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The Invisible Hand

Organization is the key to getting any large project completed and that’s as true for movie production (big budget or independent) as it is for building a skyscraper or running a ship. We’re going to use the analogy of running a ship to describe how a film is organized. Because this is about making movies, we’ll use a pretty famous ship – the USS Enterprise from Star Trek.

The captain of the ship would be analogous to the director—everything is being done to make his vision happen and to make it happen as fluidly as is possible. Everything on the sets is focused on achieving that end goal and, ultimately, the success or failure of the movie rests with his execution of the vision.

The job we’re going to cover is less glamorous, but no less important. It’s the first assistant director. Going back to the USS Enterprise analogy, if the director is Captain Kirk, the first assistant director is Mister Spock. It’s the assistant director’s job to make sure that things happen in the right order and that all the messy routine details of running a stage and set operation happen, solving problems before they come to the attention of the director and presenting information to the director when a decision needs to be made. In most cases, the assistant director reports to the producer, who’s managing budgets for several productions at the same time. While production generally deals with finances, the director’s side of the job deals with actors, which is the distinction between the assistant director and the production manager.

Most of the first assistant director’s jobs are logistical in nature. It’s his responsibility to make sure that the production schedule is created, that it’s broken down to a day-by-day shooting schedule. It’s his responsibility to make the daily call sheets, which are distributed to production crew and cast members, telling them where and when to meet for which scenes. When the set is being populated, it’s the first assistant director’s job to make sure that people are in the right place at the right time. First, the first assistant director establishes what’s causing any delays in the scene shoot, including which department (makeup, talent, grips, etc) so that everyone’s informed. This saves time and money, no matter what size of production is being run and communications and organizational skills are essential for this job.

Once there are no more delays, the assistant director calls for people to make any last minute adjustments to hair, position or lighting, then calls for quiet on the set, rolling the sound and camera, confirms (with hand signals) that both sound and camera are rolling. Once this is done, everyone stays out of the frame; the camera assistant uses the clapper board common to everyone’s vision of how movies are made and the director calls for action!

Now, that describes the day-to-day aspects of what the assistant director does. Where a lot of small budget films do is economize on this job. They either roll it into the production manager job or have the director do it all (who usually burns out in the process well before the shooting schedule ends).

When looking for an assistant director, look for a person who’s organized. This is a person who has a day planner and uses it. Look for a person who has good communications skills—he’s going to have a lot of information passing through his head and part of his job is making sure the information goes to the right person at the right time to do the maximum amount of good. A good assistant director has an ego, but knows it’s subordinate to the producer and the director. His job is to make sure that things happen on set, without chaos or strife or confusion.

Good assistant directors can improvise and always have a B plan (or C plan, or D plan…). There’s time after the shoot to have a nervous breakdown. When everything is going to hell on a rocket sled, it’s the assistant director’s job to be calm, clear and composed while trying to avert the disaster. Every assistant director knows the importance of providence and having backup plans ready to go.

It’s important to understand that an assistant director cannot afford to play politics with the crew or the cast. That’s in the producer’s bailiwick. Unfortunately, as the person on set who has the most authority with direct access, the assistant director is the person who gets whined at the most. The temptation to whine back is overwhelming, particularly since the assistant director ends up being the go-to guy for solving all problems on the set that can’t be handled locally. When presented with a problem by someone else, an important skill for any assistant director to have is to direct them to the person who can SOLVE the problem.

Finally, the assistant director needs to be flexible. Things will go wrong—it’s his job to fix them and deal with the crazy atmosphere of grips needing things, makeup needing things and actors being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ultimately, the assistant director can’t run the set like a boot camp. This will cause friction with the people doing the work and an overly regimented environment is wholly detrimental to getting creative performances out of actors.

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Adryenn Ashley

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  1. Profile photo of Kim
    October 28, 2014

    Peter Jackson gives you a glimpse into this in the “behind the scenes” footage on the extended versions of the LOTR movie’s and the first Hobbit movie. I’m sure there will be lots more good stuff on the extended versions of the 2nd and 3rd when they are released. I have really enjoyed getting to know about how a film is put together and “meeting” so many of the people involved. It’s such a huge project, I know I don’t have the skills to organize something like that, but it would be fun to be somewhere on the team.

  2. Profile photo of Lanika
    October 27, 2014

    I can’t even think of something I would remotely like doing as much as fashion design. It took me awhile to come to terms with it. I always liked the red carpet aspect of fashion but when I started to research it I learned it was also about all the things I loved: art, history, and individuality. It blew my mind seeing designers, fashion bloggers, people on the streets taking things from art, history, and pop culture that they love and making them into wearable art. I always liked fashion but that’s when I really fell in love with it.
    That’s when I knew I wanted to make clothes that were going to speak to people and become a part of their life. A sexy dress that matches with everything, the perfect jeans you had for years, that skirt your wore on your first date with the man you were destined to spend the rest of your life with. This is why I believe I should be a designer who establishes my own website, then a boutique.

  3. Profile photo of Bella
    October 19, 2014

    My profession is to organize events and shows and yes I always have the worst-case scenario and plans B and C, yet I never let on. That’s my job, sometimes I can be seen as ruthless because I need thing done without having to explain myself or others want something, but can’t understand why logistically.

    I would say that running things isn’t like quite like a boot camp, but people will listen and do things because they trust you. There are times you need to sweet talk people or convince them you are doing them a favor, because that’s how the game is played. I’m fortunate that staff trust me and do as I say, yes there are tensions, but from those who envy my position rather than anything else. Keeping a firm hand and authority is important, but understanding and listening is too.

  4. Profile photo of Scott
    October 19, 2014

    So, basically an assistant director requires all of the qualities I lack. I am the anti-organization. If I were a fish in a school of fish.. I’d be the guy swimming backwards just because. Strange, the army didn’t quite work that out of my system. … on a side note, I always wondered what Star Trek: The Next Generation would have been like if Picard had Spock Instead of Riker. It’s a tangent, but still I do wonder.


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