My first official job in the Hollywood machine was as an animation production assistant. So, what exactly does that job entail? Let’s start with what is a…
Entry level job.
That’s the key thing to know about any job labeled as production assistant, often called a PA. It’s key because being a production assistant is the first toe hold on any production that also earns you a paycheck. Everyone else you work with is essentially your boss and can tell you what to do. I do mean everyone. As a PA your bosses can include: assistant production coordinators, production coordinators, production managers, producers of any kind, directors of any kind, executives and even the receptionist. Yes, I’m serious. The receptionist out ranks you.
Receptionists are the gatekeepers to many, and they weld an incredible amount of soft power. Say that three of your bosses tell you to go and pick up a package with reception. The receptionist could have ‘misplaced’ the package, or they can hand it over with a smile. Either way, it’s your job as a production assistant to find that package and hand it to the right person. Be nice to everyone…even the few people you out rank.
Interns, who are usually unpaid, are the only ones lower than you on the job ladder. It’s nice to have others that you can boss around, but be cautious. Before you realize it, you might be working side by side with the intern. Six months later, you might even find yourself reporting to that former intern because they’re now your boss. It happens.
So again, be nice to everyone.
And, while you’re being nice to everyone, you can do all the other fun PA duties: sort files, clean up, roll cables, pick up lunch, pick up coffee, deliver scripts, find fifteen different flavors of bubblegum — right now!, pass out water bottles, hand out memos, and even get your boss’ car oil changed while they’re in meetings.
Some of these things I’ve done, others I’ve only heard about from friends. There are various duties that depend on what type of production assistant job you hold. It could be one of the following: office PA, set PA, writer’s PA, personal PA, post PA, and among many others — animation PA.
I spent several months working as an animation PA for a couple of different kids television series that air on this network.
So, what’s different about being an animation production assistant versus other PA jobs? Well, for starters, you get to work in an office and that probably means a cubicle. While enjoying your time in cubeville, you’ll spend your days staring at a computer screen. Animation has gone almost entirely digital, so you better know your various software packages: Adobe Creative Suite, MS Office, and both Mac and PC operating systems.
Most of the day, an animation PA sits at a computer organizing and tracking various things. There are storyboards to check on, design files to sort, and lots of various tracking tools to keep updated. In all honesty, spreadsheets and database management are the two key skills I used most. Thankfully I used to work in inventory management; the overlap was hugely surprising.
When not falling into the computer screen, and hoping something as exciting as Tron exists inside, an animation PA spends time at the scanner. Everything must be scanned. Digital copies become your backup to the hard copies should they ever get lost. If you happen to work with an artist that has not transitioned to working with a Cintiq, you’ll have to scan all of their paper drawings.
Work as an animation PA is much more similar to work in the tech world of Silicon Valley than it is working for the rest of the entertainment industry. It can be a good thing, and it can be a bad thing. I’m still undecided. Much of the entertainment world treats animation as an annoying cousin that comes to dinner far too often. Although, I don’t know of any other parts of the entertainment industry that have Nerf wars in the office.
On the positive side, animation jobs tend to last longer than live action. It takes much longer for animation to be completed, so a full season of a half-hour animated show can provide a PA a job for a solid year, maybe more. I imagine that a feature film job could easily last even longer. So, while all your live action friends are looking for their fifth job this month, you’ll still be happily employed. A steady paycheck is a beautiful thing.
On the down side, it can take longer to move up. It looks good to work a full season on a show. If you want a promotion before the season ends, you’ll have to get a promotion or leave the show for an open spot elsewhere. Depending on who you work for, this can become complicated. Some bosses like to see people move up, and some hold grudges for leaving mid-season. Personally, I say be aggressive and move up when you can…and leave on good terms when possible. You’ll likely work with the same people again and again.
So, how did I leave my animation PA job…
I’ll answer that next time.