Assistant Directors (the 1st AD) are one of the most valuable crew members on any production. Your 1st AD is responsible for on-set communication, department coordination, maintaining the shooting schedule, conflict resolution, and safety. Want to become a better 1st AD on set? Follow these 13 principles to fast track yourself.
1. Ask the director for a shot list
When creating a shooting schedule for the day, having a robust shot list template on hand is important. But what happens when you’re working with a director who doesn’t like making shot lists or storyboards? Try asking the director questions like “are you thinking of doing a wide and then two overs?” or “do you have a couple specialty shots that you want to do?” This will give you an idea on how much time to allocate per scene.If the director’s response is “I don’t know what I’m going to do yet,” get the Director of Photography involved. Let the DP know that the director might need some support to plan out the shots.
2. Create a realistic shooting schedule
It’s during the pre production process that you analyze every scene to identify all the script elements needed. It’s with this information in hand that you can better understand prep time required for a shoot day; from steadicam set-ups to make-up and wardrobe for talent. This is then factored into your daily shot list template.It’s during the pre production process that you analyze every scene to identify all the script elements needed. It’s with this information in hand that you can better understand prep time required for a shoot day; from steadicam set-ups to make-up and wardrobe for talent. This is then factored into your daily shot list template.
3. Start shoot days with a 5 min standup
Get your core team (usually the Producer, Director, DP, Sound Mixer, and other key departments) on the same page by going over the shoot schedule, as specified on the call sheet. This is your best shot to let everyone know what’s expected of them. Don’t spend more than 5 minutes in this meeting.If your meeting takes longer, its a sign that you have to reassess and/or restructure your day. It’s better to take the time to figure out a new gameplan with department heads at the top of the day, than to be surprised by unattended consequences later.
4. Walk through the scenes to prep for changes
The shot list may need to be adjusted for many reasons; new shots, lighting conditions, changes to script or gear. Once the set is dressed, it’s time to walk through the scene with your Director, DP, Gaffer, Sound Department and Production Designer to double-check if the shooting plan should be adjusted. If something must change, you may be able to swiftly address it before falling behind schedule.As you’re nearing shooting completion of a scene, be prepared to walk through the next scene’s set-up the same way.Repeat this pattern to stay ahead of your schedule.
5. Touch base with departments
What can ultimately bring down a production are the “unknown unknowns.” You can’t address issues that you don’t know exist yet. As the hub of information, it is the responsibility of the 1st AD (or 2nd AD depending on the size of the production), to collect the latest intel from various departments, and take preemptive actions to prevent issues from arising. Listen, look, ask, eavesdrop and do whatever is necessary to get the information you need so you can better reassess your plan.The single most effective strategy you can take is the MBWA (Management By Walking Around) method.The downtime between takes and setups (really any time you’re not rolling) is an opportunity to check-in with departments one-on-one. This has the added benefit of building rapport with your crew since they might communicate concerns in private that they normally wouldn’t in front of others.
6. Communicate Effectively
The best 1st AD’s are not only great communicators, but also strategic thinkers. They know what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. Here are some tips keep information flowing on set.
THERE’S A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN YELLING AND PROJECTING
There’s a reputation in the film world that assistant directors are constantly yelling. However true this may be, it’s not an effective way of garnering respect and importance amongst crew.
KEEP THE INFORMATION RELEVANT
Anyone that gets too eager about shouting minutia will get tuned out fairly quickly. Consider when it’s more effective to speak one-on-one.
FOLLOW UP WITH DEPARTMENTS
Establish timelines with each department for what’s next, then follow up to see how they are progressing.
7. Be a problem solver
THINGS A 1ST AD SHOULD DO ON A FILM SET
- Be a good listener. If you notice frustration brewing in a crew member, pull them aside and let them vent. It will only take a few minutes, but it’s critical in getting the person (or department) back on track. If you can build trust with your crew, they’ll feel like they have a friend on set watching out for their well-being.
- Take ownership of a mistake, even if you didn’t make it. Let your entire team know that you’re working on a solution as they speak. This will help build confidence and respect from your team.
Involve only those required. If an issue pops up that is holding up the shoot, and it doesn’t directly involve by-standing crew, adjourn them. Tell everyone to take a quick 5-minute coffee break while you try to resolve the issue. This becomes especially important if things get heated. No need to drag the energy of the crew down
THINGS A 1ST AD SHOULD NOT DO ON A FILM SET
- Never point fingers. This should never be an option. Yet, it is common amongst many 1st ADs to blame others. The buck stops with the assistant director. Not only does finger-pointing undermine trust with those people, but it’ll make others fearful to approach you in the future.
- Don’t take sides. If there’s a conflict between crew, you need to speak with them separately to understand every perspective and find a mutual solution. Oftentimes, all they need to do is vent to someone to alleviate the tension.
- Don’t lecture. Nobody likes feeling like they’re being talked down to, so briefly make your point and move on.
- Don’t let tension escalate. Word-of-mouth travels fast on a set, so anything negative that is uttered has a chance to infect the energy of the cast and crew.