To preface this story, I always wanted to be in the camera department. Not "always wanted" in the sense that, at some point in my childhood, I looked at my parents with misty eyes and told them I wanted to be in movies. On the contrary, I didn't decide on the film industry until I was almost done with college. However, when I made the decision to go into the film industry, the camera department was the only subset of film production that appealed to me. I like cameras and photography, and getting into the film industry gave me a chance to work with both of those things. I found most aspects film production pretty boring. I say this to illustrate the point that I felt doing any job in production aside from camera jobs was a waste of my time. I didn't have any camera jobs lined up after the Call of Duty job, though, so I needed to figure out how I was going to make money.
My answer came in the form of a job offer. I cold-emailed a producer I knew and told her I was looking for camera PA work. She quickly replied that, while she didn't have any camera PAs on her show, one of her set PAs had just left, and she needed a full-time replacement. Beggars can't be choosers in this industry, and I jumped at the chance for steady work.
I came into the office the next day for an interview with the 2nd Assistant Director, who would be my direct boss. I told her I had PA experience, which was only a half-lie (you're going to start noticing a trend in these stories). I had no set PA experience, but I had just been a camera PA, and I figured whatever skills and knowledge didn't carry over, I'd figure out on the fly. Anastacia, my new boss, told me my official position would be "walkie talkie PA."
As I’m sure you know, film sets need to stay quiet to be productive. Nearly every crew member wears a walkie talkie to communicate with people across set in a normal speaking voice. Without the walkies, a set turns into a collection of people yelling over each other. Productions rent these walkies for each project, and each unit costs eight hundred dollars new. Keeping track of them is generally thought to be the least desirable PA position, since crew members have a knack for misplacing their walkies, taking them home, or straight up breaking them. I, having never worked as a set PA before, did not know this, so I had none of the necessary apprehension.
In this line of work, it's easy to end up somewhere you didn't expect. I obviously didn't expect to be taking care of walkie talkies, and I'd bet most of you have signed up for jobs and midway through thought, "how did I end up here?" In those situations, the best course of action is to do the job to the best of your ability. I may not have had the opportunity at that moment to burrow deeper into the camera department, but I could do my best as a walkie PA and get paid consistently.
My first order of business was establishing where all the walkies currently were. The previous walkie PA had left me a list of all the walkies by serial number and where each one was assigned. I had a list of available walkies, and I made sure I kept a detailed list of the new assignments each day. If we had any day-playing crew members who needed one, they made the walkie list as well. I knew my boss liked to have two walkies on his person, so I made sure he always got his two. We’d often have multiple locations in a day, necessitating rotating crew members. For instance, sometimes we’d leave our stage to go do driving scenes. The car guy doesn’t need to show up until later in the day, so he’d meet us at the location and I’d have to attend to his walkie needs there. As soon as we wrapped that location, I’d be right next to that guy asking for his walkie back. I will admit, I was a bit intense about my job. My boss took to calling me the “walkie nazi,” but I never lost one.
Aside from my walkie duties, I learned that PA work could range from the mundane to the terrifying. When we shot on our stage in North Hollywood, my job was to turn the stage’s huge air conditioner on in between takes. I would stand next to the air conditioner flipping the on/off switch up and down, sometimes for 12 hours at a time. Again, "how did I end up here?" On location, PA work is a different job altogether.
A huge part of on-location PA work is doing lockups, which is industry speak for “keep the public out of the shot.” My first lockup ever was on the Venice Beach boardwalk in the middle of the day. I honestly cannot think of a less cooperative crowd of people. Throngs of people pushed past me as I begged them to stay back while we shot. My feeble attempts at crowd control were no match for a shirtless guy on roller blades who blew past me and into frame. I can’t count how many times I heard, “C’mon, Kyler….” over the walkie that day. Still, I never gave up and I never complained.
My time as a set PA taught me a great deal about the industry. First off, I learned that I didn’t want to be a PA for very long. It’s easy to get trapped in the PA cycle, especially if you’re not sure what you want to do in the industry. A lot of people take PA job after PA job, and before they know it, years have gone by. That’s actually a pretty common danger for a lot of jobs in film. You don’t realize how quickly time is passing when you go from one full length show to the next and, by the time you look up, you’ve been doing the same job for 3 years. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was, "move up fast."
Additionally, changing positions can be difficult in the production world. Once people get to know you in a certain position, they think of you only in terms of that position. So, “Kyler” becomes “Kyler the PA.” This phenomenon is called “pigeonholing” and the best way to avoid it is to grab onto opportunities quickly. If you’re offered an opening you feel serves you better, go get it. Don’t feel guilty about jumping ship if you’re jumping to a better ship. Three months into my PA job, I was offered the chance to help RJ prep a big-budget feature at Panavision. The prep would last two weeks, it started immediately, and I’d be bumped back up from set PA to camera PA. It would be the first real step on my road to breaking into the camera department. I handed my spreadsheet of walkies to another PA, thanked the producer who hired me, and was gone the next day.