Saturday, February 13, 2016

The importance of the 1st Assistant Director

I cannot over emphasize the importance of a good First Assistant Director when you're making your micro-budget movie. If you are just starting out, and don't know anyone in the industry, it is worthwhile to search for someone with more experience than you to be your 1st AD. If you hope to have a successful shoot that doesn't turn into less of a dream-come-true, and more of a nightmare, you need a good 1st.

I would say that the three people on your set who should have the most experience are your 1st AD, your cinematographer and your makeup artist. These are not roles you want to cheap out on. Fortunately there are always people who are looking for experience who can step into these roles and do a good job at a reasonable rate. When hiring a First AD you can look for people who have been a Second AD on multiple projects. You can reach out to people who have been First AD's and, if they're not willing to First your small project, see if they would recommend someone they've used as a Second to First your film.

Overall, you want an AD who is a great leader, but who is also a good person. Some AD's feel like they need to shout and make everyone unhappy. Only an AD who has poorly planned needs to do a whole lot of shouting. If you've planned your shoot, then an AD should be able to keep things under control. I find that New York based AD's tend to shout more than I like. I'm very much a West Coast guy, so I think it's just a matter of taste. I like my AD's to say please and thank you, and always to be courteous and respectful. I like having a happy set, and no one is happy if they are being consistently yelled at.

Left to right: Alun Lee (1st AD), actor Natalie Lander, Director Duane Andersen
On the set of Superpowerless with 1st Assistant Director Alun Lee (left), Natalie Lander (center) and director Duane Andersen (right).
So what does an AD do? They essentially do all the work that a director has to have done, but doesn't want to worry about themselves. They're responsibilities include:

1) Creating the shooting schedule and making sure the crew sticks to it. They are the "general" on set, making sure the schedule is being followed, and coming up with alternative plans when needed. Often a director shows up, asks what is being shot, and goes to it. It's nice for the director to not have to worry about the schedule.

2) Making sure the cast is where they're supposed to be when they're supposed to be. The AD manages call-times and wrap times. They also create the call sheet which tells everyone what is being shot and when on a daily basis.

3) Directing "background players." The AD makes sure the extras are doing what they should be doing. If the director spent time "directing" the extras, they wouldn't be considered "extras" but "cast." Thus, is the policy of the film world, and the Screen Actors Guild.

4) Crew safety. The AD is the person who keeps her head in a situation when the director become too focused on her vision that something might injure cast or crew. After Sarah Jones's death three people were indicted for involuntary manslaughter: the director, the producer, and the 1st AD. She should have said, "No."

On the set of "A Serious Man," Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Betsy Magruder, Roger Deakins from Duane Andersen's blog
On the set of "A Serious Man," Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Betsy Magruder, Roger Deakins.

I had the great opportunity to interview Betsy Magruder who has been the 1st AD for all of the Coen Brothers movies since O Brother Where Art Thou. She was nice enough to have me to her home and allow me to film our interview. This is a great video to watch if you are interested in performing the tasks of an AD, or if you're interested in hiring one.

PICTURE'S UP: Scheduling and Shooting the Siren Scene from O Brother Where Art Thou with 1st AD Betsy Magruder from Duane Andersen on Vimeo.

At Utah Valley University's Digital Cinema program we have a female filmmaker's club called FEMME (Females Empowered by Movie Making Experiences) which brought Betsy in for a Skype discussion. I am very grateful to Betsy for her willingness to spend time with and mentor our students.

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