After a couple of months working on independent film projects, I scored a job on a television show as a production assistant in Portland, Oregon. Working in television has always been a dream of mine so when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped on it. The past month has given me a chance to experience television production firsthand.
Here’s what you may not know about life behind the scenes on set:
Creating ‘Hollywood Magic’ Takes Time
Think of your favorite scene or moment from your favorite television show. That one particular scene might have taken up to two hours to film. Unlike a normal 9-5 job, a typical day on set can last anywhere from 12-16 hours. Each take of a scene is reviewed by the director, the script supervisor, director of photography and hair and makeup, just to name a few. Making sure the lighting, the make-up, props and camera angles reflect the script and the director’s vision sometimes takes several takes.
In addition to looking for continuity errors, the director will often discuss certain aspects of the scene with the actors and other members of the production team. This process will continue throughout the filming of the episode, which typically lasts eight days.
One of the best parts of my job as a production assistant (PA), besides being able to see how an episode comes together, is my work attire. Because I work long days on set, my work attire is all about being comfortable. Most days you will find me in jeans, a comfortable shirt, a pair of Merrell shoes with a hooded sweatshirt around my waist or stashed in my backpack.
I have learned that dressing in layers is essential if you want to survive the work day. Often there is a difference between the temperature on set and the actual temperature outside. Since we film many of our scenes at different locations around Portland rain or shine, I try to prepare myself for any type of weather condition.
Like most of the crew, I also wear a walkie talkie, which makes it easier to communicate with the assistant directors and also keeps me aware of everything happening on set. I also carry at least two spare bricks — batteries — on my belt just in case another crew member needs one. A major part of my job includes running errands and assisting the production in any way possible, so I always have a small notepad, pen and Sharpie handy as well. Although most of these items fit in my pocket, I decided to invest in a belt pouch or a tool holder to keep my pockets free.
Once the episode has been prepped, the cast and crew receive call sheets for each day of filming. Call sheets lists all of the crew, actors and other staff working that day. I’m always amazed at how they fit all of this information on legal size sheets of paper covered from top to bottom, on both sides, using ten-point font.
The front of the call sheet usually lists the date, the shooting day (what day it is out of eight), weather forecast, sunrise and sunset and where basecamp and crew parking are located if filming at a different location. It will also list the cast filming that day and department notes or special instructions.
The back of the call sheet lists the crew by department and their call times. In most cases the call times are different for each department. As a general rule, production assistants are usually the first ones in and last ones to leave set.
Call times usually start early on Monday and get later each day. The show I currently work on only films Monday thru Friday (with the exception of Saturday morning on “Fraturdays” when you have a late call time like 4pm and you work the entire night and into the morning).
Learning the Lingo
I was a little nervous about my first day on a television set, partly because I felt out of my league. There was so much to learn, and unlike most jobs where you have an orientation, I learned from doing.
One of the things I picked up fairly quickly was the language used on set. The main mode of communication on set is via walkie talkie, so conversations are precise and straight to the point. When someone tells you something on the walkie, your response should be copy. This lets the person know that you heard and understood what they said. Because there are many people that listen on the walkie, you’ll often to hear someone say “go to channel…” which allows the person to keep the main channel clear and relay the information to one particular person instead of the entire crew.
Craft Services, Catering and Food Trucks
One way to survive long days on set is to keep yourself nourished with great food. Luckily when you work on a television set, there are plenty of opportunities to score food. The Craft Services department, also known as crafty, provides snacks for the crew. Snacks such as pop, chips, granola bars, fruit, mini salads and pasta are just some of the tasty treats you might find at crafty.
Catering, on the other hand, is technically not part of the crew and is only responsible for certain meals like breakfast, lunch or dinner for the crew.
There are times when you’re working late on set like on a Fraturday, and a food truck shows up with tasty treats. It’s happened three times since my time on set and, let me tell you, it is always a nice surprise.
The only downside to all of this tasty food is that you can pack on the pounds pretty quickly. I have been pretty diligent about watching what I eat while working.
This is just a little snippet of life behind the camera. Over the past month I have learned so much working on set and I am excited to learn more.
What are some other careers you’d like to see “behind the scenes”? We’re taking suggestions!