The Realities Behind Working on Set in Tisch

First-hand accounts from Tisch Film & TV students about their experiences as production assistants on set and how they’re preparing for their future careers.

NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

The Tisch School of the Arts is sometimes fascinating and sometimes bizarre. While the school is made up of a variety of majors covering different forms of art, one of its most popular majors is Film & Television. But as students walk past 721 Broadway, many tend to wonder, “Can film school really be that hard?” There’s a common perception of students who are said to be spending hours a day playing with cameras, whose classrooms are movie theaters and who are lugging suitcases filled with expensive lenses.

But Tisch isn’t all fun and games or toying around with expensive equipment. In addition to their regular production classes, all first-years are required to take part in the Production Assistant Program wherein they help out on upperclassmen film projects — doing an assortment of tasks that range from lighting to physically constructing a set. And the program isn’t just for first-years. Upperclassmen are also required to partake if they are enrolled in higher level production classes. Students must do this for 12 hours a semester, but some easily rack up as many as 30.

Several students commented on the PA program, delving into their rigorous, at times frustrating, but educational learning experiences.

“I’ve always felt it’s pretty fair,” says Film & TV sophomore Sam Joia, “because most PAs are [first-years and] you come in not necessarily with a whole lot of experience so it’s just a really good way to find out what you’re interested in on set.”

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Joia has never experienced the kind of monotonous labor that comes with being a production assistant. When she arrived on her first set, Joia happened to be standing in the right place at the right time and quickly became an art assistant. Perhaps because of this, she has an exceptionally positive view of the PA program.

While this may be true for some, Tisch’s Film & TV program is one of the most prestigious in the country and is notorious for its selective admissions. Some first-years have already had enough experience to prepare them for a Tisch senior thesis set.

Why, then, are these PAs immediately constrained to being “everybody’s helper,” as Joia puts it?

“[It] sounds annoying, but it’s actually a really good way for finding out what you enjoy doing best, because you’re kind of like, you’re available to everyone, so you get to do a little bit of everything,” explained Joia.

Tisch advertises the PA program as a way for students to discover their talents early on, much like an unpaid internship. But, like unpaid internships, the promised personal gains are sometimes overstated.

Though working on a smaller set can be fruitful, says Film & TV junior Amelia Boscov, PAs are often asked to do tedious work on large sets where the rest of the positions have been filled.

“I was firewatching, which is just where you sit and watch the equipment while they are inside filming,” Boscov said. “So you’re literally outside watching equipment.”

Boscov said work continues regardless of the weather conditions. She noted, however, that many of these issues can be chalked up to inexperienced directors as opposed to a problem with Tisch itself.

“They’re just students,” she said. “And it can be hard for a first time director to know how to let someone learn on their set.”

Still, Boscov finds value in her experience as a PA.

“I think there’s this thing in Film & TV specifically where you just feel like everyone else is already ahead of you,” Boscov said. “You see people that have deals with whatever company already and you’re just like I’ve never picked up a camera before, but I’m somehow here. You shouldn’t put that pressure on yourself to catch up, because you’re all an artist in whatever way you are, and we’re all here to learn.”

Tisch senior Jack Rys doesn’t think art school as a whole is essential for learning how to work on a film set.

“I think anyone can be a PA,” Rys said. “The film school likes to make it seem like the film industry is a lot harder than it is, but it’s really not.”

In fact, Rys doesn’t see much value in taking film classes in general. However, this is also incredibly frustrating for him.

“The school just expects you to maintain your academic career while undertaking these industry-standard projects at the same time,” Rys said.

Though, year after year students still produce great work in and out of the classroom, Tisch puts a lot of pressure on Film & TV students to excel in both their academics and get experience on set. But by teaching students early on what the industry is really like with intensive hands-on opportunities, Tisch is providing them skills that will be useful for the rest of their professional career.

Email Claire Fishman at [email protected]

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