October 19, 2016
for your production bible

Your First PA Gig: Everything You Need to Know

From on-set lingo to do's and don'ts, this comprehensive guide to being a PA will help you start your first day with confidence—and even a little know-how. 

So you’ve been asked to be a Production Assistant. Congratulations! You’ve taken the first very important step toward a career in the film industry. PAs are part of a long and wonderful tradition of apprenticeship on set. Though you hold the lowest rank, you are an important cog in the machine. Plus, being "green" is a great excuse to ask questions, avoid too much blame, and learn a whole lot. 

Film productions have an immense amount of action going on in every corner. Things change daily; the truth is, no one is ever fully ready for a day on set. However, knowing these basics will help you make it through your first PA gig with a headstart. 

Before you leave the house, make sure to have everything you need

Because productions are ever-changing, you will need to be as prepared as possible. And you can start this preparation with what you wear out of the house. There may be other specific items your superiors ask you to bring, but here is a handy basic checklist of things that every PA should bring to set.

You are the lowest position on set and, technically, everyone has the right to ask you for favors.

  • Comfortable shoes: This is the most crucial item for any film position. If you plan on having a career in this industry, invest wisely in comfortable, durable, waterproof, closed-toed, and non-slip footwear. Your feet will thank you.
  • Appropriate clothing: The meaning of "appropriate" can vary depending on the set, but blacks are generally a safe bet. If you’re working on an upscale commercial with clients in attendance, make an effort to wear clothes that aren’t too ripped or stained. Always avoid controversial clothing or anything too revealing. If you’re going to be shooting outside, be sure your outfit takes the weather into account. (Bring sunscreen!) And always be sure that your pants have pockets and the wherewithal to support the weight of a walkie and whatever else you might be asked to hold. This means you need to skip the leggings.

PAs handling walkies and surveillance.Credit: Film Life Rules

  • Surveillance: "Surveillance" is otherwise known as an earpiece for your walkie. Buy one. Keep track of it. Love it. Walkies are used on all professional sets, and surveillance is not always provided. When it is, it runs the risk of being broken or unsanitary. Either way, make sure you have one on you. An "open walkie" with the volume turned out to the public can be a quick way to ruin a take and get fired before lunchtime.
  • Call sheets: The day’s call sheet is your first point of reference and a very important tool. It tells you where and when to be, and it acts as a guide for the whole day. Study it beforehand and note any necessary information. Print the call sheet at home and have extras on your person throughout the day, in case anyone asks for a copy. (You'll get brownie points for this.)
  • Sides: These are the script pages your crew will be shooting that day. Depending on the shoot, these won’t always exist or be made available to you. But if they are, they’re another excellent reference for following what exactly is going on around you. It's the same principle as call sheets: print these at home and have extras available.

In the film industry, early means on time, and on time means late. Always.

  • Multitool: This is not mandatory and no one will expect you to have one, but you will certainly win points if you can solve a problem without asking to borrow a multitool from the G&E department.
  • A small notepad and pen: You’re going to learn a lot your first day. Taking notes can save you in any number of situations. Use it to remember directions so you don’t have to ask twice. Write down people’s names and positions and coffee orders. (You’d be surprised how important this one is—film crews don’t mess around with coffee.)
  • Multiple phone chargers and external batteries: Having a charged smartphone is unquestionably necessary. A dead phone at the wrong time can be grounds for termination. Your own phone is your first priority, but if you can bring chargers for different models, everyone on set will thank you. Just don’t forget to label your stuff, or people could walk off with it.
  • Extra socks: In case your feet get wet or cold. Miserable feet lead to a miserable day. Trust us.
  • Lighter: Bring this, even if you don’t smoke; it could be your most powerful tool. It may be the reason you get to speak to the lead actor or DP. It may be the reason the Key PA hires you back the next day.
  • Hot bricks and your walkie: When you get to set, go straight to the production area to get your walkie talkie and extra charged batteries, or "hot bricks." Keep these items on you all day and hand out batteries to whoever may need them.

Be on time—and that means 15 minutes before breakfast

When prepping for your first day (and every day that follows), it’s important to note not only the call time on your call sheet, but also when breakfast starts. Then, set your alarm to arrive 15 minutes before that. In the film industry, early means on time, and on time means late. Always.

As a member of the Production department, look not only for general crew call, but specifically for "Production Call." That’s you. Call time is the scheduled time to start working, so make sure you’ve eaten beforehand, whether breakfast is served on time or at all.

Credit: Shutterstock

Know who you report to 

The short answer: everyone. You are the lowest position on set and, technically, everyone has the right to ask you for favors. However, there is still a hierarchy. Depending on the size of the crew, your boss will be either a Producer or the Key PA. No matter what, remember that you are an assistant to the Production department. That means that you answer to the Producers, 1st AD, and higher ranking PAs first. The Key PA may be your superior, but that person is also on your side. Save your questions and concerns for them and the other PAs on set. 

Learn and follow strict walkie etiquette 

Much of film history has ties to the military, and walkie etiquette is perhaps the most obvious remnant of that era. The lingo and call-and-response methods are tools for maintaining efficiency and clarity in your communication. Pay attention, study a bit beforehand, and you’ll pick it up quickly.

Your first task upon receiving a walkie is to plug it in and transmit the phrase "walkie check." 

When you first get your walkie, learn the layout. There are volume and channel knobs, and talk buttons on your surveillance. As a PA, you’ll be on channel one, the Production channel. Your first task upon receiving a walkie is to plug it in and transmit the phrase "walkie check." Whoever hears you will respond with "good check" so you know that your walkie works. Below is some other common slang.

  • "Copy" or "Copy that": Acknowledges that you’ve heard and understood the information transmitted. Over walkie—and in person—it’s important to always confirm that you understand.
  • "On it": Not only have I understood, but I’m actively working to achieve whatever you asked.
  • "[Name] for [name]": "Your name" trying to reach "their name," or, for example, "Kate [the PA] for Sam." This is the standard method for calling upon a specific person.
  • "Go for [Name]": This is your response to being called upon. When Kate calls for Sam, Sam responds with "Go for Sam." 
  • "Take it to two": When you need to have an extended or private conversation with someone, you should both state and agree to move your talk to channel two. Channel two is kept clear for such conversations; with this in mind, keep your chat brief. When you arrive on channel two, state your presence with "Kate on two."
  • "10-1": A standard bathroom break. Everyone does it and it’s important to make others aware when you’re leaving set; don’t be embarrassed!
  • "Going off walkie": Make this announcement before you take off your walkie for any reason.
Credit: Shutterstock
  • "Standby" and "Standing by": This is the proper call and response when asking someone to hold for a moment while you complete what you’re doing (or vice versa).
  • "Eyes on blank": Calling for "eyes on" something is a simple way of having everyone look for a person or item.
  • "What’s your 20?": What’s your location?
  • "Flying in": This tells others you’re on your way to set with a person or item that’s been requested.
  • "Go again": Please repeat yourself. As a PA—in person and over walkie—try your best to never ask anyone to repeat themselves. But sometimes it happens. 
  • "Spin that please": After information has been stated on Channel one, someone—usually a Key PA or 2nd 2nd AD—will be asked to relay this information on other channels. When this happens, they’ll be asked to "spin that" info. Though one person is assigned to spin, all PAs are expected to "echo" when rolling and cut are called. That means listening for the starts and ends of takes and making sure everyone around you knows they’re happening.

As a PA, a large part of keeping the set safe is not touching any equipment. 

Make safety a priority

Film sets are dangerous places. There are chords everywhere, hot lights, sharp corners, and expensive actors. No matter what you’re doing or how quickly you were asked to do it, always be mindful of safety. As a PA, a large part of keeping the set safe is not touching any equipment. It doesn’t matter if the grips look like they could use a hand and all you want to do is lift a sandbag—don't do it. Seriously. 

Another major part of maintaining safety on set is being honest about what you’re comfortable with. If you’ve been asked to carry something too heavy, do not be ashamed to ask for help. If you’ve been asked to drive a cube truck but don’t feel ready, be honest about that, too. It may not always be the most pleasant message to deliver, but ultimately, your caution is keeping everybody safer

Know when and how to eat 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise by now, but there’s even etiquette for eating on set. As we mentioned earlier, breakfast is always pre-call, and it’s always a courtesy. That means Production doesn’t have to serve it or serve it well. Being fed before you start is your responsibility. 

Lunch is called after six hours and it lasts for a minimum of 30 minutes, in compliance with Union rules. That 30 starts at "last man"—the last person to get through the lunch line. At this point, someone (usually the AD) will call "last man 2:46, back in at 3:16," marking the official start and end times of lunch. Pay close attention!

If you notice the crafty table getting low, refill the snacks and always make more coffee, no matter what time it is. 

Between meals, there will be a table for "crafty" set up, which usually consists of snacks, coffee, water, and soft drinks. As a PA, you will be running around more than anyone else on set. Make the time to stay continually hydrated and fed. Nobody else will offer you water; nobody else will care that you were sent on a run during lunch (unfortunately, a frequent occurrence). Stock up on healthy snacks, and don’t go too wild with the sweets so you can stay in peak condition throughout the day.

At the same time, be cognizant of the fact that you aren’t the only one relying on this food to stay focused and energized. If you notice the crafty table getting low, refill the snacks and always make more coffee, no matter what time it is. 

Credit: Shutterstock / Top Photo Corporation

Don’t get lost on runs

At certain points, you may be asked to leave set for an errand. There are key things to be aware of when you’re sent on a run like this. First, know where you’re going. Plug the address into your phone’s GPS before you leave, and don’t lose battery for any reason. If you’re going to be driving a truck, make note of the legal truck routes in your area. Be sure, too, to ask for a corporate card, or petty cash, to pay for whatever it is you’re getting. Production may not always realize that fronting 15 coffee orders can get expensive. That said, bring your wallet just in case. But no matter how you pay, always get a receipt. Production expenses are painstakingly tracked and whoever does the accounting will thank you. (It’ll be how you get reimbursed, too.)

Finally, when on a run, think logically. You may need to make some decisions on the fly. For example, if you’re sent to get more crafty, get individually wrapped varietals over a few bulk bags. If you’re sent to a specific location for a generic item like trash bags, only to find that the store doesn't have them, don’t just return empty-handed. Take the initiative and check at other nearby stores. 

Lock down your lockups

A common PA task is something called "lockups," or the process of keeping an assigned area free of anything that might disrupt the take. That could mean preventing people from walking into frame, silencing a conversation near crafty, or even catching an errant frisbee that threatens to ruin the shot.

This is an extremely important job and should not be taken lightly. Even though you are the lowest position on set, you hold enormous power while doing lockups. Even if a Producer or other highranking person tries to enter set, it’s your job to stop them. Especially when shooting in public locations, the disruptions will be numerous. Stay alert, be firm (but not rude), and do your best to keep things quiet and orderly for the take.

The crew will be more impressed by your eagerness, attentiveness, and professionalism than any friendly banter or bragging. 

Don’t sit down...ever

Some say that PAs have the hardest job on set, and this is part of the reason why. Though you are an enormous asset to the production, you’re still "paying your dues." That means you should be energetic and always busy. If you ever find yourself at a loss for what to do, a good question to ask yourself is "what can be cleaned or restocked?" And then clean or restock it. There is always something. If nothing can be cleaned and no one is asking you for anything, use the opportunity to observe and take notes. You’re there to learn, after all! 

Credit: Shutterstock

Practice good judgment and "office appropriate" conduct

The hashtag #todaysoffice isn’t just a way for millennials to show off their film chops; it comes from a place of truth. Though working on set is the coolest job in the world, it’s still a job, and you should treat it as such. Think of PA-ing like an office internship: the crew will be more impressed by your eagerness, attentiveness, and professionalism than any friendly banter or bragging. 

As a PA, you should act as if you know nothing. It doesn’t matter if you went to film school or know how to use an Alexa; anticipating the DP’s need for coffee will go a lot further towards ingratiating you than any unwarranted opinion on the frame. This conduct and respect for rank can work in your favor in a lot of ways, especially if you want to learn about a specific department. For example, if you’re interested in the Art Department, don’t tell the Production Designer what you know. Instead, ask if you can shadow them in your free time. People are always happy to answer questions and teach their craft. 

If you play your cards right, these crew members might be great professional recommendations for you, and even potentially, life long friends. 

However, note that this does not extend to actors. Never chat with talent on set—unless they approach you first. You don’t know when you could be interrupting the preparation for an especially intense emotional scene. 

The internship analogy goes further. You will not be a PA forever, but you are now, so don’t complain. An unrelenting sunny attitude can lift up a whole set's morale. This also extends to private conversations and discussions about others. It’s a small industry and you don’t want to be caught speaking badly about a future co-worker. 

And finally, as you would in an office, think long and hard before engaging any kind of romantic interaction. Never flirt on the clock and be careful about after-hours, too—things could end badly and hurt your career. If you play your cards right, these crew members might be great professional recommendations for you, or even life-long friends. 

Remember that you really could be in an office right now

Being a Production Assistant is extremely difficult, but things could be a lot worse. You have been invited into the secret world of movie magic, so enjoy it! Find ways to add joy to every seemingly mundane task. Remembering that you are invaluable is a great place to start. You may feel grumbly about being sent on a coffee run, but know that serious art is relying on that caffeine—and you to provide it.

On the flip side, remember that it’s only a movie. Film sets will always seem urgent and fast-paced, but step back and realize that getting too stressed over a movie is silly in the grand scheme of things. So have fun with it, learn something, and we promise you’ll get through the day. 

Remember that it’s only a movie.

Ultimately, you’re there to learn and help. If you come in with that attitude, it will be hard to fail. Remember to keep your head on straight in times of stress. Frequently, the extra pause it takes to think through a problem can save hours down the line. That kind of forward thinking will prove you can do the job, and doing it with a smile will make people want to hire you again. 

However, being a PA is hard. Often you will be under-appreciated and over-exhausted. PAs tend to work longer hours than anyone else and get paid the least to do it. But if you can stick through the rough times, you will learn a lot and move up quickly.      

Your Comment

6 Comments

I was told three things on my first real PA gig:

1. People who come from film school usually don't like being PA's.
2. I'll learn more in one day on set than in four years of film school.
3. Wes Anderson has bad depth perception, and this is why his films look flat and stagey. This also prevents him from driving a car.

The first turned out to be true, the second didn't, and I have no clue about the third.

October 19, 2016 at 2:24PM, Edited October 19, 2:27PM

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Warren Bros.
Filmmaker | Cinephile
75

Also, be sure to wear a GoPro on your forehead (see photo). Productions love when you record proprietary content.

October 19, 2016 at 3:38PM

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Indiana
81

That was for rocketjump's production assistant video that they produced to teach people this same information. https://youtu.be/UPBfoEFgR28

October 20, 2016 at 8:42AM

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Everyone should read this before their first day on set. Period.

October 19, 2016 at 5:50PM

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Jacob Bittens
Producer, Writer, Director
86

I started as a PA for a small (20-25 crew) ongoing live production. I found that no matter how early crew call is, there is never enough time and was busy the entire time, even during the live broadcast. I kept busy though and learned a lot...eventually got to Audio 1 and then Director. No film school worked for me - it is something you have to learn on location or set, and keep learning as each location and crew will be different.

October 21, 2016 at 10:02AM

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I went to three LA film school college programs taken over five years with zero concern about a diploma. I wanted the knowledge, not the paper. And the best advice I got was get the hell out of LA. So I went back home to the Midwest, where there was a thriving hub of regional/national commercial production at the time. My town of less than a million people had six good sized film production companies all shooting 16 and 35mm commercials and documentaries, plus a slew of smaller video houses.

I started freelancing as anything anyone would hire me for - usually as a grip. I had no reputation or much real experience at the time. So I got hired as a grip one day by the house that was the most successful one in town and the one most folks here really wanted to work for. (He was a gruff guy, tough to work for, but he paid faster than anyone in town!). He actually had very few words to say to me the whole day, and I was sure I barely registered on his radar at the time. He was the director/cameraman and I figured if he recalled anything even resembling my first name, I was probably lucky.

The shoot ran about 10 hours. At the end of the day, we were packing up the grip/electric truck, and he walked up to me and offhandedly said, "You interested in full time?" I almost fell over.

The following Monday, I went into his office and he asked lots of questions about my life, my past, and a little about my film school experience. He never asked to see my big deal demo reel or a resume or my great student film or a diploma. And he finally offered me a full time position, to do a little bit of everything. Eventually, as the years rolled on, I wound up as DP, film and later video editor, negative cutter, production manager, studio manager, set designer/builder, and directed a few projects. I spent 23 years with him.

About six months after I was hired on, I casually asked him one afternoon why he hired me in the first place. He replied that on that first day as a grip, he noticed two things that stood out: when someone asked me to do something or get something, I ran to do it; and when lunch was called, I insisted on being the last guy through the lunch line. He said that in all of his years at that time, he had never seen a freelance crew member do those two things. He also noticed that on set, I never had a cup of coffee in my hand that had to be put down every time someone needed something, or a donut hanging out of my mouth.

You never, ever know what will stand out to someone, on set or in ANY job. That's why, even in the lowliest position you may have, you always need to recognize that especially on a production, there is a LOT of money being spent by someone else and a lot of very expensive and delicate equipment involved that you need to pretend for the day is YOURS for safekeeping, even in the tiniest of ways. Your job (and everybody else's) is to remove or solve problems and obstacles, large and small. And when the folks doing the hiring look around and see that YOU are one who is actually making others' jobs go smoother or easier for the day, you will standout and be someone they ask for again.

December 4, 2016 at 12:27PM

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