Film & TV

Film 101: How to Be a Great Production Assistant

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 28, 2019 • 5 min read

The film world is brimming with sharp writing, pitch-perfect acting, and cutting-edge CGI—and there’s a ton of work that goes on behind the scenes to make the magic happen. For every set, production office, editors’ room, and beyond, there’s a little-known hero hard at work: the production assistant.

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What Is a Production Assistant?

Production assistants (often called PAs) are the entry-level workers of the film, television, and commercial industries. They’re available during any stage of production—from filming to postproduction—to lend a hand. Many budding filmmakers use the PA position as a way to get their first experience in the film industry, where they can learn about the various production departments and about every stage of filmmaking, be it at a film studio or production company. Production assistants often go on to become production coordinators then production managers.

Production Assistant Job Description

So what do production assistants actually do? The short answer: everything that everyone else doesn’t want to. PAs handle most of the menial work in the film industry, so their duties will vary widely depending on what stage of the production process they’re supporting. There are three main types of PAs:

  • Field production assistants. Field PAs are available on film sets during filming. They are often tasked with keeping the set clean, managing rental equipment, helping transport cast and crew, and even taking food orders at mealtimes. Does a camera operator need assistance or a scene require a street to be blocked off for filming? A field PA will be there, helping out..
  • Office production assistants. Office PAs work in the production office and help out with all the clerical work that needs to be done. They’ll spend most of their time answering the phone, handling paperwork, and keeping the offices tidy. Is there a stack of script pages that needs to be organized? An office PA will be the one to do it.
  • Postproduction assistants. Postproduction PAs support the film crew members who work on the footage after filming. They help the editors and producers by organizing content and keeping the offices clean. Does an editor need a specific hard drive of footage? Don’t worry—the post-production PA can fetch it.

A huge benefit of working as a PA is getting to know every department that participates in the production of a film. PAs can help out anywhere on set—from the costume department to the art department to the accounting team—and this can be a great opportunity for budding filmmakers who want to learn about every aspect of the industry before diving in.

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How to Be a Great Production Assistant

Because PAs’ duties span such a broad range, it can be difficult to determine a specific set of technical skills you will need. It’s also an entry-level position, so you aren’t required to have any relevant experience or to have been to film school. However, there are a few key characteristics that any PA will need in order to perform well:

  • Be available. PAs are absolutely essential to film production, and film teams need to know they can depend on their PAs to get things done. That means that a good PA knows when and where they are needed most, and they will be there to lend a hand.
  • Keep a good attitude. Driving people to and from the airport in busy traffic, going on multiple coffee runs in a day, dealing with difficult people over the phone—PA work can be dull and even frustrating. Being able to remain pleasant during these situations is what sets good PAs apart and proves they can handle the hectic film environment.
  • Ask questions. Because PAs aren’t required to have any experience, there will be plenty of times when you aren’t quite sure what’s going on. It’s your job to demonstrate solid communication skills and ask questions and ensure you understand your duties—especially because film production can be a fast-paced environment that requires everyone work quickly and efficiently. Asking questions also helps you learn more about how the film industry works, which is valuable knowledge for fledgling filmmakers.

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How to Become a Production Assistant

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Getting started as a production assistant can be challenging; the film industry is very competitive, and there are thousands of prospective employees trying to get their foot in the door. With all of this competition, film teams have a hard time choosing PAs out of the sea of resumes, and they instead prefer hiring based on good recommendations from friends and other teams. That means that many positions will come down to networking: knowing people who will hear about job openings and can vouch for you as a hard worker.

But not all hiring depends on knowing people. Another big advantage can be going to film school. A degree from a film school shows that you’re passionate about the industry and may know a bit more about film production than other prospective PAs, which is often all the convincing a film team needs to choose you over someone else.

Once you have a job as a production assistant, there’s nowhere to go but up! If you build a reputation as a good PA, you can often request working in departments you’re interested in, which will give you valuable hands-on experience in your field. After that, your chances increase of getting hired to a relevant job in that department. What’s more, you’ll meet plenty of industry professionals and you can start to build your networking circle—which means more people to recommend you to work in the future.

It’s true that being a PA often doesn’t come with glamor and glory, but PA positions are solid entry-level jobs that can be excellent stepping stones to a career in the film industry.

Want to Learn More About Filmmaking?

Whether you’re a budding filmmaker or have dreams of changing the world with your screenplays, navigating the world of film and television scripts can be daunting. No one knows this better than Shonda Rhimes, who, when she pitched Grey’s Anatomy, she got so nervous she had to start over—twice. In Shonda Rhimes’s MasterClass on writing for television, the celebrated creator and producer of some of TV’s biggest hits reveals how to create compelling characters, write a pilot, pitch an idea, and stand out in the writers’ room.

Want to become a better filmmaker? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master filmmakers, including Shonda Rhimes, Judd Apatow, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Spike Lee, and more.

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