Running the Show
eBook - ePub

Running the Show

The Essential Guide to Being a First Assistant Director

Liz Gill

  1. 252 páginas
  2. English
  3. ePUB (apto para móviles)
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eBook - ePub

Running the Show

The Essential Guide to Being a First Assistant Director

Liz Gill

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Whether it's a crew of two hundred shooting a cast of thousands on horseback, or a crew of twelve filming one person in a room, each and every successful movie production requires a strong First Assistant Director (AD) at its helm. In this new and updated edition, veteran First AD Liz Gill walks you through the entire filmmaking process through the perspective of the First AD, from pre-production, shoot, wrap, and everything in between.

This book provides invaluable insight into working as a First Assistant Director, featuring tricks-of-the-trade for breaking down a script, creating a schedule and organizing test shoots, alongside how to use turnaround time, weather cover, split days, overtime and continuous days to balance a challenging schedule and get the most from the cast, crew and the shoot. This new edition has been fully updated and expanded throughout to provide up-to-date coverage on new equipment and software, health and safety considerations and the implications of VFX.

This is the essential guide to becoming a successful First Assistant Director, ideal for professional and aspiring AD's seeking to further their career, students of directing and production looking to gain a better understanding of how this department works and anyone interested in film and TV production.The accompanying eResources provide an expanded selection of sample call sheets, report templates, checklists, and other useful documents.

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Film & Video

Chapter 1

It is not the ship so much as the skillful sailing that assures the prosperous voyage.
– George William Curtis

What is an assistant director?

Francois Truffaut said that making a film is like going on a sea voyage: you start out hoping for a pleasant journey, and you end up clinging on, praying to survive. This may be an extreme example, but the metaphor of the ship is accurate, and in this scenario the assistant director (AD) is the first mate. The director may have the vision of the destination, the production manager may be calculating the budget, but the first mate has to be the director’s support, the producer’s representative and the crew’s inspiration; if you don’t keep the director encouraged, the producer informed and the crew happy, you will end up shipwrecked, keelhauled or facing a mutiny. I’ve seen all three happen, and they’re not pretty.
An assistant director, first of all, is very different from an assistant to the director. “Assistants to” can end up doing practically anything the director wishes, from the most personal errands such as picking up laundry to liaising with the editor to making dinner reservations. In any case, a production can move seamlessly forward with no assistant to the director whatsoever. Without a First AD, however, you won’t have a schedule or a communication system, and without these two things there’s no show. You can have a first-time director carried by a good First AD, you can have a first-time producer educated by a First; but with a bad First there will be a catastrophe, and, joking aside, people can actually die.
As we go through the stages of what the job requires, the details of exactly what a First AD does will become clearer, but for now suffice to say the First creates and manages the schedule, runs the set, and executes the director’s vision within the parameters of the production’s resources. The First AD is largely responsible for making sure that the day’s work is completed, directs the background action, supervises crowd control and maintains communications between the director and the crew. The First’s currency is time, and a good First makes things happen in the most efficient way possible, like the manager of a highly efficient factory. Rather than producing widgets, however, this company manufactures emotional responses in the psychologies of an audience; naturally enough, then, the First is managing egos, ideas, vulnerabilities and artistic personalities, while trying to make it all happen yesterday at the mercy of the weather, the public or the claustrophobic environs of a soundstage. At best, it’s like being a conductor leading an orchestra in Bach’s most beautiful concerto; at worst, it’s like trying to control a class of sugar-fueled three-year-olds let loose in a paint factory. In any case, it’s never dull; no two days are ever the same, and every job is unique. It’s the ultimate collaborative process, in which the First AD manages the balance between creativity and forward motion.
The entire job is about anticipating where delays or problems could occur and taking steps in advance to prevent them. That’s really it. Across the departments, under all the circumstances, with all the personalities, what can possibly go wrong, and what can you do to make sure it doesn’t? It’s a good job for someone who suffers from anxiety and impatience. Anxiety helps you foresee any potential disaster, and impatience means you’re going to solve it quickly. Again, though, this is all internal; the mask of a First is unflappable, steady and in control, no matter what’s going on inside. Leadership is not letting them see your fear, otherwise known as grace under pressure.

How do I start?

If you’ve ever tried to figure out how to turn a script into a shoot, you’ve already begun the process of being a First AD. Naturally, the more you know about the way a film shoot works, the better your ideas of how to plan the production are going to be. A film unit is a hierarchal structure, almost military in style, and this isn’t because filmmakers are fascists but simply because it works. It’s the most efficient system we have developed over the past 100 years to get the film through the gate (or capture the information, if you want to get digital about it!). Most ADs begin at the bottom rung of the ladder (as a PA or trainee), and despite the fact that the freelance world of filmmaking is completely unpredictable, it can be comforting to understand that if you want to be a First AD there really is a pretty clear-cut career path, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time.
The first step is getting a job, any job. No matter what department you actually want to work in, the hardest part of the whole film industry experience is getting that first job. You might assume that the word “job” implies that you will actually get paid, but that isn’t necessarily the case. You have to be willing to shovel elephant dung for free – literally – to have any hope whatsoever of working in the business. In fact, if your goal is to get rich or famous, please look elsewhere. Inside every person on a film set, including the caterers and even the surliest electrician on the truck, somewhere exists the romantic child who was first dazzled by the silver screen. We’re here because we love what can happen in a darkened room full of strangers; or because we were entranced and delighted by what we discovered at the movies; or because we were consoled or entertained or distracted or inspired by some sound and image we might no longer even remember. Even in the most grizzled cynic’s heart is this childlike love of the cinema; if this doesn’t ring a bell with you, then you’ll save yourself and everybody else a lot of heartache if you find something else to do with your one wild and precious life. If you have a choice, you’re in the wrong game. This business is for obsessives, dreamers and poets, people who simply cannot live in any other world. You have to be willing to put up with long hours, bad pay, disgusting food, verbal abuse, freezing cold and baking heat and still keep smiling. I’m not saying that you won’t get the odd job that is a complete pleasure, or one freak shoot that is actually as much fun to work on as all the stars say it is when they’re being interviewed, but generally it’s a tough slog no matter what you’re being paid, and you need to have some love or madness in your heart to get you through. Consider whether you want to get up at 4:30 a.m. 6 days a week for 8 weeks to stand in the snow for 12-hour days. If you can’t face that, go elsewhere. (And if you think I’m exaggerating, have a look at how the Directors Guild of America [DGA] itself describes the job in their trainee program at – not for the faint-hearted!)
If you’re still game, you simply need to get in anywhere that will have you. Most cities (and unless you’re an auteur and plan to write, direct, star in and edit your film yourself, you will have to be in a city) have some kind of filmmakers’ association that may also publish a journal of some sort. I used to look in New York’s theatrical newspaper Backstage to find short films to work on for free; now has similar listings online (for a list of other online resources, see and Websites and Other Resources at the end of this book). There are film co-ops, alliances, independent film associations, and even film schools that need people willing to pitch in. Either way, get in the door, work your butt off, and word will go out that you’re worth hiring. Eventually you’ll get paid.
You then work your way up the ladder: production assistant, known as a PA (or trainee AD); Second Second (or Third in the United Kingdom); Second AD; and finally First. The only odd thing about this career ladder is that being great at one job doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be good at others. I hated being a Second AD. Detailed paperwork is really not my strong suit; I’m worse still supervising makeup, hair, wardrobe and nervous actors, and luckily for the industry I did only one job as a Second (unless you count one where I was fired). Being a Second Second, however, really is the step below being a First and requires similar skills, so you can learn everything that can be learned from watching in this role. The important thing is not to be impatient about your progress; once you make the step up, it can be harder to step back, so a general suggestion would be to upgrade when someone offers you a job in that higher grade, as will inevitably happen if you prove yourself in the one you’re in.
A job on a film crew is an invitation to the most exclusive party in town. There are no passengers on a set, and everyone is depending on you, regardless of whether you’re the director or a PA. The job you’re doing is the most important job you’ll ever do, not a means to an end but the end in itself. Ultimately, what we all want is to make a good show – whether we’re running coffees or calling action isn’t the issue – the idea is to serve the ultimate good of the project and leave your own agenda at home.

Getting the job

Once you get to be a First of any description, you may be well-known and sought after; however, no matter how good you are, you will still need to audition for the director. This is sensible; a certain amount of chemistry is required for this to be a successful relationship, and a director should get to choose – or at least approve – the First AD or there will be one immediate excuse for things to end in tears.
This audition (or meeting, as they’re euphemistically referred to) is important to get right. Ideally, the First will have been able to read the script beforehand and prepare notes on it to have to hand at the meeting, which the producer and/or an assistant may also attend. Even if you don’t have the script, you can trawl the Internet and anyone you know for information about the director and producer. Any details you can get are important, especially their work style, their previous work and how it was received. They may ask what you’re working on or what your last job was; even if it was a real stinker, find something positive to say. Don’t be negative, as this shows disloyalty, and no one wants to think you might go on to badmouth them all over town.
What I usually try to do once the small talk is out of the way is to actually begin the working process by asking questions. Not tough questions that are going to put the director on the spot (for example, how do you plan to shoot the ghost sequence?) but general questions ranging from how they like the mood on the set to whether they’ve worked with the cast before to general ideas about anything tricky in the script (generally, tricky involves stunts, special effects, children, animals, etc.). Again, you’re not expecting them to have all the solutions at this stage; for various reasons, many decisions may not have been made yet. Ideally, you’re encouraging the director to share their ideas with you and offering thoughts and options about what might work. If you can give them useful information, you’ll be perceived as valuable. You can casually mention the way you like to have the extras supporting the main action of the scene and how strong the team is that you bring with you. At all times, you are to be positive about the script. You’d be surprised how much it means to the people hiring you – everyone is still insecure about how good (or not) the material is, and even when they don’t expect much from the script, it’s reassuring to have someone being positive about the possibilities. Even if it’s a turkey, there must be something you can find about the project that’s good, or else why work on it? As Joan Holloway in Mad Men once said, “An interview is the chance to be intelligently enthusiastic about the job and convince them that you’re the right person for it.” If you’ve already begun the process of eliciting the director’s desires and discussing ways to put them into practice, you’re potentially much further down the road of actually working together than the other candidates. Toward the end of the interview, the conversation will probably turn to dates, and you should make it clear (briefly) if you have recently had a meeting with another production and if there could be a clash. Don’t rule anything in or out at this stage – it’s all just talk for now, and dates do sometimes shift.
Assuming you get the job, only then will you discuss the exact dates and the money. Because Firsts generally don’t have agents, it’s down to you to negotiate these things yourself. If during the follow-up conversation (which will happen with either the producer or production manager) you should discover that you have a scheduling conflict, you should let them know the second this becomes clear. One thing that will get you blacklisted is jumping ship: committing to a project, and then bailing out. It’s not just rude, it’s infuriating, and I have refused to work with people after they’ve done this to me. It erases your reputation for being trustworthy, and in such a trust-dependent business that can be fatal. If a First can’t be relied on, they’re no good to anyone. The rule of thumb is to be completely honest and transparent about what your previous commitments are, and then you won’t end up in a muddle. My strategy is to behave as I would if I were invited to two dinner parties on the same night: I don’t jump ship; I just go to the one I was invited to first. I may miss out on some fun, but my conscience is clear.
This transparency extends to your salary negotiations; trying to play one job off against another financially will lead to big problems. For one thing, production managers talk to each other, and even if they’re not friends, they commonly pick up the phone and confer over what they’re both offering you. No matter how big a city you’re working in, in this business it’s a small town. The other aspect to this is that if you’re dealing with a respectable PM or producer, the figure they’re quoting you will be what they have budgeted for, and they often have very little leeway. Other crewmembers such as sound or camera technicians may bring gear with them that can provide a little wiggle room in relation to their rates (“box fees” or “allowances” they’re sometimes called), but ADs don’t bring equipment with them (unless they own their own walkies, which is unusual and would probably be a separate deal), so the rate is the rate and probably won’t change by more than a hundred bucks at best.
If you really can’t work for what they’re offering, say so and walk away. If you sign on for that rate, that’s the end of the conversation. One thing producers hate is any crew member trying to renegotiate deals later on. Whatever you commit to stands for the whole job, unless some unforeseeable major change affects the entire shooting structure.
It’s important to agree in this conversation when overtime, if any, kicks in. (This will feature strongly later for the First when creating the schedule; for now, we’re only talking about personal conditions.) ADs are often classified as being in the production department, but even when they’re not, they’re expected to work long hours without additional pay for extracurricular meetings or other requirements. ADs generally work from at least an hour before call time, through lunch, and for a short time after wrap (unless there’s an additional recce or meeting planned) – all-inclusive.
Once you have an understanding, you enter that charmed era when you have a job lined up but haven’t started it yet. This is the time to pack as if you were about to embark on that wonderful ocean cruise. Do all your laundry, say goodbye to your friends and family and stock up on foodstuffs – it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Chapter 2

Give me five hours to cut down a tree, and I’ll spend three hours sharpening the axe.
– Abraham Lincoln
Pre-production, or prep, is in many ways the most important part of the shoot: there is still time to solve problems, and it’s much cheaper to do so now rather than later. Prep is about imagining the worst-case scenario and doing everything possible to avoid it and so requires imagination, communication and execution. Most of this imagining stays private, but those elements that involve taking action will be shared. And no matter how much planning you do, there will always be surprises and disasters. The difference between a good First and the one the crew wants to string up is whether these disasters are self-inflicted. A film set is a great place to create total chaos, confusion and bad feelings; how much of this you get is determined by how well you prepare. If you know the script, know the schedule and know the director, you will handle the Acts of God more gracefully, and this is really what you are being paid to do. A clever monkey can create a schedule, but it can take a genius to make it work.
For the purposes of this book, let’s imagine as an example a six-week shoot with a four-week prep for the First AD. This is typical of a lot of low-budget feature productions, but of course there are any number of variations – there’s no such thing as a normal shoot. You should be able to adapt this model to whatever scale of production you’re working on. A TV show is more compressed (7 days prep and 8 shoot days per episode, for example), while a studio feature might shoot for over 100 days. On any size production, the minimum amount of prep time for the First is four weeks per six weeks of shooting. And I mean minimum. (The DGA publishes the prep time requirements for ADs and PMs on their website.) If someone is asking you to do your prep in less time, they either have a schedule done already, which means you’ll be taking responsibility for someone else’s work, or else you’re going to be expected to work 16-hour...


  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title
  4. Copyright
  5. Dedication
  6. Contents
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. Preface
  9. Chapter 1 Pre-pre-production
  10. Chapter 2 Pre-production
  11. Chapter 3 Production
  12. Chapter 4 Wrap
  13. Appendix 1: SAG tier budget thresholds
  14. Appendix 2: Filmmakers’ code of professional responsibility
  15. Appendix 3: Some filmster jokes
  16. Glossary
  17. Websites and other resources
  18. List of illustrations
  19. Index
Estilos de citas para Running the Show

APA 6 Citation

Gill, L. (2019). Running the Show (2nd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)

Chicago Citation

Gill, Liz. (2019) 2019. Running the Show. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Gill, L. (2019) Running the Show. 2nd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Gill, Liz. Running the Show. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.