On Film Making : The A.D.

Every time someone from outside the industry finds out that I work on movies they are filled with questions about the nuts and bolts of the process. I have a degree in film and I have spent much of my adult life on set so I tend to loose touch with what most people do and do not understand about the workings of this quintessentially American undertaking.

I get lots and lots of questions about the A.D.'s. I will now attempt to answer them and clarify common misconceptions. What is a A.D.?

A.D. stands for "Assistant Director." Before I get into this I really need to explain what an A.D. is NOT. The A.D.'s (there are several on any given set) are not the people who fetch coffee or keep appointments for the Director. If you read the credits the A.D. tends to be very near the top. The coffee fetchers, appointment keepers and directorial gophers are listed further down and are often credited as "Assistant to Mister Spielberg" or somesuch. Those people are the Director's assistants and, though the title is similar, their jobs bear no resemblance to that of the Assistant Director.

What is even more confusing is that there is more than one A.D.. There person most often called simply A.D. is actually the First A.D.. There is also a second A.D., a Second - Second A.D. (I'm not making that up) and sometimes a Third A.D., though a Third is often credited as one of several other things depending on the scope of the movie, where it is being shot and what Union's rules take precedence.

The First A.D., who I will simply call the A.D. from here because that is what he or she is most often called by crew members, is the head of all the technical crew. They are the one responsible for running the shoot on a day to day and moment to moment basis. In a sense, they are the Medula Oblongata of a production, regulating the pace of the shooting day, keeping the shoot on schedule, ensuring that all persons are where they need to be and when, managing the interplay between various departments and safeguarding the shoot from all sorts of logistical, legal, monetary and personal pitfalls. To use a military analogy, the A.D. is the senior most NCO, the unit Top. Most notably, on most sets, it is the A.D. who calls "action," not the director, though the Director is always the one to call "cut."

The 2nd A.D. or "The Second," as they are often called by crews, is one of the key logistical people on a set. The duties of The Second vary greatly from production to production but usually include drafting day to day documentation like call sheets, shot lists and sides, coordinating with production staff that are not on set during shooting, manning the set phone, overseeing certain logistics like the delivery of supplies and equipment for department heads as well as facilitating communication between departments. Specifically, The Second is almost always the one in charge of marshaling extras, vehicle operators and others involved in the background action of a scene.

The 2nd, 2nd A.D. or "Second Second" does not exist on all productions. Every time I bring this job up some people steadfastly refuse to believe me. I assure you. The Second Second is a staple of movie and television production. It is a real job and an important one. Second Seconds have many duties that overlap with those of The Second. It may be the Second Second that drafts and distributes the call sheets or that makes many of the myriad of minute logistical arrangements involved in a shooting day.

As I said, there is sometimes a 3rd A.D.. Personally, I've never worked on a set with that title, though I have heard of the job being called the "Additional A.D." and the "Key Set." In any case, having little experience with this specific incarnation of the job, I'm going to leave exposition on that for when I write about Production Assistants with no offense meant to any Thirds out there.

One common misconception about A.D.'s is that they are budding directors, that a studio is preparing them to become directors or that they are some how in line for the Director's chair if the Director is fired or dies, as if there was some arrangement akin to the Presidential line of succession. While a 1st A.D. may sometimes direct the Second Unit or, if there is some emergency and the director is unavailable for half a day, the 1st A.D. may take on that job for a very, very short time, as a rule, Directors are Directors and A.D.'s are A.D.'s. Years ago, especially under the Studio System, A.D.'s often did become Directors, Alfred Hitchcock is one prominent example, but this is rare today. A.D.'s do often become Producers, though.

In that last paragraph I had to stop myself from writing "move up" to become a director. That would be an incorrect way to phrase that thought. A.D.'s are one of, if not the most, important person in the completion of a film. Directors, D.P.'s, Actors, Screen Writers and the like make movies and are the most obvious influences on film as a work of art but A.D.'s Get Movies Made and without them, it simply would not happen. It is the hard work, the dedication and the management savvy of the A.D. and their crew that keeps the film on time and on budget. They keep the crew and talent safe, informed and (usually) happy.

The A.D.'s are the ones that make everything else possible and they are one big reason that you should sit through the credits.

If You Have Any Questions About the Movie Making Process, Email me, icarusannolds at hotmail dot com .


palinode said...

In my experience, the A.D. is usually the one saying "We're running out of time!"

Anonymous said...

Hitchcock's motivation to become director was to cast sexy ladies so he could forget about the monster he married.


Ricardo said...

Thomas, thanks for your input over on my blog. Much appreciated.

I always found the A.D. to be the glue that held everything together, at least in my limited experience with film crews. Huge responsibilities and the director could not function to their full potential without them.

Peety said...

MMMMM I Find A.D to be sexy :)

Don't work to hard (I know you have killer woking hours)


Rusty said...

Thanks for posting this. I find these sorts of logistical details fascinating, particularly having been involved in some event planning lately.