During my summer in Ithaca I was given the chance to be a production assistant on a documentary in Watkins Glen. This was the first time I had ever been on a shoot with a professional/adult/small crew, and in the period I worked with them I learned a lot of valuable lessons. Since the other crew members were all adult, very experienced, and from NYC, there was a large amount of pressure for me to do well in my few days there. So here are my ten helpful tips to follow when you are a production assistant (some of these specific to documentary, but most are malleable to any set).
1. Bring a pocket-sized notebook and a pencil.
People on the crew will ask you to do tasks for them, so write the instruction down so they don't have to repeat themselves in 5 minutes. This was especially helpful when the sound recordist needed someone to log timecodes for really good sound bytes.
2. Acquire a fanny pack. Fill the fanny pack. Wear the fanny pack (with pride).
Even though it ~screams~ "the 90's are alive!!!!" I am a big fan of fanny packs. Pockets in shorts are too small, and purses are too clunky, especially when you're running around a church/huge farmer's market. I wore a smaller one under my tshirt and placed a notebook, pencil, and business cards inside just in case anyone was curious about our film.
3. Always have some sort of snack on hand.
We're only human. And when humans get hungry, they don't perform as well. Keep a small, quick snack in your bag (see previous tip for bag alternatives) in case you become so ravenous that you may pass out.
4. Set legs!!!!!
Especially with documentaries, you can't re-do a take. Sometimes you only have one chance to get that perfect shot or get the good sound byte. So if the sound recordist's needs you to get another memory card, you run like the wind and hope nothing amazing happens in the time spent running back to the car.
5. Wear sunscreen.
This is more of a summer shoot tip, but I know people that have gotten burnt on set in the middle of March. The sun is stronger than you think! The worst sunburn I got all summer was on set because I was a silly goon who didn't think to wear sunscreen. Lather it on before you leave in the morning because you never know where your doc subjects may take you.
6. If you're early you're on time, if you're on time, you're late.
I made sure to show up at least 20 minutes early each day just in case the crew needed anything extra before we started filming. It's just a good habit to get into--producers will see that you're responsible, and will want to hire you again. Even if the crew isn't ready it will give you time to wake up and/or get into the mind set of filming.
7. Don't trust the internet - print out directions as well!
There were points in my drive that my phone's signal came in and out, and if I had not printed the directions beforehand, I would have been quite screwed. Use google maps, mapquest, or even one of those maps you can get at AAA. Just have some sort of back up for your phone!
8. Keep a case of water in your vehicle.
On a hot summer's day when you're running around like a chicken with their head cut off, it's easy to get dehydrated. Some may say, 'hey, it's all for the craft!' but who wants to spend the following days feeling ill? So I got one of those 24 water bottle packs from the store just in case any of the crew got thirsty. And, when the producer asked me to go fetch a large pack of water from the store she was thrilled to hear I already got one!
9. Go with the flow.
At around 9 PM on the night before I was needed on set I got an email from the producer asking if I knew where to purchase a free range chicken in the area. After a few minutes of confusion, followed by rushed internet searches and calls to the local organic market I went on my quest to find the free range chicken. I finally acquired one and then brought that tiny, organic chicken over to Watkins Glen and they were very happy to receive it. They hired me to work for them so of course I would go to the trouble of finding it. Basically, do what they tell you to do no matter how random and confusing it is.
10. Have fun!
Being the set PA can definitely be tough, but it is so worth it because you learn little tricks on how a professional production process works. Most crew members are also really interesting to talk to and can give helpful advice on where to take your career. Really take any opportunity that comes your way, because you never know where it might lead you!
These are just my tips from personal experience, but there's more great sites that give you additional advice!