The First AD (or 1st Assistant Director) wears many hats. While their duties can range from top-tier union features to no-budget shorts, generally speaking, if the director directs the actors, the First AD directs the set. The AD department is tasked with running the day-to-day operations via that most precious of cinematic currencies: time.
When the AD is brought onto a project, it’s their job to break down the script, organizing all of the moving pieces in a clear manner; characters, props, locations, stunts, etc. From there, they create what is called a “Stripboard,” which lays out every scene to be shot. The most important information on these strips is the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN of any scene, so that the AD can then arrange them in the most efficient order for the schedule.
Before the first day of shooting, the AD is juggling countless factors as they build the schedule. Most films do NOT shoot in script order. In a perfect world, films are shot one location at a time, lumping together things like scenes with a certain actor, all while keeping the page count per day “reasonable.”
A common Stripboard.
Improvise to get the shot you need
Challenges will always throw a wrench in the works. Sometimes a location is only available at certain times, or an actor has a conflict on a certain day. Sometimes your day scene needs to be shot at night, or you need to shoot in the early morning hours before a business opens. These are the early stressors for an AD, who must seek to appease as many of these challenges as possible. With every new schedule arrangement, a new conflict could be created, and yet these are also opportunities for creativity.
A good AD always knows how to pull it off, be it through blacking out windows to achieve a night look during the day, using body doubles, or shifting the start time of the day to accommodate a scheduling conflict. For the millions of conflicts that may arise, there are millions of clever solutions, and a good AD is ready to present them with a smile on their face.
Finally, a schedule is shared with and approved by the various department heads to avoid any surprises. The DP needs to know which day they want the crane. The Prop Master needs to know when the medieval shield will play. As the first day approaches, the AD disseminates the call sheet, a sacred list of all the pertinent info for the day including arrival time, location, and scenes to shoot.
It’s the First AD’s job to run the set in such a way that they “make the day," getting all the shots that they originally planned to get.
Be prepared for frequent change
And then comes being on set, where everything will be rearranged again. It’s the First AD’s job to run the set in such a way that they “make the day," getting all the shots that they originally planned to get. This is achieved by communicating what shot is next, making sure actors are “going through the works” and getting into the right clothes, and that all the departments are moving at a good pace. They make sure the set is clear of trash and other items that shouldn’t appear in the final shot, and they liaise with the director making sure they’re happy with how things are shaping up.
A typical on-set Call Sheet.
Build trust and work to maintain it with everyone on set
Managing all of these things requires the AD to be “on” all the time. It’s rare to see the First AD sitting down. They’re flying around, talking to various departments, learning about what’s happening and, of course, what still needs to happen. A First AD needs to be an excellent communicator, motivating the crew to move quickly and safely to accomplish what is often long, laborious work.
Keeping morale high is essential. The relationship between the crew and the AD is extremely important. If they can't trust that the AD has their back, work will slow and tempers will flare. Through it all, the language must always be solution-oriented and designed to create efficiency: “What needs to happen to get this shot off?” “Is anyone not ready for a take?” “How long do you need to set this light?”
Strong bonds are formed amongst crews who pull off the seemingly impossible day in and day out.
You are responsible for everyone's safety
Safety is another aspect of the First AD’s job description. Along with the Key Grip, they are considered the chief safety officer and must remain vigilant at all times to address the daily dangers present on a film set. Along with their team of PAs, they work to keep pathways clear, hazards removed, and concerns addressed. They will always know the location of the First Aid kit and fire extinguisher and will ensure that the nearest hospital is listed on the daily call sheet.
Being an AD can be extremely stressful due to how many things are going on at any one time. But it can also be profoundly rewarding. Strong bonds are formed amongst crews who pull off the seemingly impossible day in and day out. Making movies is hard work, and through careful planning, diligence, and adaptability, an AD can be the difference between getting it all in the can and years of cumbersome reshoots. Sometimes the stress is worth it just to be able to say: “We came, we saw, we conquered.”