13 Principles to become a Kick-Ass Assistant Director
Assistant Directors are one of the most valuable crew members on a production. Your AD is responsible for on-set communication, department coordination, maintaining the shooting schedule, conflict resolution and safety. Want to become a better AD on set? Follow these 13 principles to fast-track yourself.
1. Ask your director for a shot list.
Having a shot list on hand is important when creating a shooting schedule for the day. But what happens when you’re working with a director who doesn’t like making shot lists or storyboards? Just ask your 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. On the flip side, if their 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 focus and support to plan out the shots.
2. Create a realistic shooting schedule.
Look at a scene and identify all the elements needed. Consider the prep time required for anything from a steadicam set-up to wardrobe fitting for talent. Shooting schedules don’t contain a great amount of detail, so it’s good to have your own place to add personal notes.
3. Start the shoot day with a five-minute standup.
Get your core team (usually the producer, director, DP and other key departments) on the same page by going over the schedule, as identified on the call sheet. This is your best shot to let everyone know what’s expected of them. Don’t spend more than five minutes in this meeting.
If your meeting takes longer, it’s a sign that you have to reassess and/or restructure your day. It’s better to take the time to figure out a new game plan with department heads at the top of the day than to be blindsided by it later.
4. Walk through the scenes to prep for changes.
Your schedule may need to shift for many reasons, including lighting needs, new shots or changes to gear or script. Once the set is dressed, it’s time to walk through it with your director, DP, gaffer, sound department and production designer and make sure everything is as expected.
If something isn’t right, you’ll have enough time to fix it before losing time or deviating from the schedule. While nearing the completion of the current scene, be prepared to walk through the next scene’s set-up, and continue to stay ahead of what’s up next in your schedule.
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5. Touch base with departments between setups.
“You can’t address issues that you don’t know exist yet.”
What can ultimately ruin a production are the “unknown unknowns.” You can’t address issues that you don’t know exist yet. As the hub of information, an AD’s job is to proactively collect the latest intel from various departments as quickly as possible, and take preemptive action if required. 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 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 AD’s 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 minutiae will get tuned out fairly quickly. Consider when it’s best 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.
- Provide a 5–10 minute heads up for the next scene or set-up.
7. Embrace being a problem solver. It’s your job.
“Never complain about problems. Your job is solve problems.”
Never complain about problems. Your job is solve problems. Embrace it!, AD’s must be capable to problem solve. Whether it’s a conflict amongst the crew or a safety hazard, it’s your responsibility to resolve it swiftly, and to do so with a positive attitude.
Things you should do:
- 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 we 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 bystanding 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 not to do:
- Never point fingers. This should never be an option. Yet, it is common amongst many ADs to blame others. The buck stops with the AD. 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 ti 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 happens has a chance to infect the energy of the cast and crew.
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8. Four ways to stay on schedule
The average day of shooting can be upwards of 12+ hours so you’ll need to be extremely efficient with your use of time. We know there’s never any extra time, but what can you do to stay ahead of schedule?
- Add padding. Your estimates can potentially get thrown out the window if an issue arises on-set, so even adding a 15 minutes contingency to every scene can pay off. This is especially important when working with a new crew since you don’t know how well they’ll work together early on.
- Get a head start with prep. Never hold off on getting a start on time consuming efforts like prosthetic makeup, production design, or setting up a complicated shot.
- Look for quick wins. If something is stalled (i.e. the actors are still in make-up), find something that can be completed in the meantime. Maybe it’s a perfect time to grab that quick insert or establishing shot.
9. Learn people’s names.
Building a foundation of trust and respect starts with learning people’s name. Nobody likes being referred to as ‘hey’ or by their crew position. You’re not expected to know everyone’s name on day one. This is one of the reasons that call sheets exist. Start by reading the call sheet and memorizing all key cast and crew members names.
10. Saying “thank you” goes a long way.
Sounds easy, right? Thanking people only takes a second and will motivate them to work harder. Treat everyone on set equally because all jobs matter, from the P.A. to the director, recognize that every job has its own challenges and thus deserves empathy and respect. The best way to say thank you is to mean it.
Make it a goal to thank everyone on set at one point or another. You’re setting the tone for the production, and people vibe off your energy, so lead by example.
11. Keep the energy high with better food.
Momentum is a key to have a successful shoot. Food and drink selections play a big role in maintaining energy throughout the day. Although feeding crew is not directly an AD’s job, you can definitely weigh in.
To keep your cast and crew energized, keep craft service simple and healthy: veggies, fruit, cheese, meat and nuts. The glycemic load in tart fruits (i.e. berries or green apples) and vegetables are low, which means you won’ crash with a “food hangover.” For lunch, stick with high-protein meals with plenty of fresh or cooked vegetables. Downplay carb-loaded meals like pasta and noodles if possible. If people are still dragging, a good “pick me up” could be a simple cup of coffee.
12. Keep your talent engaged.
Some talent can be sensitive. Fostering trust and respect with your actors is crucial in keeping them upbeat and preventing a scenario where they may walk off. Being an AD means you have tons of interaction with talent so it’s paramount that you establish a good relationship early on.
A way to gain trust is to involve actors in decisions that affect them directly. For example, “I have an idea that I want to run by the director but I wanted to know what you think first” or “what do you think about this?”
13. Stay focused on what matters.
As the AD, you’ll be inundated with details all day. It’s easy to get myopic and fall offtrack. Always be asking yourself the following questions:
Where are you in the day?
What should be started now?
What should be prepped next?
What should be broken down?
What should be finished now?
Above all else, follow your instincts.
And that’s it! What are some other ways you’ve been able to grow as an AD? Did we miss anything? Share your ideas in the comments below.
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