A gaffer in film and television production is the chief electrician or chief lighting technician. With long experience in the field, they have a vast knowledge of the equipment, electricity, and rigging that is used in film production, including setup, power requirements, and costs.
First, let’s start by seeing what happens when a movie has no gaffer.
What Happens When A Movie Has No Gaffer? | Reverse Film School | Vanity Fair. Introduced by Andy Day, gaffer on feature films ‘The Greatest Showman’, ‘The Departed’, and ‘The Devil Wears Prada’.
Now let’s find out more about what gaffers do, who they work with, and how to become a gaffer in film.
What is a gaffer in film?
A gaffer in film and TV productions is in charge of planning, sourcing and overseeing the lighting equipment and lighting professionals needed to create the artistic vision agreed between the Director of Photography (or cinematographer) and the Director, all within strict deadlines and a set budget.
What does a gaffer do
A gaffer has a long list of jobs, both within pre-production and on set.
In pre-production, the gaffer works closely with the director and cinematographer to understand how they want the lighting to work within the artistic vision of the film.
Because a gaffer has many years of experience on lighting on set, they understand the light effects needed to bring that ambience to life. Moreover, they know what equipment is needed, the skills and electrical personnel needed, and have a rough idea of what the costs are.
Having agreed an overall plan, the gaffer visits the location. There they consider the agreed plans, and test out how light is created and controlled in that environment. They examine power sources, work out if weather conditions are relevant and what to do if they are, and make notes about any issues or workarounds needed.
Now they draw up a detailed list of the kit needed, which is passed to the line producer for approval.
The gaffer hires a best boy. After consultation together, the best boy sources the rest of the lighting team and orders the equipment.
On set, time is money. Staff and equipment costs rise with each passing day, so delays and mistakes must keep to a minimum. The gaffer’s role involves good planning, keeping the lighting department running efficiently, and solving problems quickly.
They’ve also got many legal obligations, including safety for everyone on set given the risks with electricty, long cables and heavy equipment. Employment regulations also apply too.
Liasing between the Director of Photography and the rest of the lighting crew, the gaffer works out the best position of lighting equipment for the effects needed. They also work out the fastest way to change the lighting setup between shots, to reduce delays.
How to become a gaffer
Electrical qualifications help keep you and the rest of the crew safe on set. But gaffers don’t get to run a film set lighting department with qualifications. It’s all about experience.
Every gaffer had their own route into their role. But each demanded experience, networking, and recommendation.
The work experience route to becoming a gaffer
Whether a gaffer started volunteering on student films or joined a film industry electrical department through an apprenticeship, they worked their way up the industry ladder one job at a time. With each job they picked up new skills and contacts, building a reputation as reliable, hardworking and easy to work with.
Formal training as a gaffer
Aspiring gaffers need a detailed level of electrical knowledge. That means you should be a qualified electrician if you see this as a career option.
You can do this by studying for vocational qualifications alongside your job or apprenticeship as a domestic or commercial electrician.
In the UK, your options at a local college include:
- BTEC Diploma/Extended Diploma in Electrical and Electronic Engineering
- City & Guilds Advanced Technical Diploma in Electrical Installation
- EAL Diploma/Advanced Diploma in Electrical Installation
Alternatively, take A-Levels or Highers in maths and science subjects. Then study electrical engineering at university, or find a specialised course at film school.
As well as becoming a qualified electrician, you can also take a course in photography or filmmaking to develop your understanding about using light on film.
Then it’s essential to join a lighting department on a film set even if you’re a volunteer on a short film set, to get the essential experience. Building up your experience in short films shows your enthusiasm and means you’ll have some practical knowledge before stepping onto the set of a feature film or television production.
Who does a gaffer work with?
The gaffer reports directly to the Director of Photography (DP), who is also known as a cinematographer. Their work also includes close contact with the director.
Under the gaffer is a team of electricians, including the head electrician, electric best boy, rigging gaffer and other lighting department crew.
The gaffer works closely with the key grip, grip best boy and rest of the grip crew. The grip department sets up the equipment which supports the lighting.
A gaffer must also work well with every member of the film crew. Budgeting is agreed and monitored in co-ordination with a production manager or production accountant, usually through a production assistant. A camera operator needs the right lighting for each shot, and may need to move around in a take without bumping into lighting instruments.
What skills do you need to be a gaffer?
You become a gaffer after many years of direct, hands-on experience. It’s a job requiring a wide range of complex skills which you learn and develop on the job.
A gaffer needs indepth knowledge of electrical and lighting equipment. They must spot issues about power, heat, cables, and fuses before problems occur. If something is faulty, they have to know how to identify the fault and how to fix it. Quickly.
Because of this, gaffers are fully qualified and experienced electricians.
When a Director of Photography and director set out an artistic vision, it’s the gaffer’s job to draw up a lighting plan and know how to create each scene’s lighting effect and ambience.
Experienced gaffers know which staff and equipment is needed and how to use it to create the necessary lighting levels and effects. Plus, they’ll understand the budget implications of each decision.
A gaffer works closely with the director and Director of Photography, who are often busy and juggling several vital tasks at once. In turn, the gaffer has to run a department on set and keep everything running as smoothly as possible. All of this demands top level communication skills.
In particular, a gaffer needs good listening skills. They have to understand what a DoP is asking for when describing the lighting vision for a scene, and pick up on the implications as a situation is quickly explained to them by a member of the crew on set.
Planning and organsiation skills are essential for a gaffer. All the staff and equipment have to be there when they’re needed, otherwise everything stops (with the costs mounting) while the problem is resolved. Conversely, you don’t want staff or equipment present on excess days because that’s unnecessary cost too.
Quick Decision Maker
Designing the lighting effects with a Director of Photography and Director takes a careful balance between confident decisions about how to achieve the desired effects, and an ability to take on board other people’s opnions during the planning process.
Those same skills are needed when getting lighting positions set up, though now at a hands-on practical level with the crew.
If and when things go wrong, a number of complex calculations must be made very quickly leading to fast instructions or actions.
A gaffer should be a good decision maker even under pressure.
A Head for Heights
Gaffers work with lights. Most lights are above head height and accessed with a ladder.
Everyone on a film or TV set has a role and a position within the hierarchy. A gaffer understands what each department and the roles within it does, and the implications when discussions are held about any aspect of the shoot.
Where did the name gaffer come from?
Back in the 1580s, the gaffer was an elder, with the implication of age and power. Over time, it became a slang word for the supervisors and foremen of manual labourers.
The Hollywood film industry embraced the term gaffer fairly early on. A hooked metal tool used to move overhead lights around became known as a gaff. The term gaffer for the head of lighting stuck for a long while.
However, the end of the twentieth century saw a shift in terminology. Gaffer is slowly being dropped, in favour of Chief Electrician or Chief Lighting Technician.
But even if the term soon disappears from every film set as their high levels skills and experience are recognised with a more managerial and professional name, it will be remembered for one simple reason: gaffer tape. Film lighting requires long stretches of cables and wires, across floors busy with moving cast, crew and equipment. The gaffer’s tape held these cables down safely and securely with a strong and steadfast tape. It wasn’t long before the commercial potential for gaffer tape was recognised and it’s now a common item in every tool box.
Thanks to Ruth Hartnup for the featured image at the top of this page, used under CC by 2.0 licence
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