When my last co-op was finally confirmed Spring quarter of 2016 I came across an unforeseen issue.
I actually had no idea what my role as a “production assistant” meant.
Through some connections in Columbus I was able to secure a perfect co-op – working on the set of an independent zombie movie. My official title was “production assistant” (or PA for short) and I found myself frantically Googling the definition, trying to research the roles and expectations. I had to fumble through explanations of a position I didn’t fully understand when people would inevitably ask me about my future co-op job.
When I finally got to the first day on set I had a general idea of what a PA did but still had no clue what my duties actually would be or what an actual film set would be like. Whatever I was preparing myself for was so far off from the reality.
One thing I learned is that small, independent film projects are so much different from any big production one might read about. There were around ten other people there that first day. A quarter of them were the actors and the rest were a mess of camera operators, lighting technicians, PAs, and the directors. It was very small, much smaller than I’d prepared for. I was asked if I had any “special skills” to which I replied that I was just happy to do anything needed. This translated to putting me on the make-up and set dressing crew. I knew a little about these things but I was mostly used to move furniture and clean out spider webs. The tech crew realized that they didn’t have anyone to operate the boom mic and monitor audio levels and so I was pulled out of semi-familiar set design and thrown into the completely foreign world of audio tech.
Even though boom mic operator/audio technician was very far off from the position I was expecting when I first arrived on set, I am very grateful that I got such an essential position to the production. Surprisingly, I’ve learned a lot about writing and storyboarding as well during this time as I have to know the exact camera position and actor position in order to get the mic as close as possible without getting it in the shot. I also am at the center of the film’s production in terms of work. I work directly with the camera operator and lighting technician and very closely with the director/producers. I have to interact with the actors regularly and I’m still helping out with set design when they’re running low on hands inbetween takes.
Production assistant means: a person who exists on a movie set and can do anything needed. One of our PAs runs craft services, assists in set design, lighting, and helps take notes on shots. Another PA’s role is to hover around the camera operator and do anything and everything he might need during and inbetween shots. I’ve helped run smoke machines and carry heavy equipment and even given suggestions on how to shoot a scene or how an actor delivers their lines. I’m not sure how larger productions work but there’s a certain communal beauty about the way a small independent film set functions. Everyone works together and does whatever needs to be done to make a great movie. I have gained more useful skills on this set then I think I ever would holed into a small position on a larger film set and the connections to other small film projects are rich and bountiful. Despite issues with budgeting and time management and the actors having a few too many beers during long nights of filming, this co-op has been one of the most useful and interesting experiences I’ve had as an intern and I’m so glad that I finally figured out what a production assistant does.