Film & TV

What Is a First Assistant Director? Job Description and Responsibilities of the 1st AD on a Film Set

Written by MasterClass

Jun 3, 2019 • 4 min read

If you’ve ever sat through the credits of a big budget action movie, you know that making a movie requires the services of hundreds or even thousands of cast and crew members. You may wonder who exactly is in charge of all of these people? While the director handles all creative decisions, the monumental job of coordinating and wrangling the cast and crew falls to the first assistant director.

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What Is a First Assistant Director?

The first assistant director is directly in charge of overseeing all department heads and ensuring that the entire cast and crew is working on schedule. From pre-production through post-production, the first AD plans both the daily schedule and long-term production timeline while also serving as a liaison between the director and the rest of the cast and crew. The first AD must have a basic knowledge of every single department present on a film set and know how to effectively communicate and delegate tasks to each department head.

The Responsibilities of a First Assistant Director

During preproduction, the first AD concentrates on logistics and planning so that the director can focus most of their energy on creative decisions. Once filming starts, the first AD’s primary responsibility is executing the production schedule and keeping the set working efficiently.

  • Storyboards. The 1st AD first breaks the script down into storyboards that reflect how each scene will be shot.
  • Shooting schedule. Once the director signs off on the storyboards, the first AD creates an overall shooting schedule. The 1st AD clears the shooting schedule with the production manager, line producer, and crew department heads. The AD must ensure that all scenes are appropriately scheduled for when the applicable location, props, and cast are available.
  • Call sheets. Before each day of shooting, a call sheet is drawn up by the second AD in conjunction with the first AD. During production, it’s the first AD’s job to make sure that everyone is making their call times and the filming is progressing on schedule.
  • Calling the roll. During filming, one of the first assistant director’s primary responsibilities is what’s known as “calling the roll”. Calling the roll is when the 1st AD cues the various department heads (including camera operator, key grip, and sound mixer) to prepare for filming to start.
  • Liaise with the crew. The 1st AD serves as the go-between for the director and the rest of the crew. If something needs to be communicated in either direction, it generally goes through the first AD.
  • On-set diplomat. The first AD is also responsible for controlling discipline on the set. If someone is not doing their job effectively or there are conflicts on set, it is the first AD’s job to resolve the situation. This may require taking disciplinary action or changing personnel when appropriate.
  • Safety. Safety is a priority on any film set and the first AD must also ensure that all health and safety standards are met. Each department has different precautions to ensure that cast and crew members aren’t in danger. The first AD oversees each department and is ultimately responsible for ensuring that each department head is maintaining a safe workspace.

What Are the Responsibilities of a Second Assistant Director?

The second assistant director assists the first assistant director by handling specific tasks:

  • Call sheets. The second assistant director is in charge of creating the next day’s shooting schedule and distributing it to all departments.
  • Coordination. During filming, second assistant director coordinates with actors and extras to make sure that everyone is on set and camera ready when their respective scenes are ready to be filmed.
  • Directing extras. The 2nd AD (or 3rd AD on larger sets) is generally in charge of directing extras. During large scenes, they direct extras’ movements before the scene and cue them during filming.
  • Security. The 2nd AD is responsible for coordinating with security and keeping the public out of filming locations.

What Are the Qualifications and Skills Needed to Become an Assistant Director?

Like most jobs in the film industry, there is no formal education or degree required to become a first assistant director. That being said, many working ADs have both film school training and a significant amount of hands-on production experience in various other capacities. Most feature films also require that all ADs be members of the Directors Guild of America (DGA). Small, non-union features, however, do not require guild membership.

The skill set required to be an effective AD includes:

  • Ability to multi-task and delegate
  • Effective communication skills
  • Good sense for organization and planning
  • Strong attention to detail
  • Basic knowledge and understanding of all the various departments found on a film set.

Many ADs have previous experience as production assistants or runners. In these capacities they can learn how film sets operate and get a greater understanding of the various departments and their responsibilities.

Many working directors also got their start working as assistant directors early on in their careers. The job can be a stepping stone for someone who wants to one day direct a feature film or episode of television themselves.

Learn more about the inner workings of the film industry with the MasterClass All-Access Pass, which provides access to video lessons taught by film and television masters including Jodie Foster, Spike Lee, David Lynch, Shonda Rhimes, and more.