So you’ve put together your resume, purchased all the best PA gear, and locked down your first PA job. Now you just have one question – what does a film PA do? What are the production assistant duties and responsibilities?
I could try to write an article about every single task you could encounter as a production assistant, but it would take weeks to read. You’ll do everything from distribute ice cream sandwiches to sliding a car-sized styrofoam dog through the middle of a shot (if you think that’s oddly specific, it’s because it’s real).
Despite the fact that you might end up doing literally anything, there are some tasks that we can almost guarantee you’ll have to do at one point or another. We’ve assembled a comprehensive guide of all of these tasks, so that you can be as prepared as possible when you step on set for the first time. So without further ado, here is the ultimate guide to production assistant duties.
- 1 General Production Assistant Responsibilities
- 1.0.1 Lockups
- 1.0.2 Carrying “Hot Bricks”
- 1.0.3 Setting Up Tents
- 1.0.4 “Keeping eyes” On People
- 1.0.5 Food Orders
- 1.0.6 Other Lunch Related Duties
- 1.0.7 Firewatching
- 1.0.8 Echoing Announcements
- 1.0.9 Driving Vans (Sometimes)
- 1.0.10 Gathering Out Times
- 1.0.11 Passing Out Waters / Trash Sweeps
- 1.0.12 Whatever The AD says
- 2 Full Time Production Assistant Duties
- 3 Conclusion
General Production Assistant Responsibilities
Production Assistants are split into two categories, full timers, and daily hires.
Full timers often go through a fairly rudimentary interview process, and are selected weeks before a show begins. They may have to submit resumes and meet with A.D.s to ensure that they have the ability and knowledge to undertake the more involved production assistant duties. However, not all full timers will necessarily have a permanent higher level responsibility, and some may be, essentially, permanent general purpose P.A.s who assist with all duties, but may be trusted more then a day player.
Daily Hires or “Additional P.A.s” are referred by A.D.s and trusted P.A.s when the production team is informed they will require more bodies on a harder day. There is usually no screening process, as trusted full timers often stake their reputation by bringing people on. They can be hired either weeks in advance, or the day before (sometimes even hours before in desperate situations). They are generally not delegated higher level responsibilities because they are usually trusted less, and there is also probably already a P.A. tasked with that responsibility.
If you are a “day-player“, or are only being hired for a few days as an additional P.A. on a big day, chances are, you wont be trusted nearly enough with any of the duties designated for the full time P.A.s. You will likely be doing simple work that is difficult to screw up and has relatively low consequences if you do. As your reputation builds (hopefully for the better), you will be trusted with more, and will be instructed to complete tasks that are more complex.
The following production assistant duties apply to all P.A.s, including the specialized P.A.s we discuss later, so no matter what you are preparing for, these are the most important things for you to know.
The most common, and without a doubt the most important task you will do as a production assistant, is a lockup. In essence, a lockup entails protecting the cameras and actors from the unsuspecting public and crew. If you think that crew members would respect the set and be quiet when we’re rolling, you’re sorely mistaken.
There’s lockups, and then there’s sound lockups.
For regular lockups, the key set PA or AD will assign you a position with a set of instructions. You will stand here to block foot/vehicle traffic while the cameras are rolling. This is very important, because if you let someone through at the wrong time, they could walk right through a shot and potentially waste thousands of dollars. Somebody is almost certainly going to scream at you, and there’s a good chance you might even get fired – especially if you haven’t been working on the show for very long. Visual lockups are just about the most important thing you’ll ever do.
Sound lockups occur when shots are very tight, closed off, or at an angle where it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to walk through the camera’s view. This will be communicated to you (hopefully), and you’ll only have to worry about keeping the crew quiet. This is easier said than done. Everyone wants to say “Oh they can’t hear me”, while the AD is cursing at you in whispers over the walkie, saying that everyone most definitely can hear them. That’s alright, just do your best and try to befriend the entire crew so that they listen to you.
Carrying “Hot Bricks”
Like many jobs that require coordination, film crews will always communicate with each other via walkie talkie. These walkie talkies are accounted for and distributed by the Walkie PA. There’s a whole section on that later on. The point is, with 12-14 hour days being the norm, these walkies will die at least once a day.
It’s not feasible for everyone to find the walkie PA when their battery dies. All set PA’s will typically carry 2 or more batteries (hot bricks) on their belt at all times. Crew members will approach you throughout the day and ask you if you’ve got any hot ones. You’ll swap out your charged batteries for dead ones back to the walkie PA’s charging station and get some more fresh ones.
Setting Up Tents
Film gear is very expensive. Celebrities are very important. When you’re shooting outside, it is mandatory that there is adequate shelter to protect the cast and crew from the elements. That’s why a large portion of the PA job involves carrying and setting up tents.
On some shows, departments will own their own tents, but on most of the ones I’ve worked on, the production department had to carry and set up tents for everyone. These tents will often have to be taken down, moved, and rebuilt multiple times a day. It won’t be that difficult, you’ll have the entire team of PA’s helping you.
“Keeping eyes” On People
We have an entire section below dedicated to the First Team PA, the person who’s job it is to take care of the actors. This PA however, cannot be in more than one place at a time. In Hollywood, actors can kind of get away with whatever they want on set. This means between takes, it’s not uncommon for them to wander around to get food or stretch their legs. As a production assistant, it is your duty to keep an eye on the talent as they walk around.
You shouldn’t stalk them from behind, and you don’t even necessarily need to follow them, but you definitely need to make a mental note when you see them. Eventually, the crew will be ready, and they will be called upon. If they happened to walk out on your side of the set, and you didn’t see them, you’re going to find yourself in a whole lot of trouble. Make sure that you’re keeping track of important people, so that you’re ready to say “they went that-a-way”.
Note: This also applies to all department heads, producers, and the director. Basically anyone important who might need to be summoned to set.
Bigger shows have dedicated trucks for crafty and/or catering. The directors, producers, actors, and even the ADs are often way too busy to be bothered with getting their own breakfast. There’s a pretty good chance that at one time or another you’ll be asked to make a run to the truck to get some food orders. You’re going to have to be prepared to deal with a few unreasonable individuals every once in awhile who throw tantrums if their order is out of stock, or if the chef messes it up. So make sure to double check that it’s right if you have the time! Some shows may even have you walking around taking every individual person’s lunch order every day. Nobody likes those types of shows.
On smaller productions, you may even find yourself leaving set to go pick up lunch for the crew from a catering restaurant!
Other Lunch Related Duties
On union shows, there are regulations for lunch that need to be adhered to strictly. Shows can receive hefty fines if lunch is not executed properly and people are not given an adequate amount of break time. The 30 minute lunch break doesn’t officially start until the final union employee has gotten his lunch and sat down. Someone will need to be watching the line to call out on walkie the minute the last crew member goes through the line.
Sometimes a few members of a specific department like camera will take egregiously long to get back from set. Sometimes, these crew members will not be counted as “last man” and will be given separate back times. Discuss the given show’s proper protocols with the AD team, it changes from show to show.
Some shows will also require a PA to count how many people go through the line. Sometimes this is handled by the catering company, however.
This is simple. When you’re not shooting on a closet set or studio, sometimes the crew will need to leave the area with the equipment for lunch or another reason. A PA may typically be elected to hang back and watch the gear and protect it from being stolen until the crew comes back to set.
I’ve also been on some shows that have built huge sets ahead of time that were not ready to shoot. Typically, these would be guarded by a security team, but not every show wants to spend money on that. So they’ll just hire a PA to come sit and protect it for 12 hours during the day and another PA to guard it for 12 hours during the night. That’s a pretty sweet gig. Just bring a book.
Not everyone on set is on walkie. Every department that is on walkie, is on a different channel. Production department, usually on channel one, is the only one that will be announcing important information like the rolls and cuts. When they hear it on walkie, all the PA’s need to yell out loud and clear “Rolling!” and “Cut!”. There are several other things worth echoing, and you’ll kind of get the vibe of what needs to be echoed after awhile. Other good examples are “Turning Around!” “Going to Lunch!” “Rehearsal’s up!” and “Wrap!”.
This ties into lockups, and when you’re loud and clear at echoing the AD’s calls, your lock ups will be a lot easier. You won’t need to tell people to stop banging people around because they’ll know we’re rolling, and won’t start in the first place.
Driving Vans (Sometimes)
Larger productions like major movies and TV shows will almost always have a dedicated transportation department. However, on smaller shows and commercials, often times production assistants will have to drive people around.
Most shows will have vans, but on smaller productions you may even need to use your own car. You’ll always be compensated for use of your vehicle and gas (unless the production is on the shadier side). You may have noticed by now that things can change pretty dramatically from one production to the next.
Gathering Out Times
At the end of every day, the crew members of each department will fill out a time card reporting how many hours they worked that day. They won’t be able to complete these time cards until they have completely wrapped out all of their gear and are about to go home. This means that at least one production assistant will need to wait until the final department is completely finished.
On a typical day this is camera department due to footage management, but some days can be more intensive on other departments. In any case, getting the out times is usually a cooperative effort among the production assistant team, and one unlucky PA per day will have to stay until the end to get that last time card.
Note: Smaller shows may have different procedures where departments file their paperwork independently, but on large union shows, this is standard fare.
Passing Out Waters / Trash Sweeps
You probably wont be explicitly asked to do this, but this is a very important one! If there’s ever downtime on set and you’re not in a lockup, it’s usually a pretty good practice to grab a handful of waters and offer them to people. People are always very grateful of this, especially if it is particularly hot out. Days are really long, and with the nature of the job, people can often forget to keep themselves properly hydrated. Plus it never looks good to be standing around without a task.
Another great thing you can do if you’re without a task is pick up trash. Crew members are constantly grabbing water bottles, taking two sips and then leaving them all over the set. You’ll look really good if you’re taking initiative and throwing away trash, especially when you’re shooting at a location. Try to never make the AD team have to ask you to do this. They won’t be too happy. It’s your job to keep the set clean!
Whatever The AD says
Ultimately, unless it’s really unsafe, there’s just about nothing that they can’t ask you to do. I’ve had to move the director’s Lamborghini, mop public bathrooms, staple thousands of papers, and have my throat slit with a plastic knife. As a PA you need to be willing to jump into any task with confidence and no hesitation. Just make sure they’re not violating your human rights first.
Full Time Production Assistant Duties
That about covers the general production assistant responsibilities that everyone has to attend to. As previously discussed, most full time P.A.s hired at the beginning of a show are delegated specific tasks that they will be responsible for the entire duration of the production. We’re going to categorize the different types of P.A.s, and describe what additional responsibilities each role comes with.
The Key Set Production Assistant Duties
Check out our full guide for Key Set PA’s.
The key set PA is like the captain of the team. Your job is to receive information from the ADs and relay it to the PAs, managing them to get the job done. You are given a small amount of authority in the form of setting lockups, and assigning PAs to put out the many fires that arise on a day to day basis. It is important that you are well liked by your team, and are able to keep your cool – if the other PAs break their lock ups or mess up, a lot of the time you might end up taking the heat.
While the key set PA may have to take care of any of our previously mentioned responsibilities, they will usually be too busy managing and delegating tasks. On smaller sets or more hectic days, a trusted key set PA may even find himself assuming the role of an AD and running the set on their own. This is considered abusive however, as ADs are paid much more than PAs.
Typically this job is taken by production assistants who are on track to eventually become assistant directors. It is quite a stressful job, and you are often paid the same as all the other PAs despite the increased responsibilities.
The Background or Extras Production Assistant Duties
The Background PA’s main role is to manage the background actors, more commonly known as “extras”. While it sounds like a straightforward enough job, I would say that this job requires the most amount of knowledge out of all the PA positions. You should be taught by another background PA before undertaking this role, otherwise you will end up making a lot of mistakes. This job is one of the most intensive ones, and it is not uncommon for background PAs to be relieved of all their other responsibilities to focus on the extras on larger days.
This includes the following responsibilities:
- Setting up a background holding area.
- Signing the background in and assisting them with their paperwork.
- Calling them if they don’t show up, and trying to work out substitutes.
- Getting them through wardrobe and make-up.
- Making sure they are given access to everything they need per union rules (chairs, water, etc).
- Ensuring they follow on-set protocol (No pictures, quiet during takes, don’t walk off).
- Breaking them for lunch and bringing them back at appropriate times.
- Sending them in when it’s time for their shot, sending them back to holding when they’re done.
- Sometimes cue-ing them to do their action during a take, or relaying notes to them from the AD or director.
- Letting them know when they are done for the day and can go home, then signing them out.
Yikes, that’s a lot. We might even be forgetting a thing or two. The point is, it’s a very intensive job that requires a lot of running around and attention. Some extras will be regulars, who are aspiring actors working as background when it’s available. Others will be Fed-Ex delivery drivers who don’t know a single thing about the film industry and set etiquette. As the background PA, it’s your job to handle them regardless, and make sure nothing goes wrong. When there are many background actors to command, some background P.A.s are allowed to take the liberty of directing the background themselves (if they are deemed trusted by the A.D. team).
On difficult days with lots of background actors, additional Production Assistants with background experience may be brought on to assist the primary Background P.A. These will typically be other PAs who have done background before, but some times they may have no experience, and the lead background PA will have to guide them through the process.
To do this job you must be very well organized and good at juggling multiple tasks. This is one of the most important jobs you can have as a PA, and is not for the faint of heart.
The First Team Production Assistant Duties
This is considered by many to be the coolest of all the PA jobs. The first team production assistant gets to form close relationships with the biggest movie stars, working and talking with them daily. If you’re the type of person to get starstruck, you cannot do this job.
The first team P.A. is in charge of wrangling each of the actors when their presence is needed on set, as well as taking care of them throughout the day. You will meet with each individual actor every day and make sure they get through hair and makeup. Once their prepped, they are allowed to sit in their trailer or roam around, until it is time for their shot, at which point you will need to make sure they are retrieved and brought to set. Knowing when to call down actors is equally important as knowing when not to call down actors. If a member of first team shows up set when they aren’t needed, you’ll find yourself in deep trouble.
When they are being used in a certain scene, it is important that you keep tabs on where your actors are. They won’t be on walkie like the rest of the crew, so it is up to you to make sure you keep track of where they are. This task is pretty much impossible to do on your own, so a good first team PA must communicate effectively with the entire PA team in order to keep track of the actors if they wander off set. Don’t stretch yourself too thin trying to do it all yourself – you will fail.
Lastly, it’s your responsibility to take care of the actors. If it’s hot, you’ll have to make sure they’re cool. If it’s cold, you’ll be keeping them warm. If they want food, drinks, or anything else, it’s up to you to make sure they get it. Sometimes you’ll have to make their coffee yourself, but often times you won’t be able to leave set and you’ll have to coordinate with someone else to get it brought to them. Some actors are much more demanding than others, so be prepared!
All sounds pretty straightforward. However, they become a bit more difficult when you realize that you must be very careful with how you speak to or treat the actors. Aside from the producer, movie stars are just about the most powerful people on set. Each film production is not only dependent on the actor’s presence, but also their mood. If you piss off an actor, it is incredibly easy for them to have you removed from the set. They are basically royalty, and you must be able to exercise a great deal of patience, especially when you’re dealing with difficult actors.
The Walkie Production Assistant Duties
This job isn’t the most demanding, but it’s definitely the one that is the most likely to give you a headache.
The Walkie P.A. is in charge of distributing, tracking, and collecting every single Walkie for the entire crew. On smaller shows this can be between 50-100, and on larger movie sets this can be from 200-300 walkies. Doing this requires a massive organizational system with spreadsheets or binders in order to keep track of all the walkies. These spreadsheets will need to be updated several times every single day, and you’ll have to juggle it on top of all the other work they give you to do.
Broken down, your responsibilities are as follows:
- Signing out all walkies to crew members at the start of the show.
- Setting up a charging station each day and making sure the batteries are being charged.
- Replacing broken walkies with new ones and sending broken ones back.
- Preparing walkies to sign out to all the additional crew members on any given day. (Anywhere from 1-40 people)
- Collecting walkies from additional crew members or crew that is leaving the show.
- Tracking down every Walkie at the end of the show, and packaging them to return to the rental house.
It’s not something you have to deal with all day like background or first team, but it’s a massive task that will hang over your head the entire show. The job being less demanding is kind of a double edged sword. It means you’ll end up doing a lot of the miscellaneous tasks around set because you aren’t occupied taking care of the background actors or the lead talent. Often times the Walkie PA and the Distro PA will be the same person, but not always.
This responsibility be quite a pain; walkies are often valued between $500-1000 USD. Every one you lose without having someone held accountable is a mark on your personal reputation. This adds a great deal of stress to the job, and it means that if you have any organizational issues whatsoever, you must work them out before undertaking this responsibility.
Don’t stress too much. With so many people on a crew, a few are bound to go missing or break at some point. In my experience, as long as you lose less than 5% of the walkies by the end of the show, the producers won’t have too much of a problem with you. Just do your best.
The Distro Production Assistant Duties
As mentioned above, the Distro P.A. and Walkie P.A. are often the same person, as they are less intensive than some of the other responsibilities.
What is a Distro? Distro is the responsibility of distributing hundreds of pieces of paperwork including forms, scripts, letters, and packages. Pretty much anything that needs to get to anybody, between the set and the office, goes through the Distro PA. Script revisions, shooting schedules, one-liners, NDAs, start paperwork, and many other varieties of paperwork will all need to be distributed on a daily basis. It is your job to make sure that these things are given to the right people in a timely fashion.
Part of doing Distro involves knowing when things have been delivered. It is important to know the contents of the packets you are delivering, so that if an A.D. asks you, “Hey, did Martin get his goldenrod pages?” you know he did. However, be careful, as not all productions may be okay with you opening the contents of people’s mail, so make sure to check with an A.D. to see if they want you to open the packages first. If they don’t want you to, then they will understand that you will not know the contents of the packages for future reference.
The most fun part of the job is giving people packages that they’ve been waiting for! Everyone’s always really happy to get a package. Distro is one of the most rewarding jobs, because the nature of the work requires you to learn every single person’s name. You’ll do the best networking out of anybody. Just try to make a habit out of referring to people by name, and joke around with everyone, and you’ll be everyone’s favorite in no time.
Note: At one point or another you may end up being blamed for someone not getting something. Usually (hopefully) it’s not your fault. Just keep your composure and don’t try to deflect the blame, even if you had nothing to do with it.
Office Production Assistant Duties
If the harsh environment of set and intense physical demands are not for you, or if for some reason you have a childhood dream of being a Production Coordinator someday, then you should look into becoming an office P.A.. While Set Production Assistants help with lockups and deal with the aforementioned responsibilities, office P.A.s work with the office, assisting the Production coordinator and other members of the office crew with whatever they need done around the office.
This usually entails going out on runs, reading and writing E-mails, and manufacturing and packaging the Distro. That means making lots of copies, which sounds like an easy task, but may require a lot of attention to detail, especially when it comes to important documents like script revisions. These are often watermarked and are extremely sensitive information, so the guidelines provided by your coordinator must be adhered to strictly.
In my local film industry, the general consensus is that working in the office is much easier than being a set PA. If you’re looking to get your start in the film industry, but have been scared by horror stories of on-set abuse, the office is a great place to get started.
That just about covers all the different responsibilities you may encounter as a production assistant! Like we’ve mentioned multiple times, the nature of the job means that it would be impossible for you to prepare for everything. You’ll just have to be prepared for anything – and I think that’s my favorite thing about working as a PA. As grueling and miserable as the job can be, it’s certainly never boring.
If you think we missed any important production assistant responsibilities, make sure to leave a comment down below, and we’ll do our best to add it to our list!