Why Taking On PA Jobs Can Be Good For Your Mental Health And Get You Future Work

Why Taking On PA Jobs Can Be Good For Your Mental Health And Get You Future Work

A month ago I flew to North Carolina and was the Director of a 5 person crew for a week-long video shoot at a multi-million dollar corporate facility. Then just last week, I spent 4 days in Albuquerque as a Production Assistant, shooting behind the scenes images and getting lunch for the crew. My ego almost stopped me from taking that gig, but I’m glad it didn't. Here’s why.

Despite having my own production company and some freelance clients still coming to me from my old home in Michigan, work has been a bit slow in my current area. I’ve kept busy doing gear reviews for Fstoppers and working on my documentary project. I still peruse Craigslist and some other job boards, but there isn’t much. When I do see something, the pay is extremely low (if there’s pay at all) and hardly ever covers travel or per diem expenses.

I did have one huge corporate promo video that I produced in May, that had been in the works for nearly six months. It was a high stress week where the success or failure of the shoot rode on my shoulders, but thankfully everything went swimmingly. For that project it was my client, and I was the producer, director, and editor.

While I was in NC for that shoot, I saw a job posting from another Fstoppers writer, Zach Sutton. He was looking for a behind the scenes video shooter in Albuquerque for a few days, to capture BTS of a video crew that would be following him. I explained that I lived about 4 hours away and was looking for pay and some travel comp, and waited to hear.

Some time passed and after some negotiating, I was lined up to drive to New Mexico to be not only the BTS shooter, but a production assistant in general for PRO EDU. They make photography tutorials, and would be working with Zach to create a piece about environmental portraiture. Here’s what I learned over the next 4 days about going from the being the head cheese on my own shoots, to being the bottom rung on the production ladder.

When it is slow, take what you can get.

I experienced stretches of not much work even when I lived in a large university town. I’d usually fill that time with personal projects. In my current area though, as long as the work is interesting and pay is more than what I would make as a barista or retail manager (after expenses) I’ll toss my hat into the ring. Travel can be big a deal breaker, as I see a lot of work in cities that are 3-4 hours drive away, and a few hundred bucks isn’t going to be a few hundred bucks net when I have to pay for gas, food, and possibly stay overnight to make a 6am call time. But if after expenses I can still make a solid $25 an hour, I’ll likely do it.

Our first shoot in White Sands National Monument, on a hot and windy day.

You might think that is way too low and I’m hurting the industry by doing that. I would agree with you to a point. I won’t write, shoot, edit, and direct a complete production for peanuts, that absolutely hurts the industry. I will however take on low-stress, low responsibility gigs for a rate that is good for the position and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Which brings me to my next point…

It’s a relief to not be responsible for everything.

In ABQ I was the BTS/PA alongside a crew of 3 others. They were charged with scheduling, conception, planning, shooting, and making sure they got the coverage they needed to produce their tutorial segments. My only responsibility was shooting them shooting Zach, and capturing the gear they used. I didn’t have to check notes or a production packet, I didn’t have to stress about the time, I didn’t have to worry about what everyone else was doing. It was refreshing.

Being able to focus on a single task lets you explore more creative options.

The byproduct of being in that role meant that I could focus purely on my task. Without a set list of shots or having to setup lights and stage action, I funneled my creativity into making compositions and movements to capture the production crew and make them look as cool as possible. With a pair of 5D markIII’s and GoPro 3’s at my disposal, I took stills, video, and a ton of timelapses. Usually I'm the person standing back and telling others to shoot this or that, so being hands on with gear all week was a treat.

Rob Grimm running a Canon C100 at our second shoot.

With a different crew comes a fresh perspective on production and workflow.

Working alongside a brand new crew, one thing I enjoy is seeing how they work from planning to execution, and their workflow on set. From what gear they are using and why, to how they coach talent, and how they plan for when things go wrong– it was insightful to see how they made their production happen. Problem solving and dealing with some tough environments created opportunities for creative solutions that I was able to be a part of.

As a bonus, almost every night we looked at the dailies, so I was able to see the results of what they shot. I learned a few things that I could easily apply to my next project, and I also got play with some gear that I would– and wouldn’t– want to use in the future.

New people means a new set of contacts.

The people on the crew I worked alongside included a manager for a photo studio, and a veteran photographer with 25+ years of experience and a rolodex with some big clients. I also met their editor, and with my editing background we had a number of lively conversations about file management, workflow, and codecs. We would be the life of any party, especially when we start doing squat thrusts in parking lots.

You might say that having a new contact for low paying work isn’t all that helpful. I’ll use the example of the craiglist client who wants you to work for credit, but they claim that they will “introduce you to so many people and so many people will see your work!” in return. Those new prospects will often pay you with only credit as well, so it’s not really helpful in that sense. However, building a relationship with a new client or producer, and making it clear that you might be taking a lower than normal rate, or are capable of a larger role within their productions, can set you up for future success.

Zach Sutton is an environmental portrait rockstar.

In my case, after 3 days of working with this crew as a "lowly" PA/BTS shooter, I had built a solid rapport and they had seen the images I had produced for them. They were so impressed that before I left town, they booked me a plane ticket to St. Louis, so that I could do it all again for another 3-4 day project. I don’t know about you, but typically I don’t fly my PAs out for shoots. I'll take this as quite the compliment and am looking forward to a few days of paid, low-stress, creative production.

Do you have any examples of when you took gigs that you were perhaps over-qualified for? Did you enjoy them or did your ego get in the way? Leave a comment below!

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23 Comments

Chris Blair's picture

Awesome! I was wondering who was going to do that BTS job...congrats and great post. I love taking PA jobs, I think it makes you a better director and producer to see how everyone else is doing it.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

As I'm sure you know, in this industry you never stop learning. Being an assistant to others is great insight into someone else's experience and expertise.

Zach Sutton's picture

It was so good knowing you were there too, Mike.

Thanks for working your ass off for 4 days...dealing with me sending us all out to crazy places with wind, sand and dirt to help ruin our gear :-D

Mike Wilkinson's picture

Those are the places where I thrive, I'm a big outdoorsy dude as you know. Next time you get a big project going and want some video/BTS, hit me up!

Zach Sutton's picture

Absolutely. And if you ever need a vacation to Albuquerque, I have a couch you can crash on buddy.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

You have the closest Trader Joes and Whole Foods... so that might happen!

Chris Blair's picture

And I have a pool!

Zach Sutton's picture

Oh, I hope you're celebrating holidays this weekend.

Specifically Saturday, which is "Invite people named Zach to your pool day"

Chris Blair's picture

Ha sure, you gotta share it with the kids though.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

Only if you supply the pool noodles. Sword fight!!

Gary Winchester Martin's picture

I think he'd be better off in a tent. Very suspect couch

See you in St. Louis Mike. Glad to hear you'll be there.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

I'm stoked do it. It's great group of people who are going to be working together, and I'm looking forward to meeting you!

Looking forward to it as well!

David Geffin's picture

Thoroughly enjoyed this write up Mike - as someone like yourself who will happily flit between directing a small crew to shooting simple BTS shots, it's the variety that is the spice of life and helps us hone and sharpen our creative vision and production skills. Sounds like you guys had a lot of fun too, which is never a bad thing :)

Gary Winchester Martin's picture

Mike earned the nickname "The Godfather" on this shoot.

One step backwards, two steps forward. (Or something like that. I don't know the exact saying.)

Yup. I think it is good to do sometimes a job you are 'overqualified' for. It takes you back, and refreshes the way you are thinking now about your work(flow). And if the (good) work gets noticed you get something positive out if it, just like the above situation.

Austin Burke's picture

I started in film before I moved to phtoography and usually worked as a first AC rather than a PA but its still similar. I worked my ass off and no one noticed because If I was doing my job things would go smoothly (which is fine with me, I'm there to make sure its smooth sailing, not to get a pat on the back) and its great to learn how others do certain tasks.

Also if anyone ever needs an assistant or BTS for a shoot in Florida they should hit me up.

I agree, so someone hire me in Indiana!

Jeroen Rommelaars's picture

That sounds like such a lovely assignment. Would love to do more work like that!

You mentioned craigslist, but other than that, how do you normally get your PA gigs? I'm from Michigan as well and it's kind of hard finding stuff to work on since most people don't really advertise their projects much.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

There are numerous website to search for work on besides craigslist. Mandy.com, productionhub, creative cow, glassdoor, and then you have to start thinking locally and check out local newspaper classifieds (online of course) nearby college and university job boards, and so on.

Start associating yourself with other shooters in any way possible. Take a class, do volunteer PA gigs, or maybe contact production companies directly asking if you can take some bts photos/videos of an upcoming shoot they are doing. I hated working for free, but it takes a long time to build a network of contacts and turn it into steady, paying gigs.

Filip Knoll's picture

If I get the chance to work like this I would take it ! It gives you solid amount of money, non stress job, new people. For me sounds great. If you need anyhelp near Ocean City MD, let me know I would definitely manage my time to cooporate!