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What I Wish I Knew Before I Got Onto Set

January 2023 | Katie Whitmire

Day One: What I Wish I Knew on my First Set Day

Walking on a professional film set for the first time can be so nerve racking. My first day on a big shoot was scary because there were so many people, moving parts, and I had no idea who to talk to first or where to even start. These are all things that my past self would have wanted to know before my first day:


1. Being a PA means that you’re part of the AD department

The Assistant Director is in charge of scheduling and making sure a shooting day goes to plan (as well as one possibly could). They are the right hand person to the director, making sure the right departments step in when necessary to bring the director’s vision to life. On big sets, there are three different types of ADs, including the Key 2nd who creates the daily call sheet, and the 2nd 2nd, who is in charge of setting background and running second team rehearsals (rehearsals with the stand ins to adjust camera and lighting). An AD is always thinking ahead. They try to plan ahead and put the pieces in place to make the transition from setup to setup and from scene to scene as smooth as possible. 

Being a PA means you are an extension of the assistant director. One of the best examples of this is echoing, meaning if you hear the AD say “rolling” on the walkie, all PAs will say rolling to let the rest of the crew know that camera is speeding (speeding is another word for rolling). Or if “second team rehearsal” is called, echoing that call to make sure second team comes to set to stand in. 


2. Your average day will be 12-14 hours 

The hours on set are always long. PAs are always the first ones in and the last ones to wrap. The average PA has a call time an hour before crew call, and could stay up to an hour after wrap is called. A lot of the time as a PA you will find yourself in a situation where you’re standing for hours on end in front of a door making sure no one opens it while the camera is rolling. Mentally, this can be really taxing. It is very easy to gravitate to your phone and use it to pass the time, however you never know who could be watching, and most ADs, UPMs, and producers hate to see PAs on their phones. I used to put one AirPod in and listen to music or a podcast on low volume, and that helped me get through some very long days. This will change from set to set so use your judgment and trust your gut. But, always try and stay on your toes, things have a tendency to change in an instant. 


3. Your Key is your guide

The Key PA is the one who is in charge of all the other PAs. They hire day-players (PAs who are only on for the day, typically happens on bigger production days), set street and pedestrian lock ups, and help the 2nd and 1st ADs with anything they need (a lot of the time it is helping them grab a cup of coffee or a snack from crafty when they can’t leave set). They are the ones who will tell you what you will be doing that day, and your point person for questions like being able to use the restroom, grab a snack, or any clarifying questions you might have. 



4. Walkie Talk

Even on a small set, walkies are the key form of communication for not just the AD department, but every department on set. Each department has their own channel, while channel 1 is the lifeline of the AD department. Channel 1 is unique because there can be multiple departments on channel one, but this can vary from set to set. Typically, the back of the call sheet will list which department is assigned to which channel. It can take a while to get the hang of a walkie talkie, but it is helpful to know some key phrases: 

- Go to 2 (be careful of lurkers!)

This is meant for more personal conversations. A rule of thumb is to not say more than five words on channel one. Going to two helps keep the airwaves clear on channel 1 and allows for (relatively) longer conversations. If you have a question for your key, you will take them to two. 

  • 10-1

Code for bathroom break, typically if you need to use the restroom you call your Key to two and ask if you can go 10-1. 

  • Copy

Instead of yes, okay, or other affirmations, you will say copy to let your key or whoever  is giving you an instruction that you understand. 

  • What’s your 20?

“Where are you?” / “What is your location?” 


  1. There’s a difference between basecamp and set

Basecamp is the main hub for production, it is where the trucks are located, breakfast and lunch are served, where actors get ready, and where the AD office is.  


Many times sets are built on soundstages, and typically everything is very close together when working in these spaces. In this case basecamp is the soundstage. However when shooting on location, basecamp can vary. 


On location, the AD office is located in the honey wagon, which is a giant tractor trailer that has bathrooms and very small dressing rooms meant for actors with minor roles. When on location as a PA, the honey wagon is the first place you report to unless told otherwise by your key PA. This is also where you will receive your walkie-talkie.  


On location, set could be a car or van ride away. Smaller trucks called steak beds will take necessary gear from the “mama” trucks at basecamp and bring them to the location. Actors will get ready in their trailers at basecamp and then travel to set when called by the AD. 


Bonus: Your call time is not your breakfast time. Sometimes, you will be able to get breakfast if you arrive at your call, however, you don’t want to rely on this. Try to get to basecamp 15 minutes early so you can eat and get a lay of the land before being on the clock. 


 It’s a lot to keep in mind, but the more time you spend on to set things like talking on a walkie and knowing when to show up on set become second nature. From my past experience, I’ve found that people want to help you learn. So, take a breath, it’s all going to be okay. And it definitely becomes second nature. 

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