Madison Woods: My First, First A.D. (Trial by Fire, sort of)

Last week I had the amazing privilege to work on a set with the renowned cinematographer Michael Goi (American Horror Story) and Hollywood Actress Holly Fulger (Ellen). It all started in August when the Director of CSU’s Film School reached out to us students to see if we would be interested in helping Holly run a focus group consisting of a three-camera setup operation. The focus group was held to help Holly find the woman or girl that would be the focus of the pilot for her brainchild, True Beauty Discovery.

At the time, I signed on to be a P.A., but when I got to the school, there was a need for a technical director in order to run the live switcher. Conveniently, during my last degree program, I just happened to be a part of the directing team for the student news. My willingness to jump into technical directing and problem solving was then appreciated when I was asked to be a part of the crew shooting the pilot as the 1st Assistant Director. I was psyched! And then I was nervous. I had never 1st A.D.’d before…

The night before the shoot was a flurry of Google searches: What is a 1st A.D.? How does one be a good 1st A.D.? What not to do when you’re 1st A.D.? And so on. It sort of helped…I figured out that the most important thing I would be responsible for was wrangling cast and crew in order to keep the shoot on schedule. I could do that…probably. I printed out my call sheet, the script, the location break down, the hour by hour schedule, put them on my clipboard and I was ready to go.

The next morning, call time 8:00 AM. I wake up early, I eat breakfast (a feat not often done), get downtown early enough to get coffee, I’m on a roll and the day hasn’t even really started. The second I get there, the Director asks for a call sheet and mine becomes theirs. Lesson #1: Always print extras (The next two days, I did). I then try to introduce myself and instead of saying, “Hello, I’m Madison and I’ll be your 1st A.D. today” my little awkward self goes, “Hello, I’ll be keeping time for you today.” Cue weird look and a hesitant, “Okay…” Facepalm. Lesson #2: Be direct. Awkwardness aside, I called the crew in and we had a good chat and set off on our day.

The first day was filled with challenges in that we essentially had three company moves. ON a student project with one camera and limited cast and crew, three company moves are meh, but we were working with 3 CAMERAS and 20 CREW. It definitely came with some challenges. We lost some time to breaking down and re-setting up cameras by the time we got to the final location. I was getting nervous. My first 1st A.D. job, and I’m already behind.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a proud person. I take pride in my work and I take pride in my problem-solving skills. That being said, we were going to get back on track. I called a company meeting after lunch and I laid it out. “Guys and Gals, we need to try to step it up. This is something that we’re doing together and I know you want it to go well just as much as I do. So let’s keep that team energy going, let’s listen and collaborate and let’s get this job done.”

We wrapped a little of an hour early.


Michael asked me a question when wrapped, “How do you think it went?”

I said, “I mean, we ended early.”


“And in terms of what we were shooting, the shots looked good. We had three cameras rolling almost at all times and in my opinion, we stayed true to the authenticity of [Graces’] (the subject) answers. I think we did good.”

He nodded. Lesson #2 in practice. Check.

The next day, I had classes in the morning, so I took on the role of gaffer/grip for the day. Luckily we only had the one location left by the time I got to set. It was definitely interesting to learn about the lighting from Michael and I even got to be creative by improvising a background and dressing the set for an important shot. I even got some props (the praise kind) from Holly, which was cool.

Day #3 saw a still determined, but tired crew and the daunting task of shooting on a hot street and two company moves. I was back to being 1st A.D. and definitely worried about our crew and equipment being put on the line by being so close to traffic that had no regard for us. Luckily, Michael was feeling the same way, and sent someone with his personal credit card to buy us all safety vests.

While we waited, we got an improomptu lesson about safety from Michael. He related an experience of his during one of his first cinematogrphy gigs. They were finishing up a very long day, the weather had turned to pouring rain and the director of the shoot was insisting that they get one last stunt shot. The stunt man was supposed to jump off a building and do some kind of trick, which would be difficult without a torrential downpour. Michael went up to the talent and asked him if he felt comfortable doing the stunt. He said no. Michael said okay, and immediately went to the director and said, “I will not shoot thi. There are plenty of buidlings in L.A. where we can get this shot during pick-ups. I won’t shoot it today.” He said the director hulked out, threw things, but ultimatly they didn’t shoot it.

“No shot is worth someone’s life.” He finished off with, “Always speak up.” Lesson #3.

We then got into shot planning for the scene ahead and he asked if we had a dedicated dolly. No. Okay, then can we possibly have someone ride in a car and get a tracking shot of Holly.

Our camera operators, “Yeah, that’d be cool.”

Me, in my mind, *DANGER, DANGER, DANGER*.

“Um, yeah no, I’m just not comfortable with that” I said.

“No, we can totally do it.” One of the Camera Operators.

“No. I…no. #1: This is not a closed street. We have no control over traffic. #2: We don’t have the proper equipment to strap you and the camera in safely. #3: I’m just not comfortable with it.”

“But – ”

“Okay,” Michael said, “We can try something else.”

Lesson #3 in practice, check.

The rest of the day went pretty smoothly. We had some minor bumps, but nothing unmanageable. We shot the scene with talent and wrapped them, and Michael, an hour ahead of schedule, again. I guess I’m pretty good at motivating, or I’m a hard a**. Either way, we got the work done.

The entire shoot was a learning experience. One that I am truly grateful for. Was it a trial by fire, yeah. Good thing I’m pretty good at extinguishing them.