Sheila Hall on the set of a commercial
Experienced assistant director Sheila Hall on the set of a commercial.

Andy Stead

Most lay people know what the “director” means, and probably know what a film director does, but what about the assistant director or, for that matter, the second and third assistant directors? Does the director need all that support? What do all these assistants actually do?

To put it simply, the assistant director – AD for short – on a film or TV production team is responsible for ensuring that each person is in the right place at the right time, and that shooting stays on schedule. The second AD looks after the cast and supporting actors, marks changes to call times and the shooting schedule, and generally assist the director and first AD. The third AD acts as the first AD’s assistant.

But there’s more to being first AD than that. Other duties include setting the shooting schedule, tracking daily progress against the filming production schedule, arranging logistics, preparing daily call sheets, checking the arrival of cast and crew, maintaining order on the set, rehearsing cast, and directing extras. Extended responsibilities may include taking care of health and safety of the crew.

Historically, the role of an assistant to the director – not the same as an AD – was a stepping stone to becoming a fully-fledged director. Both Alfred Hitchcock and James McTeigue worked as assistants to the director in their early careers.

Johannesburg-based Sheila Hall is a respected first AD with many years of experience in film.

“I started in the film industry in 1985 as a PA with Cannon Films,” she says. “Michael Games was the production manager. The 1980s were great, lots of action movies, blowing things up, stunts and great sets.

“In1987 I had an incredible break. I started as second AD for Richard Green on an American action drama feature Murphy’s Fault, directed by Bob Smawley from the US.

“I worked on features as a second AD for at least six years, seconding predominantly for Richard Green and Graham Hickson on a lot of movies. One of the highlights of my career was Operation Weissdoorn / The Fourth Reich, directed by Manie van Rensburg. Filming for this took place all over South Africa.”

Many times, particularly in Hollywood film making and especially studio productions, the first AD is the first person hired, often as soon as the project has been green-lit for production. Experienced first ADs will often make suggestions on the best use of available resources. Good ADs will also be able to estimate the time needed for each shoot – sometimes a scene running a few pages long on the screenplay can be shot relatively quickly, while a half-page key emotional moment may take all day.

“I started firsting on a TV series shooting on location, in between seconding on feature films,” says Hall. “I have also worked as production coordinator and have production managed on several films, including Der Konig, a German feature for Movie Makers shot in Cape Town, and Falling Rocks, a feature shot on location in Augrabies for Two Oceans Productions.”

Getting into the film industry isn’t simple. It seems like an exclusive club, and membership is not easy – particularly the role of AD. Hall describes how it happened for her. “The film industry may have chosen me. I’ve always been a leader. I was exposed to scheduling early in my career and have the brain and lateral logic for scheduling.

“As I gained experience I became better at estimating the time needed to film a particular scene. I am good with people – all kinds of people. Cast often need extra-careful handling. Sensitive locations require diplomacy. While I had TV firsting experience, I only began to first on commercials in the late 1990s. By now I have worked on hundreds if not thousands of commercials – one loses count.

“I continue to do at least one feature a year. I am proud to say that I have worked on every genre of film: action, drama, sci-fi, musical, horror – everything except porn! I often shoot on a daily basis for a TV series when they have long location shoot days.

“The politics of commercials is different to that of features, but the job is basically the same – to shoot the schedule you prepared in the time you estimated it will take,” Hall says. “I love being a first AD. I love the challenges and the responsibilities.”

But first AD work is demanding, particularly on feature films, which often require weeks if not months on locations in South Africa and abroad. How does Hall, as a mother, cope with all the time away from home?

“I am a freelancer and, being the mother of two girls, have chosen to concentrate on commercials as it allows me more time with my family. I still do the odd feature to keep my eye in.

“I work on a lot of local commercials. I have a great working relationship with several production companies and I thoroughly enjoy commercials’ intensive short shoots. Since I have my own children, and have a lot of experience working with children and animals, I get a lot of shoots with a child cast.”

Freelance work in film, as it is in most industries, has peaks and troughs. But film is more seasonal than most. How does a freelance AD ensure year round work?

“To boost earnings in quieter months I often break down a script and do a first schedule for budgeting purposes for various South African film companies,” says Hall. “I also do shooting schedules around cast and location availability. I recently helped schedule the feature Winnie, shot in Johannesburg, and 31 Million Reasons for Brad Logan in Durban.

“I am the key scheduler for Muvhango – Word of Mouth for the SABC. I break down and schedule for them on an on-going basis so when the commercials are quietish, I keep myself busy with scheduling jobs.”

The film industry is mercurial, but there always seem to be opportunities for ADs to find work.

“There are several distinctly different genres of filmmaking out there. For instance, there will always be documentaries,” Hall says. “Corporate work? Yes, if the companies have the funds. The economic dip has unfortunately affected this category. Music videos? Local bands generally have low budgets and it’s hard work. TV? Here the big question is when the SABC will get its act together. The commissions and budgets keep getting smaller. But M-Net is still commissioning work.

“On the commercial front we make the best we can with the money available. International feature films, when they happen, are simply fantastic, but local films need bigger budgets if we are going to get into the international arena on a regular basis.

“I consider myself very lucky to have spent so many years making feature films,” Hall says. “On features there is a strong code of discipline, and a respect for the hierarchy. Shooting on film is also much more disciplined than video. I find as ‘old school’, within the television series industry, there is a lack of respect for the process of filmmaking, and a lack of understanding of hierarchy.”

What advice would Hall give to aspiring filmmakers? “As far as newcomers to the industry are concerned I think they must understand that filmmaking is a business and there are reasons for the rules,” she says. “There is a lot of young talent, but too many new – fresh out of film school – crew members need to gain experience. Experience cannot be learned. It has to be worked.

“Filmmaking is not a job like being an accountant or even a builder,” Hall says. “You need passion. You need stamina. You need a sense of humour and an ability to work under pressure.

“It’s not romantic. It’s not as well paid as people like to imagine. When you look at the hours compared to the wages, it is really a labour of love.”

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