What Is An Assistant Director in Film and Television?

Last Updated on December 18, 2021 by Lil Ginge

Chances are if you watch movies often and stay for the credits, you’ve seen the production role of “Assistant Director (AD)” listed in the crew. But what is an assistant director in film and television and what do they do?

In this article, we will look at exactly what an assistant director is and what their role is during a film or television production. We’ll also see what skills are required to be an AD and how to become a good one.

By the end of this article, you’ll have a clear insight into what an assistant director is and even if this job might be right for you. Being an assistant director can be both a rewarding and lucrative career.

What Is An Assistant Director In Film or Television?

The assistant director or “First Assistant Director / 1st AD” is essentially the manager or boss of coordinating and executing an entire film shoot to achieve the director’s vision. They plan the shoot and run the set and give the director the space they need to worry about the creative side of filmmaking.

One of the most important jobs of an assistant director is to serve as the main point of contact between the shoot’s director and the rest of the cast and crew. They are responsible for communicating to everyone what needs to happen and where they need to be and when during a film shoot.

Depending on the size of the shoot, the 1st AD may be the only assistant director present on the set, or the AD may oversee a team consisting of a 2nd AD, 3rd AD, etc. One person they are not necessarily closely working with is the director’s assistant, a different role who acts more as the director’s personal assistant (gets them coffee and food, drives them to set, etc.).

Another one of the most important aspects of being an assistant director is making sure the film shoot stays on schedule. While they focus on the timing of the shoot, they also work closely with the Unit Production Manager (UPM) who is responsible for making sure the film stays on budget.

The assistant director on a film is one of the most important people on set and insiders know this. Without a good AD, your film shoot is probably going to be a disaster and not achieve the director’s creative vision.

What Does An Assistant Director Do?

Essentially, the assistant director does everything necessary to make a film production flow well and finish on time. They are, for all intents and purposes, the “boss of the set.” They have to make sure all members of the cast and crew know their schedules so that shooting can happen on time. All of this organizing, scheduling, and coordinating makes the director’s job much easier.

There are a number of different types of tasks that an assistant director must do in pre-production and during production. These include things like

  • Perform script breakdowns
  • Create storyboards and shot lists
  • Prepare call sheets
  • Call roll
  • Ensure safety and union compliance on set.

There are a number of other tasks that an AD is responsible for making sure support the overall production and daily shooting.

An assistant director works during pre-production and during production. But, they do not continue working after the shooting has finished or during post-production. At this point, they are free to take a rest or find their next gig. Now, let’s look more specifically at some of the specific duties and responsibilities of ADs.

Script Breakdowns

A script breakdown determines the essential elements for every scene. Some of these elements include:

  1. Page counts and scene length
  2. Locations
  3. Characters, extras, and any necessary animals
  4. Props and set dressing
  5. Costumes and makeup
  6. Sound and music

Once all of these essential elements are identified, they are arranged into a chronological script breakdown. These help the AD determine how long it will take to shoot a scene and what each department is responsible for bringing to set each day.

A bigger and more complex production may incorporate stunts and special effects. If these are present, they also become part of the script breakdown including any special equipment needed as well as any safety precautions required.

Storyboards and Shot Lists

Assistant directors use the script breakdown to create storyboards and shot lists. A shot list is simply a list of all shots required by a production. They are organized for each day of shooting. A storyboard is a drawn visual representation of those shots.

The storyboards and shot lists serve several functions. First, they help develop the shooting schedule. The AD works closely with the director and the director of photography (DP) to determine the amount of time each shot will take. This enables the AD to determine how many shots can fit in a day, how many days it will take overall, etc.

In terms of the timetable, a major goal is to group shots in such a way that downtime is minimized. This means that it eliminates unnecessary lighting changes and camera setup changes. The fewer changes needed, the less time the shooting will generally take.

Another crucial function of the storyboard and shot list is to help the rest of the crew understand the director’s creative vision. The better this vision is communicated between the AD and their crew, the more likely this vision will be achieved.

Another crucial function of the storyboard and shot list is to help the rest of the crew understand the director’s creative vision. The better this vision is communicated between the AD and their crew, the more likely this vision will be achieved.

The Creation of the Shooting Schedule and Call Sheets

Once there are is a script breakdown, the assistant director creates the overall shooting schedule that lays out the entire production. In creating the shooting schedule, the AD takes stock of things like the availability of locations, actors, and props, and will notate the costumes, props, and set dressing needed each day. Once the AD creates the shooting schedule, they check in with the production manager, line producer, and crew department heads for approval. 

The assistant director then prepares daily call sheets in conjunction with the 2nd assistant director (if there is one on the shoot), production coordinators, and producers. These are daily shooting schedules for the entire cast and crew and let everyone where to be and when during each day. 

The information on the call sheets includes which shots are being filmed that day, the call times for each person needed to arrive on set, a map with directions to the shooting location, the cast and crew’s contact information, and other relevant scheduling details. It is usually distributed to the cast and crew the night before the shoot.

The Assistant Director’s Role During Production

The assistant director is generally responsible for everything that happens in production and on set during principal photography. From an organizational perspective, they are running the whole show. The AD must be constantly aware of where everyone is and make sure everyone is located where they should be when they are needed.

The AD also communicates what and who is needed for each part of the shoot: rehearsal, camera resets, actor blocking, and when the director has called cut. In doing all of this, the AD should take command but also be an effective communicator with all kinds of different people on the set.

Sometimes the AD will encourage a director to cut relatively unnecessary shots so that they do not run out of time before the end of the shoot. Finally, at the end of the day, the AD prepares and signs the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) Exhibit G Form, which tracks the working actors’ hours and makes sure they get paid according to their contracts and union rules.

Calling the Roll

The calling the roll is when the assistant director cues the various department heads such as camera, grips, sounds, etc. to prepare for the start of filming a shot. This is when many of the famous “director phrases” are yelled on the set. Here are some of the cues that ADs call when filming is gearing up to start.

Quiet on the Set – This famous call tells everyone to shut up because shooting is about to begin.

Roll Sound – Tells the sound department to begin recording sound. The sound recordist confirms that sound is now recording by calling back “speed” or “sound speed”. Then the clapper loader calls out the scene and takes numbers to capture them for the shot. 

Roll Camera – Tells the camera department to start filming. The camera operator or focus puller will then respond “camera rolling”. The clapper loader then marks the shot by showing the slate and clapping it together. This helps to sync up visual and audio in post-production. The camera gets framed and the camera operator then calls “set” or “frame”.

Action – Another famous call! When the assistant director calls action (sometimes the director famously does this instead), it lets everyone know the scene is about to start and cues the background action.

Waiting On – If there is some kind of delay in the shooting, the assistant director calls “waiting on” and lets everyone know which department they are waiting to finish or fix the problem.

“Last Looks, please / Final Checks”. – The AD calls this before shooting to let departments know this is their last chance to make any changes for rolling.

After the director says “cut”, the AD will check in with the director and see if they were happy with the take. If the director is satisfied, the AD will call “moving on” to signal to everyone to start setting up the next shot. If the director needs another take, the assistant director calls, “going again” to let everyone know to reset for the next take.

Other Essential Assistant Director Tasks

There are a number of other essential tasks that an assistant director is generally responsible for. Here are the other tasks you should know about:


Create the One-line schedule – The one-line schedule is the reorganization of the scenes from the script’s chronological order into a more efficient shooting schedule organized by things like locations and their availability and who is needed for the shots.

Create the Day Out of Days – The Day out of days is the actors’ work schedule. The AD takes this information from the one-line schedule to see which actors are needed on which days and at which locations.

Schedules Meetings – Some of the assistant director’s job is administrative and that includes all scheduling of meetings. During the meetings, the AD takes notes and enters them into the prep memo.

Creates the Prep Memo – Prep memos are a full list of important notes that the AD takes throughout the production and during meetings. It can include things like agendas for upcoming meetings and shooting dates. This document is updated often. Each time there is an update, it is re-distributed to the entire production team.

Pre and Production

Location Scouting – Assistant directors participate in finding locations for shots. After they determine the right locations, they organize tech surveys along with the creative team to plan the shots within that location.

Managing Production Assistants (PAs) – The assistant director either manages the PAs directly or delegates this responsibility to lower DAs or the production coordinator. Ultimately, the goal is to make sure that all PAs stay on task.

Tracking Daily Progress – Finally, the AD is responsible for tracking daily progress against the master shooting schedule. This progress is reported to the studio on a regular basis. If filming shots or scenes is going longer than scheduled, it is the job of the assistant director to find a way to make up this time later and stay on track.

Health, Regulations, and Diplomacy

Health & Safety of Cast & Crew – The AD is responsible for the health and safety of the set. It is imperative to make sure all health and safety standards are met and make sure nobody is in danger. They are responsible for making sure the other departments heads are also responsible for health and safety in their respective areas.

Union Compliance – The assistant director makes sure the production stays within union compliance. This includes making sure all required union breaks are taken by the cast and crew.

On Set Diplomacy – The AD has to be able to keep the peace on set and make sure everyone is correctly following the rules and doing their jobs. They intercede when there are on-set conflicts, and determine if someone involved needs to be disciplined or even replaced for not following the rules.

How To Be An Excellent Assistant Director

It’s one thing to be an assistant director. It’s another thing to be an awesome AD. So how can they go about this and make sure they are doing great work?

One way they can do this is by being highly involved in pre-production. Pre-production lays all the groundwork for a great shoot. The more involved an AD is with this part of the process, the more likely they will have an easier time with production. It is important to be thorough in terms of planning, communicating well with all other departments, and initiating discussions about any potential problem areas.

Communication remains crucial throughout the entire shoot. This means that the AD needs to be good at speaking with and listening to various types of distinct personalities and job functions. The ultimate task is to listen and understand the director’s vision and then translate it to everyone else in such a way that they understand that vision and their role in accomplishing it.

Also, a good assistant director doesn’t micromanage the set. Like any good manager, they give everyone else the space they need to do their jobs well and trust that their people generally know what they are doing. An AD should also know which tasks to delegate out to lower-level DA’s and which to perform themselves. 

Finally, an assistant director goes the extra mile to make sure there is a great shoot. It’s the little things and dedication to the role that is going to separate the good assistant directors from the best.

What Skills Does a DA Need to Have?

There are a number of specific skills that it is important for an assistant director to have. The first one that is absolutely essential is communication. The core job of the AD is to listen to and understand the director’s creative vision and then to communicate that vision to all of the people needed to make it a reality. There are lots of different types of people and personalities on set, and the AD needs to be able to communicate with all of them.

The AD also needs to be good at planning. Once they understand the creative vision and the script, they need to analyze this data and then plan everything that is needed for the production. You need to be able to plan for locations, meetings, required crew and cast, schedules, and much more.

Another important skill for an AD to have is organizational skills. A disorganized assistant director is going to be a major problem. They especially need to be great at organizing areas like time management, location management, knowing where people need to be when, and what is necessary to successfully film each shot. You also need to be able to work on several tasks at the same time.

Problem-solving is a fourth skill that ADs really need to have. You have to be flexible and able to plan that the unexpected can and will happen. If an emergency comes up you may need to change your plan on a dime. You must be able to figure out how to make up for lost time if shoots go for too long. You also need to be diplomatic and able to solve disagreements between the cast and crew on set.

Leadership is another crucial skill for an assistant director. As the boss of the set from a production standpoint, the AD needs to be able to motivate others and get them to do their jobs well at all times. They need to keep morale high on set and inspire people to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

Some other important skills and attributes of an assistant director include:

  • Detail oriented
  • Team player
  • Script visualization
  • Computer skills like Microsoft Office
  • Dedication to the job

If a person commands many of these skills, it is likely that they will make an excellent assistant director if it is a career they want to pursue.

How To Become An Assistant Director

An assistant director doesn’t need formal training or a specific degree, although many do go to film school first. But the thing that will really help you become an AD is hands-on production experience. But how do you get that?

The place to start when it comes to production experience is as a production assistant. A good production assistant can very likely get produced to a role in the assistant director department. They will probably start as a third or fourth AD. 

After landing your entry-level AD job, the idea is to work hard and build your way up to get promoted to 2nd assistant director and eventually 1st AD. Like most other jobs, there is a climbing the latter process that will help you achieve the goal.

It’s also important to know that to work on feature films – though not some smaller independent films – an assistant director must be a member of the Director’s Guild of America (DGA). The DGA also has some job training for assistant directors that can help them learn the craft and get jobs.

How Much Money Do Assistant Director’s Make?

According to Zippia, the average assistant director salary is $62,000 annually or $30.13 per hour. An entry-level salary is about $37,000 annually or $18 per hour, and a top 10% salary is about $103,000 or $50 per hour. However, the very top ADs can make multiple six-figure salaries in a year.

Working As An AD In Television

Working as an AD in television is a little bit different than working in film. One reason for this is the episodic nature of television. As a result, projects tend to last much longer and it can be much more like a permanent job rather than someone who moves from gig to gig often.

Many times in television there are two different production teams. Each production team will have its own assistant director and they will switch off each episode. As a result, multiple 1st ADs can be working on the same show at the same time, albeit with different episodes.

Another major difference between assistant directing in film and television is that the AD can be working much more closely with the showrunner than even the director. That’s because in television it is the showrunner who is responsible for the continuity of the creative vision from episode to episode. Directors, on the other hand, are often shooting one or a limited number of episodes rather than every episode in a series.

Final Thoughts on Assistant Directors

The assistant director is one of the most important crew members on a set. As the boss of everything happening on set, the assistant director is essential to make sure that a shoot is successful, on schedule, and safe.

Being an assistant director is not an easy job and a lot of skills and experience is required to do it really well. They have to have the right personality type to be able to lead a set, organize and plan the shoot, and work well with lots of different people.

Next time you watch a film, stay and see who the assistant directors were on the shoot during the end credits. You’ll probably tip your cap and have a newfound respect for all the hard work that ADs do in creating a movie.

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