You've booked a professional PA gig, they've sent you a call sheet, and you can't wait to get on set. Great! Chances are you've worked on student films or made films with your friends before. So you know a thing or two about making movies.
But here are 7 habits of highly effective (and employed) PAs, which will help you as you transition to the professional world.
1. Be early.
A theatre professor of mine once said, if you arrive on time, you're 10 minutes late. Often, the 1st AD or production manager will be on set before most everyone else. If you're early too, it shows your professionalism. But if you show up late, you're starting the day with a mark already against you. Set multiple alarms, know the location and parking situation in advance, google map that sucker, use a GPS...Bottom line: make every effort get there early. Bonus: get there extra early and you might get breakfast.
2. Be observant. Always pay attention.
Often, PAs get put on fire watch...basically, watching the equipment to make sure nothing gets stolen. This is a really boring job. I promise you. But even if they just have you guarding the wireless mics to make sure they don't suddenly sprout legs and walk away, you should still pay attention to what other people are doing, watching the flow of the set, being attentive if someone needs something (but don't neglect the responsibilities they've already given you). Often you'll even learn something that will help you on a future gig.
3. Be prepared (mentally) to do anything.
PAs get asked to do the craziest stuff....one minute you're filling a cooler with ice, and the next you're asking the construction workers across the street how long they're going to be jack-hammering. Be ready to jump to it when asked, even when you're not sure how to proceed. Ask questions if you need to, but try to figure things out using your own wits. You're smarter than you think.
4. Don't be afraid of making a mistake....but try really hard not to make a mistake.
I have heard other PAs' horror stories of being the "last hired, first fired" because of a simple mistake they made. PAs are a dime a dozen, so you really have to make darn sure you're a good one. By the same token, don't try to cover up a mistake, and always own up to something if it's your fault.
5. Get really good at learning names.
This is a skill you have to work at, but it's extremely important on set. After you get introduced to people, commit their names to memory. (Two tricks I use are to come up with a mnemonic device to match a name to a person, or find a way to associate that person with someone you know who has the same name.)
Knowing names is important because when the 2nd AD asks you to run this walkie over to Jimmy, you don't have to ask her "Which one is Jimmy again?" Remembering names also goes a long way as you start to network with your colleagues.
6. Find that balance between doing what you are asked and taking initiative.
It's great to be that PA who jumps in and helps wherever you see a need, but rules on set can be very strict about handling equipment from other departments. If you are a camera department PA, stick to helping only with camera, unless someone asks you to do otherwise.
If you are a general set PA, you'll mostly answer to the AD department, and they will assign tasks to you. Help out wherever you see the need, but ask first before handling equipment. The general rule is "don't touch my stuff" unless I say it's okay. If you have skills in the art department, and you get a chance to help there, it's a great opportunity to show what you can do. Show them your skills, but don't show off. Be confident, but not cocky. Be helpful, but don't be annoying.
7. There's a time to speak and a time to listen.
Chatting is okay - be friendly and approachable with your colleagues and get to know them. Friendships are often forged in the struggles of set life. But often on set, silence is golden, especially during a take or rehearsal. Be aware of what's going on in front of the camera, so that you don't accidentally start joking around with your co-PA right when the lead actress is rehearsing an emotional scene. Also, don't be that really chatty guy or girl who doesn't pay attention when they should. And ask questions, but not too many questions.
Here's a bonus habit for those of you who read this far:
8. You are useful even when you're not doing anything.
Sometimes as a PA, you do a lot of waiting around. Your superiors may not acknowledge you, or they may act like you're in the way. (And if you are in the way, then get out of the way). But the point is this: even if you are waiting all day for something to do, as long as you are paying attention, attending to any responsibilities they've given you, and behaving professionally, you'll be fine.
Coming up in the next post - Tools of the trade for the rockstar PA.