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The AD Gets The Shaft

  • Many times, in student films, you'll see a Director of Photography, a Sound Supervisor, a Director, a Writer, Grips, PAs, possibly even Stunt Coordinators. However, you will continually find two things lacking: craft services and an Assistant Director.

    The first one is easy to solve - go buy yummy foods. The second, however, is a little more difficult as most student directors do not know the job the Assistant Director does, let alone the importance of having one. The Assistant Director, naturally, is the least likeable person on set. Everybody knows that they are always yelling about being behind schedule, when can we have this set-up ready to go, ETS, and so forth. However, the Assistant Director can go far in the pre-production process to save both time and money - both of which are VERY important on a low-budget film.

    During pre-production, the Assistant Director's main responsibility is putting together and keeping a schedule. This means down-to-the-minute details, folks! If your shoot is going to be from late August to early December (as most student productions are), your continuity is going to be completely thrown if you have people wearing parkas when it's supposed to be the middle of the summer, or when your actors are shivering so badly, people might think they are playing drug adicts. Schedule your outside scenes during the warm months, and your inside scenes when it gets colder.

    In order to do this, as on most LB productions, the Assistant Director needs to get detailed schedules from the actors and crew to find out when they will be available. You can't shoot that big heartbreak scene in Kansas if the love interest is in Toronto during the time you had that scheduled. Work with your actors, your crew, and find a compromise.

    Also, be sure to schedule in cover sets and extra shooting days. At least two weekends should be allotted at the end of the summer quarter (if this is how long the film is), because you will ALWAYS hit inclement weather.

    It is the AD's job to go on location scouts and keep in mind the technical aspects of film making if a Department Head is unable to make it: for instance, if a director really wants to shoot under a train because it looks great, but a member of the sound department doesn't come, it's up to the AD to tell the director, "Look, this isn't going to work and, if you want it to work, you need to get your sound man out here to see if it is feasible."

    Lastly (on a macro level), the AD will generally be responsible for herding extras. This means finding them, handling them, and doing everything with them so that the director can work with the principles. If you are lucky enough to have a 2nd, and maybe even a 2nd 2nd, you can delegate this task to them. But, as you have set up the schedule, you will know exactly what days extras will be needed. Get into contact with local agencies, universities, military public affairs offices, high schools, theatres. Introduce yourself, be cordial, and tell them what dates you are going to be needing extras. About two weeks from the shoot date is when you should get into contact with these people. Directors and producers will always come to you last minute saying "we need X extras tomorrow, from Y time all day, with no pay and maybe a meal voucher." Most people would do this because they love to do it, and because they recieve exposure. But, at the last minute, a deal like this was sour from the start. And remember, it is up to YOU to make sure extras continuity, costumes, props, anything like that is good to go. Art Department will check it, too. But you need to be on the ball, especially on a low-budget film or television show.

    I know I have just spent a paragraph talking about rounding up extras, but it seemed like a decent flow. The MOST important thing to do during scheduling is to GET STORYBOARDS! Directors (and some - though not all - Cinematographers), especially student and indie directors, are notorious for not only ignoring storyboards, but of making up the shot list on the fly, in their heads, on the day of the shoot. This is bad, bad, bad. As an AD, you need to push, prod, and pull those storyboards - or atleast the shot lists - out of the hands of the creative team. It does nobody any good if the Department Heads can't be ahead of the game. When you get them, take a look at the sets and the environment. Schedule all scenes at the same location during one block (for instance, all scenes shot in the Miller Home will be done Monday through Thursday. Monday and Tuesday will be all scenes in the Basement. Wednesday morning will be the Attic. Wednesday afternoon will be the Kitchen. Thursday will be the Garden, Garage, and pick ups). Work by scenes. Then, group the shots by the angle. Then, by the focal length. Have an entire set-up struck, and struck for good, when you're done with it for that day.

    I've worked on professional sets where, especially frustrating for the Art Department, the Director has no set schedule, and nobody can predict them. So, things that could have been done are now being waited on by the crew, because there was no way to have things pre-set, and they have to move on to something else anyway, because time's a' burnin'. And DP's don't generally enjoy having to move dollies and jib cranes back and forth between the same two set-ups over and over. It's simple to do, you just need the storyboards and shot lists.

    Once you get them, set down with the Director, DP, Lead Grip, Gaffer, and Production Designer. Before you schedule the number of days (just get the blocks done), get with the department heads and get the time it's going to take to set-up, light, shoot, re-set. Add an hour to the very back end. If a shot requires a job, or a dolly set-up, special scene lighting, moving lighting, it will add time to set-up. This gives you a set number of hours to get a particular shot or scene done in. Then, nobody can bitch at you when you start saying "time to move on," because THEY were the ones who told you how long it would take, AND you padded their estimate.

    The last thing you do in pre-production is have a set of call sheets, schedules, and script breakdowns ready to go. A new call sheet for every day, a new schedule for everyday, plus the master. And script breakdowns for every scene. These go out to the Department Heads the day before. If there are any special changes or notes, those need to be added to these sheets, depending on who needs them.

    During production, the AD has a lot of different jobs. The job of the 1st AD is to go around, yelling, and screaming about keeping on schedule and generally, being a jerk. Just kidding. But, that's what it seems like to anybody who hasn't worked in the department. THE 1ST AD IS THE BOSS ON SET! What they say goes. They will walk into dressing rooms, make-up trailers, ANYWHERE looking for whoever or whatever is keeping a hold up, get them into position, and make the call. It is the job of the 2nd AD to go around and make nice with everybody afterwards.

    If the Director has done his job in pre-production, ideally, the actors should just have to come on set and do their thing. Rarely does this actually happen. When a production is held up on one shot (and remember, you should know when this shot wraps), it is the job of the AD to tell the Director that it is time to move on - sternly, but fair. If you happen to get a Director who is in DeMille mode, you may have to pull in a producer to talk to the Director.

    Once a scene is or shot is underway, if there is more than one location during the day, the AD needs to call to Team A (the crew that is settig up the next location), and make sure they are on schedule. For Art Department and Grip, they generally will be on time if not ahead of schedule.

    Generally, you will get behind schedule. This will happen within the first couple of hours. When this does, it will be time to triage the remaining part of the day (lunch is the best time). Most ADs divide the shot list into two - Must-Have and a Wish List. Personally, I do it in three: A, B, and C. A are all of the priority shots. B are the "it won't really work without these, but I suppose we can cut them." C is the complete if-we-get-back-on-schedule-maybe-we-can-get-a-couple-of-these-shots list. Once you have your list, go back to your block and schedule. On a set-up, if you get all of A done, and you have 45 minutes before you have to move on, move on to list B. Generally, B is going to be a healthy mix of Priority Shots and the Wish List.

    During set-ups, the AD needs to play a delicate balance between telling people to move faster, and getting information. The AD is the information center on set. He is the go-to-guy. He is also the buffer between crew and principles. On a movie set, unless the Director or an Actor speaks to an Intern, a Grip, a PA, anything below-the-line, they are to make no contact with anybody except those within their department. A film is not social hour, it is always behind schedule. If there is a question from somebody, we have a chain of command for a reason. An Art Dept. Intern goes to the Lead Carpenter, who goes to the Foreman, who goes to the Production Designer, who goes to the 1st AD. Aside from the actors, producers, and DP, the AD is the ONLY person the Director should have to speak with. be the buffer. The reason you are there is so the Director doesn't have to deal with all the junk that I've already described, and the more to come.

    Also, some administrivia: keep a notebood with important forms and phone numbers. On my first film as Assistant Director, the Director was a good friend of mine and was an experienced producer. He told me that he was taking care of location information, and he would simply have to hand it to me. I took him on his word. Sure enough, we showed up on set, and the owner of the property had not given us permission, and was threatening to kick us out of the building. My Director had not given me the Location forms, so I couldn't do anything. But, I had the phone number of our attorney. She came down and sorted it out, but a lot of frustration could have been tempered if I had simply second guessed and bulldogged the Director and Producers. Always second guess as an Assistant Director. Always cover your butt hole.

    Once you are close to the end of the day, start figuring out how to get out as quickly, efficiently, and organized as possible. Now, as a Director, as an Assistant Director, and as a Producer, it has always been my theory that the Director is the first on the set, and the last to leave every day. They are the ceremonial head of production. No director ever stays and helps, though. They may stay, talking and distracting the crew, but they never help. Get them off set if they are being a hindrance. Go the every department at wrap, make sure they are ready or are in the process of getting ready to wrap. Check back in with every department during wrap, and see what they need. Remember, you are the boss. Lead by example. NOBODY LEAVES SET UNTIL IT IS COMPLETELY ORGANIZED AND CLEAN. If you are shooting on location, always leave the set better than what you found it. At the end, Department Heads will take care of their staff, and they need to check in with you before they take off for the evening.

    At the end of every shooting night, you need to schedule a staff meeting with all of the principle crew. Talk about what went well and what went poorly (and, be prepared: the negatives will ALWAYS overshadow the positives at these meetings). Figure out how to improve communication, move quicker.

    You could say that the 1st Assistant Director is the right side of the production. The Art Department, Director of Photography, and ESPECIALLY the Director are the left brain. People talk about people smoking on set. They are robably thinking about the assistant director. The job is high-stress, high-priority, continually evolving, and adaptation. So, take it easy on your Assistant Directors. They have the hardest job on set. For instance, I may be a jerk on set, but everybody generally likes me as a person so I always grab drinks with everybody afterwards. And, for you Directors and Producers out there who don't think you need an AD, I think what I've just written has proven that you do. If the Director should not be responsible for making sure all the lights are plugged in, why should they be responsible for anything I've discussed? Get an Assistant Director. It will make your life, as a Director and Producer, so much easier.

Comments

1 comment
  • Adam Matalon
    Adam Matalon Hear hear. As an ex AD and now director producer I have been quoted as saying " I'm sorry to be an %$#hole but I don't have an AD to be one for me. A good AD is invaluable!<br>
    January 29, 2007 - Report