Working your way up the industry food chain.
I’ve had a lot of questions lately in regards to how one becomes a 1st AD in the industry. The response to this is not so clean cut. Simply put, there’s no one way to becoming a 1st. It really depends on what type of sets you want to 1st and what you personally are willing to do to get there.
The traditional Hollywood system is to PA for an almost endless amount of days, submit your book of call sheets, PRs, and paystubs to the DGA, and pray and hope they accept you in as a 2nd 2nd. You can also apply for the DGA training program in which, if you are one of the lucky very few who get chosen, you are hired to big sets as a DGA intern and work your way up from there.
These formal methods are very difficult for those of us who don’t live in LA or NYC, or live in areas with high amounts of big budget projects (such as NOLA or Atlanta). Many of us, myself included, found our start in ADing in the indie film scenes. Sure, I PA’d some here and there before I began 1sting feature films, but I also was kinda thrown head first to the wolves, not understanding the traditional way things are done. I also went to an experimental film school, which did not teach much in the way of maintaining work in the industry. If I went to say, UCLA, I’m sure I would have had a very different path.
ADing on indie films to work your way up the chain is tough. You fight through a lot of bullshit productions while simultaneously trying to get onto bigger/union sets in the hopes they can see that you’re worthy of working those shows. There’s an anxiety that comes along with not being formally trained in the traditional way of doing things. Setiquette, protocol, and many things you’re used to on indie sets is vastly different on the bigger shows. Plus you have to fight the reputation of being that person who only worked the indies (there’s still a sad marginalization of folks who find paying work and maintain themselves in indie filmmaking). You have to show them from the start that you’re not green just because you haven’t worked the bigger sets and that some day, you will be running those sets too.
For me, I’m finding that being both an indie AD and a union show PA has been my best path so far. I learn a lot from the big shows that I can utilize on the indie shows while also getting my days on both towards DGA.
One thing, however, I did wish I knew about when I first started ADing was how important your “book” is for going union as an AD. When I first started 1sting, I was doing so simply because crew folks I’ve worked with were hiring me because they thought I’d be good at the job. I never thought about becoming my career or seeing a future in the position. Flash forward nearly 6 years later and I’m kicking myself for not keeping pay stubs or copies of checks I’ve received from the gigs I AD’d. Or keeping call sheets. Or forcing those smaller indies to make PRs. I know there’s ways around this and a call to the DGA offices helps significantly with getting your materials together… but DAMN… this info would have been WONDERFUL to know then.
So that’s the best way I can answer this question. There’s no one answer. Throw yourself into ADing, but don’t look down on PAing. And if you want to be straight up Hollywood, just start applying to every narrative PA job there is and go from there. Make mistakes, own up to them, hustle your ass off, and make it known what you intend to do in the industry. And whatever you do, don’t give up.