Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Behind the Scenes 6: The AD Department


In the film set hierarchy, the Director is supported by a number of teams that we'll meet over the coming weeks: The ADs, Camera, Lighting, Grips, Art Department ... and a host of others.

The Assistant Director reports directly to the Director and Producers, and works closely with the Production team.

During pre-production his (or her) responsibilities include doing script breakdowns (literally breaking down the script into individual elements: how many cast are needed in each scene? is it day or night? any special technical requirements? how long will the scene take to shoot?) and then scheduling the shoot accordingly.

Scheduling a film shoot is very much like doing a massive jigsaw puzzle, fitting together a hundred different elements that have to be taken into account: location constraints, actor availability, the budget, and in the case of TV series, the deadline for delivery of each episode.

On set, the AD's main function is to manage the film unit, to make sure everyone knows what they need to do and when they need to do it, and to communicate the director's wishes to everyone else. He is effectively the coordinator between the many departments.

The AD also coordinates the background action, making sure the extras look natural and realistic and don't draw attention away from the main action, and he keeps track of the shoot's progress. Is the day's shoot running on time or behind schedule? Does he need to crack the whip to get the shoot back on schedule?

In between all of this, the AD is also in constant communication with the Production team, preparing the call sheet for the next day.

The AD usually leads a team of assistants. In the comments section a few weeks back, Sally Clements asked how many ADs there are in the team.
The answer is that this depends entirely on the scale and nature of each production. The majority of the commercials I work on, the poor AD works alone with no assistants (and poor me gets to do half his work). On a big budget feature film, there'll probably be at least two 2nd ADs, and double that again in 3rd ADs, plus Set Runners. And that's just the main unit.

A second unit (another complete film crew, usually smaller in size than the main unit) might be required to film additional scenes while the main unit is filming elsewhere. So a second unit could be shooting aerial or underwater footage, stunts or SFX, while the director and actors are doing their thing on anotehr location.

The 2nd AD's main duty is to liaise with the cast, notifying them when they need to be ready, chasing them through hair & make-up and wardrobe so they're ready when needed, and notifying all cast of their call times. He (or she) distributes information, works with production to create the call sheet, and fills out paperwork such as the daily production report.

The 3rd ADs assist the team by passing on the ADs instructions to other teams, supervising extras, assisting with stopping passing traffic. They're a step above the Set Runners, who used to also be known as Gofers ("Go fer this, go fer that").

The team might also include Cast Coordinators, who do exactly what their title says. They manage everyone who appears in front of the camera, signing the cast in and out, checking they are where they need to be, and that they're wearing the right wardrobe. You won't believe how many times extras get lost, go wandering off, or how much time they spend around the craft table. Or how often they forget to return costumes after the shoot!

To become an AD, there's no formal training that can prepare you for the job, only experience. Most ADs start at the bottom as runners and work their way up. The most valued skills for any AD are leadership abilities, time-management and organisational skills, an ability to work well under pressure, a strong voice, and a great big dollop of people skills.

My long-time friend and one of my favourite ADs at work on a KFC commercial.


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