What Does a Production Assistant Actually Do?
Many of the best directors, writers, editors, producers, and other film and TV professionals began as production assistants. Even the Academy Award winner for Best Actress, Lupita Nyong’o, worked as a PA on The Constant Gardener back in 2005 ! The position is a great entry-level job that can help you launch your career in Hollywood, make connections, and learn how film and TV sets operate. But what does a production assistant do? Here’s our list of tasks that you might be asked to complete as a PA:
The truth is, a production assistant can be asked to do just about anything that needs to be done on set. Somehow, it feels as though there are always errands to run. You might have to go retrieve cuts of the film from a different department, transport film equipment, fetch lunch, or coffee orders (always write down the orders or put them in a notes app on your phone!). You might have to pick up strange props or even do personal tasks for a VIP on set.
You might not always feel like you’re learning a ton about film or TV production itself, but picking up Doritos for the director’s kid’s next soccer game can earn you a place on the director’s good side, so try to keep a positive attitude. Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy even had to catalog director John Milius’ gun collection when she was a PA. But if you make yourself reliable and even indispensable, you won’t have trouble finding another PA job when your first production is over. You might also get a crazy story for when your friends and family members ask you, “what does a production assistant do?”
You might also see job listings for “runner” or “PA/runner,” which means that running errands will take up a large part of your day. You won’t be clocking time on a treadmill, but you will definitely need comfortable shoes. You might also need your own car or at least a driver’s license that will allow you to drive a production-provided car. If these things are required, your supervisor will likely bring it up in your interview.
If you’re lucky enough to be a PA on set, you might be given a walkie-talkie so that you can assist the production’s assistant director (AD). You might be asked to echo (call out) “rolls” and “cuts,” make sure nothing gets in the way of a take (called “locking up”), relay information between various departments, or hand out equipment. You might also have to complete physical duties like taking out the trash or coiling cables.
Whether you’re an on-set production assistant or an “office PA” who works inside the film or show’s production office, you might have to do basic office tasks such as answering phones, making copies, replacing toner in printers and copiers, organizing files, making coffee, and stocking the office kitchen. Even if you don’t have a ton of experience with all of these things, you’ll be able to learn quickly. Nobody expects a production assistant to be an experienced expert. Just be on time (the hours may be long!), be helpful, and pay attention. Everyone will probably be in a rush and won’t have time to explain things to you twice.
Escorting cast members
If you’re a lucky production assistant, you might even get to interact with the actors. In fact, Lupita Nyong’o told Rhapsody magazine that her job on The Constant Gardener involved escorting star Ralph Fiennes to set every day. She learned the hard way that actors don’t always want to be peppered with questions. “Ralph is a very still man on set,” she noted. “It would be very quiet, and that made me uncomfortable. I’d try to make chitchat, asking, ‘What’s your favorite film? Of all the films you’ve been in, which have you enjoyed the most?’ He was so polite, and he responded to me. At one point, though, he just said, ‘Lupita, give me my space.’”
Production assistant positions are the gateway
Ultimately, what a production assistant does can involve some boring, basic work that will make you question your time spent in college — but it also provides the real-world education you’ll need to start your career in entertainment. If you show up on time, keep a positive attitude, multitask well, listen carefully, and stay organized, you’ll succeed. Maybe one day you’ll be accepting an Oscar and reminiscing about your old days as a green PA!