What is The Difference Between a Set PA and Office PA?
Posted on: Sep 21, 2023
Without production assistants, the show really would not go on. These hard-working crew members take on a myriad of roles and tasks in the entertainment industry, but two of the most common roles in production are as a set PA or an office PA. Here are the main differences between each position, and how you can thrive in either role.
What Does a Set Production Assistant Do?
As the title implies, you will find a set PA working on-set, on stage, at base camp or on location. These production assistants are essential to keeping everything running smoothly on-set, and they are right in the thick of the production on a daily basis.
Set Production Assistant Key Skills & Responsibilities:
- Physically demanding role: You will likely be on your feet for the entire shoot day except for your lunch break. You may be asked to help move or load gear on-set or in and out of trucks. Set PAs often work some of the longest hours of the crew.
- Time management: Set PAs work closely with the assistant directors, who are responsible for creating the call sheets and production schedules. Helping the ADs stick to a strict timeline is essential. Be aware of the day’s schedule, complete tasks quickly and always be ready to adjust as needed.
- Observation & awareness: Set PAs are the eyes and ears of set and base camp. You need to be acutely aware of the status of all cast and crew, and to relay any issues or updates with urgency.
- Walkies: Set PAs must be familiar with walkie lingo and etiquette, using them to both listen and respond when appropriate. The set PA is also in charge of assigning, distributing and collecting crew walkies at the beginning/end of the day and providing freshly charged batteries to anyone on-set as needed.
- Working with cast members: As a set PA, you are likely to be directly interacting with cast members, whether escorting them from their trailer to set, or ensuring that any specific requests are met while they are shooting. These cast members may also have their own personal assistants who you will need to coordinate with as well.
- Background actors or audience: In larger stage productions, there may be an entire crew or company dedicated to coordinating the studio audience. In smaller reality shows or scripted productions, set PAs will often be responsible for wrangling background actors or audience members.
- Hired for the duration of production: Occasionally, a set PA or two may be hired a few days or weeks before the start of production or to assist with wrap at the end of the day, but typically most set PAs are hired to work only for the duration of the production itself or are brought on as day players.
If you love to be in the heart of the action and dream of seeing that Hollywood magic first-hand, the role of set PA may be a perfect fit for you. Getting to know your fellow crew members in all the various departments and learning the preferences of cast members, directors, DPs or producers is both an essential skill and a great way to grow and network in the entertainment industry.
What Does an Office Production Assistant Do?
Office PAs are based in the production office, which is typically near the stage or a “home base” if shooting on location. These PAs support all operations of the production office and are responsible for fielding numerous requests and distributing information.
Office Production Assistant Key Skills & Responsibilities:
- Working at a desk and on your feet: A common misconception of Office PAs is that your entire job takes place at a desk. While using your computer is indeed essential to this role, Office PAs are frequently completing tasks around the production office, delivering items to other departments and running a variety of errands.
- Administrative duties: Office PAs support the entire production office by assisting with paperwork, distribution, answering phones and emails, ordering supplies and troubleshooting as needed. You will frequently be responsible for setting up meeting rooms or prepping for specific occasions, such as table reads (to read the latest script aloud) with cast, department heads, producers and writers present.
- Access to information: As an office PA, you will be privy to all kinds of sensitive information, ranging from crew start paperwork to early drafts of schedules and scripts. It is important to maintain professionalism and confidentiality with these documents, but it’s also an excellent opportunity to learn more about the production process from start to finish.
- Runs: Runs, aka errands, can fall to any PA on-set or in the office depending on the type of project, but they’re most frequently handled by office PAs on scripted projects since they are not actively needed on-set. You may be sent to pick up crafty (snacks) for the production office, on a coffee run, to pick up or return expendables or gear, or any other runs as needed by the production office.
- Drive-ons: If your project is taking place on a studio lot or stage, there will be a security system to check all cast, crew and visitors into the location. These systems vary, but often drive-ons will need to be approved and submitted daily to ensure no one has trouble getting onto the lot.
- Communication with studio & network: A unique aspect of working in the production office is the contact you may have with studio and network personnel. Office PAs may field phone calls or emails from executives or assistants, or may be responsible for making arrangements when those execs attend meetings or decide to visit the set.
- Hired for prep, production & wrap: With the exception of the occasional day players, most office PAs are hired early into prep and stay on for the duration of the production, all the way until the end of wrap.
If you are good with a computer, comfortable handling a large volume of questions and information and love the idea of seeing every aspect of a project from start to finish, office PA may be the role for you. This position provides a broad scope of the production process and you will be in communication with crew from every department both on and off set.
Skills Applicable to Both
- Know your show: Both set and office PAs should be very familiar with each call sheet, script, schedule and/or other applicable documents. You may be focusing on different aspects depending on your position, but this is essential information both on and off set.
- Looking ahead: On-set this may entail looking ahead through the shoot day or the week’s schedule to be aware of specific demands. In the production office, this can also apply to the day or week, but can often mean looking well ahead to future episodes or even wrap to begin planning.
- Cleaning & organization: This can look very different on-set vs. in an office, since office PAs will literally be organizing files and paperwork. Both types of PAs are responsible for keeping the space around them clean and providing any necessary information as requested.
- Food & coffee: If you haven’t had to juggle multiple trays of coffee, you probably haven’t worked long as a production assistant. Keeping all cast and crew well fed, hydrated and caffeinated is a constant demand for both set and office PAs.
- Communication: Communicating clearly, professionally and promptly is required of all crew members for a successful production, but the set and office PAs are often relaying vital information all day long.
- Problem-solving: Problems come up frequently both in the production office and on-set. Being able to jump in quickly to help solve the issue is always a valuable skill in a PA.
- Teamwork: Both Set PAs and Office PAs will need to work with their fellow cast and crew on a daily basis. Establishing strong relationships, being flexible and willing to support however needed goes a long way.
It can be common to pick up on a kind of “us vs. them” mentality between the crew on-set and those working in offices. Staff and crew working together harmoniously is critical to a successful production. If you have the opportunity, I strongly suggest trying out both the role of set PA and office PA. There is so much you can learn in each position.
Even if you already know your heart lies in one area or the other, getting to know the PAs and crew who work in the other department(s) will help you to better understand the entire process. Office PAs and set PAs often must rely on one another to complete their tasks and keep production running smoothly. Production assistants may not have the most glamorous of jobs, but they are vital to the process and working as a set or office PA is an excellent way to kick-start your career in production.
Kealey McGray studied Creative Writing and Film & Television at the University of Michigan. She has worked in almost every part of the entertainment industry for the past 14 years including live TV, unscripted TV, and scripted TV, as well as independent films, commercials, events/concerts, and for a major Hollywood studio.
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