Working in the entertainment industry isn’t all glitz and glam. The act of making a film, show, or commercial demands grit and dedication from everyone involved. Taking the director’s vision and bringing it to life is quite the responsibility. And there is no position more familiar with this responsibility than that of the assistant director. While everyone plays a significant role, the assistant director keeps the trains running.
Assistant directors, or ADs, bridge abstract ideas from the creative side with the practical logistics of running operations on set. For this post, we’ll focus primarily on film and television sets and how this role works in those spaces, but much of this can be applied to the commercial space, and we will touch upon areas of differentiation when necessary.
If you’re exploring roles in the entertainment industry, or if you just want to hire an AD in the future, this post will have something for you.
Let’s jump in.
There are a million moving parts when producing films, television shows, or commercials.
And the assistant director role is one of the most vital positions as it carries out many of these moving parts.
If you talk to any crew position on a set, they'll tell you assistant directors are the true heroes behind many productions. And that makes sense. Because...well...they kind of run the set.
Sometimes called first assistant directors or 1st AD’s, assistant directors are the liaison between the director and crew. The video below goes deeper into the assistant director definition, their duties, and more.
ADs set daily shooting schedules, manage film crews, and ensure the day-to-day operations run smoothly. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s get into the specifics.
Assistant directors are the operational managers coordinating the vision of directors and producers. They essentially ensure the success of the shoot. But what the heck does that actually mean? Their role is multifaceted.
It is important to note that in larger productions, the 1st assistant director manages all these tasks, but they will also then delegate these responsibilities to additional 2nd and 3rd assistant directors.
While the assistant director role is often defined by what they do on set, 1st AD duties actually begin in pre-production. Let’s get into some of them here.
A script breakdown is the process of breaking down each scene in a script to determine what is needed in each scene. It is often a color-coded document highlighting all of these needs. This is made to help schedule out each scene and determine who and what needs to be in each scene later. Highlighted in the breakdown are actors, extras, locations, wardrobe, sets, and props. They then pass these needs down to the department heads and will regularly check on their process.
A bit more on script breakdowns below.
For more complex shots and sequences, 1st ADs will also determine if special film equipment is needed, what certain safety measures or equipment are needed for stunts, and what special effects and music will be needed in post-production.
Once a script breakdown has been completed, the director and director of photography sit down and create storyboards to determine the shots for each scene. Once the shots are determined and a shot list is made, the 1st assistant director takes that shot list and breaks down the order of the shots and how long each of them should take. This information then builds into the overall schedule of the shoot.
The first assistant director is usually the person that creates the shooting schedule or works with others to create it. They do this by looking at the shot list and breakdowns, determining who and what needs to be where and when.
But the shot list also provides insight into budget considerations. The AD has the tough job of carrying out the director’s vision while staying within budget. Often mutually exclusive.
The shot list is vital for determining how many shots can be shot per day. One shot setup could take hours. ADs may ask themselves (or their directors), “Is this necessary? Is there an alternative so one shot doesn’t take up half of the day?” Sometimes it’s an easy fix, other times creativity and patience are the name of the game.
Managing company moves are another scheduling and budgeting consideration. Minimizing moves is key if and where possible. Most often, a film isn’t shot in chronological order, and the schedule is commonly organized by location or the actors’ schedules. An AD will sometimes use one-line schedules or stripboards...again, most often organized by location.
And then of course, there are actors.
A“Day out of days” or (DOOD) report, is a chart that denotes which cast members are needed on each day of shooting and for how long. These reports are used when crafting the final budget.
ADs also have to be incredibly conscious of union laws and overtime laws to ensure the schedule is viable and they’re remaining compliant. The schedule is constantly changing so this responsibility really goes hand-in-hand with maintaining these schedules, which we’ll discuss in the next section. *Staying union compliant is also very much the responsibility of the producer, but the AD enforces this on the day-to-day.
An AD might also have to schedule meetings, create prep memos and agendas for those meetings, and really anything else that comes up. But the real crux of the job is during the next phase.
So how do first assistant directors run the shooting process? Well, very methodically for one thing. Running a set is no joke. Organization, preparation, and solid communication skills go a long way when it comes to being a great AD.
Assistant directors are often the first people on set as they will be overseeing the entirety of the day’s shoot. At the end of the previous day, the 1st AD checks the day’s shots. They communicate this info to 2nd ADs or coordinators (depending on the project) to help implement any changes into the call sheet that might be necessary for the next day. Once call sheets are created, they approve them.
If the shoot is super tiny, the AD might create the call sheet but usually not. It is typically done by a 2nd or production coordinator.
Throughout the day, the 1st AD ensures that the schedules stay on track. When necessary, they adjust the schedule to account for extra time that may be needed. Beyond the coordination of one day, 1st ADs also make sure that the larger schedule of the shoot is on track. For example, if they have to reshoot scenes, it’s often the responsibility of the AD to figure out how they and when they can make up that time.
Throughout the shoot, the 1st assistant director directly communicates with the crew. This can be a number of things communicating schedule changes for crews or cues for background extras. Or even letting the wardrobe know they’re needed again because they have to reshoot a particular scene.
The ADs are often the ones either managing the production assistants on set or delegating the management of PAs to a 2nd AD. It all depends on the size of your crew. Tasks are given to PAs and the AD department ensures they’re staying on task. That being said, there are times when a production coordinator is fulfilling this role---often on smaller photo shoots, or when budgets are tight.
Another responsibility is known as “calling the roll.” When getting ready to shoot, 1st AD signals to the crew departments to prepare the sound, camera operator, camera grip, and everyone else on set for the shot.
“Of what” you may ask? Oh you know...everything.
Tracking the daily schedule against the entire schedule is a big part of the job.
As mentioned above, the AD will likely be the one to know what to do if and when they need to reshoot a scene. They’ll likely be the ones to communicate the details to the relevant department heads to ensure they can make it happen. They might be working with UPMs, line producers, or coordinators if this will affect budget, vendors, locations or anything that’s applicable to those roles.
But tracking progress can also be tracking other people’s tasks. Granted, the AD has their own stuff to worry about, a lot of their job is delegating tasks to others. Depending on the size of the production, the 1st AD might delegate some of these tasks to 2nd and 3rd ADs, and managing these roles and tasks become part of their job.
The 1st AD must also ensure that union protocols are met. They (and producers) are in charge of maintaining proper working conditions and making sure crew members take their mandatory breaks.
Another responsibility of the AD is to ensure that the SAG Exhibit G Form is signed. This is essentially a SAG-made timesheet for your SAG actors. It’s a daily task that signifies you’re paying cast correctly. Oftentimes, the 2nd AD might handle this task. But regardless, it is a job for the AD department.
First assistant directors are intimately involved in the pre-production and production process. However, the assistant director job description doesn’t go beyond the shooting process. Once shooting is done, the first assistant director is done. It’s then on to the next project.
There is also the question of the differences between the role of assistant director in film and its television counterpart. Assistant director job descriptions often list and involve the same duties and qualifications, but there are some distinctions to be made between the two.
Though 1st AD duties are similar across television and film, the pace and length of a project can affect the role.. For a film, the prep and production stages aren’t on-going, they have a clear beginning and an end.
In the case of a television show, that will obviously be a little different - especially if it’s an on-going series.
TV pre-production, instead of one long process for the entire movie, is episodic; the pre-production process and shooting occur independently and cycle through for each episode.
Oftentimes, there will be two production teams, which will include first assistant directors managing 2nd and 3rd ADs, who trade off for each episode. In a television show, directors will often come and go, and it is actually the showrunners who maintain the consistent vision of the show.
More specifically, for TV, there are usually multiple 1st ADs working on a TV series. In the “old” cable production model, an hour-long drama might shoot for 7 or 8 days per episode, where one AD focuses on prepping an episode, while another would be shooting. They rotate back and forth until the season is complete. This is a pretty interesting difference about the AD department in general. Most other crew positions stay consistent(ish) episode to episode. Though, this is also likely changing due to the newer model of limited series and new scheduling style for streaming services.
The 1st AD still supports the director, but they may have a closer working relationship with the showrunners. An assistant director job description for television may ask for someone to come in at any point of the show, but they will often also stay longer as a more consistent manager of the series.
While on features, the director will make the call on whether or not it’s time to move onto the next shot, on commercials, the client is king. Or queen. Or both. You get it.
An AD must check in with the producer who will report whether or not the client is good to move on. This balance can get tricky fast. The personalities of the client, agency, director and producer could easily clash.
Pro-tip: ensure you know for certain that the client is ready to move on.
So glad you asked.
Like everything in life, of course budget affects the role! Most directors and producers know they can’t quite cut the AD because well, their job is just too dang important, but certain constraints can affect how many ADs are on set and therefore what tasks they can and cannot delegate based on those constraints.
Higher budgets often mean higher stakes and more moving parts. Larger budgets might mean larger crews, longer schedules, more locations, potentially more expensive gear (to purchase and insure), and way more intricate logistical demands. These could be anything from wild stunts to more elaborate camera movements to bigger lighting setups. You get the idea.
To handle this, higher budget shoots likely have a bigger AD department.
They’ll often be working with a team of 2nd and 3rd assistant directors. We mentioned previously, 1st ADs may manage PAs, but on larger shoots like these, they’ll be able to delegate that to a 2nd or often 3rd AD.
On big-budget studio productions like Marvel, you will see several teams of assistant directors managing several 2nd and 3rd ADs.
It’s hard to say what constitutes a small budget for a film. A budget of 200k for a short film is a very different situation than 200k for a feature. Though, a good sign is if only one AD is on the clock. And so in general, the smaller the budget, the more hats an AD will wear. 2nd ADs are often one of the first positions lower budget producers try to cut, and one of the first positions they’ll regret cutting later on.
The first assistant director works directly under the director and producers throughout the pre-production and production process.
They support the director’s vision and work through the logistics to have it realized. But while the director is their number one conspirator, the producer is actually their boss.
During the pre-production process, their work on the shot lists is directly signed off by the director. During shooting, they account for the needs of the director and producer and adjust the operations accordingly.
Again, there is often a slight difference for 1st assistant directors in television. Because of the ongoing process of episode shooting that often has two episodes and production teams working at once, the assistant director will often work more directly with the show’s producers and showrunners.
To ensure the success of a production, the 1st assistant director works with almost every production department and the entire film crew.
The role of 1st AD is to serve as a communicator between the director and all of the department heads. The assistant director on set manages operations and makes sure everyone knows what needs to get done. As mentioned above, on productions with larger budgets, 1st assistant directors also often work with a larger AD team that includes 2nd and 3rd assistant directors.
An AD works to bring a production in on schedule, while a line producer (and/or the unit production manager) works to bring a production in on budget. In this way, there is both a tension and symbiosis between the two roles. Much of their direct communications comes during pre-production, when schedules are being laid out in coordination with the budget.
We know the assistant director works with the director but they also collaborate with the director of photography. Outside of budget and other production constraints, directors and DPs have the biggest impact on scheduling. A time-conscious DP is your best friend to ensure you wrap on time.
On low budget shoots, the Art Department often draws the short straw when it comes to scheduling. But they are an insanely vital piece of the production puzzle. A great AD knows this. The Art Department literally controls what the camera sees! Defending the Art Department’s right to have the time they need can have a huge impact on the project’s final look. You’ll likely never get credit for this, but it’s a big deal.
It is important to note that the assistant director is a very different role from that of the director’s assistant and will be very clear in any director’s assistant or assistant director job descriptions.
Directors’ assistants are a much more personal assistance role throughout the entire production process. They support directors during development, shooting, and post-production. Their role deals more with the management of a director’s personal schedule and can occasionally contribute more to the creative process than the managerial role of 1st AD. But that is on a strictly case-by-case basis.
An entire post could be written to describe the differences between the 1st and 2nd AD, but a key distinction is that a 2nd AD often gives production assistants their marching orders.
In general, 2nd ADs allow 1st assistant directors to focus on the set by acting as a conduit to anyone who is not on set. This can mean anyone from hair and make-up to those in the production office to gaffers on an ill-timed vape break.
The 2nd AD may create daily call sheets and will distribute them to the departments after getting approval from the assistant director. During the shoot, the 2nd AD might coordinate the actors, ensuring that costumes, makeup, and cues are in order and that they’re ready to shoot. They also might be responsible for working with security to keep the public out of shoots.
3rd assistant directors also support the 1st AD and often work in tandem with the 2nd AD. They might be responsible for coordinating the extras, managing production assistants, and communicating between cast and crew. 2nd and 3rd assistant director job descriptions and experiences may vary from set to set, but there is usually a similar delegation of tasks and overlap between the two positions.
The role of 1st AD is an extraordinarily demanding one. They are a key figure in the organization of the pre-production process, mapping out the schedule shot-by-shot, determining the demands of each scene, and communicating with each production department what needs to be done. Once shooting starts, first assistant directors are often the first and last person on set.
This is all to say, likely not. Sure, they may have another job lined up that they might be doing light prep for, but the 1st assistant director on each set will generally be completely engrossed in their current project.
As an assistant director, unless they are in an ongoing position like a television series, most of their jobs will be freelance, moving from production to production. Because of this, the experience, salary, and schedule of a 1st assistant director will vary from project to project.
Since assistant directors must often look ahead to the next job, it is important for them to facilitate strong connections and a good reputation in the industry.
Whether you’re looking to fill a position or jumpstart a career, there’s another question to answer…what makes a great AD?
The role of 1st AD is an incredibly demanding job. You have to love what you’re doing, and love supporting others’ visions. Becoming equipped with “what it takes” may demand more than just production know-how.
The list is a tall order. But if you’re into film, organization, and communication, being a 1st assistant director is an incredibly rewarding career.
It may not be worth discussing this as an AD’s salary is just too hard to pin down. As with most positions, an assistant director salary can vary widely based on location, union status, and experience. The DGA has minimum rates, but if they’re non-union, the rates are truly all across the board.
But for the sake of this article and what’s been seen before, a common day rate can range between $300-$700. Again, it completely depends on budget, union, and experience. Other times you might be working on a union show where you’re paid weekly at about $5-6k.
Keep in mind that this takes into account a large spectrum of locations and qualifications. Also, assistant directors are usually working project-to-project, so it can vary from year-to-year based on your jobs. In the top 10% of those positions, the average pay is $99,000.
If working with large studios, an assistant director salary can be well into six figures per year.
Big commercial ADS also roll in the dough. Short jobs at a high volume with top tier rates is a true money-making equation.
Luckily you don’t have to be a director to join the Director’s Guild of America (DGA). Assistant directors can join if they meet the qualifications and threshold as per the DGA’s guidelines.
Some indie productions hire non-union, but most studios for film and television hire only union. As members of the DGA, assistant directors have salaries and rates that are determined by experience, but they generally start much higher than any non-union AD position.
Working as an assistant director is certainly not your typical job. And it’s not going to be for everyone.
Sure, you might have an office setup you go to everyday if you work on a studio film or on television. But even then, that’s only part of the picture.
When you’re not working out the meticulous details of pre-production, you’re going to be the rock of any production. As the first and last people on set, 1st assistant directors can work long hours, and shoots can go on for weeks or months.
Most assistant directors work on a project-by-project basis. Earlier on in someone’s career, there may be longer stretches between projects as you’re building up your reputation. This will be an element you’ll have to be comfortable with. As such, you’re also paid project-to-project, so your salary will likely shift yearly.
This is to say, being an assistant director is not your typical workday.
As with many jobs in the entertainment industry, there is no formal route you have to take to enter into the assistant director role. However, film programs can provide the production background and industry connections to help you get those positions. But the real way to this position is through production experience.
Many assistant directors get their start as production assistants and runners. By working on set, you’ll figure out what an AD does, how departments run, and if this is the job for you.
After starting in these entry-level roles, you can work your way up through 3rd and 2nd assistant directors until you have the background and experience for a 1st assistant director position.
The truth of the matter - in this industry - it’s a world of connections.
Building skills over time matters, and smaller jobs also enable you to meet the right people. How most people get hired for assistant director jobs is through word of mouth. If you’re looking into becoming a first assistant director, know that hiring is going to be largely based on who you know and how well you work with people.
To put it simply… yes.
Assistant directors are one of the most vital roles in running a production.
While directors craft a creative vision, assistant directors make it happen. Even on the smallest productions, the assistant director is integral in ensuring that technical operations of a film set and schedule are met.
To say it again, you need a first assistant director for the success of any production.
While it may not be the very first role you hire, the role of the 1st AD should be at the top of the list.
It’s always helpful if they already have a good working relationship with the director and producers. Or at the very least, have the demeanor that they are easy to get along with.
Get them started right away on pre-production. The faster this happens, the faster the details of the schedule are ironed out and other departments can get going with the budget.
Finding one isn’t usually a shot in the dark. Ask around. Mine your connections.
As is the case with any job in the entertainment industry, you should become an assistant director if you love the world of film and television.
To be a first assistant director, you must believe in a director’s vision and be passionate about doing the work to support it.
An important thing to note is that the role of an assistant director is not a stepping stone to becoming a director. The role of 1st AD is more for the people who love to support and organize.
It’s a job for people who love film, and have an innate ability in communicating and organizing people.
It’s challenging, but it’s incredibly rewarding for those who choose to follow this unique career.
There’s no question just how vital the assistant director position is. Without them, the show would not go on. Plain and simple. That being said, there are a ton of other film crew positions just as critical and just as rewarding. Check them out in our next post.
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