Flexiblity at work: lessons from a PA
Like many people working towards their big break in television and/or film, I do multiple jobs. Among them, a decent amount of my work is as a production assistant, or PA for short. Anyone with a passing familiarity with that job title probably associates it with coffee runs and other such gofer activities, which are definitely a part of it. But it also encompasses a broad range of functions that help keep a film shoot in working order. You're on the bottom rung of the ladder, sure, but you're also expected to be capable of doing a wide array of jobs, often all during the course of the same project or even day. It's a job that can go from hectic to boring and back again in an hour and is different with every crew, client, and location you work with.
A lot of the stuff you learn while working as a PA on a variety of shoots is somewhat specific to the entertainment industry. You're not going to need to know the best way to load a full camera and lighting kit into a truck if you're consulting at an accounting firm, for example. But there are some solid lessons to be learned from doing the dirty work of the entertainment biz that can be taken to heart no matter what job (or jobs) you do for a living.
Be flexible. Sometimes being a PA is a rather ambiguous job. In a single day you may drive a truck, pick up props, carry camera equipment, set up a fine spread of snacks on the craft service table, do paperwork, help the art department throw some props together, and more. And all without knowing beforehand. Even on shoots where you're told exactly what you'll be doing ahead of time, there's more than a good chance that you'll have an extra task or two that comes up for you to carry out. And protesting that you're "supposed to just be doing [blank]" won't matter if something you hadn't planned on doing needs to get done. Regardless of where you are on the totem pole, the more everyone pitches in for a task the better the results will be at the end. Working together and pitching in, especially during a hectic time like a film shoot or with a major deadline approaching, builds the team and gets things done.
Not every task makes sense at first. On the last shoot I worked on, I was sent out to pick up a van roughly halfway through the day. From what I was told, it seemed like I would traveling uptown through midday traffic in the rain to get the vehicle for no other reason than to come back downtown to pick up lunch from a place three blocks from the shoot. It seemed unnecessary and excessive to me, but hey, I was getting paid and I knew they valued my time since if I was gone other tasks would have to wait. It was only when I returned with a van full of sandwiches that I found out the vehicle would also be needed for the much more important task of driving one of the camera crews out to more locations later in the day. Sometimes we don’t initially know why a boss or a team member asks us to complete a specific task. But if it didn't need to get done, chances are you wouldn't get asked to do it. Trusting that your team values your time, and you valuing theirs in return, ensures even tasks that don’t make sense right away will in the end.
Speak up and ask questions. When you are a PA, you are in a job that requires you to do so many different things, from manual labor to helping crews with complicated camera equipment. You're bound to run into a situation or task that's new to you relatively often, and when you do, you are expected to ask questions so you don’t risk breaking a camera or putting a light in the wrong place. Asking questions is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of wanting to do things correctly for the team. You might not be the expert on budgets or know manufacturing details, and chances are you aren’t expected to know. It's better to ask then just try and fumble through a task you're not sure of.
Get to know the people, not just the job. Meeting people and getting along is important in any line of work (and life in general, really), but even more so in an ever-changing job like being a PA. Knowing the people you'll be spending long days on shoots with, often at extremely early and/or late hours, well enough to communicate with easily will make it much easier to get things done properly. And the more people you know and work well with, the more you'll get hired, the better the team will function, the more customers you’ll gain, and the more partnerships you’ll build. Prioritizing people and relationships almost always has a positive effect.
Being a PA is about as unique a job as any of the other various ones I've worked at or continue to work in. It's part technical, part artistic, part driver, and part lifting lots of heavy things. Even with all that variety, there are solid tenets to it that apply to not only to working on the bottom rung of the entertainment ladder, but to pretty much any job or project you're doing. The lessons you can learn from working as a production assistant are as flexible as, well, as you'd need to be as a production assistant in the first place.
Paul Mooney is a contributing writer to Present Tense LLC. With a background of film, screenwriting, advertising, and a healthy dose of the Marine Corps he has many stories to share. He is a freelance writer and producer living in New York City. You can follow some of his other writing on Task & Purpose. Paul is also the writer and director for Vetted, a television comedy highlighting the follies of veterans transitioning in NYC, and edited the first Present Tense ebook.