The Film Business

First-Time Filmmaker F-Up #36 “The Assistant Director Is the Director’s Assistant”

first time filmmakersThe F-Up

Allow me to eliminate a popular misconception: the assistant director is absolutely not the director’s assistant. It is a misleading title that in no way, shape, or form involves fetching the director’s coffee, answering the phone, picking up dry cleaning, or doing anything else commonly thought of as “assistant” work. Nevertheless, the assistant director is absolutely of indispensable assistance tothe director.

It is a tremendous mistake for new filmmakers to underappreciate the assistant director’s role. It can prevent them from utilizing the A.D. in a manner that will ensure the set runs efficiently. Furthermore, by understanding what an A.D. does, a good director or producer can help support the A.D. in a manner that will help him do his job better, which in turn will benefit the entire shoot immeasurably.

How to Do It Right

In short, the 1st assistant director (1st A.D.) is in charge of running the set. The 1st A.D. creates the schedule, manages the set, makes sure work is performed in a timely and efficient manner, and ensures that everyone is informed as to what’s happening—with the big goal of getting all the day’s scheduled work accomplished. Having all this responsibility also means should anything happen to cause the shoot to go off schedule, the 1st A.D. is likely to get blamed. As the old joke goes, “If it rains, that’s the A.D.’s fault.”

To scratch the surface of what the job entails, here are some of the 1st A.D.’s responsibilities:

● Set schedules.

● Make sure filming stays on schedule as much as possible.

● Set cast and crew call times.

● Disseminate necessary information to keep cast and crew informed.

● Decide when the crew will break for meals.

● Control walkie-talkie communication.

● Call the roll (this means calling “roll sound,” “roll camera,” “action,” and so on, to inform everyone of the shooting protocol).

● Limit and enforce the amount of time allotted for every setup and shot.

● Manage the director’s time and who has access (everyone thinks they need to talk to the director; most are mistaken).

● Manage the personalities of the cast and crew to help avoid or handle any potential conflicts.

● And, work on the front line of the never-ending battle to get the director what she wants.

Many people view 1st A.D.s as the set dictators. Sometimes they’re even referred to as the “set drill sergeants” and are forced to take on a more villainous persona to get things done. Different 1st A.D.s have different styles, which may or may not require a “villain” role on the set. Any A.D. Will tell you it is not an easy job and often requires extreme approaches. A set can move or not move based on the 1st A.D.’s ability to give it momentum. Following the director (and on some sets, the stars), the 1st A.D. is the person who is most likely to set the tone.

Another far-too-common and always deeply regrettable mistake new filmmakers make is thinking they don’t need an A.D. at all. However, anyone with any real filmmaking experience knows that a good A.D. department saves a production far more money than it costs. The quality of your A.D. department is one of the key factors that will decide how successful your shoot goes, what the tone on the set will be, and how much work gets successfully accomplished every day. Without a good 1st A.D., most sets quickly fall into something resembling complete chaos. It is crucial that you hire a 1st A.D. who is capable at creating and effectively managing the schedule and running your set in the manner you want and need it run.

The 1st A.D. is the head of the A.D. department, which may also include a 2nd A.D., 2nd 2nd A.D., and 3rd A.D.s. These people support the 1st A.D. both on and off the set by making sure everything is happening to schedule, information is being dispersed, call sheets are being made and distributed, company moves happen efficiently, talent is well managed, and much more. The 1st A.D. is also in charge of all on-set P.A.s, who do a ton of work.

Excerpted from First-Time Filmmaker F*&^ Ups by Daryl Bob Goldberg ©2011 Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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