How to Become an Assistant Director in Television

Tune into the role & responsibilities of an AD in episodic TV.

“A good AD is never thinking: ‘I could direct this better.’ They’re thinking: ‘How can I help this succeed.'”

As a part of our continuing coverage of the essential but lesser-understood departments comprising a film crew, we recently discussed how you can keep your focus on your film’s creative decisions with the help of a logistically-minded assistant director.

Our in-depth interview with Laura Klein examined assistant directing in an indie film context. We thought it would be interesting to revisit this world in a television context, in order to help our students and readers understand the similarities and differences between the two worlds.

To this end, we had the privilege of catching up with Erica Fishman. Erica has worked as a first or second Assistant Director on successful shows like The Americans, The Affair, and Rescue Me. She sat down with Lights Film School to talk about her career path from Production Assistant to Assistant Director and specifically her experiences as a first AD in television.

The Americans | FX, 2013

The Americans | FX, 2013

Hello, Erica! Let’s start by hearing a bit about yourself. How did you become a first Assistant Director?

I am an accidental AD.

Shortly after college, I moved to New York City for a management job in theatre, but I had some friends who worked in film. I soon realized that theatre is financed in such a manner that I could make as much money in an entry level film job as I could managing theatrical productions. So I began working as a Production Assistant. I liked it. I seemed good at it. There are a wide variety of positions: Key, First Team, Background, etc., and just as many kinds of sets: Commercial, Music Videos, TV and Film. I got to work outside. I met a lot of people. I got to learn a lot on the ground – and the elements were similar to what I was familiar with: Actors, Directors, Producers, Props, Lighting, Sound, A Story to Tell – but with a new element: The Camera. I was all in. Full speed ahead!

It’s a long uphill battle from your first day on set. Entry into the Director’s Guild (the Union for AD’s, UPM’s [Unit Production Managers], Directors, and in some cases Location Managers) requires that you work 600 days (not hours, but actual discrete days), save all your paperwork and pay stubs, and submit them for approval in enormous binders: your “Book”. A task that generally takes 3-6 years to chip away at. I was about 9/10ths of the way up this hill when I caught a break on the show Rescue Me. We needed another 2nd AD for an additional unit and they wanted me to do it. New York has an affirmative action clause for Women and Minorities on DGA sets, so though I didn’t have my “Days” yet organized, I got the job!

The next season, I turned in my book and worked as a 2nd AD the last few days of each episode. I spent the next four or five years working as a 2nd AD until I was working on FX’s The Americans. Season 2, we had a schedule with a lot of tandem units, which gave me a great opportunity to “bump up” to firsting one day an episode. Season 3, another AD left and I got the gig: 1st AD on The Americans.

Wow, that’s exciting! So, fill us in on the basics: what does an assistant director do, and why is it so important?

There are three varieties of Assistant Directors on most sets: a 1st AD, a Key 2nd AD, and a 2nd 2nd AD.

The first AD starts from the ground up with the Director and Producers breaking down a script and building a schedule for the episode. They facilitate communication between all departments to collaborate on directorial requests. The Key 2nd AD is the 1st AD’s #1 backup through each stage of this process: tracking information from meeting to meeting and following up on requests with departments to ensure things are moving smoothly. The Key 2nd AD also is the main point of contact for actors, RE: their scheduling, timing, transportation, etc. The 2nd 2nd AD is the first AD’s right hand on set to manage the PA (Production Assistant) staff and communicate with the crew as well as set background for scenes throughout the day.

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Erica helps set up a dolly shot on the set of FX’s The Strain

That’s quite the hierarchy! What are some common misconceptions of what an AD’s job is? Do you find that this changes depending on the scale of the project?

There’s a big difference between an AD – an Assistant Director – and a Director’s Assistant.

In my experience on most sets, crew and department heads are familiar with what an AD’s role is. Certainly outside the business, it’s a constant conversation to explain that an Assistant Director isn’t making a director coffee or running errands and scheduling their day – that’s a Director’s Assistant. A big misconception also can occur when crew members – especially Directors – have only worked on non-professional sets and have had AD’s who are argumentative, non-facilitatory, or even competitive with them. This sort of environment can occur in an educational context in particular where a lot of aspiring filmmakers are made to AD for each other, but all are hoping to Direct eventually.

In my opinion, a good AD is never thinking: “I could do this better.” They’re thinking: “How can I help this succeed.”

That’s a great point. On the subject of crew, your title is Assistant Director, but what is your actual relationship with the Director? What other department heads do you work with closely?

An Assistant Director is not assisting a Director personally so much as supporting their vision.

Directors and ADs work side-by-side to accomplish day-to-day endeavors that frequently are very challenging to take from page to screen. An AD embraces a Director’s vision, interfaces that with budgetary and production constraints, and helps everything stay on track.

ADs work with every department head closely; most department heads don’t speak to each other directly – the AD is like an information hub fielding questions, concerns, information from all sides and organizing it to facilitate smooth communication between all departments.

An essential role to an efficient production. What goes into pre-production to prepare for a shoot, and does it differ depending on the type of project and budget? What tools or programs do you use?

Pre-production for a shoot can and does vary wildly from project to project. Depending on scale and dollars available, prep can mean you’re dialing in remotely with drafts of a schedule and fielding conference calls from persons scattered across the globe for weeks before you’re all in a room (or van) looking at locations or speaking in person.

It can also mean (in the case of a TV show or larger feature) that you’ve got a proper office at a studio or in an office building that all departments are working out of and that you attend daily like a “normal job” – where all parties employed are just around the corner at most hours to meet or address concerns.

A first stage for prep on a production is to use Movie Magic (a software designed specifically for scheduling films) to “break down” a script into “strips” which are then moved around inside the program to create a rough schedule.

In TV, episodic prep often begins with a Concept Meeting, where the episode Writer or Showrunner sits down with the Director and all department heads and you page turn through the script discussing each scene, new character, location, costume ideas, song requests, special effects, etc. From there, you enter many rounds of scouting locations and meetings about specifics (Props, Costumes, Extras, Hair and Makeup design, etc) until a final “Tech” or Technical Scout of shooting locations, as well as a Production Meeting where all details of every scene are reviewed before filming begins.

Standing in with a fellow AD on a location scout (bottom); the final frame of the corresponding scene in an episode of The Americans (top)

Standing in with a fellow AD on a location scout (bottom); the final frame of the corresponding scene in an episode of The Americans (top)

And what about on set? What does a typical day look like for you – if there is such a thing?

There is, if you can believe it! To some degree, anyhow.

There’s a real heartbeat to the day: First thing, check in on actor timing (sometimes you plan to call them to rehearsal, but their morning process could be running late), then walk the set with the Director and communicate adjustments if needed (no matter how much you talk about things ahead of time, there are frequently adjustments that need to be made once you’re on site: a wall looks too freshly painted, a key photo referenced in a scene isn’t displayed prominently enough, anything could happen). At or slightly before the crew arrives, you call the cast to set for a private rehearsal, and once you work out the action with the director, you bring in the crew for a “marking rehearsal” so they can see the actor positions and know what we’re starting with and where equipment can go. Then the crew has the set to light while the actors finish getting ready.

Once everyone is ready, the actors are called to set, then it’s roll cameras & action… (repeat as needed); check the gate and move on (repeat as needed); last setup of the scene; then choose your own adventure: next scene could be in the same set (repeat sequence above); a different set (go there and repeat sequence above); or at a new location (load the trucks! pack the gear! check on actor timing, go to the next set and walk through and adjust if needed, call actors for a private rehearsal and continue as above!).

At some point, you break for lunch, and eventually you wrap. In between, you might see anything from an amazing performance from an actor you’ve always admired to some genius macgyverying by the grip department to a car getting totaled by a phenomenal stunt driver… Or on a really great day, you might see something you’ve never even imagined come to life in front of your eyes.

Erica rides a process trailer over The Manhattan Bridge with the Director and Director of Photography while shooting FX's The Strain

Erica rides a process trailer over The Manhattan Bridge with the Director and Director of Photography while shooting The Strain

That’s beautiful.

Not every day is a great day. Many days feel like a field of obstacles you’re hurdling, trying to reach the next step of the above. A prop essential to the scene has gone missing! An actor puts on their wardrobe and reveals a large tattoo that needs covering! A massive amount of snow and ice has buried the camera truck stairs! An actor has a headcold and has lost their voice!

These are all opportunities to utilize your skills, get people to collaborate and problem solve to keep the day moving. And still, even on the bad days, eventually you wrap.

Tomorrow is always a new day full of new challenges.

Sounds like an adventure! Do you first AD each episode of a show? And does your job continue into post-production of those episodes?

Every television show is different, but generally there are two first ADs on a show who trade off from episode to episode.

Depending on the scale of the show, there may be two full teams: a first and a second who swap off each episode. One team does even episodes and one team does odd episodes, so the shooting company is filming all the time. One team starts prep before filming begins, and when they begin their first day of filming, the other team comes in to start prepping the next episode. The teams switch off like that all season.

Sometimes, if episodes run over and the show gets behind, there can even be a third team of AD’s who comes in to shoot in tandem with the other teams. The teams trade off cast members between the schedules so that multiple units can be filming at the same time. A show of a scale like Game of Thrones can shoot two units with multiple AD teams and directors in several countries at the same time all season long.

As an AD, my job doesn’t include scheduling or supervising the post process directly, but on a television show where episodes frequently must be cut immediately and air within weeks of filming, there is a lot of interface between set and post schedules. Coordination between set and post is necessary to ensure that Directors, Producers, and Showrunners can view cuts between prep meetings or important scenes filming on set, and actors ping pong back and forth from set to post to record additional dialogue.

Sometimes, when there are larger post issues, I may facilitate a reshoot or additional photography for a scene and wrap it into the normal filming schedule.

What are some of the biggest differences in your job between smaller, independent film shoots and television?

One of the biggest differences is the pace. If you’ve seen South Park‘s 6 Days to Air, you’ve got an idea: the entire prep process for each episode takes place in 6-10 days, then the episode is shot in the following 6-10 days, then back to prep for another 6-10 days, and repeat until end of season – whereas in film, there’s just one long prep period and then a long bout of shooting.

Another big difference is the relationship with the director within the process.

In film, the director is frequently the driving creative force behind the project. Everything is geared around what they want the project to be. In TV, directors come and go throughout the season. Sometimes, the director can be someone from within the show (A Director of Photography or an Actor or a Script Supervisor) taking on the role for an episode – but frequently directors move from show to show. The First AD, DoP, and Showrunners or Directing Producer in this case are the “keepers” for keeping the show consistent. More than just pushing the day along, this team helps maintain the look for the show and sherpa a guest director through the process.

Fascinating. At what point in the process are you brought onto a project?

An AD can be brought on at any point. It could be first day of prep for a pilot episode of a show where there’s no guidebook or rubric and barely any existing crew, a 4th or a 14th season of an established show, just one episode when another AD is sick or has taken a leave, for a tandem unit as described above… I’ve even been hired to do a schedule for a project as a one-off for a show or film that’s not even financed yet!

Wow! What do you wish more filmmakers, especially those just getting started, knew about your job?

I’d love for the perception of ADs to shift from the idea that an AD is just a yeller who’s unconcerned with any department or individual concern.

There’s some perception that an AD is an obstacle to work around or necessary evil on a unionized project, but really an AD can and should be instrumental to facilitating smooth communication and getting everything done as swiftly and painlessly as possible!

What are some qualities that make for a good AD? What advice do you have for any aspiring ADs out there; where’s a good place to get started?

Have patience. Lots of patience.

A lot of a day of filming is waiting: waiting on the lighting, waiting for the rain to stop, waiting for a locked door to open, waiting for an actor to finish hair and makeup… Lots of waiting. But those few minutes a day, three to four minutes an hour sometimes, where everyone and everything is ready and the cameras roll? That’s magic.

Other things? Creativity, endurance, intelligence, good instincts, people skills, empathy and problem solving.

A good place to get started is volunteering for student or independent films: through a school or even a Craigslist post or Facebook group! Almost everybody I know has volunteered at some point, and almost every great filmmaker was one of these student or independent filmmakers in their past.

You should always do 100% your best – you never know where the other folks you’re working with are headed. You could make photocopies the fastest, put together the coolest giftbag for a client or executive, or make a director the best cup of coffee. Anything that sets you apart from the pack can be the reason you get called for the next project. There’s no task too small or undeserving of your fullest effort. It’s amazing what people notice.

Erica discusses scheduling on the set of The Americans

Erica discusses scheduling on the set of The Americans

Few things in the world of Film/TV/Commercials/etc. are a straight path. Generally, the world breaks into a few nodes: picture it like a venn diagram with general circles, but also areas of overlap. There’s the world of Studio Television and Film, which shares a lot of directors, crew, stages, etc. Independent Film and the now-growing New Media field occupy another space. Music Videos and Commericals have a lot of overlap, too.

Paths to directing can start on set with a Production Assistant position, assistantship, crew or editorial position, but they can also come from determined individuals who spent a lot of time honing their craft on their own independent projects. Some AD’s I know on long-running shows like 30 Rock or Law and Order have moved into UPM, Producing or Episodic Directing from there. I’ve also seen friends get first opportunities to write or direct after a few years of assistantships. I reapplied my set skills a few years ago to produce a feature with friends and continue to work with those folks today.

There’s no concrete rubric.

My best advice would be to keep in mind exactly where you want to wind up and keep checking in to make sure you feel every job you take and every person you work with is contributing to your goal in some way. And usually they will, even the very hard ones.

Walk through every open door. Seize every opportunity. And do your best job at every job you take. You never know when you’ll meet the person or take the job that could change your life.

So inspiring, Erica! Thanks for taking the time to share your insights and experiences with our students and readers here at Lights. Your story is a testament to the value of excellence and persistence, whether you’re keeping the coffee stocked or running a film set.

 Courtney Hope Thérond, with

Need to write a film before you can AD it? We’d love to help you take your film from concept through final cut with our online filmmaking course – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.

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