Life as a Production Assistant

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At this point in the semester, many of my fellow Creative Producing students have signed on to some project or other to produce.  I’ve been watching them go off into production mode, working hard and getting frustrated at times, but often learning a lot.  For a variety of reasons I haven’t yet put my hat in the ring to produce a project at Columbia, and at times I’ve felt like I’ve been sitting on the sidelines.

So when one of my fellow Creative Producing students recently asked if I might be interested in working as a production assistant on a small one-day shoot he was producing, I decided to go for it.  Even though the production assistant is the lowest crew position on the totem pole, it can offer some of the best opportunities to learn on set.  And as this would be for a professional shoot (not one run by students), I knew there would likely be more opportunities to learn.

The challenges for this production started even before I arrived on set.  I was responsible for craft services, which involved making runs to local stores to pick up food for the cast and crew, as well as other miscellaneous items that were needed throughout the day.

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For someone who jumps in and out of set to run errands in a car quite frequently, you can imagine that having a parking space near the set would be helpful, if not essential.  But when I arrived I learned that this day of shooting coincided with the City of Chicago’s street sweeping service, and so all of the parking available nearby – which is usually packed to the brim under ordinary circumstances – was cut in half, as the city had posted signs ensuring that one side of each street be entirely cleared of cars so the sweeping could be done.  Moreover, my Creative Producing colleague, who had thought ahead and got permits from the city so that we could legally park, learned too late that they were for the wrong side of the street.

This meant that far too much of my time was spent circling Chicago streets after having run an errand, trying to find a parking space.  And as I was circling, I had a lot of time to think.

The people at the top of a project, like the producer, the director, the DP, and the main cast, all have “skin in the game,” so to speak.  They have a professional reputation on the line with each project they work on.  Production assistants, on the other hand, don’t.  Their success isn’t tied to that of the project, and they’re probably being paid very little, if anything.  Yet they are an extraordinarily vital part of any shoot.  In most productions, everything would slow down and suffer without PA’s to lend a hand.

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As I circled through Chicago streets looking for parking, I thought a lot about how I, as a producer, can keep below-the-line crew members motivated and inspired to do good work, even if that work entails making runs to Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee.  I felt an incredible appreciation for those who give of themselves day in and day out, quietly making sure that the behind-the-scenes tasks on film sets are taken care of.

And I realized that if I, as a producer, can discover how to connect those at the bottom with those at the top, I’ll be able to unlock whole new opportunities and creative potential in my productions.