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Unit PA

Working in the Locations Department can take you all over the world, but be warned you'll be the first person to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night. If you wish to work in locations then there is no better place to start than as a unit PA.

Unit PA Image
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1

Find daily or crowd PA work, it can be a great foot in the door. Check in with your local film office. Work on short, student and micro budget films. A driving licence is essential.

Stage
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Submit your resume to location and unit managers. Offer your services as a production assistant to film offices around the country, offer your services on short films.

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Your time as a unit PA can vary, as will the type of production you work on. Be comfortable working on your own, and be comfortable using your own initiative.

what is the locations department?

The role of the location manager and their team of assistant location manager, location scouts, and PAs is to source and secure locations nationally and globally that are vital to the script and the director’s vision. Working in conjunction with the director and production designer, location managers work to a brief to find the key criteria of a location mentioned in the script, such as a window in the sitting room, which also needs to be south-facing, for example. Location managers are very resourceful, and masters at negotiating access to sought-after locations.

In pre-production, the location manager will work through the script and hire members of their team, such as the location scouts. Team size can vary depending on the budget. If working on a smaller budget independent production, the location manager can be working independently, scouting locations themselves. 

The script is the location manager's Bible, every location they view will be cross-checked with the script multiple times to make sure all the key details and requirements are checked off. While working in pre-production, the location manager will be working with the HoDs to make sure all requirements for the shoot are met. They contact and liaise with state film offices, communicate with the public bodies and emergency services, should roads need to be closed off or SFX work takes place. 

When the scouts or location manager has found an ideal location they make initial contact with the owner, or they leave a card. Having collated a list of options for each location mentioned in the script, the location manager presents their findings to the director and production designer. They can find themselves offering hundreds of possible options, around 10-15 for each location. When the locations are agreed upon the location manager will follow up and secure the location for filming, acquiring all permissions, legal documentation and residential approval for production use.

The location’s department will be the first department to arrive at the appointed shoot day to shepherd other departments into parking bays and around designated parking areas. While working on location the unit manager and unit PA’s are responsible for:

  • Removing any furniture from the location, and making sure that it is stored correctly and carefully.

  • Being the location owner's representative(s) on set. Members of the locations team take this responsibility very seriously as they are on the front line when dealing with owners of the property. An experienced film crew is always sensitive when working on location, but they also have a job to do, it can be up to the location's team to make sure mats protect expensive flooring and any priceless items are either stored away or protected. 

  • Movement orders. Making sure all crew have been handed a movement order (maps, directions) if the location is very remote, placing signs directing the trucks to the unit base.

  • Making sure best practice is observed. If the location is residential, make sure all crew follows best practice, cutting truck engines off once parked, wearing appropriate clothing - especially if working residentially or in a sensitive location.

  • Working to permit. Making sure filming only takes place in the time specified by the permit, unless extensions have been granted.

  • Set up and manage the unit base, making sure the unit base, mobile offices/trailers have power and a source of freshwater for catering. Making sure toilets (honey wagon), security, and recycling/rubbish removal requirements are met.

  • Dealing with rescheduling. Location filming can be entirely reliant on the weather. The location team needs to have a contingency plan in place and be confident that they can negotiate an agreement. The location team will provide protection against the elements for the crew, such as easy-up gazebos or tents.

  • Addressing any health and safety concerns such as cables, live wires, etc. If working with SFX, the Location Department makes sure the correct health and safety are in place which could mean an ambulance on standby, or the local hospital being informed of the production activities.

  • Arrange space or a ‘holding area’ for extra cast drafted in for crowd scenes.

  • Security. On larger budgets, the location can be locked off by a security company, on smaller budgets set PA and unit PA’s are tasked with minding the set on brakes.

  • Making sure the cast and crew stay in the area they are filming and don’t wander onto other people’s property. Also making sure the cast and crew wear a production pass if necessary.

  • Allocating alternative parking for residents if the production has closed the street, keeping disruption to a minimum.

  • Protecting the location. The location will be cleared and cleaned by a professional company after wrap.

  • Performing a full clearance of the area on departure, remove any rubbish if left by catering, crew, or set de-rigs.

  • Thank residents and public officials also known as the ‘follow up’ (if they were present on the day) and foster good relations; you never know when you might need them again.

WHAT ARE THE ENTRY LEVEL POSITIONS AVAILABLE IN THE LOCATION DEPARTMENT?

If you would like to become a part of the Location Department, one of the best ways to start is to become a unit PA. This role can be found in features, commercials, short films (with a decent budget), and TV dramas. Despite being a production assistant the unit PA is answerable to the assistant locations manager, location manager, and the coordinator, not the ADs Department. Unit PAs can be hired independently through film offices, but usually, the location manager will have a team they will pick from.

WHAT ARE THE OTHER ROLES IN THE LOCATION DEPARTMENT?

It’s not uncommon for location managers to go from a big production (with a good size team) to work on their own for a TV show with a map, a reliable hatchback, and an overnight bag for the company. The roles within locations for film and televisions are:

Supervising location manager. When working on multi-location, big-budget productions that have a global reach there will be a supervising location manager who acts as the primary point of contact for the director, producer, and production designer.

Location manager. Location managers will be familiar with doing it all, scouting, negotiating access, issuing location contracts, managing a budget, research, managing a team, insurance cover, and acting as health and safety officer on set.

Assistant location manager. Taking instruction from the location manager, and contributing to the smooth running of the department.

Coordinator. The location manager's designated representative onset if the location manager is not there (on bigger budgets this can be the case). They will be the ones helping the trucks find their parking spaces, putting up signs to unit base, creating a unit base and arranging the facilities (toilets, trailers, catering), making sure the location is cleared on departure.

Location scout. Working with the script and a brief, location scouts are sent out to hunt down all manner of locations, document them, and present their findings to the location manager.

WHAT IS THE CAREER PATH IF I WANT TO WORK IN LOCATIONS?

Once you're working as a unit PA, you can begin to build up your connections within the industry which is one of the best ways to generate work. Working in locations can offer you many choices as you progress along the career path.

If you have a particular interest, such as extreme sports (rock climbing, snowboarding down cliff faces), you may wish to specialize in remote locations. If you are fluent in other languages or have knowledge of locations overseas, this can tip the balance when production companies and location managers are looking for staff.  

There are also specialized location companies that forge good relationships with owners of desirable homes; these companies will have location managers, scouts, and assistants on their books.  The most formalized way of progressing from the PA position would be to step up to location assistant, location scout, assistant location manager, and then location manager; you could always visit the position of unit manager along the way. 

Unit Production Assistant > Location Assistant > Assistant Location Manager > Location Manager (Location Coordinator is a lateral move from those two middle positions)

WHAT ARE THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE unit PA?

You will be taking direction from the assistant location manager and/or the unit manager, taking care of a range of issues that may arise from shooting on location. Some of these duties can include:

Letter drops.

If the production wishes to use a residential street PAs will be leafleting the area, asking for consent, and letting people know what to expect. If working on a period production PAs may have to ask if aerials can be taken down or the Art Department might make aesthetic changes to the outside of the house.

Liaise with the ALM and production office.

The movement order consists of directions (which the ALM has mapped out) and maps to go with the call sheets in the evening. You may be asked to help find the best map; the ALM will have space in the production office to work in.

Crew parking.

The evening before the shoot runners, the ALM, or unit manager will attach parking dispensations to parking bays having acquired them from the local council. If the location is hard to reach, or the route complicated the location team will have marked out the route with a series of fluorescent signs with the word 'unit' on them to avoid any confusion. Most people will adhere to the rules, but there will always be people who turn up in the morning determined to park where they shouldn't, it will be your job to make sure this doesn't happen. Usually, the ALM will help with the safe parking of production vehicles while on location, and listen to any concerns members of the crew may have.

Communications.

If filming in a residential area, you may be called upon to inform residents if any SFX work or action that causes concern is about to take place. Before the shoot, you may be asked to send out information to residents and businesses who may feel the impact of the filming 2 -5 days in advance.

Making sure the crew has provisions.

Making sure bins are provided for the crew, especially around the catering busses. If it's too hot or cold making sure gazebos are on standby.

Assisting with crowd control.

If the area has been closed off, and if you are working on a big-budget production it may be by the police, the Location Department is the liaison between these services and the crew. Don't be surprised if you have to field questions by members of the public about what's going on.

Clear the location on departure.

You will often find all the members of the department will pitch in when it comes to leaving a location. Most departments are very good at clearing for themselves, but if a set has been built into a location and needs to be removed (struck), the location's team provides the skips or necessary means for removal.

Work with the other departments.

If building work has unexpectedly sprung up that wasn't there on the recce you will have to ask them if they could ‘hold the work’ during a take for the Sound Department. The Art Department may need to remove some artwork, or the grips may need to lay track on a priceless parquet flooring. This is all down to the location department to facilitate the crew's requests.

In the absence of the LM, ALM or unit manager be on set.

This is usually the responsibility of the location manager but if they are called away a member of the team can fill in. A member of the location's team should always be present on set. The locations team is in direct contact with the owners of the property, so if anything needs to be moved or changed, all departments need to go through locations.

Help document the set.

Document all the furniture (know where it came from and where it needs to go back to) and if you notice any imperfections in the floor or walls document that too in case the owner thinks the production has caused them.

KEY SKILLS FOR unit PA:

Understanding photography. Knowing how to photograph a location - should you not know, it's on the diagonal - is going to help as you progress in your career, so it’s best to start practicing now. Practice taking shots that best represent the space and scale of a location; it’s a good habit to get into.

Being patient. Being patient with members of the public, and the crew is vital for working in locations. Being patient and calm will make the job a lot easier.

Communication. Unless you're working on studio productions, the location's team can be quite small, so effective communication is essential for keeping everything ticking over. Know where other members of the department are at all times, read the sides at the beginning of the day and know what areas of the location the crew intend to shoot in.

Be vigilant. While onset you are the eyes and ears of the location owner. The location/unit manager takes overall responsibility, but you can help them out. If no food or drink is allowed on the premises, make sure that the rules are observed. If the grips are bringing in a dolly, ask if you can provide them with matting, etc. You may feel as though you are fussy but you need to make sure the crew can carry out their work, and the location owner gets their home back as they left it. If in doubt always ask the location manager or unit manager first. 

Being forthright and firm while maintaining a friendly and approachable demeanor. Much like the set PAs, you can be called upon to hold people at barriers to stop them walking through the shot, most likely this will be members of the public, it can also be crew. You can be holding the executive producer at a barrier which can be a tough situation, but you need to stick to your guns. You will also need to apply this attitude to members of the crew if they are unhappy with a location arrangement. Obviously, ask the ALM or unit manager first, but if you are given direct instructions about parking priority or movement of objects/furnishings you need to be firm but friendly.

i want to work in film locations - how do i start?

If you love to travel and enjoy packing a bag to leave the house in 10 minutes, working in locations can be an exciting area of the industry for the right candidate. However, before you land the job of a location manager, you will need to begin your journey at the beginning, and gain experience as a production assistant. Working at this level will let you know whether you have the right personality to fit the role and more importantly, whether you enjoy the job!

Collaborations

It's the old catch 22; you need a resume with experience to find paying work - but how do you gain that initial experience? Fortunately, there are options, collaborations being one of them. 

Collaborations can be short films funded and run by individuals, helping out on student productions, or working on testings that involve stills rather than video but all involve locations. Many short films are shot over a weekend or a few days. So if you are working full-time, this can be an ideal way to gain experience while still earning a wage.  

Although we do recommend collaborations, do your research first to find out who is going to be working on the production. The university will back student films, so there will be a budget, and insurance will be taken care of. 

If you are working on a short film with people you don’t know, make sure to check out the producer's track record and back catalog of work, you want to know they are following best industry practices and will be running the production properly. Which means:

  • The production will be insured, catering (or at least some form of feeding the crew) has been devised, there is a schedule that is realistic and location, transport, and travel plans of the crew are all considered. 

  • If you’re gaining experience in locations find out what the travel arrangements are. Will the production be relying on people to transport themselves or carry kit in their cars? Will they need extra insurance? 

The likelihood is you will be working for expenses, so make sure that is the case - always talk money before you agree. If you are working without payment, be sure you're swapping your time for some skills and knowledge; such as the experience of working on a properly run shoot, working with an experienced location manager, making some contacts who are working in the industry, adding a credit to your resume and most importantly a reference. If your gut feeling is that these criteria are unlikely, (you will know within the first five minutes) you could decide to say thanks but no thanks and look for the next opportunity.

Resume

When looking for paid positions check through your resume (or ask someone else to) to see it reads well and is correctly formatted. You can use the advice to help create a resume and covering letter. You can check your CV against our examples to make sure it includes all the relevant information. Keep it short and to the point, as many location managers will be ‘scanning’ rather than reading, so keep it down to one page.

Research

You can start by researching specialist location companies, many of whom recommend location managers and scouts on their books. You can also register your resume with the film commission in your local area and make yourself available to productions looking to crew up. 

Finding a great location doesn't just happen by traveling around ticking off boxes on the brief (although that helps), it’s about noticing the world around you and documenting it for future reference. If you want to move into locations, know your local area inside out, and make lists of areas that would make ideal filming locations, not just regarding its cinematic beauty but also practicality. 

  • Could you park the trucks there? 

  • Is it near the main road? 

  • Are those building works? 

  • Where would you set up the unit base? 

  • Is there enough room for a unit base? 

  • How would you map out the route to the location from the motorway? 

If location managers are looking for local runners, this knowledge could be extremely useful. 

There are a host of blogs, books, and internet resources available to gain further insight into the work of the Locations Department. To start you off here is a selection:

Network

The network you build while working on shorts, student films, and micro-budget features will enable you to branch out to look for work elsewhere in the industry. If you've worked with other production assistants ask them to keep you in mind for when they are unavailable to work, referrals to location or unit managers can open doors. Remain in contact with everyone you meet, send catch-up emails, social media is a great way to stay in touch. Use your time to create opportunities, don’t wait for them to come to you.

i want to work in film locations - how do i start? Image

WHAT IS THE LOCATIONS DEPARTMENT LIKE TO WORK IN?

Locations is a challenging department to work in. You may find the perfect location but be denied access from the owners, have a motorway running straight through it, or find it inaccessible via road! 

As you move up the career ladder to scout, you can find yourself spending time out on the road with only your sat nav for companionship. Working in locations can become quite solitary at times, especially when you are scouting for locations. During production, however, you will be surrounded by trucks and crew who will be looking to you for answers.

You will know in the first year of being part of the locations team is for you. Working in locations can be very stressful; you will be dealing with many personalities throughout the day and most often you will not be able to please everyone. If there is a problem with access, or something has changed since you were on the recce, many faces will be turned to you for answers. If you have a nervous disposition or find it difficult to provide a professional veneer (outwardly calm but paddling wildly underneath), you may find the working environment too stressful.

Diplomacy while dealing with the departments is a must, and anyone who wishes to work in locations would do well to observe senior members of staff as they navigate their way through the day. Part of the job is prioritizing individual departments in certain situations, how you navigate this without upsetting anyone will take a considerable amount of skill. Key location professionals are competent and firm while simultaneously being calm and friendly.

DO I NEED ANY QUALIFICATIONS TO WORK IN LOCATION MANAGEMENT?

Working as a unit PA will not require any formal academic qualifications, but you will need a driving license - without a license, your resume will be discarded straight away. You could also pay for a first aid course which would enable you to act as a nominated first aider on set. 

A degree can offer you a solid educational grounding and some life experience being away from home; it can also offer options if you decide life in the film industry is not for you. If choosing a film or media major look closely at the modules the course is offering, does it offer:

  • Practical modules with industry-recognized equipment.

  • Lecturers (full-time or guest) who are working in the industry.

  • Work placements.

  • Affiliations with industry-recognized institutions.

  • A chance to meet alumni or industry members.

It would be advantageous to have a good grasp of health and safety procedures, and a great deal of common sense. You will also need passion, drive, and determination to work in the film industry. These qualities are prized throughout the departments and should get you where you want to go.

WHAT PAPERWORK OR SOFTWARE SHOULD I BE FAMILIAR WITH?

Good working knowledge of Macs and PCs is helpful as are organizational and administrative skills. The majority of agreements are put in place by the location manager well before the first truck rolls into its parking space, so paperwork on the day should be at a minimum. 

Forms that the Locations Department use:

  • Letter of application or letter of intent. Once the location has been agreed upon the production will submit a letter of intent to the owners, residents. This can include a brief treatment of the project and if requested a copy of the script pages.

  • The location uses agreement/release. The agreement sets out all the interested parties, fees, insurances, and time allowed for location use.

  • Movement order. Detailed directions of how to get to the unit base or a location.

  • Maps and being able to give concise directions.

  • Request to film during extended hours.

  • Incident report form. If any damages or accidents occur on location, the form needs to be filled out for insurance purposes.

10 ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR NEW ENTRANTS OF THE LOCATIONS DEPARTMENT

 
Have a good working knowledge of all the departments.

What function do they carry out, will they need to be close to set for unloading, or if the Camera Department loading and unloading the magazines in the back of the camera truck; what do they need to be able to function properly (holding area/electric/water, etc.).

 
Listen carefully to instructions.

When instructed by the ALM, take a notepad that fits into your back pocket to write down and refer to instructions and tasks.

 
Be able to present yourself and a confident and clear way.

Working as part of the locations team means you're working with members of the public who can have their lives disrupted by an invasion of trucks, trailers, and people. Never dismiss their concerns, most people just want to know what is going on and that their complaint (if they have one) has been taken seriously. Remain sympathetic and don’t take it personally, make a point of letting them know you have noted it down.

 
Weather.

The unit/location manager will be assessing whether conditions while working on location and the departments do their best to keep the crew guarded against the elements. If the weather forecast is incorrect (crazy but true) you can take action and distribute the suntan lotion, or be the first in with the gazebo.

 
Create your own location lists.

Whenever you go away, stockpile information on areas you have visited which you could use at a later date. Get into the habit of documenting locations, both written and photographic, you will need to be good with a camera when you jump up to location scout. This doesn't mean the latest DSLR, most location managers prefer a small compact camera that doesn't draw attention.

 
Make sure you are prepared for the day ahead.

Research the location the night before. If somewhere you have not previously visited, you can find out from the ALM if there are any requirements that would be different from the norm.

 
PA kit.

For a location PA, there are a few things to keep to hand at all times. Your walkie and a spare battery, pen and note pad, flashlight, mobile phone, multi-tool. Things to keep in your bag or the back of the car would be wet weather gear, sun hat, and sun lotion, rope, mobile phone charger, high vis vest, pop-up bins, and industrial-strength bin bags.

 
Period homes.

If you're working in expensive or period homes, start to recognize what might be incredibly valuable and probably should either be removed or protected. You don’t have to be an antique expert but knowing what is a valuable piece of artwork (and probably shouldn’t be moved) is going to stand you in good stead during your career.

 

 
Practice photographing locations.

Think about how to best capture space. Location managers advise you to take pictures on the diagonal to get the best shot, as your career progresses (and after having read the script multiple times) you will be able to gauge where the Camera Department is likely to set up, so make sure the camera crew can get in there.

 
Read the script.

If you have a chance (and the location manager is willing), read the script. Location managers live by the script; it's their primary source of reference when looking for suitable locations for production.

 

PHRASES EVERY ENTRANTS NEEDS TO KNOW WHEN WORKING IN LOCATIONS.

 

  • Wrap. When the crew packs up, go home, and leave you with the aftermath.

  • Base camp/unit base. This is where you will find all the trailers and services needed to keep the production going. Mobile offices, trailers housing makeup and wardrobe, actors trailers, or villages depending on the size of the star.

  • Distant location. Refers to overnight for the cast and crew if the location is far from their homes.

  • Honeywagon. A portaloo - but a nice one. Cast trailers have their own amenities, but the crew will have to make use of communal facilities. 

  • Gennie is short for the generator which usually comes with an operator as well. Another challenge for the locations team as they can be quite noisy, so you don't want it too close to the action.

FAQ’S

 

How much do unit PAs get paid?

PA positions are the starting rung of the ladder and they will be minimum wage. However, if you are working you will receive 3 square meals a day, production health insurance and because you will be working you probably won’t be spending that much anyway. Overtime kicks in after eight hours, which is time and a half. After five days, any overtime beyond that is double time.

 

What hours am I likely to work as a unit PA?

Depending on the production you can work between 10 to 16 hr a day. The locations team is the first to arrive and last to leave so your day will largely be dictated by the expediency of the crew. Just as the production office is up and running an hour before crew call and an hour or so after wrap, the locations team are most often there before the production office.

 

What is the difference between a set PA and a unit PA?

Set PAs are under the guidance of the ADs Department and take responsibility for the ‘set’, which is where all the on-camera action will take place. They will ‘lock-off’ a location which effectively means keeping everyone out of the working area. Location PAs operate around this activity, liaising with the external factors such as police if working in a public space or traffic needs to be redirected, parking and residential liaison. Even though the locations team is present on set, they are working to ensure the crew can fulfill their tasks with the minimum of fuss.

 

What should I take with me on my first day?

One thing that will become habitual is being prepared for all eventualities this can include:

  • Comfortable footwear.

  • Have sufficient wet weather gear and a sun hat in the back of the car.

  • Digital camera to record anything on set that looks out of place, or to document a private residence before the crew arrives.

  • A notebook and pen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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