5 Tips for Making the Most out of being a Production Assistant (aka PA or On Set Runner)

Being a Production Assistant (aka on set runner) is one of the few experiences common across filmmakers. Whether we’ve dreamed of being behind the camera since we first saw the big screen, or came to it through our experiences later in life, the experience of being an on-set runner – or “Production Assistant” if you want to use the official title, is something that unites a lot of us with a shared experience.

If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s fairly self-explanatory – a runner is the person who grabs what the actors need, ensures the director has everything they want on hand, makes sure the crew is properly supplied, and so on. It’s not exactly glamorous work, but here at The Filmmaker’s Podcast, we’re of the mind that experience as a production assistant is something that’s incredibly useful to a filmmaker and that making the most out of that experience is what sets apart the “good” filmmakers and “great” ones.

So, to start off a new series of advice and insights here on the TFP blog, we’ve decided to start at the very beginning and offer up 5 tips and tricks for making the most out of your time working as a production assistant.

1. Meet Everybody

It’s not entirely unfair to think of filmmaking as a series of independent “bubbles” contributing to a larger whole. There a huge number of different teams on any given film set; you’ve got your director and your DOP, your cast, the sound engineer(s), the camera crew, the lighting specialists, the props team, make-up and costume, and so on and so forth – all the different people needed to make a film shine, and all absolutely vital to the process. But they don’t necessarily all interact that much – your sound team doesn’t exactly need to spend an hour in the make-up chair, and by the time your camera crew is working, your set team are mostly done. There are very few people on a film set who interact with all these different elements of the process, but one of them is the runners.

When you’re a production assistant, you could end up doing something for any and all of the different people involved in making a film, and it’s crucial that you get to know each and every one of them and how they contribute. It’s a poor filmmaker who thinks that the only thing that decides a great film is the person behind the camera or the people in front of it; it’s all one big machine, and running is the best chance you have to meet everyone that’s a part of it.

2. Keep Your Eyes & Ears Open

Bear with us; this one makes sense, we promise. When you’re a production assistant, you’re surrounded by the processes of the film – we’ve been through that already. But you’re also one of the few people on set who’s got the time to stop, listen, and see all of that. A runner isn’t expected to constantly be running about, fetching everything; they’re expected to be ready to do so at a moment’s notice. That means that your average day as a runner has the distinct possibility of there being a lot of time where your job is pretty much just to be there watching everyone else work so that you can get what they need when they do happen to need something. If you’re not using that time to absorb as much information as possible about everything you want to learn whilst on set, you’re wasting that time. As any filmmaker will tell you, wasting time is the worst thing you can do on a set.

3. Ask Questions

As you might have guessed so far in this blog, one of the key points we’re trying to make is that runners are there to do two things – what they’re being paid to do, and to learn, and most everyone in the industry knows it. Most of us started off as a pa/runner, as we’ve said, and we’re all aware of the important role running plays in bringing in new blood and helping ensure the survival of the film-making industry. That means that we’ve all got a role to play in helping runners eventually turn into filmmakers.

A good pa/runner should always be seeking to understand all that information they’ve been absorbing about the people and processes that go on set, and most people on your set will be willing to help you do so. Don’t get in the way of anyone’s work – interruptions are the bane of a filmmaker – but at the end of the day, or when we’re all taking a break, or even just in quieter moments, ask those questions you need to help you understand what you’ve seen, to help build your repertoire of skills. Most all of us have been in your shoes – we know it can be scary, but we know that getting over that fear is an important mark of someone who’s dedicated to improving their craft. So if you’re willing to learn, we’re willing to help.

4. Don’t Forget the Producers

Now, this point is a bit variable, and a bit specific to each individual film you’re working on. Not every film will have a need for an on-set team of producers, and not every off-set production team will have a need for runners. But still, you’re near-bound to run across the producers at some point in your experience on a film, and getting to know them is just as important as anybody who’s going out and doing the actual filming. The producers are the people who, at the end of the day, make sure that the film’s actually made, and understanding how their processes work will be very useful to make sure your filmmaking ideas come to fruition.

This doesn’t just apply to those of us who want to take our filmmaking career into the producing world; the best director and cinematographer prospects understand the producing side of filmmaking, even if it’s not something they ever wade into themselves. A film is a work of lots of little parts coming together to make a whole, and knowing how those all fit together yourself makes for a better experience for everyone when making your films in the future!

5. Keep In Touch

Let’s be honest here – film is one of those industries that’s a “who you know” game as much as it is a “what you know” game. We all want to be the next great filmmaker, and many of us have the potential to do so; knowing the right people throughout the course of your career can be absolutely vital to realising that potential. That means, if you want to give yourself the best chance of being a success in the film industry, you need to be building your network of contacts from step 1 of your career; as a runner, you’ve got great opportunities to do that.

Now, we don’t mean that you need to be keeping obsessive track of every single one of the myriad people you’ll cross paths with doing your job on-set – that’s a bit too much, and we’ve all got better things to be doing. But you never know when a shared experience working with a director might make the difference in securing a production company’s attention, or a polite enquiry to a former crewmember might lead to an opportunity to step up into a bigger, better role that’ll set you up for further future successes. You’ll meet a huge variety of people as a runner, and keeping in touch with those people costs you very little, for the potential of great rewards down the line. It’s “who you know”, so make sure you “know” as many people as you can!

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