Light Touch

When you're watching a film, most of the departments can be seen or their presence felt just in the pictures—the way the sets look or the way the actors appear. Even the way the images are spliced together has something to say about the final product.

One group of people, however, is critically important, yet you often wouldn't recognize their work. These people are the grips and gaffers. If they weren't around, you'd never have a film finished. These are the unsung heroes of the film industry, the backbone and muscle of any production.

So what is a gaffer? What does a grip do? What is a best boy? This chapter unravels the mystery of these unusual job titles.


Lighting Technician

A lighting technician job is the starting point if you eventually want to be a gaffer. However, the title lighting technician is not always used. You may be listed as an electrician or called a juicer. No matter what, you're still doing the same job.

But what is that job? Simply put, you plug things in. The trick, of course, is knowing what to plug in where. This is where experience comes into play. When you get hired on your first film as a lighting technician, you probably won't know much. You may

know the difference between an Inky and a One OK (they're both types of lights), but do you know how much power they draw or how far they throw light? Not unless you're coming from a production-oriented film school and maybe not even then.

So how do you learn? You work at it. You ask questions. The gaffer is the one who hires the lighting crew, and most gaffers are willing to answer questions and hire the people who are enthusiastic about the job.

If you don't have a degree in production but you really want to learn the skills of the gaffer, the best way to start is as an intern. Attach yourself to a production for free. Work for the experience, and if you do a good job, the next film just may bring a paycheck and the title lighting technician.

Best Boy

One of the most fabled jobs in the film industry is the best boy. Many hours of debate have ensued over exactly what it means to be a best boy. Is it that everyone on the set likes you? Are you just great at your job? Can a girl be a best boy? Do you get paid more if you're the best boy? Does it change during the film? If you're having a bad week, does someone else get to be the best boy instead?

The answers: no, no, yes, sometimes, and no. Being a best boy has nothing at all to do with people liking you, or with your age, or with your personality. It's not a contest won weekly by a favored member of the crew. Since it is only a job title, anybody can be a best boy—even a girl. Yes, you get paid more, but only if you started as a lighting technician. Being a best boy is your first promotion. Once you get the job, you keep it for the duration of the project.

After several jobs as a lighting technician, maybe a year or two of working and gaining experience and serving under many different gaffers, you'll get called up out ofthe ranks to become a best boy. In reality, you become the assistant gaffer. It is up to you to make sure things get done when they are supposed to be done.

During walk-through rehearsals, the best boy becomes a second set of eyes for the gaffer, checking different angles for shadow problems and "kicks," which are hot spots or camera glare causing unwanted glowing. An unnoticed kick can ruin an otherwise perfect take, so it's up to you to help make sure they don't happen.

Gaffer or Chief Lighting Technician

Well, we're spending a lot of time talking about gaffers. just who are these people who command so much respect from the camera crew? Where do they come from?

Historically speaking, the term gaffer comes from live theater and, before that, from fishing boats. It used to be that the running crews of theaters were made up of sailors who were tired of the sea or couldn't get hired on an outgoing vessel. To work on land, they took jobs in local theaters where their talents could be put to use. The reason it's bad luck to whistle in a theater is because the people who ran the rails (ropes that raised and lowered the scenery) got their training by manipulating the riggings on sailing ships. The way they communicated was by whistling. Certain whistles meant certain things, and when they went to work in the theater, they also used whistles, this time to know which piece of scenery to raise or lower. So if you happened to whistle inadvertently, a heavy wooden set piece may have come crashing down on your head. As for gaffers, they did their work with the lights. In the old theaters, the lighting instruments were located high overhead, and the easiest way to focus them or use the "barn doors" (four hinged flaps used to direct the light or cut it off from certain areas) was to reach up with a long stick. Remembering the gaff hooks used when they were fishing, they brought them into the theater and used them to manipulate the instruments. Thus gaffers were born.

Today, they still manipulate lighting, even if they don't use gaff hooks any longer. They're not always called gaffers anymore, either. Sometimes, according to union regulations, the gaffer is called the chief lighting technician. It doesn't matter what you call them, though, the job they do is still the same.

Gene Glick has been doing the job for close to forty years. He started in the old days, during the famed studio system, as a juicer and worked his way up through the ranks until he became a full-fledged gaffer. Everything he learned was filed away, ready to be used again as the situation required.

His job as a gaffer is to make the scene look the way the director and the director of photography want it to look. This means knowing what lights can do and what they can't. A large light (five or ten kilowatt) can adequately light a room (perhaps even overlight it), but so can a group of minis (a smaller instrument). It all depends on the desired effect and what needs to be lit as opposed to what should stay in the shadows. It also depends on what the scene is trying to convey. According to Gene, if the scene is comic, the lights should be bright and cheery. A mysterious scene or a love story will be played more low-key, darker, leaving more to the imagination.

The gaffer's job starts when the set is finished. The gaffer looks at the set and draws up a light plot, a lighting diagram based on the scene to be shot. Gene says one of the biggest problems facing today's gaffers is the abundant use of preexisting, practical sets as opposed to building things specially for a production. "When a set is built by an art director, he knows what types of materials to use to reduce glare, what scenes are going to be played there. He can arrange for walls to be removed easily, rigging to be done from high above where the ceiling would be."

When you have to shoot in an actual room, you don't have the advantage of being able to light from an imaginary vanishing point; you have to make do with what you have. While not building a set may seem cheaper in the beginning, Gene has found it takes him longer to light a practical set, so the savings get eaten up by time.

When the set is lit, the director has a walk-through. While the actors (or their stand-ins) are going through their paces, the gaffer is noting where the shadows are falling and when the actor is or isn't exactly in the light. After a walk-through, Gene always adds more light. You never know quite where things are going to happen, so the initial plan covers the basics, and after the walkthrough, things are tweaked to get them just right.

The best thing a gaffer can be is observant. Noticing dark spots and fixing them can make the difference between a good take and a great one. Gene suggests the best thing you can do to be a gaffer is work with as many directors of photography as possible. Get as much experience as you can. And know your lights.

Rigging Gaffer or Rigger

Remember the light plot from the gaffer section? That's the diagram that shows where all the lighting instruments should be set up to light the scene. The rigging gaffer, or rigger, is the one who reads the plot and makes it happen. If the set is in a studio and the gaffer calls for heavy overhead lights, the rigger either mounts them on preexisting catwalks or builds rigging for them. The same is true of practical sets. The rigger has to figure out how to get all the instruments into whatever space is given to work with.

The rigger has to know how to maximize space and, like the gaffer, has to know the lights. The rigger must be able to let the gaffer know if the instruments asked for can be supported by the structures they need to be mounted on—and if they can't, the rigger must be able to suggest an alternative. In addition to hanging the lights, the rigger attaches gels or places scrims in front of them.

Because the rigger's job could include building things like light trees, trellises, or catwalks or hanging heavy instruments on walls already standing, riggers work closely with the grip department.

Gels and Scrims. A gel (short for gelatin, which they used to be made of) is a thin piece of colored plastic that can change the color of the light. If a particular effect is wanted, like giving everything a red tint, a gel is used. Something called a no-color gel is used to bring down the light's temperature. In black-and-white films, gelled instruments were used to create certain visual effects. In monster films, where a transformation on screen was required to make the creature believable, the makeup department would do the actor's normal makeup first, then create the monster look using red-based cosmetics. The lights used to shoot the initial (normal) scene would all have red gels covering them, washing out the monster makeup. When the scene called for it, the gaffer would switch off the red-gelled lights while simultaneously flipping on the scary mood lighting. The ultimate effect was that the red makeup would suddenly become visible, making the actor seem to transform right before the camera lens.

A scrim is a piece of fabric that lets light pass through it from one side and is used to cause a varying amount of diffusion to prevent glare. Depending on the requirements of the scene, diffusion can be used in increments from one-half to two as well as being placed only over selected areas of the instrument. The result is a softer, more pleasant light. Flags look similar to scrims except they are opaque. They are used in much the same way as a barn door on the instrument or like your hand when you try to shade the lens of your camera at home.

Grips Key Grip

If you have an item on set and you need to hide it, move it, or shade it, who are you going to call? The grips. Whatever you need, the grips are there for you. These people are the muscle of the film set. If something needs to be moved and you need a hand, ask a grip. Grips are often working hand in hand with the riggers, setting up stands, putting up flags, and helping out with the lights and camera.

Grips have to know all the equipment on the set and what it's used for. Almost any major city in the country will have a rental house to supply gear and equipment to visiting film crews. Look in your local phone book, find one, and pay a visit. Find out how to use things like C (century) stands, apple boxes, reflectors, and sandbags. Then look into the lights. You may not be responsible for making them work, but as a grip, you'll have to move them, and you'll be really embarrassed if they want a ten kilowatt and you bring over a mini.

The key grip is the head grip, the one who does most of the hiring for the department (the rest is done by the best boy grip, who is the key's assistant) and delegates tasks to the crew on the set. The key grip also handles the renting of equipment. Often, a key who has been in the industry for a while will have accumulated a lot of personally owned equipment and will rent it out to the production company. The advantage of this, besides the key making more money, is knowing the gear. Generally, it will take a number of years before a grip becomes a key. In that time, if the grip has collected all this equipment, he or she knows what is needed and what isn't and won't waste the production's money on unnecessary stuff. The reason the grip will know what is needed is that the grip reads the script and breaks it down for locations and times of day. For shooting outside at night, the key grip knows lights will be needed, and on-the-job experience will give the grip a rough idea of which lights will work best.

In the case of grip work, experience is invaluable, and the only way to get it is to volunteer for a production and work hard.

Dolly Grip

Once you've mastered the basic grip equipment and you're working on a film, odds are you'll be called in to help lay dolly track. A dolly is a manual camera vehicle, usually a cart with four wheels, used to move the camera forward and backward smoothly. Some dollies have cranes attached for raising or lowering the camera while moving it forward and back. Dolly track is used to limit the dolly's movement to a straight line. It looks like miniature train tracks, and it all has to be level and aligned or the dolly won't be able to go over it.

The dolly grip is the one who actually pushes or pulls the dolly and raises or lowers the crane arm in accordance with what's needed for the shot. A good dolly grip is smooth and powerful, able to drive the dolly to hit the marks and stop it without jarring the camera. For complicated shots, the dolly grip may have to raise the arm while pushing forward along the track, stop, then pull back and lower the arm—all this in one take while the camera's rolling. It takes a lot of practice, but starting as a general grip will put you on the set with the equipment, and all you have to do is ask how to use it.

Steadicam Operator

The Steadicam is a piece of equipment usually owned by the Steadicam operator, who is hired on a daily basis to come in and film particular scenes. The purpose of a Steadicam is to take the jarring bounce out of handheld shots. It was first used for the famous running-up-the-steps sequence in the original Rocky and since then has gone through a couple of different versions and a multitude of uses.

A Steadicam was used for the speeder chase sequence of Return of the Jedi. The Steadicam operator walked slowly along a specified path with the camera shooting at extremely slow speed. When processed and shown at the standard twenty-four frames per second, the effect was of something moving very quickly and steadily through the forest.

The Steadicam unit itself is actually a harness with a series of movement-dampening springs and a camera mount. Since each Steadicam is custom fitted for comfort and size, it is very rare that a production can rent just the unit and put it on its own camera operator. Usually, the Steadicam and the operator come as a package, which is beneficial for the production because the operator knows how to use the equipment to get the best shot possible. The operator also knows the limitations and will not do something that could endanger self or gear.

Steadicam makes units for every budget and camera size, whether you need something to keep the a digital video camera steady for a low-budget short or to manage a big, 35 mm movie camera.

For Further Information

The backbone of any production, the grips and gaffers can always use an extra pair of hands. If you don't mind the long hours or the hard work, contact a production and volunteer your services. Everybody has to start someplace, and these people will teach you what they know, as long as you're there, pulling with them.

The following corporations provide information about the products used by gaffers and grips, profiles of professionals in the field, and workshops.

Mole-Richardson Co. Catalog 937 North Sycamore Avenue Hollywood, CA 90038


The Tiffen Company, LLC 90 Oser Avenue Hauppauge, NY 11788


Taub, Eric. Gaffers, Grips, and Best Boys. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Uva, Michael, and Sabrina Uva. The Grip Book. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Science/Harcourt.

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