My time as a PA on American medical drama television series, The Good Doctor
By Floodlight expat, Gerard Wood – Cinematographer (based in Canada)
Film and television is BIG business in Vancouver (also known as North Hollywood). 2018 saw over 450 productions generate CAD$3.4 billion for the BC economy, and is estimated to support over 71,000 full time positions. There’s a few reasons why it’s an attractive place for productions:
- The US dollar goes further in Canada
- The BC government provide beneficial tax credits
- Close proximity to Hollywood, Los Angeles (2.5hr flight) plus the same time zone
- Variety of studios and nearby, stunning and diverse landscapes
Almost on a daily basis I stumble upon the hustle of a film or tv set in the streets of Vancouver. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple, Disney, Warner Bros and others are all generating content for the growing streaming service landscape as well as traditional cinema.
My plan was to work and experience a large-scale production and different genre of filmmaking. In Australia, the largest commercial set I’d worked on consisted of 50 crew members. Thanks to my Director buddy Cam, also living and working in Vancouver, I secured a spot working on the popular TV series The Good Doctor. Within hours I receive a detailed call sheet with all the information for my first day as a Main Unit PA (Production Assistant).
“What does a PA do exactly?”
We are the lowest position on set and technically everyone has the right to ask for favours. Part of the Locations Department, we manage crew parking, rubbish and recycling bins, help crew trucks park, clear furniture, build video village tents, stop the general public from walking into shot, keep set quiet, shovel snow and guard expensive equipment.
Just to give you a sense of scale, The Good Doctor consists of 150-200 crew members. As many as 15 large trucks roll up to set each day. In 2018, The Good Doctor was the most watched TV drama series in the world – 47.7 million people tuned in. I’m currently working on Season Three.
A film set can be a confusing place for an outsider. There’s wacky slang, acronyms and military lingo. I was familiar with common terms such as back-to-ones, bogey, green room and 10-1. I understood film set roles such as 1st AD, EP, gaffer and key grip. As well as equipment names like blonde, baby sticks, cheeseplate, cookie and flops. Lost you already?
Being “green” is a great excuse to ask questions, avoid too much blame, and learn a whole lot. And boy did I have a lot of questions day one….two….and three!
I arrived on set and someone asked me to gak some cans. After many hours of standing, another PA walked up to me and asked, “Do you want me to spell you off?” Over the walkie I was asked to help with ITC. Later that day I was asked to “conduct a butt sweep at circus” and “load the cones into the slush truck”. Fair to say, I must’ve looked like a stunned mullet.
Here’s a short list that I wish I’d had before I started, demysitifying some of these terms for you:
- Gak: The general slang term for gear, tools, props etc.
- Gak Some Cans: Line the rubbish and recycling bins with bags
- Slush Truck: The truck used to carry random gear like cones, carpets, bins, tables and chairs
- Crafty: Short for ‘craft services.’ The snack truck full of tea, coffee, sandwiches, cookies, fruit and pastries
- Circus: The area where hair & makeup, wardrobe, dressing rooms and catering trucks and trailers are set up
- 3 Hole: A washroom trailer containing three toilets
- Butt Sweep: Rubbish and cigarette butt clean up
- ITC : Intermittent Traffic Control
- Window Shot: Last shot of the day. Also known as the Martini Shot, named because “the next shot is out of a glass”
We spread Urea ice melting beads around set in order to clear snow which is less damaging to the equipment and vegetation than salt.
Onset walkie talkie lingo:
- “Lock It Up” – PAs lock up your area, keep everyone quiet, and don’t let anyone or anything through
- “Freddie for a 10-1” – Bathroom break for number 1s
- “Second Team” – The stand-ins for the lead actors – while crew are setting up lighting etc
- “First Team” – The lead actors, as in: “walking first team to set”
- “Finals“ – The last chance for hair and makeup to jump in and make adjustments before a take
- “PA’s Fall In” – All PA’s around set meet and regroup
The production is like clockwork. After 317 episodes, the efficiencies onset are apparent. From the Electrics Department to the Camera Department, everyone moves in a subconscious manner because they’ve been here so many times before. I’m amazed how the 1st AC, Camera Operator and Director of Photography hardly say a word throughout an entire scene.
It’s expected that PAs work a 15-hour day in sun, snow or rain (#Raincouver is a thing). In order to attract people to this job and demonstrate their value, the production provides the most incredible catering. I’ve been told The Good Doctor is one of the best catered productions in the city. Morale is kept high through Hawaiian shirt Fridays and onset raffles.
Even as someone who has worked in production for many years, my time on set has been eye-opening and an incredible experience. If you have the interest and ever get the opportunity to gak some cans or butt sweep on set, don’t turn it down!