The Production Diaries: PA vs. PM

by: Clayton Burns

People often ask me “Oh, so you’re in media? What exactly do you do?” To be honest, there is no simple answer. Every single day is different, and that’s what makes it so incredible!

That being said, my standard, straightforward reply is that I’m a Production Manager. But it’s very hard to explain my position to somebody who has never worked a day in the media industry. My mother just assumes that a career in media means that I came out of college with every manual for every home electronic device completely memorized. I should know how to hook up her VCR to her television and through the surround sound, because I went to school for media.

On a serious note – the great thing about a career in the media is that you have so much to choose from. Personally, I’m not much of a technical person. I’m not an editor, I’m not a camera operator, I’m not a sound mixer nor am I a professional at hooking up my mom’s Blu-Ray player. I am however, a creative. I like to tell stories, I like to produce and direct. I’m extremely detail oriented and organized. I knew that I was different while I was going through college, I knew that I did not want to end up in a stuffy newsroom pressing buttons. I wanted to be where the action was, I wanted to be out telling people’s stories and creating. I wanted to be working on stages and giant film sets. Up close and personal with the production itself.

I began my climb toward Production Manager (PM) the way most people do – as a production assistant. I had much to learn, so I began applying wherever I possibly could. I learned something very quickly – big production houses love taking on production assistants (PA’s) as interns. Basically it’s an entry level position and your job description includes absolutely everything and anything. One minute you’re taping extension cords to the floor and the next minute you’re testing out challenges in the Big Brother Canada mansion. I PA’d wherever I could whenever I could for a solid 3 years. Working for massive Canadian productions like television series, feature films, commercials, reality TV and award shows! I went from job shadowing to wrangling A-list celebrities down the red carpet.


From massive scripted television shows to small business profiles or ads, production assisting is a huge job and without PA’s, these productions would not be possible. We’re the soldiers on the front line and it always takes an army to pull a project off. Production assisting can take many different forms – from administrative desk duties and paperwork to audience control, wrangling, wardrobe, set control, or even fetching coffee!

The goal of course is to eventually become a production manager, coordinator or just simply a producer/director and to hang up your PA hat for good. I’ve been lucky enough to sit in the Production Manager chair for over a year now and the job is quite different. It’s much more responsibility and much more attention to detail. You can be juggling dozens of projects and dozens of clients at once and you are constantly doing bookings, meetings, phone calls, filing and keeping everyone including yourself on track. There is always a production schedule to be followed and it’s your job to make sure that everything is going according to plan. It’s about putting together call sheets, scheduling, client management, locations management, assistant directing, scripting, props and wardrobe and following through to make sure things are getting done.

When you’re a production assistant, you feel like you couldn’t possibly take on any more responsibility, but in reality, the position is meant to prepare you for more. Sets are hectic, there are always fires to put out, but it definitely pays off. As a Production Manager I’ve been lucky enough to walk on many exciting sets, worked with some inspiring people and sometimes I get to wrangle actual animals! You learn so much, and you learn it quickly, and that’s exactly what makes the position so perfect.