On Being A Better First AD

Back in May, I was the First AD on a series of commercials for Microsoft – specifically, for several computers that sport the new Windows 7 operating system. We shot in a studio for four days and to be honest…

It was my best experience as a First AD ever.

I’m not sure what the difference was. Perhaps it was the director, who treated everybody (and I mean EVERYBODY) with kindness and respect. Perhaps it was the crew, who were all so comfortable with their jobs and comfortable with their rate of pay, that they just showed up on time, with smiles, did their work and rarely complained. Perhaps it was the gaggle of awesome PA’s we had? Perhaps it was being in a studio? Perhaps it was the shooting schedule?

Or perhaps it was me. And not because I’m amazing (which I’m not) but because of two disparate experiences I’ve had that, combined, have made me a more comfortable (possibly better?) First AD. Those two experiences are:

  1. Producing a feature film
  2. Working as a background actor

In 2008, my husband and I co-produced a feature film with two friends and business partners. Along with producing, each of us had at least one other key role. One was also the writer and lead actor, one was also the director, my husband was also the editor, and I was also a line producer and costume designer. It was the experience of producing and line producing (the two are not always the same job!) that made me a more knowledgeable First AD. Knowledge isn’t always power, but it certainly can add a level of comfort. And comfort can breed confidence. Comfort certainly doesn’t breed fear.

In 2010, my husband and I moved to New York City where I determined that I didn’t want to First AD, I didn’t want to Line Produce or UPM or Production Coordinate. I just wanted to be a simple artist. I wanted a part-time job that wasn’t taxing or emotionally draining and I wanted to spend the rest of my time writing and working on the Short Film that I’d just finished shooting and was ready to edit with my Los Angeles-based editor. This all sounds kind of selfish in hindsight (especially considering that there are plenty of people with my skill set who can’t find work); it seems nearsighted to avoid looking for the best-paying work I can acquire, but I felt strongly about persuing my passions (and still do).

So what did we come up with for me to do? Background acting! But first! First, I had to get over my pride. “I’ve produced a feature film!” “I’m usually a First AD!” “I’m actually a director!” These lines echoed in my head each of the first half-dozen or so times that I found myself on a set as a background actor (aka expensive organic prop). I had to get over that pride and be okay with my choices.

Once I did that, I was able to open my eyes and learn. I began to watch the First ADs, I began to watch the other crew and (given my experiences) I could actually understand what was happening (many background actors are clueless about the process). And as I watched, I learned.

It’s mostly tacit knowledge: things like, how different ADs run their sets, how different shows plan their days, how different gaffers like to communicate with their DPs, and how long a 2/8 page scene really should take!!!¬†Also, to be frank, as a background actor in New York City, I found myself on bigger sets than I ever had been as a producer or First AD. And being on bigger sets gives you a better perspective of how smaller sets should run.

So now, I recommend that everyone who wants to be in a key creative or technical position in “Hollywood” work on big sets and work on small sets. It doesn’t matter what your position is as long as you pay attention to what’s happening around you.

Anyway, back to being a First AD. I’m kinda energized for the position now.

Anybody shooting anything?

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