Friday, November 27, 2009

How to be a PA

Switch to channel 2 with me.

It's taken me a while to finally write a post about how to be a PA. Don't expect this to be expert advice or anything, but it should at least get you started. This post is so that other PAs out there who might be new to the industry can get a handle on what's going on. I'm always open to criticism or complaints if any of this info seems inaccurate or my approach is wrong so please tell me.

So lets say you've got your first PA job and are as green as green gets.

Aside from getting the coffee right, here's a list of things that will always be expected of a good PA. If you can get these right you can start doing other things. Afterall, no one wants to be a PA forever. You should look at being a PA as something more like grad school or an old fashion apprenticeship. It's where you get up to date, on the job training, prove your worth, figure out what it is you want to do, get experience and training, and move up. So here it goes:

1. NEVER ASSUME ANYTHING. This is probably the number one rule of the production business. If you're not sure about something, ask. When you find yourself making logical conclusions about things you're not not 100% sure about, stop yourself, get confirmation before you proceed. While it may seem that all the people around you are on top of their game and taking care of business, you got to remember that they are human just like you and sometimes drop things. So always look before you leap.

2. ALWAYS BE EARLY. There's a saying, "If you're early, you're on time. If you're on time you're late. If you're late you're fired." This should be forever seared into your head. Don't think that it's true for just PAs. It's true for everyone. On the first movie I worked on, a really great 1st AD got fired due to elements beyond his control that prevented him from being on time to set. It can happen to anyone. Some people are relaxed about it and some people aren't. Never assume though.

3. STAY IN CONTACT. This is particularly important if you are away from the location or set. Keep whoever sent you out on a run informed at all times of delays, problems, or complications. If you get sent out to Home Depot for a certain fuse for G&E, and Home Depot doesn't have it, call whoever sent you out. Let them know you're situation. They may then tell you to scrub the mission and return to set or go on to Lowes or do something else entirely.

4. USE PROPER RADIO ETTIQUETE. Always say "copy that" to instructions. You might be on the other side of the world and might have acknowledged and started doing whatever they told you to do but they person has no clue you're on it until you let them know. Also, keep unnessesary chatter to an absolute minimum. If you have something to explain or ask in detail - ask whoever you're talking to if they have time to switch to a private channel. Remember to ask, never order them. Lastly, whenever you do have to talk to someone, always say your name and the name of the person you need to talk to. Wait for them to acknowlegde, then proceed. Example, "This is Mark for Dan..." "Go ahead Mark." "Dan, can you jump to channel 2?" "Copy that. Switching to 2." ect. ect.

5. BE PREPARED. ALWAYS CARRY EXTRA CALL SHEETS, SIDES, PENS, PENCILS, SHARPIES, TAPE, UTILITY KNIFE, HIGH LIGHTER, and a NOTE PAD. You are a human foot locker. Suggest wearing a utility belt or a small back pack and getting used to it. One of the main functions of your job is to always be ready to assist, if an AD or producer asks for something and you have it on hand, it makes you look very good and reliable. While this list may seem like overkill to some people, it's not. It's just a basic list of things that are used by everyone while on set. Some optional things to add to it may be mints, gum, extra water, flashlight (especially if you are working in a sound stage) and a lighter. Without going on and on at the end of the day, just be prepared. You can never go wrong with that. 'Nuff said.

6. BE VIGILANT. Always be aware of what is going on around you. Keep up with what's going on according the the call sheet and what's being shot. Any crew member should be able to ask you what's going on and you should be able to tell them. This might seem strange but think about it. A lot of people on set are so wrapped into their own individual jobs they might not know what's going on with the rest of the crew around them. It's up to you to help the AD department carry on this info and be sure the rest of the crew is informed. You also need to keep tabs on the crew and let them know if they are in a spot where they can walk or talk or if they need to be quiet and respectful of the shooting.

7. CALL THE ROLLS. One of the main ways the AD department will want you're help is how they'll want you to do this is to call "the rolls" which is basically listening to the 1st AD on walkie and yelling so that everyone around can hear whenever he or she calls "Picture's up" (means camera and lights are in place and ready to go) "Standby" (which is the cue to sync sound) "Rolling" (sound is sync'd and everything is just waiting on the director to call 'action') and then "Cut" (means they've stopped). You'll also need to make other calls like, "Going around again" which means the cut wasn't good enough and they're immediately starting the scene again. Lastly, you'll have to call, "Checking the gate," which means the shot is over and it's time to move on.

8. BE THE WATER BOY OR GIRL. This is something that is an easy way to impress the crew. Pay attention to their needs, if it's hot outside go around and offer water or gatorade. Equally, if its cold, coffee or hot tea. Don't wait for someone to ask. If an AD or someone is too busy to break for food, see if there is something you can get them from the crafty table. When you can start anticipating and feeling the needs of the crew, then you are doing exactly what your job wants you to do.

9. THINK AHEAD. As crucial as it is to be vigilant and be ready to jump into action or answer a question at a moment's notice, that same kind of anticipation brings us to a broader form of it--think ahead. For example, if someone starts a dialog scene, most directors will almost always start with a wide to medium shot and move in for what's called "coverage" which are shots of the individual characters in the scene. They may then go in for "inserts" which are small cut away shots of hands and such. Always be aware of what is going on, and if at all possible try and help prep for the area the camera will change positions to each time the crew goes in to move it.

10. TRY TO HAVE FUN. Easy enough right? Well, try it after getting everyone's coffees, screwing one or two up, then getting yelled out for stepping into a sight line. Couple that on top of getting yelled at by an AD for something that is probably beyond your control and then see if at the end of the day you can still smile. If you can, good for you. If not, you might want to change jobs. But remember: if you think positively you can make it not only this industry but any industry. Having a good attitude will get you way farther than you'd ever think!

11. KNOW YOUR LIMITS. Don't be over confident. It's certainly required that you have confidence to carry out your job as a PA, but just as importantly, you must know when you've got too much on your plate. If this ever happens, you're probably in a higher PA position than most others and you must start learning how to delegate to the other PAs around you. This isn't easy at first, because as a PA, you're used to having to do everything yourself, but it's important to learn if you want to move up.

Well, that's about all I can think of for now. Hope this is helpful for whoever needs it! Best of luck!

-Switching back to channel 1.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Shippin' up to Boston to find my leg

Got a job!! It's in a Boston! I'm pumped and to get in the mood I'm being a total dork and listening to some Dropkick Murphys, "Shippin' up to Boston." It's another reality show, 13 weeks. I don't really know much more than that.

In the ultimate twist of irony, I got a call for a job as a set PA on a feature film the day after I found out about the Boston thing. More than that, the job involved me getting star struck, which is something I haven't really felt in a long time. I got really excited and immediately wished I could clone myself so I could do both. Oh well, I guess it's good to have these problems.

I should probably go pack. My plane leaves the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Happy holidays! Best of luck to all of you!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Why the Oscars suck and How to fix them.

Question: have you ever watched the Oscars? Followup: Have you ever watched them all the way through? Don't lie. Sure you might land on it, watched Hillary Swank cry onstage, but actually watched the whole thing? Well, I'm impressed. I too have successfully accomplished this, but barely... I'm on a hiatus from being a PA at the moment... so let me continue with why accomplishing this three hour task of willpower is such a pain in the ass for me and probably many others out there as well.

How many times have you watched an "Oscar Film" and went away scratching your head wondering: "What the hell is the big deal about that?" Now, having studied film and cinema, I could probably tell you or educate you as to "why" certain films and the people involved in them get chosen over others but even then I'll probably bore myself talking to you about it. And if that happens then I can assure you that you'll probably get bored long before I will.

Sure, Oscar buzz is one way to sell tickets and create hype over seeing movies, and I'm all about that, but it can just as easily backfire when you pay that extra dollar to see a movie you typically wouldn't see just because it's "oscar worthy" and then you see it and are like, "I could have spent that ten dollars on a cheap bottle of wine and had more fun." Well, you're not alone. So the next time someone tells you something is Oscar worthy, you'll probably roll your eyes and say, "I'll wait till it comes out on DVD."

Narrowing my irate rant, the biggest problem with the Academy Awards is the telecast. And here's why -- aside from the normal things we don't like about it, the same long speeches, the music that plays everyone on and off stage, the popular comedian host whose normal act always gets turned down a few notches for prime time viewers, and so on and so forth--but really the whole thing boils down to ratings and advertising, just like everything else on TV.

Producers of TV shows, any TV show, Oscars included, need good ratings. They need good ratings so they can sell larger ad-buys. What makes good ratings is determined by how many people tune in. So, next and obviously, a sure fire way to always get good rating is to have popular high grossing films going up against other popular high grossing films. The hope is that fans of those films will tune in to see if they're horse wins the race or goes home jilted. And in the meantime if you get persuaded to by Liberty Mutual Funds then that's pretty good too I suppose.

Now to combat complaints that the wrong movies get chosen for the wrong reasons in that ever prized "Best Picture" category, the Academy has changed the game by adding 5 more slots, making the total slots 10. This will mean that more films will have a chance to go home happy, but more importantly, it will mean more ratings. It's getting harder and harder to hit the mass market audience these days and adding a little diversity never hurt anyone.

So where will I be come January when the nominees get announced? Hopefully working, but aside from that, honestly I probably won't be paying attention. The only way I'll find out who gets the noms is when I'm looking myself up on IMDB to see what my "star meter" is currently at. The entertainment biz is very much broken and it needs a lot more than a group circle jerk on award night to fix it.

I would be a terrible complainer if I didn't offer any solutions, so here's my solution: mix award night with nickelodeon "GUTS" style competition or American Gladiators throw in a little Fear Factor and you've got a hit show. What the hell? Yeah, think about it, you get your five noms for best actress on stage, you give them boxing gloves, and padded whacking sticks, then you dangle them on platforms above a tank of Brazilian water slugs. May the Best actress win. And then, with hair and gowns completely messed up, lip bleeding, let them give a thank you speech. They've at least earned that much. Could you imagine Angelina Jolie, Hillary Swank, Glen Close, Meryl Streep, and Nicole Kidman fighting it out? Or Johnny Deep swash-buckling onstage against Leonardo DiCaprio and George Clooney? Better yet, have you always wanted to see Steven Spielburg and George Lucas climb to the top of the GUTS Mountain while avoiding avalanches, slime, and water spouts? Yes, you know you would tune in to watch that. In the meantime, you'll have to be satisfied with another year of same-ole-same.

Tune in next week for my new reality show pitch -- disabled convicts in wheelchairs fighting each other to death inside a cage.

It's going to absolutely blow the roof off the networks!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Turmoil in Indie Film World

Indie film is in flames. Or more accurately, the "Hollywood goes indie" film studios that have been ever popular in the mid nineties and for the past decade are disappearing. Peter Bart from Variety has an interesting take on it. You can see it at or you can keep reading my 2 cents about it.

Basically he says that a lot of the major studios are only interested in franchises and that small budget movies are not as profitable as the over inflated big budget ones that keep getting pumped out. I don't see how this makes sense. Isn't there a saying, "don't keep all your eggs in one basket?" To add to it, I love the bit about how the Krispie Creme donut guy who turned around that franchise has been trying to turn around MGM, but to no avail. Yeah, that's because making movies ain't like glazing your donut hole num nuts!

Peter Bart is right though. The state of the industry is just bizarre. And to boot, the wrong choices keep getting made over and over with the same results. When is something going to give? A lot of the problem is with the studios themselves, but to a large extent they've always had the same problems. What's troubling is that when a studio can't make money and begins going under, then what does that mean for the rest of us. Is there a new film revolution around the corner or is the whole thing going in the toilet?

Whatever the answer is, it's way above my pay grade. With that said, I'm going to go pick up trash and serve coffee.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

PSD -- Post Show Depression

One of the producers sent an email out thanking everyone for their hard work on the show and describing his new funk about how he was feeling the pains of "Post Show Depression." It's a term I'm sure he coined or stole from someone and it pretty accurately summarizes how I feel, and probably many others feel after I get off of a long project.

More and more I attribute this feeling towards the uncertainty of when I will work next. I'm sending out my resume, making calls, and looking for opportunities online, but no matter how much I do that, I can't escape a sinking feeling in my stomach that tells me I might have to go back to waiting tables. A lot of people I've talked to have had jobs lined up, only to have them fall through at the last minute. Two in particular, an assistant director and a production supervisor had jobs locked up only to have the financing for their respective films get pulled. This is happening everywhere and it scares the hell out of me because I'm no where near as connected as these people and if they are having trouble finding work -- then what does that say about my own prospects?

I know I should think positive. It's hard but I'm trying. On the last night in the hotel in Cordele, Georgia, the sound supervisor and I got into a long discussion about how this recession is effecting those of us in the industry. He calls it a great "weeding out" of people who are perhaps in it for the wrong reasons. He's been on many shows, reality shows, scripted television, the oscars, pretty much anything you can name and his words of encouragement were very comforting. Still, it's nerve racking. Say this recession ends and those of us left standing and still working, what kind of work environment will we have left to work in? With so many corners being cut on productions, at what point does it end? Seems like working in production is becoming more and more like working in saw mill these days.

Looking onward, there's a few opportunities I've heard about and I'm going to try my best to pursue those within my means, but if not it won't be the end of the world or anything. I keep wanting to work on my own material, whether it's writing or producing. I think this break might be a good opportunity for me to do some of it. Each show makes me better and better at something and I think that's the most important aspect of why I like my work. It's ever-changing and exciting to be involved in and the fact that I feel like I'm competing against myself makes it even better.

So, long story short, lets hope work comes soon. I learned a lot about myself and my capabilities while on BBQ Pit Masters. Getting the opportunity to step up and take on more responsibilities was probably one of the best production experiences I've ever had. On top of getting to work side by side with some of the best people I've ever worked with. I'll miss them, and I'll miss the BBQ competitions and being an honorary member of the BBQ community, but who knows? Maybe there will be a season 2...

Monday, November 9, 2009

Filmmaker Magazine: Blog

Filmmaker Magazine: Blog is promoting the new film by director Jason Reitman "Up in the Air" starring George Clooney and it looks pretty phenomenal. I try to keep my blogging about films and fanfare to a minimum and will mainly focus on keeping it to projects that I personally work on. But for this I'll make an exception. That said, blogging, being a tool that companies use to see how well the buzz is going around regarding their product, I'm happy to participate and keep it going. The release date is December 25. They're obviously going for an oscar push for this film with it being so close to the end of the year. Hope it looks as good as it seems. The monologue in the trailer juxtaposed with the action on screen really sold me. Check it out. Can't wait to see it!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

DVD Special Features Film School

Almost everyone who starts out in this business wants to be a writer/director. Getting a job in the creative field is hard. Very hard. As one of our cast members would say, "it's about like watching a dog shitting a peach pit." With this in mind, I wanted to share some bits from a conversation I had with a young aspiring writer/director. He's in his early twenties like me, but unlike me, he thinks that you can learn how to make movies and TV shows just by watching the special features that get included with DVD's. How I wish it were that simple.

DVD special features are included with the purchase of a DVD with the simple aim in getting someone to buy it. Distribution companies feel that if a little bit extra gets included with the DVD it may possibly prevent someone from pirating it. And they're right. I know several people who pirate all day long, but they'll go the extra mile to run out and buy for example "Watchmen: the directors cut."

All of this is reinforced by directors, producers, and actors claiming that you can now go to film school just by watching the DVD. Maybe. At least it's a good sound bite. The only problem with this is that DVDs don't teach you how to unfold a C-stand. They don't teach you how to bargain for a higher rate on a deal memo. They don't teach you how to coordinate multiple crews in multiple time zones all moving, shooting, and prepping all across the country, nor do they teach you how to deal with the high levels of stress that comes along with it. Last for now, and perhaps most importantly, neither film school nor George Lucas on the Star Wars special features are going to tell you how to actually get a movie made because doing that requires more than just theory and knowledge of the craft, it requires diligence and charisma beyond what most people would probably ever begin to imagine or to grasp.