Continuing our "What's Expected" series, let's now take a look at what makes a good Assistant Director, or 1st AD, for student productions.
1. Keep Your Team Safe. Hold a "safety meeting"
every morning, outlining basic safe practices, specifying a rally point
in case of emergency, and letting the crew know if anything unusual will
be happening on set that day (such as pyro, smoke, wind machines,
smoke, gunplay, etc.). The safety of the cast and crew is your
responsibility (and that of the Key Grip) throughout the shoot day. If
you see anything unsafe, it's your obligation to stop work until the
unsafe conditions can be corrected.
2. Get a Handle on the Shotlist. Before each shoot day, make sure you have a copy of the shotlist from the director and DP. Do some quick math and estimate how long they're going to have for each setup. The average shoot day is twelve hours long, but when you subtract initial setup time, lunch, etc., you're lucky if you have 10 hours, or 600 useable minutes of production time. A shotlist of 60 shots means your team will have 10 minutes per shot - kind of unrealistic for a student crew. So do the math and advise your director and DP on ways they can condense, combine, and eliminate unnecessary shots.
3. Manage Comms. Your job is dependent on communication. Headset radios (a.k.a. "comms") will be your best friend. Get comms distributed to department heads first thing in the morning. Determine which channels will be used and let everyone know. Insist on proper radio etiquette. All conversations should begin with the speaker self-identifying and then requesting the specific person or persons they want to speak to. "AD for director," for example, or using first names. Repeat requests back to the other person to indicate comprehension and action. For example: "Director for AD, please send in the actors." "AD, actors inbound." Set the tone on radio etiquette for your team and stick to it.
4. Watch the Clock. A wristwatch or a timer is one of your most valuable tools on set. Track those minutes as they tick by. Keep the director and DP abreast the need to move on to the next setup (based on the math you did in item #2). Balance your need to regularly make them aware of the time with their need to focus and create. You're also in charge of managing the timetables of grip & electric, hair & makeup, and wardrobe. Get time estimates from all departments and check back with them to ensure they stick to their estimates. Alert departments regarding the estimated completion time of items they're waiting on. For example, letting the director and DP know when hair, makeup, and wardrobe will complete their work and release actors to set. You're the timekeeper for everyone on set and off. You call lunch break and you call when work resumes.
5. Make the Calls. Technically it is your job to call "quiet on set," "roll camera," and the like. Some directors like to do that themselves, but technically it's your responsibility. At the very least you should be the one to announce to the crew when camera is going to roll ("Quiet on set!"), when another take is being done ("Going again!"), and when the director is ready to move to the next shot ("Moving on!"). Be the person to repeat the director's commands in a loud, booming voice (or over comms as necessary) so the rest of the crew clearly understands what's happening.
6. Wrangle the Cast. Shuttling actors on and off set is your responsibility. Deliver actors to the director when requested, and release actors back to their green room (waiting area) when required, or when you see that the crew is making changes that will take longer than a few moments. In particular remember your #1 job - keep the team safe - and remove actors from set when heavy equipment is being moved, lights are being raised or lowered, or any time you think they might get injured.
7. Follow Abby Singer's Lead. Abby Singer was a Hollywood AD and Production Manager in the 1940's and 50's who exemplified efficiency with his crews. He was the first to realize that when a crew got to "This shot and one more," clean-up could be expedited by immediately beginning to pack any equipment not being used on those last two shots. Nowadays we call the second-to-last shot of the day "the Abby Singer" in his honor. So do like Abby and get your crew working on clean-up as soon as you see that there are only two shots left for the day. That way once "the Martini" (a.k.a. the last shot of the day) is in the can, everyone gets out and gets home more quickly - and you look like the best AD, ever.
8. Make Your Day. This goes hand-in-hand with watching the clock - make sure the director and DP get the footage in the can that they need to tell the story. A day that finishes on time but leaves out important shots or moments from the script isn't a "made day." And a day that goes past 12 hours isn't a "made day" either. If the shoot begins to fall behind - and you know that from the math you did back in step #2 - then it's on you to help the director get control of the shot list, further streamline it, and make the day.
9. Be a Jerk. A crew that works hard all day but goes home on time is happier than a crew that slacks off all day and runs into (unpaid) overtime. Remember that. If you're everyone's pal all day long, you won't be anyone's pal once hour 15 or 16 rolls around. So crack that whip and keep everyone on task!
10. Take Care of Your Crew. Lastly, work with the producers to ensure that the production sticks to the "12 on, 12 off" model - no more than 12 hours of work followed by no less than 12 hours of down time before the next shoot. Stick to that and your crew will love you - no matter how hard you drive them during the production day!