The Bridge Builder on the Film Set: Assistant Director as a Film Profession

What is 1st AD and what does the assistant director do?
A portrait of the profession of assistant director and 1st AD

And then there’s … – the assistant director. This function should really be at the top of any listing of assist functions in film. Because the assistant director, when looked at more closely, is anything but just an assistant function. This article explains why.

There are jobs on the film set that are hardly known as a job description. And yet, without them, nothing works. The assistant director may join this category. She may act alongside the director on the set, but she never gets the same amount of fame and glory in public.

You have to know that

  • The assistant director is not the assistant to the director. At least not in the sense that he brings this one coffee or does the paperwork. This is the responsibility of the personal assistant director, usually performed by an intern.
  • The assistant director is the link between the logistical and organisational requirements of the film production and the creative wishes of the director. As a staff function, it has an eminently important bridging function – because various conflicts of objectives often arise between desire and reality, which can endanger the success of a feature film.
  • In English-speaking countries, a distinction is made between assistant director (AD) and director’s assistant (DA). The members of the assistant director’s team are the 2nd and 3rd assistant directors.

The thing with the assistance

Anyone who’s any good at film gets an assist. There is no regulated training for this. The cameraman works on the film set with one or two camera assistants. The sound crew has its sound assistant, the lighting crew has its lighting assistant, and so on and so forth.

This further diminishes the value of the designation of assistance to film and television professionals. As far as assistant directors are concerned, it is fair to say that this designation is slightly misleading, to say the least. So wrong!

assistant director film television
Has an indispensable bridge-building function: the assistant director| © Photo: freepik

The English language, combined with the view to Los Angeles, already promises some clarification on the term assistant director. In the credits of feature films, two assistant functions are always listed in addition to the director. There is the Director’s Assistant and the Assistant Director:

Assistant Director vs.

The Assistant Director (AD) takes on supporting or, on a smaller scale, independent directing duties while making a film on set. In this way he relieves the director, whose instructions he follows. The importance of this function is also evident from the fact that, in the case of feature films, the AD himself usually employs one or two assistants. Those who earn their spurs in film as an AD usually do so because they want to recommend themselves for a later career as a director.

Assistant Directors do not have to be literate. You don’t have to have seen another movie either. Or maybe they’ve only ever seen movies.
John Carpenter

In German-speaking countries, the AD is called an assistant director, even though the function is different. The 1st Assistant Director (1st AD) has other duties. He rarely aspires to the job of director. In exchange, he gets to put on his flag for having arguably the toughest job there is in film (with the possible exception of screenwriters).

Second Unit Director (2nd Unit Director)

In the case of major feature films, the assumption of independent directing tasks can often take the form of the management of a so-called 2nd unit, a second directing unit. In it, for example, the assistant director shoots parallel to the filming with a smaller crew. For example, mood and landscape shots. Therefore, the work of the second unit director under the direction of the director can either be done separately (before or after) or in parallel to the main shoot.

Crowd Control (2nd assistant director)

If the assistant director takes over tasks in the staging of or in the staging of scenes with complex movement patterns in front of the camera, the assistant director’s job is also called crowd control. Literally translated into the German language, the term means: controlling crowds of people in front of the camera. Specifically, these are mostly extras, like those found at a train station during a shoot. This function is usually taken over by the 2nd assistant director (i.e. the first assistant of the 1st assistant director).

2. director’s assistant

The Director’s Assistant, unlike the AD, does what is commonly thought of as an assistant director: Copying notes, doing correspondence, bringing coffee, and even buying flowers for the director’s sweetheart.

The Director’s Assistant is the personal assistant to the director. That’s why he’s been with us from the first day of shooting.

Often he is already involved in administrative matters during the preparation of the shoot or even during the development of the script. He’s “the go-to guy.” With a big heart for creative personalities with charisma, with a lot of energy and with even more nerves.

3. the assistant director

Because the size of projects in American entertainment cinema is usually significantly larger than that of European auteur films, the division of labour in film jobs is also much higher in the USA than in this country.

However, the functions and tasks of the assistant director and especially 1st assistant directors differ radically in the job description in German-speaking countries from those of the AD in countries dominated by Anglo-Saxon productions. In Europe, unlike in America or in the theatre, the assistant director does not take over part of the actual directing duties on behalf of the director.

These remain, mostly also for budgetary reasons, in the hands of the director who is obliged to pay a lump sum. This is possible because the assistant director relieves the director in other, equally important tasks: in the adjustment with the production.

The production of a film is, always and as in all projects , a monster: A thousand success-relevant, mutually influencing things have to be managed logistically and budgetary at the same time, and in addition they have to be discussed, discarded, re-evaluated and decided upon beforehand.

And this is where the assistant director comes in. As the director’s representative, he is the interface between creation and production. He creates the shooting schedule and is therefore indispensable during the pre-production. He is also responsible for the daily scheduling (call sheet).

The assistant director is thus beholden not only to the director and the creative concept, but also to the producer, the budget and the schedule. At the same time he is a sparring partner for the production management, combines artistic and technical competence and works closely with the location manager in a team with 2nd AD and 3rd AD.

crowd control

If the scope of the projects on the shoot is too demanding for a single person, the assistant director will act as a 1st Assistant Director Designation. His assistants who work with him are then logically in the hierarchy the 2nd assistant director and the 3rd assistant director. In this case the 2. assistant director usually also the guidance of extras.

That’s why the 2nd and 3rd assistant directors are staff and guided and led by the 1st assistant director.

Conclusion on the assistant director

In other words, whoever gets the job of assistant director without …

  • …diplomatic skills;
  • … many years of experience in subordinate functions;
  • … Understanding of almost all aspects of film making and the seemingly intractable problems involved; and most importantly.
  • … possess well above average social skills; and
  • … the willingness, as a heavy worker, to forego neither sleep nor time for one’s personal environment during the production period

… …is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Because he or she, as an assistant director, either gets squashed by the director or the producer, or gets squashed between these two poles and their demands. This is also why the education and on-the-job training takes many years.

The assistant director therefore deserves the utmost respect. Good producers and directors know that a good assistant director is worth if not gold, then at least silver to the quality, budget and deadline layout of a film. In their targeted search for collaboration, they even adjust the shooting dates of entire feature films to match the availability of their preferred assistant director. For they are aware that, like themselves, the assistant directors were born for their task and are exceptional talents.

For more on working on a film set, click here: Film director: how to guide actors and film crews

References

  • Gaffers, Grips and Best Boys: A behind-the-scenes look at who does what in the making of a Motion Picture, Eric Taub, St. Martin’s Press, New York 1994
  • Professions in Film, Thomas Geser, Verein Zürich für den Film (publisher), 1991 (currently out of print)

This article was automatically translated into English using AI. If you would like to help us improve the quality, we would be happy to hear from you.

About Editorial Staff Filmpulse 212 Articles
Under the designation Editorial Staff Filmpulse, articles appear that are created or edited jointly by several members of the editorial staff.

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