By Nik Bars and Emily Winters
Starting out as a Production Assistant (PA) is a grueling, but necessary, endeavor for anyone who enters the production world. Just like boot camp or basic training, the first couple of shows a PA takes-on will educate them with the skills and etiquette they need around a set that they will carry with them for the rest of their careers.
This is why it is critical for more senior crew to properly manage these new recruits so that PAs not only learn what they are supposed to, but also how to become a dependable ally on the battlefield.
High-ranking generals in our SetKeeper network have graciously offered a few suggestions below on how to best manage PA’s so that they can help lead your platoon to victory.
1 — Operate as a unit and pick your words accordingly to win the trust of your troops
“The key is to approach managing others in a team mentality rather than in a hierarchy… As soon as you start being accusatory or singling people out, that’s when they shut down, stress levels rise and mistakes begin to happen.” — Jordan, SetKeeper User
Film and TV sets have a hierarchy for the sake of efficiency — decision makers have to trust that their choices will be carried out by the PAs as quickly as possible. If you’re at the top of this hierarchy, you won’t automatically command respect: you must earn it through your words and actions.
To avoid turning into the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, use inclusive language when assigning tasks: for example, saying “we need to get this done today” implies collective responsibility, whereas “I need to do this,” “you need to do that” can create stress and unnecessary pressure. It may sound trivial, but your words shape the mentality of your PAs. They’ll know they aren’t in this alone, you’re all working together to achieve the same goal, and they can ask for help if they need it.
If a PA does need to be held accountable for something, take them aside and make it a private conversation rather than berating them in front of the whole crew. Singling them out will only add stress to the environment and make everyone feel as if they could be next on the chopping block.
2 — Study the map ahead of time and plan your attack
“You can think of managing PA’s as a giant game of chess. You have to look at all the pieces, know what’s coming and think about what your strongest piece is for the task ahead.” — Josh Friedman, Assistant Director and Founder of Crew Me Up
Call sheets are your marching orders and your best resources for planning the day ahead. Study your call sheet and make notes before you arrive on set so you know which PA will complete which task. If you organize your troops into the correct ranks, you’ll be much better prepared for the battle of the day!
Once you’ve put your PAs to the test and identified who has the strongest leadership skills, consider delegating their strongest tasks to them. They’ll develop their leadership capabilities and free up more of your time. Developing a competent second (or third, or fifth) in command helps everyone in the long run!
Plus, if you happen to have a company move, planning ahead will allow you to better anticipate when the PAs need to be moving or if you will need any of them to be stationed at the next location ahead of everyone else.
3 — Play to their strengths
“With difficult personalities you tend to focus on what they’re good at so you just put them to that… We’re all on a team and if one person feels like not everybody is pulling their own weight the situation can unravel and then you’ll be [in a lot of trouble].” — Amry Landsberg, UPM
On the battlefield (aka, on the set) you’ll encounter a wide range of personalities, from mild listeners to bombastic yes-men (and women). Personalities differences can cause friction, or they can be a source of strength.
While ideal PAs are Jacks/Jills-of-all-trades, early on in a production try to recognize what your individual PAs strengths are and if there are any conflicts with the personalities among your crew. If there does happen to be someone who is causing issues, delegate them to the tasks they’re good at so they can thrive there and cause less interference.
When people are in a position to do their best work, they have less reason to cause conflict and problems. And if after an adjustment they’re still causing problems, you’ll have all the evidence you need to give them the boot.
4 — Encourage your troops to get the correct intel
“There’s no such thing as a silly question, really… No one knows what they don’t know. We’re all here to help and it’s often easier to ask the question than to make an assumption that’s wrong.” — Jarl Devine, Line Producer
In a dream scenario your PAs will have no questions and do everything exactly as they are told (or, better yet, predict what you need and do it before you ask!). Unfortunately, the reality is that most PAs will generally not have years of experience and will be unsure of some of the missions you assign them to.
Make it clear from the get-go that questions are welcome and encouraged. Especially on a set where safety protocols are fundamental, it’s better that your PAs ask if they are unsure of something rather than try to figure it out themselves and get it wrong or — worse yet — potentially put themselves or others in a dangerous position.
Once you learn how your PAs learn, try to adapt your advice and instructions to their learning styles. Send a voice memo instead of an email so they can listen on the go. Sketch a quick diagram of how you’d like the filing system to look. This tiny extra effort will help them retain the information more quickly and prevent repeat questions in the future.
5 — Accept that not everything is going to go to plan — and prepare for the worst
“I always tell them, ‘You’re going to mess up, you’re probably going to do it more than once. And, you just have to be OK with that. People will tell you you’ve made mistakes and you have to take that in stride and move on.’” — Jordan, SetKeeper User
It’s a fact that your PAs are going to make mistakes. Think about when you were starting out how stressful it was and all the mistakes you probably made yourself; mistaken lunch orders, being late for a call time, losing petty cash, embarrassing yourself in front of the talent, etc.
And, what did you do? You took these mistakes and turned them into war stories to be shared among your peers. Your PAs are going to mess up at some point and while you should let them know if they do, don’t let them beat themselves up about it. Stress to them that they need to take these trying moments as lessons learned so when the next battle comes they will be better prepared for it.
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