Everyone has to start somewhere, and for people seeking entry into the world of video production, or even studio photography, doing work as a production assistant is a great way to get your feet wet. I've hired lots of assistants, and before that I worked as one myself. I still do for some producers! Here are my tips on what to NOT do if you'd like to keep getting hired and make your way up the chain.
Most of these tips don't even apply to video or photography, they are general job skills! In my experience, A hard-working, enthusiastic production assistant who knows nothing will get hired every time, over someone who has a degree or some experience, but a terrible attitude. I'm amazed at how some PAs lack a few simple skills, so I hope that if you're looking for work as a PA, you take these seriously the next time you step onto a shoot.
If you're looking to get more gigs as a second shooter for weddings, then read this awesome article by Trevor Dayley. It focuses specifically on that position, while this article is more for the video production assistant.
1. Be late, or simply don't show up at all.
You played too much GTA last night, had a few (7) beers with your friends and just feel like skipping out on your obligations? Cool bro! Enjoy your time sleeping in while I delete your contact info from my phone. Seriously, this should be a no-brainer. And if you really are terribly ill, then communicate that before you show up. I've come to set with full on strep throat and a fever, manning my camera as I had committed to. I told my director, and he placed me in a different position that was less taxing on my heavily medicated self.
2. Arrive on set looking like Amy Winehouse.
So we're producing a documentary about substance abuse, and are interviewing recovering addicts and mental health experts. I look over at my client and ask them, "Oh, is that our first interviewee?" Nope. That's my assistant walking in. Now, I'm definitely not one to dress fashionably. I love to work in jeans and comfortable clothes. Simply make sure they are clean clothes, without rips or cleavage. The safe bet is a simple polo shirt or plaid, with jeans or khakis. If you're shooting outside in the sun and getting dirty, basic black or white T-shirts are fine for most. When in doubt, just ask! Some producers are more picky about this than others. Lastly, don't bother wearing heels, sandles, or other open toed shoes. I'm likely to have you move heavy equipment that could crush your toes. That pink glitter toenail polish is going to be a magnet for something pointy and heavy.
3. Play on your phone while we are working.
I'm sweating, managing my client's expectations and trying to make sure my next shot is in focus, and my assistant is standing next to a light, just tapping away on their phone. Nothing is more frustrating that than this. Turn your phone off and put it in your pocket. I'm paying you to be here, not to "Like" your mom's status on facebook. I don't care that she is making tuna casserole for dinner. And why would you like that anyway? Gross.
4. Offer your business card to my client.
Really? You think you would like to get some work from my client? This is a big no-no, and it's about respect. If you get to chatting with my client, and they start inquiring about the work that you do, that's fine. But you will need to direct them to me, if they start asking for business cards. The only exception to this might be if I'm traveling for work. I can understand them wanting to get a local's contact info, but I should be the one to pass it on. If someone has hired you, please be respectful and defer to them in most cases.
5. Disappear for a smoke break or bathroom break without communicating.
I told you not to get the chili burrito. Bathroom emergencies aside, if I'm running around coordinating things and my assistant is not where I expected, why did I hire them in the first place? Communication, again. Just ask if you need your nicotine fix or to take care of some personal needs.
6. Act shady or inappropriate around myself, my client, or the talent.
No really, I'm sure the talent won't mind you oogling her bosoms when we are shooting the beach scene. And that bag you're carrying around that screams, "I'm going to steal some things when no one is looking" really makes me feel good about handing you a $10,000 piece of gear. I'm quick to drop a "that's what she said" comment, but unless that's the kind of set we are working on that day, keep it PG-13. And yes, our model is very good looking and of course the center of attention, but no one likes a creeper.
7. Don't come prepared at all.
The best assistants I've had always were the resourceful sort. Whether they just had a pen, or asked to carry around the tape roll or whitecards, the easier they make the shoot, the more likely it is that I will want to hire them again. I've had some assistants come to set with work gloves, a flashlight, and a multitool. This makes me a happy director.
8. Be afraid to speak up.
If you see my 2K open face smoking more than Method Man at a Wu-Tang show, you should probably say something. I've been in situations where I was handed a piece of gear by the lead shooter that I didn't know how to operate, and it was nerve wracking. I had to admit that I didn't know how to use it, which was the best thing to do. The lead had no problem, and he then took 5 seconds to show me how. So if this ever happens, keep it together and simply speak up. You'll make it worse if you fumble with the controls and change other settings.
9. Scoff at the notion of grabbing coffee or lunch.
Leave your ego at the door. Most days, I'll go grab coffee in the morning for everyone. Caffeine is a drug, and I need my fix. If I'm busy later, and I think you've got 15 minutes to spare, guess what? I'm paying you for the day and getting coffee is a pretty simple task. You may be a great director yourself, making tons of money on your projects but when times are slow and you end up being an assistant, don't complain. Show the people you are working with why you're so awesome.
10. Don't stay in touch.
I'll be honest here– I get emails from recent college grads looking for work quite often. I do try to reply to each of them, but usually I don't have work for them at that very moment. I will however, file their email away in a special category so that when the day comes where I need to hire a couple assistants, I have a pool of people to choose from. You want to be at the top of that list. Realistically, I will email the first 3 people, and the first 1-2 that get back to me will get the gig. Follow people you want to work with on Vimeo, Facebook, wherever you can get your name more exposure to their eyes. It helps.
As a producer or director, you usually have a few go-to assistants locally that you call on 75% of the time. But as they progress and get more of their own projects, they usually become less available. So whether it's because of their limited availability, or perhaps you're traveling and need some help on the road, taking to craigslist or other sources for help can be dicey. I've encountered more a than a few assistants with the above issues. My advice– talk to other directors or producers in the area you'll be in, and ask them for a referral. Posting on craigslist is like opening the gates to Mordor.
What other tips do you have? What assistant horror stories do you have? Share them below!
(the featured image was a still frame from a video where my buddy was messing around... he's actually a great assistant but this still frame was perfect for the point of the post)