If you want a career in production, a position as a production assistant may be the place to start. The production assistant plays an entry-level role on television and film production crews. Known on some sets as a runner or gopher, the PA's daily responsibilities may include everything from maintaining the "call sheet" to grabbing coffee for superiors. Some college degrees can help prepare you for a job as a production assistant, but only marginally so. It is more important to develop a relevant skill set and a network of people in the industry.
Training to Be a Production Assistant
Get an appropriate degree.
A college education is not a prerequisite to work as a production assistant, but many recent graduates with degrees in broadcast journalism, communications, and film compete for PA jobs. These degrees are less relevant than actual work experience, but they can help you get your foot in the door.
- The most relevant Bachelor’s degrees are broadcast journalism, communications, and film. However, a college degree is not required for the field and even a relevant degree might do little to advance your prospects.
Look for training programs.
Shorter training programs, known as “boot camps,” teach skills important for a PA in a condescended period of time. These are more closely tailored to the specific demands of a PA than college programs and can look great on a resume. These typically cost approximately $200 for a two-day course.
- These programs are concentrated in areas with a thriving media industry, like Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles.
The best way to get into the industry is to get experience working in it. Unfortunately, that means you often need to work as an unpaid intern for several months. Try running errands on a local independent film production crew or at a local television station’s production department.
- Some cable systems will have local origination programming on which they will welcome a volunteer production assistant. They may have an informal (and free) training program, as well.
Building the Relevant Skill Set
Prepare yourself to work long hours.
As a production assistant, you should be willing to work long hours in return for the experience. You might need to work 12-hour days mostly standing up. You will often be required to perform menial tasks, like picking up coffee, and will be judged on how well you perform even the smallest task.
- Though the job is grueling it doesn’t pay well, usually no more than minimum wage, and sometimes less. To keep yourself motivated you should think about the long-term career opportunities that can develop from a PA job.
Develop strong communication skills.
A production assistant works with people in all roles of production, including the director, assistant director, producer, lighting director, camera operators, talent and extras. You will often be required to perform tasks like answering the phone. That means that you need to be able to express ideas clearly both through written and spoken English.
- Taking college courses in the humanities will often help you develop your writing skills.
- Working in sales or services industries can be a good way to develop your oral communication skills.
Learn to edit video.
One of your principal responsibilities as a PA will be editing video. Each station will use a different type of non-linear editor and will usually be willing to train you in the one that they use. However, you should at least be able to demonstrate that you have some experience editing video.
- Programs that channels use include: Avid, Quantel, Final Cut Pro, and Adobe Premiere.
Learn how to operate a camera.
Production assistants are not generally required to operate the camera, but production assistants can be asked to perform almost any function at the studio when the need arises. Knowing how to operate the camera can give you an advantage. Furthermore, successfully operating the camera when needed can be a ticket to a better position in the future.
- Studying film in college is a good way to learn about operating the camera. Alternatively, some organizations offer short courses in filmmaking that can help you develop your skills with the camera.
Familiarize yourself with the basic terminology of the industry.
You will need to become familiar with the roles of a typical production crew. Some colleges offering programs in production have free course material available online.
- Be fluent in the use of a radio (walkie talkie) and surveillance mic equipment.
- Examples of relevant terminology include terms like: “cut,” “dolly,” “framing,” “story board,” and “wipe.”
Learn everything about the content you specialize in.
As a production assistant you will be expected to know something about the content that you report on. If you want to be in sports, you will need to know about sports. If you want to work in news, you will be expected to understand politics. Figure out what field you are interested in and start doing research.
- No one is, or should be, a production assistant forever. It pays too poorly to be anything other than a stepping stone to a better career. Thus, you should know what positions you want to move on to and begin preparing yourself for the expectations.
- If you can, speak to someone in the field about what the expectations and career trajectories are.
Finding a PA Position
Carry your resume and business cards.
You should keep these on you at all times, because you never know when you will meet someone who will be able to recommend you for your first job in your career in production. Be sure that your networking materials include your cell phone number or a current phone number. Your resume should speak to how you possess the aforementioned skills, including communication, camera operation, work ethic, attention to detail, and video editing.
Create a reel.
You will need to demonstrate that you can edit video to get a job as a production assistant. Keep a reel of video that you have edited to share with potential employers. Use your time in college or in a production boot camp to develop such a reel with professional input.
- If you can, try to have reel ready that it is pertinent to the position you are applying for. Though if you don’t have relevant material it should be fine, because it will still show that you have the basic skills necessary to edit film.
Reach out to employers.
Contact production coordinators, producers, or assistant directors either by telephone or in person. Give them your resume and make a pitch for why you are qualified for the job. If you know anyone in the business, see if they can put in a good word for you.
- Leave your resume and card and follow up soon after the first contact. You should follow up periodically thereafter.
You can’t live forever on a PA job. The point of the position is to get experience behind the scenes, to learn the intricacies of production, meet leading figures in the field, and learn from their insights. Whether you are still looking for a PA job or have just gotten one, you should work hard to meet important people in the field.
- Interacting with people on social media can be a good way to introduce yourself to people in the field.
- Look for local events that will likely attract people interested in media.
- Never stop looking to meet new people. Talk to people at yoga or the bar. Engage in clubs and activities that expand your social network.
- Keep in touch with everyone you work with on a production crew. These people may hire you or recommend you for the next job.
- Show initiative by being willing to take on any task needed and by thinking ahead about what the production crew might need.
- Be early! The production assistant helps to ensure that everything else in the production happens on time, and punctuality is a valued quality on a set.
- Production assistants are often freelance, or contract, workers. This means that you may not have income tax withheld from your pay. You will need to be aware of and plan for your tax liabilities. You will need to maintain records of expenses that may be tax-deductible.