coffee shop isn’t all that scary anymore.
3. Catching Things
I don’t know about you, but I am downright clumsy. A lot of people know this about me. I hate throwing and catching things. There has easily been a dozen moments in my life where I’ve said “WAIT, NO, DON’T THROW IT” followed by a loud crash or shatter. It’s a weakness of mine and I’ve been aware of it since I was a toddler.
Maybe it was the extra “present” energy I absorbed from living in the moment on set. Or perhaps it was the 12 hour days standing in front of a door where I would toss a bottle up into the air and catch it to pass the time. By the end of the show, I was catching every single projectile thrown at me with ease.
Still not great at throwing things yet. Maybe in a few more jobs.
As a production assistant, it is very difficult to do your job well if you are not present to the moment. Anyone who has a problem getting stuck in their head is quickly marked as inattentive and not called back. It took me a couple scoldings to snap into it, but once I did, I found myself being much more attentive.
Once you become accustomed to the pace, you start to understand why nobody likes to have to explain things twice. After working for awhile, I found that people could come up to me with long winded instructions, and I could remember them all without needing them to write anything down or have anything repeated. Someone could explain the breakfast orders for 6 different people and I could just say copy and walk away and do it.
When you’re not caught up thinking about a bunch of nonsense in your brain, it frees up a lot of space for productivity. You start to pay attention to what people are saying and understand it faster.
5. Waking Up
When I started working as a P.A. I needed to have 12 alarms set ahead of time for when i inevitably snoozed all of them. After doing this for a couple months, I was cursed with the habit of always waking up 10 minutes before my alarm would go off. This would suck because I wanted to get every second of sleep I could, and I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep.
On weeks where the shooting schedule is inconvenient, you end up getting 3-4 hours of sleep. followed by 14-16 hours of work. You’re not so much waking up from your sleep as you are waking up from a nap.
After working as a production assistant for awhile, it became a lot easier to get out of bed. This has helped me a lot in my day to day life and made me much more productive overall. It’s as if my body learned that it wasn’t going to die if it stayed awake. Taking cold showers every morning definitely helped ingrain this habit into me as well.
6. Getting Yelled at
Nobody likes getting yelled at or criticized. Working in films means you’re going to get yelled at. It’s unavoidable. On some sets it’ll be less frequent, while some A.D.s like to yell at everyone all day. It’s part of the film industry’s atmosphere.
Part of being a good PA is being able to handle being under fire calmly. You’ll get scolded for mistakes other people made and need to take responsibility. If you get defensive or fire back, odds are you’re going to get replaced soon.
The first time you ever get scolded on set it feels like your heart is in your stomach. The next time is a little better. Then a little better. Then eventually you’re chuckling under your breath as the UPM walks away right after telling you he was going to add an additional hole to your lower regions.
I’m not perfect. Getting yelled at still can hurt from time to time. But I definitely have a stronger ability to let attacks roll off me. You definitely stop taking things personally once you get yelled at for things completely out of your control. You realize that some people are just going to be assholes and the best thing to do is be unaffected.
True tough guys keep their head down, say yes sir, and then get revenge by putting whole milk in your coffee instead of the 2% you asked for. Have fun getting fat in a few years.
I have a computer science degree. My lifestyle used to be pretty sedentary. I’ve spent a lot of it in a chair writing code or playing games.
Before taking my first job I consulted with some production assistant friends. They all gave me the same advice. Never. Sit. Down.
I was terrified. I wasn’t comfortable for standing for more than 2-3 hours at a time. My first week as a P.A. I was really starting to question my career choices. I literally would go to the bathroom just as an excuse to sit down on the toilet for a little bit. I thought it would never go away.
Somehow, after about two weeks, I noticed at the end of one day, I was fine. Don’t get me wrong; my feet HURT. But it wasn’t unbearable pain like before. it was only slightly uncomfortable.
Today, I have an almost superhuman ability to stand for days at a time. It’s almost as if I’ve killed the nerves in the bottoms of my feet. This is great when I go travelling, to concerts, and any time I need to stand in line for a long time. I’m glad I don’t have baby-feet anymore.
If I had to choose one key virtue behind working as a production assistant, I would probably say patience. Sometimes being a production assistant can be really complicated. You’ll be running around frantically trying to complete 7 different tasks while people keep giving you more.
Other times, it can be simple. A little too simple. I’ve spent many days firewatching equipment for 12 hours straight. Sometimes you’re given a nonsense lockup and you just stand and wait for the day to be over. You learn to become okay with it after awhile.
A few months ago I went on a trip to Europe. The flight from my city was 15 hours long. I have a lot of friends who have made the same journey and will never stop complaining about how terrible the travel time is.
Before I got on the plane I thought to myself, If I can run around frantically while getting yelled at for 16 hours, 15 hours sitting down is nothing.
Because of my PA experience, I am now great at waiting in lines, traffic, and I’m capable of going to the DMV without murdering anyone!
9. Facing The Unknown
Prior to each of my first few jobs in the industry, I would turn into a nervous wreck. It would be impossible for me to get any sleep the night before. Partially because I’d have to wake up at 4, but mostly because my mind would be racing with all of the things that could go wrong the next day.
Going into a new job can terrifying. With all the different things you can be asked to do as a production assistant, you never know what to expect. After PAing for awhile, my nerves didn’t just calm for PA jobs. They calmed for everything. The first few days on each new set often feature a lot of yelling as you start to learn the flow of things (which always changes job to job). Being thrown into the unknown is a huge part of it.
Once you’re thrown in and manage to conquer it, you realize that you’ll never be asked to do something you’re not capable of. Well, you will be asked to do something you’re not capable of eventually, but nobody will be mad at you for being unable to do it.
Nowadays it’s impossible for me to have jitters before taking a new job. Even taking jobs in fields where I lack experience, I find myself with a newfound confidence that I can conquer whatever they are going to throw at me.
I’m not working as a production assistant anymore, but I think I gained a lot during my time as one. I would like to take a moment to say that working as a production assistant made me stronger in a million ways. My work ethic, confidence, charisma and tolerance for pain all went through the roof after my first job. If you’re tough enough to not quit, and good enough to not get fired, I think that working as a PA is an extremely beneficial job that has something to offer everyone.
Definitely wouldn’t want to do it for the rest of my life though.
If you can think of something that’s not on this list, feel free to leave a comment with your favorite random “side effect” of working as a PA!