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If you ever visit a film set, you are likely to see one person running around barking orders and generally keeping everyone moving. It is a common mistake to assume that this person at the center of a flurry of activity is the director. In fact, the person charged with running the set is called the first assistant director, or first AD.
In filmmaking terms, the first AD is typically considered one of the most important members of the crew. Instead of contributing to the creative aspect of filmmaking, the first AD is your best bet at actually assuring that the film is made on a day to day basis. Any film production that tries to move forward without a competent first assistant director is likely to end up in a scheduling nightmare.
On a film set, a director is charged with communicating with the actors and the cinematographer in order to film each shot. A first assistant director typically ensures that all production elements are ready on schedule, or is able to inform the director about any possible delays that may slow production. A good AD will allow the creative team the ability to focus on their work while ensuring that the budgetary and practical needs of the production are met. First assistant directors also typically work with the director and cinematographer to create a realistic daily shooting schedule. Accurately judging how much time a particular scene or sequence will take is a vital part of the assistant directing job.
Although there is no formal path to becoming a first AD, some basic qualifications are necessary. Assistant directors frequently do a difficult tightrope-walking act between producers, directors and the cast and crew. An even temper and positive response to stress is extremely important. Moreover, aspiring assistant directors must excellent time-management and multi-tasking abilities.
If you are interested in becoming a first assistant director, first gain experience working as a production assistant or runner. This valuable work will give you time to observe the workings of a film set while gaining contacts within the industry. Practice your ability to break down scripts and prepare shooting schedules by volunteering as an assistant director with student film productions. Just be aware: a first assistant director is not to be confused with an assistant to the director. Your job is not to be fetching coffee for the director; it is to ensure that his actors are in costume and makeup on a set that is lit, safety-checked and ready to be shot.
The job of a first assistant director is nearly invaluable, but often thankless. Many directors and producers started their careers in this difficult job, including Alfred Hitchcock. While the hours may be long and the frustrations plenty, a first AD can rest assured that not only are they essential to the film-making process, but also they are gaining huge amounts of experience that will help them to reach their career goals.