You featured the First Assistant Director in the credits. Now let's look at what actually goes into the role.
In order to better understand the production tasks of the first assistant director, I asked one of my youngest employees for a look.
Kevin Welch is a DGA's first assistant director (1st AD). I've had the pleasure of doing commercials with Kevin by my side and his experience was paramount. Here's what he says about the role:
As the 1st AD, I approach each project differently. It is easy and dangerous to get into a unitary state of mind. I'm going to approach the schedule and creativity of a commercial set for a brand very differently than a feature set for a production company / distributor. That being said, it all starts with the words – or in some cases for commercials and documents, the pitch deck, storyboards, etc.
Once I have everything in my scheduling software – I'm using Movie Magic – I try to schedule a meeting with the producer to find out the size of the sandbox we're playing in. What rules and regulations apply to trade unions? the total hours of shooting days, the budget of the locations, the specialties and the crew – the list goes on and on.
Now that I've got that under control, I'll try to dive into the creative. That's why I work closely with the director and DP to really understand their vision, recording list, recording style and what is important to them to tell the story. All of these things inform my job and how I plan and ultimately carry out things on set.
Once we get to production and my preparation has been done correctly, the schedule should be adhered to without too much difficulty. Of course, there are always factors that you can't control – weather, equipment not working, cast / crew get sick, etc. But when you have a solid plan coming out of the gate you can be fairly easily prepared to handle things how they happen.
Another important part of my job is ensuring safety and union compliance to make sure the rules are followed and things are safe and controlled to reduce the risk to the manufacturers and the manufacturing company.
Simply put, a 1st AD is responsible for the logistics and operation of a work set. The 1st AD ensures that the cast and crew work according to a schedule. You plan this daily schedule as well as the entire production schedule. Therefore, the 1st AD must have sufficient knowledge of what each individual department is doing on a film set to ensure effective communication. Let's take a closer look at these aspects. First, let's start with personality traits.
Personality and skills
To be excellent as a 1st AD one must have certain skills and personality traits. The 1st AD must be ultra organized. You must have excellent communication and social skills. As the central point of contact for everyone on the set, it is important that a 1st AD is able to communicate logistical information clearly and securely. Part of this ability is the extreme knowledge of the needs of any production to which they belong.
Schedule / call lists
Scheduling – and sharing and executing the schedule with call logs – is an important role of 1st AD. Much time, energy, and effort is put into making sure that production has an accurate and achievable schedule for the day. In most cases, a skilled 1st AD can break up a script or storyboard to create a reasonable and accurate schedule for the day.
At the beginning (and throughout) of production, the 1st AD meets with key creative team leaders to discuss their individual visions and how these plans could affect everyday life. Once they have all the information they need, they can create and adhere to an effective production plan.
One of the 1st AD's earliest jobs in a production facility is performing a script breakdown. Script breakdowns break a script down into its key elements that are required for production.
These digestible breakdowns identify the specifics of what is required for a day of shooting – characters, props, locations, etc. These breakdowns go a long way in helping department heads know what is needed by their team and when.
Director's liaison officer
Another important role of a 1st AD is the director's connection. The director is responsible for all creative decisions that affect the final product, while the 1st AD is responsible for any logistical decisions that may arise.
For example, a director may decide that a scene needs an extra shot in order to try a new blocking pattern. After the director makes this creative decision, the 1st AD decides how much time in the schedule can be allocated for this change. The 1st AD then communicates this change to all other departments in production.
In addition, the 1st AD ensures – usually through the delegation of production assistants – that the actors and other talent are on set at the perfect time for their scene.
Ultimately, all of the above goes into possibly 1st AD's greatest responsibility: problem solving. Any type of problem / problem / riddle can and will occur on a set.
The problem can be as simple as a question: where do we put our gear? They can also be more complex: the main character is sick and cannot come in. How can the schedule be restructured to save something from the day?
The 1st AD is responsible for resolving these issues quickly and efficiently because the show has to go on.
I knew of a 1st AD who was curious about how many questions they were asked on a typical day, so they brought a little click counter to the set.
At the end of the day, an average of one question was asked every minute that day. If you work as 1st AD on a ten-hour day, that's 600 questions that only you can answer. No pressure!
In addition, they must be able to resolve conflicts that arise on a set. Regardless of whether they are creative differences or personality clashes, the 1st AD's job is to resolve these issues so the show can resume.
Another important role of the 1st AD is the safety of all cast and crew on set. Security can be as simple as reminding people to wash their hands and as intense as managing the pros and cons of a propeller gun on set.
In general, safety is addressed in an all-hands safety meeting in the morning, held by the 1st AD immediately before the start of the working day.
If all of this sounds interesting and fun, a career in 1st AD might be perfect for you. Like any career path in film, everyone has a different experience of how they got to where they are.
A good first step is to work as a production assistant. From there, you can rise to the role of the main production assistant. After paying some fees, you may be able to move to an AD role, or possibly even a 2nd AD role that works right under the 1st AD. With enough listening, studying, and hectic, you are done. Good luck!
If you're interested in life on the set, this content can help you get there:
Cover picture via Gnepphoto.