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Monday, April 1, 2013

Working as a 1st Assistant Director


One thing I didn’t really understand until I started working on sets was the role of the assistant directors. In this three-part blog I will break down the roles of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd assistant directors. Let’s start at the top. The role of the 1st Assistant Director is a very important one on any set and thinking that you can get away without one is a big mistake. You will want to have your 1st Assistant Director hired as early as possible; the 1st plays a very big role in pre-production.

Responsibilities of the 1st AD in Pre-production:

  • Breakdown the script: this means going through the script and making note of any and every aspect of the script that will require attention. This could be making note of props, sounds, special effects etc. Check out Breaking Down Your Script for more in-depth details.
  • Break the script down into 8ths of pages: once you have experience with this you can do this by eye, but when starting out it is best to mark the pages. Each script page gets broken down into 8ths; this information is useful for both schedules and call sheets. Each page of the script should equal about 1 minute of screen time.
  • Create the schedule: This is a task that requires input from all department heads, as well as the director and the producer. To make your life easier I recommend Movie Magic Scheduling. Your shooting schedule should outline the order in which you plan to shoot and all of the required talent and special needs of the scene. It is also very important to work with department heads here and figure out how long scenes will take to shoot, find out whether or not pre-calls are required and plan out the timing of everyday.
  • Breakdown sheets for all scenes: these can be made easily in Movie Magic Scheduling and they are great to distribute to all departments. They are detailed sheets that highlight all the notes you took when breaking down the script. Movie Magic Scheduling is available from
  • Create a One Liner: this is a document that shows the scenes you will be shooting and the order in which you will be shooting them. It is a quick reference document with the most important details like the scene number, scene name, one line of description, time of day and how many pages.
  • Complete a Day out of Days: this is a chart outlining the cast members and the days they are working. This is for you to know how many days each cast member needs to be paid for. This should be completed once you have finished the schedule and is also subject to change.
  • Have a list of all locations: it is good to include the real name of the location as well as the name used in the script. Your locations manager should provide this list to you, if you have one, if not the production coordinator should have this.
Once you have these documents made and sorted you can have your 2nd AD begin work on the Call Sheets. When shooting begins the paperwork shifts to the 2nd AD and as the 1stassistant director your responsibilities shift to the following.

Responsibilities of the 1st AD during Production:

  • You are to be the voice that gets the crew doing what they are supposed to and making sure that the day is made.
  • Introduce yourself on the first shoot day, make yourself accessible but also be firm and don’t let yourself get taken advantage of. You have a schedule to keep.
  • Make sure that a blocking is done, if a private blocking is required allow that to happen first and then have a blocking for the departments to watch.
  • Once the blocking is finished hand the floor over to the techs and allow them to light the scene. Once the techs have finished with the floor, final touches by the art department can be done.
  • Allow for a rehearsal or two, especially if there are any effects or dolly moves that need to be practiced.
  • When you are ready to roll make sure that everyone is aware, be sure to make your commands out loud as well as over the walkie.
  • Call for a lock up, quiet, roll camera, and roll sound. Make sure to key the walkie and say “rolling, rolling” and when the take is over key the walkie again and say, “cut”. It is very important to address everyone in the room as well as those over the walkie. People may be all over the set and not hear you.
  • Reset everyone back to 1st positions if you are going for another take or if the director is happy and wants to move on then let everyone know that you are moving on and what it is that you are moving on to.
  • Keep the day on schedule, if you are falling behind try to motivate the crew to work a little faster and you may need to speak to the director if they are taking too much time on things.
  • Ask for Grace: If you are ever running behind and it is looking like lunch might need to be pushed later, you need to ask each department head for Grace, you can’t just push lunch. Ask each department to agree to it, it is very important that the crew feels that you respect them.
  • Communicate with the Crew: as with lunch, the same goes for shooting past the standard 12+1 day, if you think you will be going past that, run the idea by your department heads before you make the decision.
  • Have a set box: this can really save you. It is good to have copies of important documents in there, as well as water, a first aid kit, a couple of tools, nails and screws etc.

Skills Needed to Work as a 1st Assistant Director

  • Be Organized. There is a lot of paperwork involved in AD’ing and the more organized and well thought out things are, the smoother things will run when shooting starts.
  • Manage Your Time. The more you work as an AD the better you will get at knowing how long it will take to get things done. When you are creating the schedule make sure to allow enough time to get your scenes shot. Don’t cram scenes in that you know you won’t make because you think the producer will appreciate your ambitiousness. Give reasonable amounts of time to get things done and also allow for set backs.
  • Manage Others Time. Along the lines of managing your time, you need to manage everyone else as well. If you have allowed an hour to shoot something and you know that to be a reasonable amount but your director is over shooting or the lighting team is over tweaking, know when to cut them off and get things moving. A director will shoot until you tell them to stop and the lighting team could tweak all day if you gave them the time. Know when enough is enough and get things back on track. It is up to you to make the day!
  • Be Confident and Communicate. Confidence is must have skill when it comes to working as an AD. You are the voice on set that is telling everyone what is happening at all times. If you are shy or quiet than this is not the job for you. When you give instructions to the crew it needs to be done with authority and the crew needs to know that you are serious. If you have to be strict then do it. If you are confident; your crew will be confident. Don’t give your crew any reason to doubt you. Be clear in your instructions and keep an open communication with the team. Listen to suggestions and take them into consideration when moving through the day.
  • Problem Solve. If issues arise you need to be the person who is staying calm and coming up with solutions. The director might freak out and you can let them but you need to be doing everything you can to solve the problem. In a single day you may be hit with a lot of problems, you might have talent that isn’t cooperating, you may lose a location, you might be running out of daylight and the list keeps going. Keep a level head and work out a solution.
  • First Aid Training: As the 1st Assistant Director it is standard for you to have your First Aid Training. There may be another safety rep on set or even a medic but the 1st should be trained to give medical attention in the case of any on set accidents.
Overall the 1st Assistant Director needs to be the person of authority on set, you need to get the crew moving and keep them motivated. Respect their requests and try to keep them happy, the better the crew feels, the harder they are willing to work. Your goal is to make your day, stay on schedule and try to not have the director compromise their vision. Know when to move on and know when to let the director have extra time. 1st AD’ing is something that you get better and better at over time. The first time you do it will be very intimidating and more than likely scary. It will get easier and you will pick things up along the way that will make you better at the job. The 1st AD has a very important job and it can be quite stressful, work together with the crew and it will make your job easier.

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