The film industry is about to pick up in a major way, and it’s recruiting
By Rebecca Peterson, Humour Editor
Starting this month, the already busy Vancouver film industry will experience a large upswing in activity as it hurtles into a period of several chaotic months known as “pilot season.” Whether you’re looking to start a career in the field, or simply hoping to pick up some work to help pay the bills, here’s what you need to know to make the most of it.
What is pilot season?
Pretty much every TV series that has ever gone to air has started off with a pilot episode—some becoming part of the show as an opening episode, or thrown in down along the line somewhere. Some dropped in as an extra feature on the DVD, and some are scrapped entirely (as was the case with the Game of Thrones pilot). These pilot episodes are generally filmed to “pitch” to networks, who may or may not decide from that short sample whether picking up the series is worth it. As such, pilots are vitally important, and right now is when producers want to film them so they can start pitching as soon as possible.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, things in the film industry are busy in general, especially around Vancouver. The downside with this, however, is that it often leaves sets scrounging for workers, especially in departments like Locations, which often needs a lot of people. This means an influx of new and inexperienced people, which is not a problem in and of itself, but can cause problems if new recruits don’t know what to expect. Film is not like other jobs. Long hours are expected of you, as well as a sense of focus, responsibility, and professionalism. Often these expectations are high because of privacy and safety concerns. Even in some of the lowest entry positions, you’ll often be tasked with watching incredibly expensive equipment, keeping people from wandering into set, and looking for and marking safety hazards. Calling in to let your boss know you’re not coming the day you’re scheduled to work or simply not showing up at all can throw a major wrench into the works (and yes, this has happened on sets I’ve worked).
The film industry in Vancouver is busy, certainly, but there is a sense of community, and people tend to talk. Your name becomes your résumé. If you exhibit lax work behaviour during a busy season, you might still get work just because the need for available bodies is that high. However, once your reputation is set, you shouldn’t expect to get calls when the demand dies down again, nor should you expect a promotion.
In this article, I’ll cover the most common entry-level position, Production Assistant—what it is, how to get hired, and how to keep the job.
What is a Production Assistant?
The things I could say about this job could honestly fill a book, but as I’m sure the nice layout folks at the Other Press wouldn’t appreciate me writing one, I’ll keep things short.
This is the most basic of basic positions in film—easy to get, easy to lose if you’re not careful. You’ve likely seen a few PAs around the city without even realizing what they’re doing. A clue: If you see a bunch of pop-up tents, trucks, traffic cones, lighting rigs, and college-age kids wandering around in safety vests and with radios clipped to their clothes, that’s a film set, and the safety vest folks are probably PAs.
The kind of PA I’m referring to is a Locations PA. As a PA, your boss will be the Assistant Locations Manager (ALM) and your Key PAs. You will usually be the first to arrive and the last to leave, entrusted with setting up garbage and recycling bins, marking off safety hazards with flagging tape and safety cones, guarding equipment, and keeping sets clear of random passersby hoping to make their big break by sneaking into camera view behind the actors. You also make sure no one ruins a take by making noise while the camera is rolling, keep an eye on the location itself to make sure the crew isn’t damaging anything or passing through off-limit areas… honestly, the amount of work a PA does in a day is exhausting. Your workday is usually about 15 hours, and no, you don’t get overtime until you surpass that.
The perks? Lots of free food, working outdoors (if that appeals to you), excellent networking opportunities if you want to work in a different film department, and the outrageous stories only a film job can provide (such as me once getting a short notice call asking if I could watch a jaguar for a day on one set, only to have to turn it down because I was already hired on another shoot).
How to get the job
I’ve already written on how to get one of these jobs in a previous article, but to recap: Put together a résumé (even if you don’t have any film experience, just showing that you’re a dedicated worker is a good first step). If you Google “DGC Production List,” the first PDF result will be a list of what’s filming right now, as well as contact information. You’ll want to look for the production office’s email. Send them a message addressed to the show’s ALM (whose name will likely be on the production list) with your résumé and a short cover letter. Give them your phone number in the main body of the email—if they need people quick, they might not have time to search through your résumé to find your number. As well, make sure to explain your availability! If you can’t work Tuesdays and Thursdays, tell them so upfront. You will be working full days, so saying you’re free “Wednesday after four o’clock” isn’t going to help anyone. If you get a text or a phone call, be sure to reply in a timely manner. They will be calling multiple people; if you don’t answer right away and they need to fill a position, they will undoubtedly contact someone else.
You will likely be asked if you have reliable transport; if you want the job, answer “yes,” then make sure you definitely have reliable transport. If you don’t have a car and can’t drive, this could mean asking a friend to give you a lift to work if it’s far from transit’s reach. If you can’t get a ride, call a cab. The important thing is establishing your reliability.
The Director’s Guild of Canada (DGC) is the union covering PA work. However, you don’t need to join to get the job. If you’re looking to move up, though, you may want to start looking into applying. After a certain position level, they won’t be able to promote you if you aren’t a member. It’s a long and expensive application process, requiring you to take certain courses and receive several certifications, but it’s worth it if you’re looking to move forward in film.
Something very important to note for safety reasons are TCPs: Traffic Control Permits. PAs who have completed traffic control training are invaluable to film sets, as they are able to help control cars on locked-down streets. However, there have been problems in the industry with untrained PAs winding up in traffic control positions. If you are asked to take up a Stop/Slow paddle and control the flow of traffic and you aren’t certified, explain that to your boss immediately. Not only is it illegal for you do so and could result in the production encountering some major ramifications, but it is wildly unsafe to try and direct cars if you don’t know how to do it properly. It’s not as intuitive as you might think.
Dos and Don’ts
- Come prepared! Wear comfortable, durable clothing that you don’t mind getting dirty (as someone who has come away from set literally covered head to toe in mud, believe me, it can get messy). If you’re able to afford it, buy yourself some wet weather gear, such as waterproof pants. Trust me. You’ll thank me later.
- Pack light, but pack smart. You’ll likely get moved around from location to location, so try to keep everything to one backpack. Smart things to include would be a water bottle, a phone charger, several pens, and (if the weather looks particularly nasty) a change of clothing.
- Listen and ask questions! The learning curve can be steep, and when you’re thrown onto set for the first time it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Your Key PA is the first person you should go to if you have a question; often the ALMs will be busy elsewhere.
- Show up early! Seriously, you’ll want to aim to be at least 15 minutes early for your call time, if just to be absolutely certain that you aren’t late, as that kind of thing is really, really not appreciated on set (or any job, really).
- Keep a positive attitude! This can be hard, especially on long, uncomfortable days, but believe me when I say positivity goes a long way. Try not to get sucked into drama or negativity on set. People will be relieved they can rely on you even when everything is going sideways.
- Complain. Being a PA is hard work, and it’s not meant for the faint of heart. You’re working in a high-stress environment already, and sometimes tempers can boil over. Take it all in stride and if you do have a valid complaint (such as a conflict with a co-worker or a safety concern), take it up with your Key PA calmly and in private.
- Harass the actors. Seriously. If you’re looking to work in this field so you can meet famous people, not only are you often going to be disappointed, but you’re in the wrong line of work. Actors are your co-workers, and when they are on set, they are at work. They are not expecting to have to sign autographs or smile for pictures, nor should they be.
- Post pictures of the set to social media. This is becoming a bigger problem in the age of Twitter and Facebook, and many people have not only lost their jobs, but wound up blacklisted for irresponsible social media habits. Not only do you risk spoiling storyline points if you post set pictures, but worse, you could alert set stalkers and paparazzi as to where you’re filming and who is there. The hard and fast rule that will never, ever get you in trouble is to keep everything under wraps. If passersby ask you what’s filming, say something mundane like a sour cream commercial. Discretion is key.
- Leave your lock-up. You will often be given an area to watch, either to keep an eye on equipment or to maintain visual and sound quality of the shot (essentially, keep people from walking and talking through set). If you aren’t paying attention, or if you wander away without telling anyone and something happens, it will be entirely on you. Believe me, you don’t want that. If you need a spell-off (a break to use the washroom or grab food), ask your Key when things on set are quiet so they can find someone to replace you.
- Be unreliable. Again, I can’t stress enough how important it is for you not to bail last minute in this line of work, or leave halfway through the day. Dedication is incredibly important in film, and you’ll find the people around you are often ready and willing to work through sickness, exhaustion, and personal problems outside of set. If you’re not able to do this, that is fine and understandable, but it might mean that film is not for you.