How Many Assistant Directors Does it take to Change a Light Bulb?

What many people may not realize is just how important the A.D. department is to a production. In the following article, I interview three past and present Assistant Directors about the role of the AD on a film.
Tempus Fugit
A good AD can keep a production moving along, accomplishing the day¡¯s work, while allowing the director to get not only the minimum number of shots they need to tell their story, but also the additional shots that flesh out the film.
Steven Gladstone: When I was doing a lot of production work, I would refer to the AD department as the ¡°Time Police,¡± as if it were that their main job was to keep production on time. Is this an accurate description?
Leigh Fitzjames: “Time police” is a crude description of us! I like to think of our role as finding the efficiency required to move as slowly as possible.?
Brian Bentham: Keeping a production on time is a major part of being a 1st AD; it is one of the main reasons you are there. Without a 1st AD, no one is watching the clock and the day can get away from you.
John Bruno:? However, they are not, as one person once described it, “A grip with an attitude” or a foreman shouting at people to work faster¡ªor at least, they should not be. It’s more about organizing the work and keeping everyone¡ªincluding the director¡ªfocused on how much time they have and helping to make it happen.

While time is important, I always say that communication is their chief function. Whether it is the call sheet or calling out what scene is next, they are the center of all information. All info should flow into them and out from them. For instance, if MU (makeup) is having a problem with an actress¡¯s hair, that should get to the 1st AD, who will figure out a way to shoot something else while that is fixed. Same if art department is stuck with a build, etc. They get the info in and then use it to get decisions out.
The First AD is also the key safety person on set. He or she has the last word on what will be allowed, and will work with stunt and effects people to determine what is safe and what is not. The case of second camera?assistant Sarah Jones concerned a complete breakdown of safety procedures during a film production, resulting in the death of Ms. Jones while shooting moving train footage. Note that, in the case of Sarah Jones, the director, the PM, and AD were indicted on criminal charges.
Breaking Down the AD Department
Can you briefly break down the AD department into positions (1st, 2nd, 3rd, key PA, etc.), and the responsibilities of each? I know that this changes depending on the production, and I¡¯m not sure that every AD considers the ¡°Key¡± PA part of their department or not.?
BB: The AD Department consists of the 1st AD, 2nd AD, 3rd AD, or 2nd 2nd AD, Key PA. The 1st AD is responsible for breaking down the script and putting in into a shooting schedule. Once principal photography begins, the 1st AD is responsible for ensuring that the productions stays on schedule. The 2nd AD is essentially responsible for everything that happens off set, although he/she may assist the 1st AD on set. The 2nd AD is responsible for all the paperwork generated by the AD department; these include the call sheet and production report. He/she is in direct contact with the cast, keeping them informed of the production schedule, changes in the schedule, and their call times. The responsibilities of the 3rd AD or 2nd 2nd AD differ, depending on the AD team. On some productions, The 3rd AD is on set helping the 1st AD, wrangling extras, etc. On other productions, the 3rd AD is at base camp or the set “AD hole,” handling all the paperwork that the 2nd normally does. This allows the 2nd AD to be more of a presence on set. The 3rd AD also, on smaller productions, handles 1st team, getting actors through hair/makeup and escorting them to set. The Key PA assists the 1st AD on set and is responsible for managing the team of PAs. He or she is responsible for organizing the lockups and ensuring that the PAs are doing what they are supposed to do.

Can you comment on the ¡°sanctity¡± and value of the call sheet, and whose responsibility it is?
LF: The call sheet stipulates who is allowed on set and what scenes will be shot, in which order. It contains not only the day¡¯s decisions but also an advance schedule, which must be approved by the 1st?AD?and Producer and/or Production Manager.?
Frankly, I’ve been on too many sets where crew haven’t read the call sheet. Even worse, where there weren’t printouts available for each key. When this happens, the?ADs?become overwhelmed with questions that have all been answered in this document.?
The accuracy of the call sheet is subject to the Producers cutting scenes, rain-outs or other changes. Crews remain flexible. But the crew sheet is designed to ensure a well-scheduled and safe means of covering all the content, created from a big-picture perspective.
Following that up, can you give an idea of what the first AD does to prepare a film to be shot, from breakdown, to wrap, and handing off the film to post?
JB: On a feature, an AD breaks down the script. That means they number each scene, and then note all of the elements. Those notes update, of course, with tech scouts and discussions with department heads. Then, they put together a schedule. Tech scouts will inform them of logistics.
All of that breakdown and scheduling today is done with software, usually EP or Movie Magic. As in the old days, when it was done manually (and I’m old enough to have done this) you typed out each sheet and copied it onto a cardboard strip. Strips are used because you can see the whole picture at once and you can move them around¡ªand they are always moving around.
Outside of production reports that show what happened each day, the AD has little responsibility once principal photography is over.
Can you explain your role in getting the day¡¯s footage shot, your responsibilities on set¡ªfor example: scheduling, lighting, camera, talent, makeup, wardrobe, camera safe, etc.?
BB: I am a firm believer of “Block, Light, Shoot.” An average day for me would be to bring the actors on set and block out the first scene. Once that is done, I will send actors away to go through Hair/makeup and wardrobe. While actors are going through the works, Grips & Electrics are lighting the set, Art Department is doing final set dressing, and the Camera Department is building the camera. After the set is lit and the actors are through the works, I bring the actors on to set for?rehearsals. When everyone is satisfied with rehearsals and we are ready to shoot, I then call for “last looks” where hair/makeup, wardrobe, and art have their last chance to double-check their work before we roll. When everyone is set and ready, I call for sound to roll and we begin the process to film the scene.
JB: We all love BLS. In a perfect scenario, at call time, all of the keys watch a blocking¡ªnot an acting rehearsal, but a blocking¡ªof the first scene of the day. Then, the AD sends actors off to HMU and will coordinate with art department and G&E and camera getting the set dressed and lit. It’s supposed to happen all at the same time¡ªthe ideal is that actors are ready just about when the set is lit. It’s rarely that perfect, and that’s where the AD is normally rushing one or the other, or making an adjustment. As I suggested earlier, if there is elaborate MU or wardrobe, the AD should have known to do a pre-call with actors and HMU (Hair and Makeup) so we are not waiting on them.
Along the way, the AD may have to deal with a chatty MU artist who never gets people out of the chair on time, a lazy key grip, an overly fussy DP, an indecisive director, etc. Finessing all of that is what cuts into the average life expectancy of an AD.
How important are storyboards, shot plans, pre-Viz, etc., when on many shoots scenes get re-blocked the day of the shoot?
BB: A shot list or storyboards are very important; they allow me to determine whether a day is feasible or not. Also, with a shot list I am able to determine where I am during the course of the day. Even if scenes get re-blocked, very rarely does it change the entire shot list for that day. Shots are always added?or omitted.
JB: It’s all about information. The better shot list/storyboard/basic planning the director and DP have, the more the AD can anticipate. He understands they are a blueprint but can change, but when there is NO plan¡ªwhen a director just “wings” it¡ªwell, the AD is in a tough spot.
LF: This is a matter of efficiency and ensuring all departments agree and are prepared for creative decisions; for instance, there should not be last-minute “pyro effects” or last-minute 360 camera pans for a set that is only dressed for 180-degree coverage.?

Any tips, suggestions, or words of caution to someone who thinks they may want to pursue being an AD?
LF:?I enjoyed hearing from a sound mixer recently that being a good?AD?is about intention. I’m always troubled by?ADs?who say their job is to “make the day.” No¡ªthat’s what stops you from upsetting the producers and losing your job. That says nothing about your responsibility to create a space that supports the creative vision of the director, that encourages crew to work their hardest, or making sure every department has all the information they need to do the best job they can do.?The best?ADs?have the intention to do all of the above.?
?The role of an?AD?is a leadership role. It’s not for everyone, and certainly not for control freaks who like shouting at people. Turn up to set strong, but with a willingness to make strong decisions based on the reality of the situation and consideration of your crew’s needs.
JB: Know the script better than anyone¡ªbetter than the writer. Better than the director. Go over the breakdown in minute detail. Spend time with it. Know what the director¡¯s priorities are, what things are important to him and what is just filler. These things will help you to help the director and producers when crunch time comes and you need to make a “snap” decision.?And, oh yeah. In the USA, if you want to direct, forget being an AD for long. It’s not a stepping stone to that position?in this country.

Leigh Fitzjames?is a New York City-based 1st AD who comes from a background as a Creative in New Zealand. She has run the set on more than 35 films, commercials, and music videos in her two years in New York. Always looking to impart useful knowledge and get a wider perspective, she maintains the blog can be contacted via Human Storyteller LLC.

Brian Bentham?has been in film and television production all over the U.S. for more than 20 years. For more than 15 of those years, he has been a First Assistant Director.

JB Bruno, Producer?brings more than thirty years of working in the entertainment industry in theater as a producer, director, and acting coach; in film as producer, line producer, First Assistant Director, writer, and production manager. JB was First AD on1999, featuring Amanda Peet and Jennifer Garner, and?Floating, with Norman Reedsus and Chad Lowe.