The world of the assistant designer specializing in projection is a challenging but rewarding learning experience. I have had the honor and pleasure of working with some of the top designers working today: Wendall Harrington, David Gallo, and Batwin + Robin Productions, where I was on staff for over two years. I thought I would share a few tips and tricks I've picked up along the way that will help you not only be a great assistant, but lay down the groundwork to climb the ladder so you can hire your own great assistants when you become a full-fledged designer.
Listening is the greatest skill you will need. You will need to listen to everyone: designers, the director, the shop guys, etc. Some people remember everything they hear, others write it all down. Figure out what works best for you. But make sure you are always listening. Many times the assistant is the “go between” between a designer and the other party, so it is important that you have all the important information available to you when someone asks for it.
Strengths and weaknesses. Everyone's got ‘em. They always say don't bite off more than you can chew; personally, I think you should always try to bite off a little bit more than you can chew, and teach yourself how to chew more. You need to challenge yourself in order to grow. Force yourself to learn new tricks. But if you know something is going to be outside of what you are capable of or have time to complete, speak up quickly and loudly. Make sure that someone knows that you need a little help. After all, you are there because the designer needs help to complete their vision. Try to offer a solution when doing this.
Equipment-wise, if you encounter a hardware or software limitation, offer an alternative solution. Render overnight, rent another faster machine, call a friend. Your job is to help solve problems, so if you find one, don't just point it out, try to help get around it. Make sure you know what the projection system is capable of too, so that you can anticipate issues that may arise from its strengths and weaknesses. If you can, exploit the weakness as an asset. Turn those lemons into lemonade.
I am a major gearhead, so gear is probably my favorite topic. I personally believe you should have the best laptop you can afford — these days you will be editing, rendering, manipulating, and creating in the theatre. The faster the laptop, the quicker the job will get done. Make sure you have plenty of data storage space and spare cables you might need.
Also, have a procedure in place for repairing your own stuff. I have a little hard drive that I can boot my laptop off of. This is a great way to troubleshoot and run utilities. But I also keep all of my necessary software on it so that I can do the job booted off the hard drive if I can't resuscitate my laptop. If you can afford a backup computer, go for it.
The little details are going to make or break the project. Sometimes there are little glitches that nobody notices except you, but if you don't fix them, they are all you will see. I try to keep a log of little things and hopefully get around to fixing them after the main design is done. A little color tweak here, a little image retouch there. Don't take time away from the designing and programming to do this, but try to reserve a little time to fix stuff toward the end.
Ask questions. You need to know what you are trying to do, and directly asking is the best way to find out. What time are we here in the morning? What color do you want that to be? How long should that clip be? You'll never know unless you ask.
Anticipate changes. If you have time, try to make a couple of options for your artwork: a few different color choices, some different perspectives, etc. And make sure you save them all as different files. You don't want to have to dive into an Adobe® Photoshop® file and pick it apart to bring back “Option #3.” You don't need to go crazy, and as the design gets streamlined this may not be as necessary, but when you are creating the initial concepts try to show a few choices. Personally, I don't flatten or compress/encode my files until they are final (and even then I also save an editable version).
Keep the schedule in mind. Make sure that not only do you know when and where you need to be, but that your designer also knows. Some designers work on many projects at once and it is up to you to help them make sure that they know when their presence is needed. Also, make sure that you have some kind of coverage if you have a conflict. And if you have a conflict, alert people early, so there are no surprises.
Understand the designer's style. Every designer has his or her own style, and chooses a style applicable for the project. Look at the research and keep that style in mind when you are working. Sometimes you can suggest things within or outside of the style, but try to emulate the designer. A good assistant should be able to stand in for the designer if necessary, so mutual trust is important. Trust that you will stay true to the style.
Save!! If you don't save your work often, then you will end up screwing yourself at some point. It is inevitable that something will happen…your computer will come unplugged…the director will ask to see the option from three weeks ago…you will inherit work from or pass work on to another assistant. That is why it is critically important to save your work and label it. If you are creating files, make sure they have names that will make sense to someone. If you are creating a Photoshop or Adobe® After Effects® file, name the layers. You never know who will need to work with your stuff, so make it easy for them. It will also help you revisit the files later.
Be on time. If you can, be a few minutes early. If you have a day job or are working on two projects at once, leave enough time to get where you need to be on time. Sometimes showing up is the most important thing you can do, so do it to the best of your ability!
For more information about projection designer Zachary Borovay, check out his website, www.borovay.com.