1st AD x 1st AD: Penny Charter & Sorcha Vasey

DGC Ontario Assistant Directors Caucus Rep and frequent Guillermo del Toro collaborator Penny Charter sits down with Star Trek: Strange New Worlds 2nd Unit 1st AD Sorcha Vasey.

Penny and Sorcha talk about the Director/1st AD relationship, navigating on-set chaos, and how Sorcha helped wrangle the AR volume wall to bring fantastical worlds to life.

1st Assistant Director Penny Charter: When you began your journey in the industry, did you start on the Assistant Director track? Did you already have a clear idea that this would be the path you wanted to pursue right from the start? Or did it happen by chance?

1st Assistant Director Sorcha Vasey: I actually started my career in Cape Town. Back in the early 90s, the industry wasn’t focused on long-format productions like movies or TV shows. It was mainly commercials, particularly European commercials and big car ads. Cape Town became a popular destination for shooting commercials during our summer season. So, in a way, I stumbled into it. I was a PA by day, taking care of foreign clients and then partying on a bus by night. I would accompany them to dinners and organize sightseeing tours on weekends. From there, I landed a permanent position and started working with a  commercial house. In commercials, usually, there’s just one Production Designer in the Art Department who does everything, and I became her Props Assistant. We worked together for about three to five years, and during that time, I realized I didn’t want to pursue a career as a Production Designer. I hadn’t studied architecture, and I didn’t feel like it was the right fit for me. What attracted me to the industry initially was the charm and humour of a 1st AD I’d worked with. He could make everyone laugh, even in challenging situations. So, I decided to explore different departments and gain expertise in various areas. I thought if I excelled in every department, it would help me in the long run. I started without a clear plan and then gravitated toward what intrigued me the most, which was either becoming a DP or a 1st Assistant Director. How about you? Did you study film or something similar?

Penny Charter: We both have similar paths – I also started in commercials as a PA, mainly as a way to meet people and get involved. In the commercial houses back then, women usually ended up doing Craft Service, but I wasn’t a fan of that role. I had recently gotten my license, specifically to work in commercials. They expected us to handle a five-ton truck, but I wasn’t confident enough to do that, so the Production Manager assigned me to video assist instead. I was relieved because I only had to drive a panel van. I was genuinely interested in commercials, but I didn’t enjoy spending five hours just to light something and sell pots and pans. It didn’t fulfill me, but working it allowed me to network and gain experience. I joined the Guild and volunteered for different roles, including Locations PA. I did end up doing Craft Service on a big movie once. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a lot of fun! It also provided me with more opportunities to meet people, and eventually, I landed my first job as a PA on a movie.

Sorcha Vasey: The first long-format project I worked on was a Bible movie, and I started as the 3rd AD. It was during the Bible movie that a funny incident happened. The Director spotted me using binoculars to search the crowd and asked me what I was doing. I explained that I was looking for people wearing watches and spectacles since it was a Bible movie, and we were shooting the “feeding of 5000” scene. They’d told me I was supposed to be in charge of the crowd, so I had a map and a list of people’s names, and I would go, “John, row five, number 25: glasses. Guy beside him, huge watch.” So when the Director saw me and was like, “What the fuck are you doing, and who are you?” I said, “I’m the 3rd AD and I’m taking the ‘nowadays’ stuff off the background actors,” and he asked me if I’d like to be his assistant. 

“What I love about my job is being part of a collaborative team where everyone’s ideas are valued rather than having a rigid hierarchical structure.”

Sorcha Vasey

I ended up working as his assistant for the rest of the movie and continued collaborating with him on future projects. We travelled to places like Tunisia and Morocco, working on Bible movies, especially those with an adventurous angle. It was quite a memorable experience. What I love about my job is being part of a collaborative team where everyone’s ideas are valued rather than having a rigid hierarchical structure. It’s incredibly satisfying, and I particularly enjoy efficiency. I’ve noticed that during meetings, people often only hear what they want to hear instead of actively listening to others. I try to facilitate effective communication and prevent misunderstandings before they arise. But I enjoy it –  we get to go to crazy places and do crazy things, like stand on rooftops you’d never get access to normally, and it’s never the same job day to day. All of that really appeals to my adventurous spirit. Did you work in any other industry before this one? 

Penny Charter: I always like to say, the film industry is one of the few things I actually meant to do in my life. I actually worked in the restaurant business and as a bartender, and then when I was breaking into the industry, I did a whole bunch of stuff, from cleaning to working on a tile art project. I did move up quickly from PA to 2nd AD and then a few bigger jobs as a 3rd AD. I stayed as a 2nd AD for a really long time because I got to work on projects I really enjoyed.

Sorcha Vasey: I must say I did too. I chose to stay as a 2nd AD for quite a while, even when I started getting offers to be a 1st AD. The thing is, most of the 1st AD offers I received were for low-budget projects, and I realized I was earning more as a 2nd because I had built a good reputation in that role. Being a 2nd AD allowed me to work internationally, which was perfect for me since I love to travel. The idea of taking on more responsibility and stress as a 1st AD for less just didn’t seem worth it to me. I’m not really the ambitious type who has a checklist of things I need to accomplish. I just want to enjoy my work and be happy, so it didn’t bother me that others were moving up the ladder while I stayed as a 2nd AD. I said, “You can move up and get grey hair all you like. I’d rather do one great job as a 2nd and then go on holiday for four months.”

Eventually, though, there comes a time when someone offers you the right 1st AD gig. Even though it was my first time as a 1st AD, and it was on a massive show, I knew I was ready. I had worked with too many 1st ADs in the past who relied on me for setting up their Movie Magic software or handling all the paperwork because they either didn’t know how to do it or didn’t want to. At some point, I had said to myself, “I can’t become a 1st AD until I know I can do it.” Then I thought, “Wait a minute, Sorcha. If this person has been paid to be a 1st AD, you know you’re better than that guy.” And from that point on, I never looked back. I absolutely loved it. 

Sorcha Vasey: I would love to ask about your collaboration with Directors like Guillermo del Toro. What do you think is the key to nurturing long-standing and mutually beneficial relationships with Directors? And also, what is your approach to making those shows stand out? By the way, your experience with Guillermo del Toro must be fascinating.

Penny Charter: My experience with him has been mostly as a 2nd AD. But I’ve worked on most of the films he’s done in Toronto, except for, interestingly enough, The Shape of Water. I did work on something else that did win an Oscar, but racking up the Razzies seems to be more my thing. [laughs]

“One of the things about collaborating with him on so many projects is that I’ve figured out how Guillermo likes to work over the years. One of the most interesting parts of this job, whether it’s a TV or a movie, is working out the personality of the Director and building their trust.”

Penny Charter

I first worked with Guillermo on Mimic, which was in the 90s, and then started working with him on most of his Toronto projects. I did additional photography on Mimic as a 1st because the original 1st AD was away, and I basically took over the floor on Nightmare Alley just for the last few weeks. That was a big film. One of the things about collaborating with him on so many projects is that I’ve figured out how Guillermo likes to work over the years. One of the most interesting parts of this job, whether it’s a TV or a movie, is working out the personality of the Director and building their trust. Guillermo doesn’t like people standing right next to him on set when he’s Directing, so I always like keep a certain amount of distance, but within earshot so I know what he needs. I try to always be there for him on set, along with any other Director I’m working with. 

Sorcha Vasey: One of the greatest compliments I’ve received from a Director is when they told me, “You make me a better Director.” I have a habit of questioning everything because I like to fully immerse myself in the moment. I’ve worked with Directors who appreciate the attention to detail, so I act as another set of eyes to make sure that they’re going to succeed on the day. 

Sorcha Vasey: Have you encountered any challenges when working in a male-dominated industry like film and television production? And how do you navigate these challenges? It’s only just recently that other women have started getting on the bus, and I realized I was the only woman on the bus. How about you?

Penny Charter: I do find some things a challenge in the male-dominated film and television industry, particularly during the hiring process. When I went for interviews for major shows as a 2nd AD, I often found myself as the only woman being interviewed, and my male peers usually ended up getting the positions. It’s not that I couldn’t get other opportunities, but it seemed that some 1st ADs felt more comfortable hiring men. They had this notion that working with a guy would be easier because they could give instructions without worrying too much, whereas with a woman, they had certain concerns. Another issue I’ve noticed while being on set is what they call the “female voice.” People, especially men, have a tendency to overlook or not pay attention to a female voice. Even though I consider myself a loudmouth and can project my voice, I try not to get too high-pitched because that doesn’t help either. I try to speak assertively, but it’s astonishing how often no one hears me.

Sorcha Vasey: I completely understand. On set, it’s like a chaotic battlefield. It becomes this theatrical performance, where everyone acts like it’s all fine and dandy. 1st ADs often pretend not to listen and try to drown out the noise, but if you happen to say something out of character, suddenly all heads turn, and they pay attention. It can be frustrating when you’re trying to communicate, and no one seems to acknowledge you. That’s when I reach a point of almost losing my mind and end up saying something completely absurd just to get their attention. And then, lo and behold, everyone looks around as if to say, “Hey, we were listening all along!” It’s not personal; it’s just the dynamics. We stand on the sidelines, waiting to talk to the pros while observing the crew. 

Penny Charter: Yeah, I don’t take it personally. 

Sorcha Vasey: The crew has its own unique way of behaving with different people. It’s just that frantic set mentality. I fall into it the moment I step onto set, running around like, “Where’s lunch? What time do we wrap? Where are we going next?” Where’s crew park?” And then when you’re in prep, you’re sitting back going, “Those mad people, they’re really complaining about subs again.” You see both sides of the coin, constantly shifting between the reality of the day-to-day grind and the moments of stepping back from it. You get to step away during prep, which is perhaps the healthiest part of our job. But having that slightly different perspective and the opportunity of going back to prep is, in my opinion, a sanity-saving practice.

“One of the greatest compliments I’ve received from a Director is when they told me, ‘You make me a better Director.'”

Sorcha Vasey

Penny Charter: Yeah, you’re totally correct. I actually wanted to ask you about your work on the AR wall on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, because I think people reading this would also love to hear about it.  

Sorcha Vasey: You were on Star Trek: Discovery too, right? 

Penny Charter: For season five, the most recent season. 

Sorcha Vasey: Gotcha. So in the first season of Strange New Worlds, we were all new to working with the wall. Both productions were also new to it, so we were all learning together. Everything was ground zero for all of us. The two shows were supposed to share the wall, but it wasn’t as simple as just moving into the studio, shooting for the day, and then moving out for “Discovery” tomorrow. 

First of all, we had to figure out the schedule. When would each show be using the wall? How long would it take to set up and remove the scenery for each show? What made it interesting was that all the meetings were held on Zoom due to COVID. In the olden days, high-level meetings like this would involve only a few key people like the DP, Director, Producers, and then the people who create the assets. But because the Zoom link was on the prep schedule, there would be around 35 people attending these meetings, discussing amazing things like creating an icy planet with a spaceship, a shuttle flyover, and how to merge scenes involving physical sets. COVID had an unexpected benefit in that it allowed everyone to be part of those meetings, which might not have happened otherwise. I felt fortunate to attend because it helped me understand terms like “dynamic” and “burnt-in.” Some elements are “burnt in” in advance, while others can be adjusted on the shooting day, like cloud speed or adding mist. But making too many last-minute changes can cause the whole system to crash, and you can’t predict when it will be up again. There’s a delicate balance between what we can do when it’s fully loaded up. Just the power needed to run that thing and the number of screens are amazing. 

Then we had to plan the camera shots. For example, let’s say it’s a three-page scene with four characters. We had to consider how long it would take, accounting for multiple camera angles, close-ups, and inserts, but it’s not as simple as just shooting with two cameras; we had to learn the mechanics of working with the wall. If a certain camera takes dominance, then that camera drags the whole wall around with it to keep your perspective going. The problem is camera B can’t be looking at the wall because suddenly their background will zoom away, and something else will replace it. You have to be smart in your blocking, especially for new Directors coming in. When some people walked into the room, they immediately got motion sickness because the whole wall is spinning, and everything is moving. I was so tunnelled in that it actually never really affected me, but a lot of people who were seeing it for the first time, especially the actors, were like, “Whoa!”

So our assets and the AR stuff took three days to set up, two days to shoot, and another three days to remove. By the time we finished, the episode was already over, and we had to prepare for the next one. I was paired up with a Producer-Director, Chris Fisher, to handle all the AR elements. Sometimes the other Directors would come back to do it, but mostly it was the two of us. The main unit, who hadn’t experienced the wall, felt a bit left out because it was essentially the coolest part of the episode. They went through the entire season without getting to use it.

It took around 16 weeks to develop the artwork for the assets. The writers might not even have a full outline for the script yet, but they needed to think about assets and provide descriptions and concepts for the assets 24 weeks in advance. It starts off with a meeting between the DP, Pixomondo and the people building the assets for us. They use square boxes of different sizes to represent spaceships, then it gradually progresses, and you end up with a beautiful city with windows and lights. It was amazing to see Glen Keenan, our DP, take to it. His brain absorbed the concept so fast and so fully. It was quite amazing to watch him light what was basically X’s and O’s and transform it into a magical, magnificent, and unbelievable world. It was a real insight into how a DP’s brain works, from starting with a black box to lighting up the scene. Watching that and being a part of it was amazing.

That first season of Strange New Worlds was rejuvenating for me. I learned something new and amazing every day, and I contributed ideas on how to shoot with two cameras efficiently. It was a continuous process of building and learning, putting the assets on the wall and seeing how huge they look on the big screen compared to a tiny Zoom screen. Every asset presented new learning experiences…and complete moments of disaster as well. At the end of season one, they asked me to guide the Directors on shooting assets within their blocks. I gave them a template and explained how they could achieve it. 

The only scenes I didn’t actually like doing were ice planet scenes. It’s a bit like shooting day to night. The actors don’t move the same on fake snow, there’s no snow sound, they don’t hold their bodies like they’re about to slip, and there’s no breath coming out of their mouths. And for me, instantly, I’m just taken right out of it. It looks amazing, though, because you could never get to the tops of mountains like these in real life. We had an LA-based Director once, and it was winter, and he was like, “This would work perfectly in a quarry. We’ve got a quarry full of snow, looks great, big rock face.” I’m like, “Yeah, but I don’t want to be outside in the winter!”

Penny Charter: And neither do any of the actors! I was actually just thinking of the opposite scenario. How many times do you try and shoot a summer scene in the winter, and you can see the breath coming out of people’s mouths?

“I think it has a future in science fiction, 100%. It has elevated the Star Trek franchise by allowing them to go to fanciful lands without physically building them. It’s as wild as the dreamers.”

Sorcha Vasey

Sorcha Vasey: It’s always a struggle. We did an amazing car chase sequence with AR projection. We had Bob Harper’s commander car and surrounded it with a 24-camera array. We drove all around, down the streets, and ramped over things. We captured all the plates, including the ceiling plates. The ceiling in the AR room can be replaced with any visual effects you want, but unfortunately, the ceiling panels are not high resolution, so they can’t be broadcast. Whenever you see the ceiling, it requires visual effects replacement. However, this technique helps with lighting and creates the right ambiance for being in a 360-degree set. For the car chase scene, we captured all those plates and then had the car in the studio. The actors, of course, absolutely refused to look at the screen and wanted me to switch to green screen. I told them that I couldn’t even make that call because it was categorically not going to happen. I explained that we would only have one shot where we needed the screen, and that’s when we’re behind them in the backseat. Because we would be behind them, they could close their eyes. “Oh, and by the way, if you’re feeling sick, I put puke bags under your seat. It’s going to be fine. Throw up if you have to.” Going with green screen was not an option, and if the actors were going to be sick all day, we would never get through the car chase. So, we blocked their view. Then there’s me, the idiot, standing there shouting out directions to guide them and react to my voice. The irony is that I was watching the screen!

Penny Charter: That’s so funny. But hey, that’s what you end up doing as a 1st AD.

Sorcha Vasey: I just want to go home at the end of the day, having got the day. Whatever it takes, right? I’m easy. You want me to roll down the road? No problem.

Penny Charter: Yeah, exactly. Do you think it’s the future, the AR wall?

Sorcha Vasey: I think it has a future in science fiction, 100%. It has elevated the Star Trek franchise by allowing them to go to fanciful lands without physically building them. It’s as wild as the dreamers. It also works well for scenarios like getting lost in the Amazon or high alpine areas. Production-wise, it’s prohibitively expensive to fly a crew to remote locations for such scenes, but with this technology, you can just take them there virtually. It does have drawbacks – because it’s a wall, you can’t turn around as much. Often you have scenery that’s easy to mirror or flip-flop, but it’s not always possible. It’s intense planning ahead of time, which goes back to why I really enjoyed it. You have to be at 100% efficiency. You can’t come in and wing it. 

I’m noticing the young people who went to film school, who are more digitally inclined and cut their own stuff, and use platforms like TikTok, their brains think more like a traditional director with 30 years of experience. They may make the AR wall the go-to tool for more fanciful, amazing stuff. It’s expensive, so it’s not for low-budget projects. It’s not like the 2nd camera that was once a luxury. 

Penny Charter: And now it’s “de rigueur.”

Sorcha Vasey: I mean, there were shows where we only had one camera, it was hour-long episodes, and we did 22 episodes a year. Things were different but simpler. I do believe this technology will continue to grow. Currently, there’s a limited number of people available to staff the walls. I think there are about nine walls in the world, and there’s probably not enough crew for all of them. Companies like Pixomondo have already started training programs because they desperately need technicians. In about five years, when there’s a surplus of trained technicians, I think things will improve, and they can make this process faster. Even in the two years of our partnership with Pixo, they have become much better at what they do. We are still in the early stages of this technology, and its possibilities are endless, but it may take some time before it becomes commonplace.

Penny Charter: One great thing about the AR wall instead of green screen is that it’s much easier to incorporate physical elements like explosions, smoke, or fire. You don’t have to worry about how it might look weird in green screen or having to add smoke in Post. 

Sorcha Vasey: It’s also about creating magical worlds. The AR wall can achieve what no Art Department budget could ever do. It provides an enormous scale that is unfathomable. We can look across different worlds. We’re in a Star Base communication boardroom and we’re looking out at the Enterprise docked, a spaceship flying by…it’s truly mind-blowing, and it’s phenomenal to look at. The talent behind creating these virtual environments is exceptional. There’s no way we could ask them to recreate it in a physical studio. The scale is too big. 

Sorcha Vasey: I wanted to ask how you balance creative decision-making with practical considerations as an Assistant Director. It’s a tough one.

Penny Charter: That is difficult, and it ties into a bigger question about the differences between TV and feature films. When I started working in series as a 1st AD, I had done almost no TV in my career. I actually asked a friend who I had worked for as a 2nd for pointers because I was struggling with something I had never done before—time lining. In features, it’s more about fitting what you can into a day without worrying too much about the bits and pieces. If the Director has a different idea on the day, we just get the Director’s vision. But in TV, with limited budgets and strict schedules, you have to be more careful and stick to the schedule. You have to choose your battles and fight for the artistic vision when you can.

Sorcha Vasey: I also think it’s putting a lot more pressure on the 1st AD. In television, the Director is essentially a gun for hire. They’re hired to bring someone else’s vision to life within someone else’s budget and timeframe. The 1st AD can help ensure an efficiently run set and maybe save or lose some time. But you’re only as good as your leader on the floor. Personally, my best day is the most efficient day possible, where the right actors are in the right costumes on the right sets, and everything runs smoothly from there. From my perspective, during prep, we all agree on a schedule. I’m determined to stick to that schedule and provide you with the necessary elements. If you spend five hours on the first scene, and there are four scenes to shoot, with only 12 hours in a day, then I’ll inform the Producer that we’re now two hours behind. But unless I become a Producer, I won’t tell the Ddirector to drop shots. Instead, I’ll communicate that we’re falling behind. We can have a crisis meeting during lunch if needed.

But I only got to this stage really recently. Before that I would sweat blood, I would stand on my head, I would do anything to take on all that stress and try and shoulder the responsibility. I think, as a good 1st AD, that’s the responsibility. If you want to discuss alternative options, such as moving the last scene to the next day or extending shooting by two hours, you need to let me know. I can’t make it right because it’s already gone wrong. 

Penny Charter: I think it’s important to enjoy the puzzle of scheduling if you’re going to be a great 1st AD. I do a rough schedule, but I’m always trying to make it better. Once in awhile you have to say to the Producer, “You’ve given me too many variables. I actually can not make this work.” You know, the most embarrassing thing I could say, but I actually can’t do it.

Sorcha Vasey: Not all problems have a solution. If all of your actors are not available on Tuesday, then there are no scenes we can shoot on Tuesday. It’s simple. Make one of them available, and then I can tell you when we have three scenes we can shoot on Tuesday.

I know in the Star Trek world, you don’t say no, you always have to say yes. But it’s just a concept – I’m not saying “yes”, I’m saying “yes, I will look at it.” But I can’t say yes if it’s no. You can’t keep burying it to make it better. if the horse is lame, we shouldn’t be riding it. The horse is not going to get better.

As a 2nd AD, I had a habit of documenting everything meticulously. I couldn’t help but write down the exact timing of each task. So when someone questions why we’re behind schedule, I can present them with the timeline and explain the reasons. For example, if a showrunner decided on a new hairstyle that took an hour and a half, causing us to fall behind, it was a creative decision beyond my control. But at least it’s all documented. This practice has made me good with time. I can look at a scene, and I pretty much know how long it will take. People find it crazy that I can block out the entire script already in my head, but based on my experience, there’s a formula to it. Adding a medical procedure or an explosion may require more time, but the basic formula stays the same. Whether the actors say 15 or 25 words, it takes a certain amount of time to set up and shoot. I like to work with people that don’t put me under any unusual stress. I do that all on my own, you know? [laughs] I’m more focused on collaboration. If we go over schedule, it’s not my fault. Instead of looking for blame, let’s find solutions and make decisions.

Penny Charter: This has been so great. Thank you for chatting with me! 

Sorcha Vasey: This was fun! I’ve seen your name on so many projects, but I can’t believe we haven’t met before. We’ll have to do it in person soon!

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