Guest Article: PA-ing on “American Idol” with the Right Attitude

Wassup my fellow filmmaker! My name is Harry and I’m here to share some insights for the starting Production Assistant. I am by no means a professional, but I am seasoned in the world of production. I believe that my collective experience can offer insight to those of you who are starting out, or looking for more information on how to be better prepared for your future work. I will be drawing out what I believe to be important principles, accompanied by anecdotes from my work as a PA on Fox’s reality show:

Production Assistant on American Idol: My experience.

Production Assistant on American Idol

I will discuss my journey from beginning to end — from the hiring board to filling in my payroll at the end of the gig. The order of topics are as follows:

  • SECTION ONE – Getting the Job and Preparation
    This section covers how I got the gig, my preparation for it, and the beginning of day one on the job. If you want to know more about what I learned through my work, skip to section 2.

  • SECTION TWO – Insights From the Job
    This section covers some principles and rules I learned pertaining to this particular production. Not all productions may operate this way, but I hope these concepts provide a basic framework for thinking about how to approach your work.

SECTION ONE: NETWORKS and THE HUSTLE.

Networks? What are you talking about?

Networks? What are you talking about?

Networks are key.

I bet you there’s been plenty of talk in your life about the importance of building and maintaining your networks. I discovered this opportunity through a student filmmaking group that I’m a member of and also because I check the listings regularly. The sooner I knew about the information, the more research and preparation I could channel into the application.

Be sure to thank those who’ve helped you — you never know when they could be handing you your next job, or you to them. Filmmaking is a collaboration at all levels.

 Hop on anything you believe you can do within your expenses. The American Idol gig was set in San Francisco and I had a place to stay in Berkeley, which made commuting to work easier. If you can work in spite of your expenses, consider it. I met a PA who flew in from Indiana for this job and his total expenses were greater than his total pay. I could only assess that he believed the experience and résumé boost was worth the trade off. Weigh the costs and benefits of selecting work, if it is in your favor, shoot in your résumé. What do you have to lose?

The Hustle mentality is something you need to have or get.

The Hustle mentality is something you need to have or get.

Stupid, Stupid, Stupid. Just pick up next time.

Stupid, Stupid, Stupid. Just pick up next time.

When I say, “hustle,” I also mean your ability to believe in yourself and aim for any opportunity that comes your way. Due to my inexperience outside academia, I’ve always fought bouts of doubt about my competency to land work. I didn’t land every opportunity in the past, but I didn’t let that stop me from my hustle — always searching, learning, and improving myself as I knock on the door of the industry.

ANSWER THE CALL

The morning I received a call regarding my application for the gig, I didn’t answer.

Yes, I chose my sleep instead. But thank goodness there was a voicemail! I tried calling back several times only to catch the answering machine, and by the time I reached their office, the recruiter told me that all the positions had been filled. I asked her, “So… when you called me this morning, were there still spots open?” She replied, “Yes…” That sucked. Despite this, she placed me on a wait list, which brings me to my next point:

BE TRIGGER HAPPY.

A PA call for a production (American Idol) of this scale means:
1. There’s a high need, and
2. There’s going to be a high response.

The silver lining on the horizon - rare but does happen with luck.

The silver lining on the horizon – rare but does happen with luck.

I knew that the phone call was a good sign at least, because I applied to the job only hours after I learned about the posting. Shooting in my application fast made the difference. And luckily, I can tell you about this entire experience because the next day I received a call and guess what? Somebody dropped out! And I got the spot! HALLELUJAH!

Provide follow-up documents promptly.

One of the immediate items the recruiter needed me to turn in was a driver’s record. Now, I  never acquired one nor knew how to obtain one. I simply asked the recruiter how to get one and she simply told me I could get one online. And so I paid $2 for a copy at the DMV site and sent her a screenshot within the two days after my second chance.

The company wanted to know my record and age in the event I could be useful in driving vehicles to transport items or people. For this gig, you had to be 25 or older in order to do this.

PREPARATION

Have a survival kit. Here are most of the things I had in my kit:

The Harry Heng PA Survival Kit, neatly organized for the reader to indulge in. With a little Woody Guthrie attitude.

The Harry Heng PA Survival Kit™, neatly organized for the reader to indulge in. With a little Woody Guthrie attitude.

My PA Survival Kit™ consisted of:

  1. 4-5 water bottles
  2. my canteen
  3. a bag of chips
  4. gummy bears
  5. an elastic bandage
  6. petty cash
  7. quarters
  8. pens
  9. pencils
  10. sharpies
  11. paper clips
  12. scissors
  13. tape
  14. a pocket notebook
  15. work gloves
  16. a small light
  17. high lighters
  18. my laptop
  19. chargers
  20. chewing gum
  21. a spare change of clothes in my car
We now own your limbs! DANCE BOY DANCE!

We now own your limbs! DANCE BOY DANCE!

I wasn’t completely sure of what I was up against, but I knew there was going to be long hours. That,  combined with the weather could be toiling. It’s why I brought extra water and snacks for myself and fellow PAs.  I wanted to be prepared for any contingencies within my control as well as somebody who looked after his crewmates.

I ended up not using most of these things and left my backpack in the production office. I was always out working the registration tables or running jobs around the stadium. This production took excellent care of the PAs. Therefore, I kept pens, pencils, gum and a notepad on my person. I recommend getting a fanny pack or have a lot of pockets. Though not necessary, but incredibly handy. There was a fellow PA who carried a swiss knife which came into use several times, it was definitely faster than extracting scissors out of a backpack.

If you don’t have, borrow.

I thankfully have a network of friends who work in carpentry. I borrowed my friend’s work gloves which came in handy when I had to haul some heavy wooden palettes and avoided nasty splinters.

PAPERWORK

I faced this pack of fun day one:

The contract was a much larger packet that required me to have knowledge of my social security, license, emergency contacts, and other related materials regarding taxes and exemptions. Honestly, I didn’t read everything, for all I knew I could’ve been signing my life into indentured servitude, but if there’s one strict policy I had to abide by, it was non-disclosure.

Know the Rules.

Know thy information!

Know thy information!

It can be tempting to put something on your social networks to show friends the cool things you’re doing, but I believed that since I am a representative of the company, therefore it is part of my duty to protect the company’s integrity and its operations. Plus, if it was founded that I violated the rules, I would be instantly removed from the premise without pay. And that would not be good.

Ask others for help if you don’t know what you’re doing.

I didn’t know how to fill out certain paperwork or put together the radio headset (which turns out to be quite simple), but the staff and fellow PAs were more than helpful in explaining certain terms and guided me through the obligations. I found it to be a good seg-way to acquaintanceship.

SECTION TWO: INSIGHTS FROM THE JOB

Learn names, make friends.

Yo, let’s move these level 4 sandbags together!

Yo, let’s move these level 4 sandbags together!

The PAs I worked with and the production coordinators I worked for were absolutely chill, relaxed, and gave us instruction on our duties. I’ve had only positive encounters with people who were open to sharing what they’ve been doing and what they’re interested in pursuing. Talk to your teammates when you can —  a good time is lunch break. I learned more about the Bay Area film community, job openings and ways to find work through my fellow PAs. The PAs I worked with came from different places, were of different ages, and had different levels of experience (from a beginner like me to seasoned vets).

It was also important for me to retain names because I often communicated with my point-people on headset.

Be ready to respond to any opportunity.

We know where this chance led to.

We know where this chance led to.

There were various odd jobs that I took on such as discarding items, setting out paperwork, collecting paperwork, constructing teardrops or hauling around sandbags. But there were these periods of lulls. In that time when there were no immediate tasks to complete, I was on standby, awaiting orders. But in that time, I took to exploring. It’s AT&T Park, I could go anywhere (just about)…

Learn the space of the work environment.

... even Walt Disney had to!

… even Walt Disney had to!

I had to trash some cardboard boxes at the dumpster facility and along the way I learned the location of all the essential places of my venue — specific entrances/exits, loading docks, production office (HQ), dressing room (special guests), tech room, judging booths, winners circle, restrooms, catering, special paths. This proved handy when my superviser tested us on our knowledge of the venue, in which case I did know where everything was hehe. I was then tasked with giving a tour to the rest of the PAs who were also on standby. Yeah, I felt good.

Learn the Lingo.

My team operated on headsets and so there was a specific mode of communication and vocabulary when we spoke with each other. If anybody ever spoke out of the specified form, one of the coordinators would stress the importance of speaking within format. It kept communication clear.

– Example:

Me: Harry for Joe.
Joe: Go for Joe.
Me: Orcs have breached the East Gate!
Joe: Contain the Groupies!

This is where I hung out, most of the time. They have great sandwiches here, if you ever happen to stop by.

This is where I hung out, most of the time. They have great sandwiches here, if you ever happen to stop by.

Punctuality and Energy.

I am a late sleeper. I awoke at least two hours beforehand to prepare myself and arrived at the venue with 10-30 minutes to spare so I could relax. I wanted to give myself wiggle room to deal with traffic, finding the venue and finding the production office. For the days I worked, I slept a total of 2 hours and worked over 12 each. I had the choice to get more sleep, but I gave it up for other private matters. I was uber glad to have this experience, and that powered me through. I believed that my work ethic as a PA could only reflect so much of who I was as a potential hire. I wanted to be on my A-game, my hustle — so that if ever an opportunity arose, I’d be ready to swoop it.

DAY TWO

I adjusted my wake times and came in feeling like a professional. I knew the venue, I knew the protocols. I also noticed many new faces that I later discovered were hired on just the day before. A few of them told me they were waitlisted like I was. That means…

The Waitlist Provides Hope!

Many waitlisted people were brought on board for audition day because there was a shortage of PAs. A lot of the original crew didn’t show up for work. By asking around, I learned some reasons why people didn’t show up. Some figured the pay rate was not worth the work, and others dealt with unforeseen circumstances. This allowed many waitlisted people to receive a day’s work at least, which if anything, proved invaluable for the new people. A friend of mine was one of those individuals, and she told me she was called the day before and drove from Sacramento for the gig.

Keep track of your work hours.

Record how much you work.

Record how much you work.

I didn’t remember the exact time I clocked in and out of lunch, which made me search my mind aimlessly. If I had simply wrote down when I took a lunch break, it would’ve made calculating total work much much easier when filling in my payroll. I had to fill in for all the days I worked, noting the hours I started (in) and the hours I ended (out). My meal breaks didn’t count as working hours, but I had to fill those in too. If you’re a memory boss, don’t worry about this.

ENDING REMARKS

With that said, filling in the payroll brings me to the end of this experience working on Idol. Thank you for trudging through my writing. I hope it brought you some insights on what you may face out there in the production world, or provide some minor laughs on my screw ups and obvious “you should’ve done thats”. If you’re starting out, believe in yourself and put in work. If you’re seasoned, I should be talking to you. Happy job huntin’, you artist!

And lastly, STAY ON DAT HUSTLE!

– H.

About the Guest Writer:
Harry is a fourth year at the University of California, Berkeley, studying in the field of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies. His interests include screenplay writing, directing, jack-of-all-trades work and both theatrical and film production. If you’d like to learn more, email him at harryheng@live.com.