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Keeping the Film Set on Track: Assistant Director, Stephanie Clemons

November 9, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Monica Nickolai

Stephanie Clemons is an assistant director living and working in Chicago.  A maker of short films, she has also created music videos and promotional spots.  She is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in the Digital Cinema Program at DePaul University.  She agreed to an interview with DIY Film to discuss what her job entails: the pressures, the benefits, the risks she’s taken, and the techniques she’s learned for survival on the set.

As an undergraduate student in Northeastern Illinois University, she worked in mass media doing broadcasts, documentaries, and package shows, living as a camera operator and editor before creating her thesis film in Greece.  She started her career with a risk:  something she now calls, “A silly class assignment,” but she adds, “I was young and proud of my work.”  She used her first short, How to Be a Biker, as a calling card to meet and network with Chicago filmmakers. “Risk gets you noticed,” she says, “and it did okay for me…that and production profile websites.”  Her career as a second assistant director (AD) began with Project Bluelight, a program at DePaul that gives students the opportunity to work with professors and industry professionals to create films.

When asked what her job entails, she responds with, “This is always such a dreaded question because the natural response feels like ‘what doesn’t my job entail?’”  Still, she describes it thus:

I run the set and am the logistical brain on set.  In order to do that, I have to have knowledge of all production elements on the set and know how long everything takes to finish.  I make the shooting schedule, prepare call sheets, direct background actors, figure out production logistics, care for the safety of the cast and crew, and, above all, manage time!
She concludes with a basic summary:  “I assist the director in achieving a creative vision by keeping the set on schedule.”  She describes many of the duties of 1st and 2nd ADs in detail:

1st ADs

  • Not only do you complete the shots for the day and the order they should be tackled, you have to think about how missing one or moving one will affect the rest of the schedule, even twenty days down the line.
  • Details, details…
    You have to not only manage the micro-details of a shoot but also see the total picture.  The 1st A.D. lives for the day and the moment, but, at the same time, is always able to look many steps ahead.

2nd ADs

  • Living one day ahead
    You prepare the call sheets for the next day as soon as you arrive on set for the current one. It is a seemingly endless paperwork mound.
  • Running behind the scenes
    You are making sure craft is set up and that people are where they are supposed to be, delegating transportation runs, calling the cast, and so on.
  • Being the main contact
    You keep a phone on one ear and a walkie on the other. You become good at listening to several things at once.

    Clemons describes her job as “right up my alley.”  One of the perks of her job is the number of times she makes it into films:  to slam a door, to be a voice off-screen, to work as a stand-in actor, or to fulfill any number of other limitless effects and tasks.  She describes one of her favorite benefits as being there for, “every moment of the film.”  This means when she sees her films in theaters, she can remember back to exactly where she was during that moment as well as see how her decisions influenced the shape of the film.  “Also,” she adds, “my directors and producers have told me that the film never could have been made without me. And it’s not just a pleasantry; they’re serious. I’ve saved a couple of films from complete disaster, due to the skill of maneuvering around obstacles to keep shooting, offering creative alternatives. As good as it feels to know the film wouldn’t have been made without you, no one will know when they see it on screen. It’s simply a quiet benefit of personal accomplishment. We are unsung heroes—we’re just doing our job.”

    The job has other drawbacks as well, which she describes mostly as, “pressure from the producers and getting a bad rap.”

    When people hire me, they have large crews and need me to keep the production on schedule. What naturally comes with that is pressure from overheads. If you can handle it, great! But when you are doing everything you can, and the crew cannot get caught up, things start getting tense. It’s expected.  It’s why I got hired, but it can be an awful feeling.  AD’s also get a bad rap for being mean and screaming at people. Lots of crewmembers walk onto a set having never met you and assume you’re like all the others or the last AD they worked with. Just because you can project your voice doesn’t make you mean; it’s what you do and say with that voice.

    Finally she adds, “Also, don’t plan on sleeping too much–we usually get the least.”

    Ultimately, she has learned to accept that many aspects of the filmmaking process are beyond her control.  The film will get off-schedule, scenes and shots will seem to be irretrievably blundered, and the frustration on the set becomes palpable.  Nonetheless, she knows that she is the one responsible for managing and thinking on her feet.  For stressful moments, she says, “‘Please,’ ‘thank you,’ and apologies go a long way.  But, remember, most people can tell if you mean it or not, so be honest.”

    Even given the stress, she highly recommends the field for those interested in film.  “There’s nothing like making movies, and being an AD requires for you to have all knowledge of how a film set works. It’s great to have a specific skill that you are good at. But when that skill involves knowing every department and person on the set, it’s even more gratifying to me.”

    For those wishing to enter the field, she has advice.

    “If you’re thinking about becoming an AD, you should start in one of the lower hierarchy roles first (2nd AD, 2nd 2nd AD). It will help you learn the production elements of a shoot and how the shooting schedule is planned, as you are working with the documents the AD produced. Plus, you get to watch the AD run a set and step in for them from time to time, getting your feet wet.

    Perhaps the benefits, the duties, the stress, and the way to deal with it are best summed up by Clemons in just three sentences:  “ADing by nature can be stressful. Keep the moral of the set up. Everyone looks to the AD for answers.”

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