Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.
The simple fact is Assistant Directors are rarely nice since, as with grips, their position doesn’t really afford them much empathy.
Assistant Directors are the lion-tamers of a set that have the unenviable task of making sure everything happens when it is supposed to happen: script analysis, scene arrangement, day/night scheduling, crew punctuality, etc., pace of production, etc.
They are going to be terse and frequently loud, so get used to it.
Anticipate them, and make their job as easy as possible.
Production meetings are not just a good idea, they are patently crucial to calibrating all departments with each other.
One is not enough.
A series of intensely focused, script-oriented production meetings enable all departments to sync with each other and itemize and distribute unforeseen requests and requirements properly.
Take notes. Take lots of notes, then transcribe those notes to all members of your respective department. Get everyone on the same page.
A successfull team is a group of people all thinking, acting and moving in the same direction to achieve the same goal.
Be the strongest member of your team.
Since I am a Production Designer I am biased towards art, so keep this in mind.
Like many other departments, very few people actually take the time to understand the hierarchy of the Art Department and consequently cannot tell the difference between a Production Designer and a Production Assistant.
Obviously, one has to remember no other department is going to care as much about the Production Design as the Art Department. If they did, they would probably be in the Art Department.
That being said, the artists and designers of the Art Department frequently have to stifle the impulse to strangle grips and gaffers when they bulldoze through an immaculately dressed set because the Director of Photography ordered a 4K lamp.
Also, no one else on the set can be bothered to put back in their original positions those items large or small, firm or fragile, that they unceremoniously disarrange. They will rarely ask any Art Department representative to move set elements, preferring to just toss things out of the way to make room for whatever they need.
Fellow designers: curb your anger.
And you are going to have to curb it frequently.
Just recognize there seems to be an irreparable breach between grips and gaffers and the many offices within the Art Department. This tension is as old as film, well justified and unlikely to change on any new production.
As designers of any rank, your job is not to amplify the hostility radiated by grips and gaffers—your job is to attentively prepare the set and often to return the set to its ideal configuration as quickly and competently as possible. I say this to you as a Production Designer who has been pushed to the limit of civility by the disrespect of others.
Obviously, Production Designers should not be carrying furniture, and Set Designers should not be running errands—that is what Production Assistants are for.
More importantly, it is important to remember Art Department duties cannot always be fulfilled concurrent with grip and gaffing work.
Ideally, the Art Department should be made aware of those props that need to be relocated to allow grips and gaffers to light the set and the Director or Director of Photography to plan their shots. After, the Art Department should return to dress the set to perfection, call for last looks, confirm continuity and then step out of the way.
On large sets this is an achievable goal; however, on smaller sets it will only exacerbate short tempers.
As Art Department personnel you should be prompt, courtesy and efficient. Don’t behave like anyone else: raise the bar even when you would rather take that same bar and crush some skulls with it. I also say this despite having been handicapped on some sets by time, a lack of teamwork and the bad temperaments of others.
I say this having not lived up to this standard myself on occasion.
Usually the Production Designer enjoys a nice long pre-production cycle that begins months out form the actual production. Having a locked script is critical for the Art Department to properly prepare all props and designs without the aggravation of having to do it on the set under punishing deadlines.
All design elements should be properly categorized, plainly labeled and stored for ease of access.
A film is made or broken in pre-production.
Creatives are passionate, detail oriented and meticulous people who don’t like having to work under pressure, with meager resources, short timetables or in tense settings. People who are not so inspired naively think creativity certainly isn’t choked by loud noises, uproars, distractions, interruptions, poor scheduling, shifts, etc.
You want your creative team working in spacious, silent and separate zones reserved for them so they can leap to the highest innovations your budget can afford.
Give your creatives a locked script and several months lead time and you will have all your designs delivered on time, under budget and looking amazing.
Recent experiences have inspired me to produce a nuanced Art Department protocol that I will be providing to all future clients. This protocol will detail the many processes and procedures that must be checked off in order for me, as a Production Designer, to function at the top of my game.
A final note to the many Assistant Directors out there: Production Designers are not lackeys you order around on a whim. They are departmental heads equal to Directors of Photography and should be afforded the same respect as any other direct report to the Director and Producer.
So, if you can’t tell the difference between a Production Designer and a production assistant you might want to go back to whatever film school decided to graduate you and get a refund.
That plain enough?
The good ones are sorcerers of sentiment and magicians working in otherwise elusive moods.
The bad ones are preening, emotionally atrophied, egomaniacal child-adults lost in a fog of petty self-adoration.
You want the former.
So if you find yourself having to put up with the latter, fire them immediately. It doesn’t matter how good they are they will eventually erode your sanity with their pettiness. Either the daddies didn’t touch them enough, or touched them too much—who cares: that is an issue for therapists, counselors and priests, not film productions.
The most important thing to remember is Model/Actor means model, not actor.
You don’t want models for your film unless you are using them as an ornament, some sexy art direction in the background. You want models for your print advertisements.
You want actors—good actors—for your film.
A stunningly beautiful actor who can’t act will be far less adored by the last frame of the film than a good-looking actor who knows how to engage and manipulate the emotions of the audience.
I know many models are pretty to look at, but trust me: you want actors for your films.
The bottom line for actors is this: if they can’t do it in rehearsal they can’t do it on set.
If any actor tries to sell you on the idea that “when the time comes I’m going to bring it” simply nod, dismiss them and recast.
There can be happy accidents on sets, but no surprises. Know exactly what your actors can and cannot do or you might just learn it the hard, expensive way.