assistant director

ADs Do It on Time: The Role of the Assistant Director

One of the most misunderstood (yet important) roles on a film production is the Assistant Director. He or she is responsible for running a set in an efficient and timely manner and is the guardian of set safety.

In this article on the responsibilities of an Assistant Director, we will discuss:

  1. Assistant directing paperwork and planning
  2. The schedule
  3. The boards
  4. Day out of days
  5. Call sheets
  6. The safety meeting
  7. Safety bulletins
  8. Set management and “calling the roll”
  9. Production reports
  10. The Assistant Director’s training program

Assistant Directors Do Not Work for Directors

A misconception about Assistant Directors or “ADs” is that they work for Directors. This is not true. Although an AD works with a Director, he or she technically works directly for the Production Manager (PM) or Unit Production Manager (UPM).

The Production Board

The tasks of a strong AD will vary, but they typically include breaking down the script into a production board (a.k.a. production strips, strip schedule, or shooting schedule) that most effectively and efficiently schedules the entire shoot. Often in tandem with a PM or UPM, a smart AD will take several elements of the script into consideration before grouping scenes together into a schedule including: combining day scenes with other day scenes, night scenes with other night scenes, similar locations, the appearance of characters, and the availability of Actors and crew.

For example, if a script has 24 day scenes and 13 night scenes, chances are, those scenes do not appear back to back, with all the day scenes occurring before the night scenes. In the script, there may be 2 day scenes followed by 1 night scene followed by 1 day scene followed by 3 night scenes and so on. Therefore, it is usually up to the AD to figure out which day scenes need to be grouped together with other day scenes and which night scenes need to be grouped together with other night scenes.

However, there is more to take into consideration including locations, cast, special effects, hair, makeup, costume changes, crew availability, and anything else that is essential to shooting a feature, short, music video, commercial, or webisode.

In the past, strip boards were created with a leather or cardboard-bound 3-fold book and cardboard strips that could be written on. Today, software programs have replaced those outdated boards. Studio Binder and Movie Magic all offer strip board solutions that are streamlined and user-friendly.

Studio Binder offers a great video tutorial of how to assemble an organized strip board here.

Lastly, you do not need to necessarily buy software to create a comprehensive production schedule strip board. You can also use Excel to create your own or build one in Google Docs. See example here.

The production report, or PR, is essential to understanding why a day may have gone into overtime or why someone may have gotten hurt on set. It is used by the production company for several reasons, including why insurance may have to cover an incident or why the budget may need to be revised in order to cover unexpected costs.

An Alternate Production Schedule

Whereas feature films and short films will benefit from a production board, commercials, music videos, and branded content may not need a traditional “strip board.” In fact, they may even be confusing to the executives, Producers, Production Manager, cast, and crew who has not worked in features or short films.

Therefore, a simpler production schedule drafted in Word may be the way to go. When I AD commercials and music videos, I typically bypass the traditional production strip board and create a single or multi-page document with all of the pertinent schedule information including call times, company moves, and shoot windows. Here is an example.

Day Out of Days

Assistant Directors will often partner with Production Managers on also creating the Day Out of Days (DOODs). These documents illustrate when cast, locations, vehicles, animals, special effects, and Extras appear on set. They are usually in a grid type format.

Having comprehensive Day Out of Day documents help you wrap your head around when important resources need to be on set. You may not need to create them for a short one or two day shoot, but when it comes to a larger feature film or short film shoot, then Day Out of Days are very important.

The Call Sheet

Probably the most important document for crew, the call sheet is typically a single page document that includes the production company, the production title, the general crew call time, the weather, sunrise and sunset times, crew roles, crew names, crew contact info, cast names and roles, an abbreviated schedule, safety protocols, location info, meal times, radio frequencies, parking info, the nearest hospital, and any other pertinent info the crew needs to know so they can show up on set on time and with some knowledge of what to expect.

I have used Excel, Word, a pre-built Excel document called Caspar, and Set Hero to generate call sheets. Here’s an example.

I personally use Caspar often, but Set Hero offers the most streamlined call sheet creation I have ever worked with. It is very user-friendly and extremely modern, offering both email and text options that are pretty impressive. The reason I don’t use it more often is because it can get expensive. The larger your crew, the more it costs. Therefore, I sacrifice its slickness for the free Casper pre-built call sheet found here.

The Safety Meeting

On day 1 of the shoot, it is the Assistant Director’s responsibility to have already researched all potential safety hazards including weather, potential fumes from paint or other art department materials, animals on set, pyrotechnics, dangerous special effects, stunts, and dangerous weapons, including guns. The AD will also discuss a thought-out emergency plan, including the location of all exits and a central meeting place should the crew have to regroup after a possible accident or safety issue.

It’s also good to point out the bathrooms, mention where Craft Services and Catering are located, and introduce the main players including the Producer, Director, DP, and any execs or clients who should be spotlighted.

All accidents, no matter how small, must be noted and written up on an incident report that production management can typically provide. Don’t take chances and don’t bend to the will of others who think “everything will be ok.”

I recently assistant directed a music video with R&B artist Maya B and the Director wanted a scene in which Maya B stood on the roof of a moving car. I insisted we have a stunt coordination team on set to manage the stunt while someone from the record label thought we didn’t need a stunt team. I made my case politely and clearly, explaining that their artist could fall from the moving car and be crushed (dramatic, I know). It worked and we had the stunt team and zero accidents. Listen to your gut and stand your ground because it will be you going to jail if you allowed an accident to happen that resulted in serious injury or death. And yes, an irresponsible AD can go to jail and can legally be prevented from working as an AD ever again by a Judge if he or she allowed an accident to occur. It isn’t a joke. (Please read this article.)

Safety Bulletins

Often when working at sound stages or on back lots like Warner Brothers or The Golden Oak Ranch (a.k.a. “The Disney Ranch”), there will be safety bulletins provided by production or location management that detail certain rules and regulations for cast and crew. These bulletins may cover possible carcinogenic chemicals in use like paints or dangerous animals, fire hazards, or weather concerns in the area. These documents should be attached to the call sheet when emailed to the cast and crew and should also be reviewed during the safety meeting.

One can also learn to be an AD by applying for and joining The Assistant Director’s Training Program offered by the Director’s Guild of America (DGA). This program “trains” future ADs by teaching them the responsibilities of an AD by focusing on time management, set management, and safety.

Calling the Roll

Before each take on set, the Assistant Director will make sure that every department is ready to roll; from the art department to last looks from hair, makeup, and costuming, to stunts and special effects, to lighting and camera. I usually announce “any objections before we roll?” I give all department heads a moment to respond. If there are no objections, then I state, “roll audio.” I wait to hear the Audio Operator say, “speeding” or “rolling.” Then I say, “camera.” I wait for camera to say, “rolling” or “speeding” and then “set.” Then the Director says, “action.” The main reason audio is called before video is because back in the day when film was the main format for capturing images, audio tape was cheaper, so it started to roll first. Now, it’s simply tradition in the world of video. This time-honored process of calling the roll ensures that both audio and video are rolling and set before any type of action and makes sure that takes are not wasted.

Production Reports

At the end of each shoot day, both the 1st AD and 2nd AD will fill out the production report, a document that indicates crew call times versus the actual time crew members showed up (sometimes they are late), any delays caused by technical issues or talent issues, injuries, the actual time lunch was called if different from when lunch was scheduled, and many other bits of information that may have affected the day’s schedule. The production report, or PR, is essential to understanding why a day may have gone into overtime or why someone may have gotten hurt on set. It is used by the production company for several reasons, including why insurance may have to cover an incident or why the budget may need to be revised in order to cover unexpected costs. Caspar (mentioned above) offers an excellent, pre-built production report that will initially be populated when you build your call sheets. Check out an example here.

The Assistant Director’s Training Program

One of the ways to gain experience as an AD is to go to film school where educators can teach you the skills of an Assistant Director. While in film school, a student can also cut his or her teeth on set working as an AD on student films.

However, one can also learn to be an AD by applying for and joining The Assistant Director’s Training Program offered by the Director’s Guild of America (DGA). This program “trains” future ADs by teaching them the responsibilities of an AD by focusing on time management, set management, and safety.

It’s also important to note that Assistant Directors rarely become Directors. Yes, it’s true that Alfred Hitchcock was an Assistant Director before becoming a Director, but most ADs become Production Managers, Unit Production Managers, and Producers.

Regardless, assistant directing is a very rewarding career and it allows ADs to really command the production. If you do your job correctly and get the cast and crew finished safely on time each day, you will be considered a set hero.

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