First assistant director - the keystone to any film productionWhen it comes to film, although no Oscars or Golden Globes awards exist for the first assistant director (1st AD), the job, itself, does exist, and it comes with job responsibilities just as important as those that award-winning directors fulfill.
What is a first assistant director?
Whereas a director directs movement of actors being filmed, the first assistant director can be said to direct movement of actors and staff prior to being filmed. For instance, directing actors prior to being filmed simply means the first assistant director oversees the film and staff schedule and execution. Accomplishing this means helping all parties get to where they need to be and when. To accomplish this, the 1st AD (or his partner the 2nd AD) distributes each day's schedule, otherwise known as a callsheet. The callsheet provides instructions as to who needs to be where and at what time for filming. Additional primary responsibilities include keeping the set in order, peaceful, and productive. Similarly, the first AD must ensure safety of cast and crew and successfully arrange the necessary logistics of the project. These logistics might include obtaining film permits or scheduling private sets for filming, if a production manage does not handle these tasks. In short, everything they do, from distributing callsheets and detailed logistics in the days before, are aimed at ensuring the day's production progress matches the production schedule.
The first assistant director answers directly to the director although he or she has authority over the set, ensuring everyone is on time, on their marks, and ready for filming. Although directors guide the action of primary actors on the set, the background actors--extras--are usually instructed by the 1st AD or the 2nd AD or a bunch of 2nd Ads if there are large crowds.
Calling the roll
Perhaps the most important way to keep each day's filming on time is by efficiently "calling the roll." In any film production, calling the roll is the primary logistic responsibility and involves the first assistant director shouting out specific cues at the appropriate times.There are seven such cues. - waiting on
- quiet on the set
- background action
- check the gate
Although some of these cues are the responsibility of the assistant director, many of them, at times, fall to the first assistant director. Some cues, such as quiet on the set, are self explanatory and reflect the responsibility of the first assistant director to keep order on the set.
"Waiting on" reflects the cue an AD or first AD calls out to inform departments such as lights that the set is waiting on them. Final "check" instructs such departments as makeup or props to conduct any necessary last-minute adjustments.
Background action is analogous to "action," a term reserved for the director or assistant director, but "background action" involves instructions to actors in the background. Checking the gate means to check the camera lens for any dust or obstructions. Cut is sometimes overseen by first AD or camera operator when something goes wrong with the film such as if it runs out or if the take is unusable. Turnover instructs camera and sound personnel to begin rolling.
How to get started in the role of first AD
As with anyone interested in partaking in any contemporary film role, anyone interesting in serving as an assistant first director can push his or her career forward by joining a regional filming association. Film associations are often formal or informal social groups designed to support filmmakers and market local film opportunities.
Indie film companies will often post jobs with film associations. These posts will describe all the acting and staff needs for various projects, and although the production crews on small indie sets are tiny compared to those in a professional or Hollywood productions, the responsibilities are often the same. Unlike larger or union-based film projects, job responsibilities might overlap, providing the aspiring assistant director a range of responsibilities and experiences.
One important way to brush up on the required responsibilities is to read Liz Gill's short book: "Running the Show: The Essential Guide to Being a First Assistant Director.
Minimum guild requirements
Once an aspiring first AD is embroiled in local and regional film projects, the most important task is record keeping. The simple act of maintaining copies of daily work habits and pay stubs is an absolute necessity. The reason is the Director's Guild requires each aspiring first AD or assistant director to have 600 days (days-not hours) of logged experience. When the time comes to join the guild and get a union job, this experience must be turned into the guild for review and final approval. Because obtaining such experience can only be accomplished over a course of several years, it is imperative these records be maintained.
The importance of the position
In the famous sit-com / dramedy, M.A.S.H., the entire unit's success often hinged upon one person: Corporal Radar O'Reilly. He was executive logistics corporal to the commander, and he knew all the ins and outs of keeping the camp running smoothly. Additionally, he knew all the behind-the-scenes, off-the-record methods such as swapping black-market inventory (steaks and alcohol) for necessary medical equipment. He did this in order keep the camp running smoothly. Without him, the entire camp would have imploded.
Similarly, in terms of film production, John Frankenheimer describes the type of logistic support a first assistant director provides in this manner: "the first assistant director is just so important that the choice of that person is critical to the movie."
Creative vs non-creative
One thing to consider is that the position of first assistant director is not technically a creative position. Instead, it is concerned with logistics, time management, and ensuring site safety. In reality, the first AD is often relied on to be a second set of eyes for the director and often has a great influence on creative decisions that are made. This depends on the first AD's relationship with the director.
In the early era of film, whereas the position of first assistant director might have eventually prepared a person to direct, the job now actually prepares a person for obtaining a position in production management. As the saying goes, "a good assistant director does not worry about making the production better. Instead, he or she remains concerned with making the production successful.
Why be a first assistant director?
As with any career field, whether someone pursues a position depends a little on aptitude and a little on passion. If someone excels at logistics and keeping events, schedules, and personnel moving forward in an efficient manner, if someone is good with checklists and procedures, and if that someone also has a love for film, the first assistant director position is a phenomenal niche job. Erica Fishman served as first assistant director on such shows as The Americans. Her recollection of the job is this:
"At some point, you break for lunch, and eventually you wrap. In between, you might see anything from an amazing performance from an actor you’ve always admired to some genius macgyverying by the grip department to a car getting totaled by a phenomenal stunt driver. Or on a really great day, you might see something you’ve never even imagined come to life in front of your eyes."Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash