Let’s start with the obvious: 3rd AD means third assistant director. So on a drama set, the hierarchy goes: Director, 1st AD, 2nd AD, 3rd AD, Floor Runner. The Director decides what he or she wants from the scene and from each shot. The 1st AD gives out instructions to make happen what the director wants.
The 2nd AD coordinates anything that needs to be done in order for this to run smoothly, e.g. making sure that any kit, props, special effects or additional features, such as horses and carriages and jibs and cranes and things, arrive on time. In fact, the 2nd AD will spend quite a lot of time in the office, doing call sheets and schedules and making phone calls and generally organising things.
The 3rd AD is on set most of the time helping the 1st, but also has the responsibility of coordinating the background artists (the politically correct way of saying ‘extras’) and making sure the principle cast get through costume and make up when they’re supposed to. Sometimes that means they’ll have to be off set sorting out costume changes – but that’s what the floor runner is for, to help the 1st when the 3rd is not there.
I loved having the responsibility of looking after the background artists. I ended up feeling very motherly towards them; it really mattered to me that they were having a good time and weren’t left waiting around or outside in the cold too much. And often, when the 1st AD told me to ‘reset the background’, I would turn around to find they had done it themselves! I met some really interesting people with some fascinating back stories, and they always had a cheery ‘hello’ for me when I brought them up to the costume department at the crack of dawn each day.
However, coordinating the transition between costume, make-up and then back on set, with the hectic schedule that we had on the shoot, often meant that I was caught in the crossfire between stressed make-up artists brandishing hot tongs, frantic costumiers with mouths full of pins, actors trying to learn their lines, and the impatient foot-tapping of the 1st AD who had just finished rigging and wanted all artists to set, PRONTO. But of course, I wasn’t allowed to rush the make-up or the costume, or talk back to the 1st AD, or anything like that. Instead, I reported back on every tiny movement of the artists until everyone could be reassured that they were just two metres away from set. And now they’ve just stopped to tie their shoelace. And now they’ve gone to the toilet. And now they’re taking a selfie. Perhaps this was getting a little ridiculous?
Well, I certainly thought so by the end of the shoot. Although the smiles and kind praise from background artists made my day, every day, and although by the end there was great banter and plenty of laughs, I couldn’t help feeling that this was all rather silly. The stress, the long hours, the lack of sleep, and the blame chain: the unspoken rule that the people at the top are fully entitled to take out their failings on whichever underclass of AD was nearest to hand. It’s not something I want to subscribe to for the long term.
So, ciao bella, 3rd AD, it was nice meeting you, thanks for the CV credit and all, but I’ll head home to my AP role and a nice, thought-provoking documentary thanks.