1st Assistant Director
How To Become a 1st Assistant Director
What Exactly Does a 1st Assistant Director Do?
“The 1st Assistant Director is in charge of logistically running the set during production,” says Michael McIntyre, a 1st AD who has done commercials, short films and features. “They manage the schedule and shot list to coordinate all departments so each one is ready when the time comes.”
There is a methodical and creative aspect to this career. In the best case scenario, the 1st Assistant Director is brought in before principal photography begins to work with the Line Producer and Director on creating a schedule for shooting the film that respects turnaround times. That is the amount of time for rest required by unions between a day’s end and the next one beginning. This usually means shooting a film out of order. From there, the 1st AD works with the 2nd AD and the 2nd 2nd AD to prep call sheets and discuss any logistical problems that may occur.
When it comes to being on set, the 1st AD is constantly on their toes because unexpected problems always occur. If an Actor is running late or a location unexpectedly falls through, the 1st Assistant Director should have a solution for what could be shot instead. They must be in touch with each department to effectively run a film set and make sure that when problems inevitably occur, it won’t take too much time to solve them.
When filmmaking began within the studio system, the 1st Assistant Director was a Director-in-training. However, as the art form evolved, the 1st AD has ceased to be a training job and now runs their own department. McIntyre says, “A lot of times people will enter production as a Production Assistant. From there, they can usually move into the career path they’d like to pursue, whether it is art, camera, management, etc. If they’d like to become part of the Assistant Director Department then they’ll be looking to work as a 2nd 2nd Assistant Director. This job is to support the 2nd AD with prepping call sheets and other necessary paperwork. On set, they act like a Production Runner but specifically for the AD Department.
The 2nd AD is the right hand of the 1st AD. When someone moves into the 1st AD role after years of experience they must still manage the paperwork but are now concerned with focusing solely on running an effective set.” Advancement within the AD field is built on relationships and trust.
Since time is so strongly connected to money on a film set, a good 1st AD is paid well. Veterans often stay in this position because the unique skills they’ve acquired are in high demand by the largest blockbusters in Hollywood. Sometimes 1st Assistant Directors will transition into being a Producer or Director since they work so closely with those positions. However, this leap would be due to personal preference and not part of the AD career track.
Education & Training
“Getting specific training to become a 1st Assistant Director is difficult to find,” says McIntyre. “It usually doesn’t exist. If someone goes to college for filmmaking they usually get a broad spectrum of experience for working on a film set. People learn piecemeal each of the roles on small projects. It doesn’t give the same hands-on experience that comes from working on a big set.
Really the best thing someone can do is get onto film sets and learn. This also expands your network. My first opportunity as a 1st Assistant Director was being brought in last minute because the 1st AD was fired and production was scrambling.” McIntyre says, “The best way to learn is by watching. This can include as a PA on set, working hard to assist the AD Department in whatever they need and asking questions (when it’s appropriate) to learn more.”
Additionally, the Director’s Guild of America does have a trainee program for individuals to work as a 2nd AD on large productions, which results in them being able to join the union. However, prior experience is required and it’s very competitive to be selected.
What skills do you need to be a 1st Assistant Director?
Regarding the prior experience and special skills required to become a 1st Assistant Director, McIntyre recommends developing a firm understanding of how a film set operates. “Really the 1st Assistant Director needs to know what every position on a film set does — that way they can coordinate them effectively. It can be good to get on as many jobs as possible when learning because watching an improperly run film set can be the best teacher. It’s a job that requires practical experience.
In terms of skill sets, the biggest pre-requisites are to be hyper-organized and attentive to detail. Those are huge. Effective problem-solving comes from knowing where each of the departments is at or what it will take for them to be ready and then recognizing a solution.” If a 1st Assistant Director has experience working on poorly run sets, especially if they weren’t in the 1st AD role and could watch, then they’ll be able to perform better in their own career.
“Perfectionists who are logistically and statistically-minded individuals with a knack for organization are ideal candidates for working as a 1st AD,” says McIntyre. He adds, “People who are really good at stress management and conflict resolution will do well. This career is very stressful and if someone doesn’t know how to unwind, their health will suffer from stress-related complications.”
Working on a film set is a high-pressure experience and most of the employees have big personalities. Most departments are only concerned with their aspect of the film and it is up to the 1st AD to manage them and bridge the gap. The more organized someone can stay, the better they’ll be at managing others and keeping a calm demeanor.
“The 1st AD is a freelance position and it’s usually a ‘feast or famine’ scenario,” says McIntyre. “When on a project, it is a lot of work. Sometimes a 1st AD is on set pulling twelve to sixteen-hour days. That isn’t the end of it. The 1st AD then must go home and review all of the call sheets, as well as the shot list for the next day. They’ve got to insert things that the Director requests or that got missed on the previous day. It’s a lot of long hours for each individual project. That intensity could only last a month then the 1st AD could go several weeks or months without being on set. During that time, they hunt for new projects and live life.”
Working as a 1st AD is a demanding job. There is no definitive schedule for any project, no matter the budget. The tiniest project can have the longest working hours or a massive project can become almost like a nine-to-five. It all depends on what the project is, what the skill set is, and how the project is set up. As a 1st AD, it’s important to recognize that it’s a high-intensity job with no guarantee of steady employment.
The 1st AD works primarily with the Director, the Cinematographer, the Line Producer and their own department. However, since they are essentially the bridge of communication for all departments on set, they interact with each of the key crew heads including Key Makeup, Key Hair, Key Grip, Gaffer, Costume Designer, Production Designer and 1st AC. People working under the supervision of key positions on set will usually talk with the 2nd AD if they have any notes or questions regarding the Assistant Director Department.
“To become a 1st Assistant Director, a person needs to acquire a significant amount of on set experience. Start looking for Production Assistant gigs. That is the entry-level position to get to know people and prove that a person is capable of hard work while gaining practical experience. It’s a game of networking and climbing the ladder, rung by rung. It can help for a person to get to know another 1st AD and put out that they’d like to 2nd AD for them,” says McIntyre.
He further elaborates, “Once someone has the experience to become a 1st Assistant Director effectively, then they should begin putting that desire out into their network. They should let people know that they’re looking for a 1st AD gig. With the right resume, someone will give that person the chance to move up, usually out of necessity. Due to the freelance nature of filmmaking, people are always dropping out of projects or getting fired.”
There is no one way of breaking into the film industry within the Assistant Director Department. It comes via social networking and building relationships.
How Much Does a 1st Assistant Director make?
“Since working as a 1st AD is a freelance position, where rates vary project-to-project, it is up to the individual to choose their projects based on pay and who the collaborators are. Sometimes taking a lower wage means building relationships that will yield better work in the future. There are no benefits so it’s up to the 1st AD to determine what work they’re willing to take and why. Typically, the base level pay that most 1st ADs make on a smaller indie or a low budget film is $350 to $600 a day. Payment usually comes weekly but varies production to production,” explains McIntyre.
Unions, Groups & Associations
“Google is a lifesaver when it comes to finding helpful databases of necessary paperwork. If a person has a good handle on Microsoft Excel then they can be adapted for each project. The important thing to do is to read over a couple of them and see what layout not only contains all the necessary information but is also easy to read. Many of the crew members just glance at the call sheet, so the easier it is to digest, the better,” explains McIntyre.
Regarding networking groups, check out Facebook. Two good pages to join are I Need an Assistant Director! and Production Resource Group. Otherwise, the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) offers a training course and offers other important advice. Finally, there are regional organizations like Film Independent (LA) and IFP (NYC) that can be good places to network and learn, as well. The best groups will come from creating personal connections.
- Get to know other 1st Assistant Directors.
- Get on set in whatever capacity is possible to pay attention to how it is run.
- Talk to other people from every department to figure out what they do on set.
- Learn the basic paperwork a 1st Assistant Director uses, especially the call sheet and shot list.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“The biggest thing people need to know when considering a career as a 1st Assistant Director is that it’s a high-stress job. The more preparation and organization that is done will reduce the stress but it will always be there. Even when everything is planned out there are still problems because of all the different personalities and unpredictable factors.
But a good plan of attack creates a foundation that is easier to adjust, which will reduce the stress involved. Ultimately, the 1st AD is there to assist and work with the creatives. The more they feel like everything is covered, the less they’ll freak out about their own problems, which once again reduces the 1st Assistant Director’s stress. Creating a career as a 1st AD is reliant on stress management, not only for the 1st AD but also the rest of the set.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The biggest mistake people make when trying to become a 1st Assistant Director is they move too fast. While the job is theoretically simple, there are a lot of nuances that can only be mastered through experience. Often, people think that they can jump in and 2nd AD or even 1st AD but are not entirely familiar with what each job entails. They think that they can learn on-the-job but it puts them two steps behind everyone else, creating discord on set.
The AD Department is a forward-thinking department that plans to prevent problems. If they are inexperienced then the AD will start fires instead of putting them out or preventing them. This causes a downhill spiral that results in a lot of unnecessary stress. The 1st AD is not a job that can be taken lightly. It requires intense preparation and an intimate understanding of how filmmaking works. People should save themselves and others the stress by ditching the fake-it-until-you-make-it policy.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Why are there so many bad 1st Assistant Directors?
It is tough to find a good 1st Assistant Director. It’s usually because the people looking to become 1st ADs don’t investigate what is not only the best personality for doing the job but what it entails. Most of the time people try to segue into the career from another aspect of filmmaking because they think it looks easy without understanding how high intensity it is or how much preparation is required. When a set is running smoothly, a 1st AD looks like they’re just on the radio, giving people time frames. It’s important for people considering work within this career field to know what they are getting themselves into doing.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“What is the best way to make friends with a 1st Assistant Director?
If someone is working on set and wants to become friends with a 1st Assistant Director the best thing to do is ask if they’d like a cup of coffee. People remember small things like that. Often the 1st AD is stuck in the middle of running everything, constantly pushing the ball forward — so they can’t make it to Craft Services. They’ll forget about getting food or something to drink. A person going out of their way to make the 1st AD comfortable will set them apart and create a personal relationship that could lead to working in the AD Department in the future.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
- 1Multiple. "First Assistant Director Salaries in United States". Glassdoor.com. published: May 27, 2014. retrieved on: Dec 12, 2019
Michael McIntyre has worked as a 1st AD, Actor, Writer, Producer, Fight Coordinator, and Production Assistant. He grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. At the age of fourteen, Michael started acting in small roles in the New England market. He moved to Los Angeles when he was seventeen to pursue a full-time career in acting. Shortly thereafter, he attended the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where he earned his BFA in Theater with a focus in Acting. Immediately after graduating, Michael began his professional career in theaters throughout Los Angeles.
A lifelong martial artist, Michael soon found a niche as a Fight Performer and Coordinator. Since transitioning into film, Michael has worked on numerous feature films and award-winning shorts in a variety of genres. He is the Owner/Production Supervisor of Rapid Reelz. To learn more about Michael and Rapid Reelz, check out this Voyage LA profile.