Tuesday, November 14, 2006

People, please!

This morning, as I was drinking my coffee and catching up on my reading I came across an article which made reference to "all the gaffers" on a set.

This (and I've seen the same mistake before) makes me nuts.

There is one gaffer per shooting unit. He (or she) works directly with the Director of Photography (DP for short) to light the scene and is the head of the set lighting department. If you see more than one gaffer lighting a set at the same time, something's gone terribly wrong.

All those people moving lights around are called lamp operators or "juicers". As a side note, you are safe referring to "all the grips" on set, although grips do not handle lights. They have enough to do without having to do my job (which would be moving lights around and, it seems, confusing certain magazine contributors).

So, if you're thinking about dropping the "all the gaffers" bomb, please refer to this handy dandy guide to lighting-related crew folks:

Director of Photography: The guy (or gal) who makes the creative decisions about how the scene will be lit and shot. The DP is the head of the camera department, but he (or she) also decides the general look of the lighting and what "mood" the scene should have.

Gaffer: The gaffer (remember, there's only one), after discussing the scene with the DP, is the person who gets on the walkie talkie and tells us exactly what kind of lights to use and where to place them. The gaffer, since he (or she) stays on set, is also a good source of information about what's going to happen later in the day ("Remember when we wrapped that set because they were done shooting in it? Start getting it ready again. It's up next").

Best Boy Electric: The gaffer's assistant, so to speak. The best boy is responsible for hiring additional crew and laying them off when they're no longer needed, supervising the lighting crew ("You're late again, asshole. You owe everyone a Starbucks drink after lunch"), which can be like herding cats some days, ordering equipment from the rental house and making sure it doesn't get lost or damaged, and keeping track of everyone's hours so we get paid the correct amount. Unless we start to get peeled really badly, the best boy is never on set.

Lamp Operators: On set, our job is to carry out the gaffer's instructions about which lamps he (or she) wants and where. If we don't have a rigging crew, we show up early (a "pre-call") in order to run cable from the generator to the set and try to grab the best equipment staging area before the grips get it.

Key Grip: The key grip works with the DP and the gaffer. Grips don't touch lights unless they're being nice and helping us out. The rule of thumb is that anything which casts a shadow is grip - one can't just aim a light at a set and leave it, because of a phenomenon known as "spill". Lighting is a precise thing, and one only wants the light to shine on a certain area of the set (or the left half of the actor's face) - so the key grip instructs his crew where to place "flags" to keep the light only on one area.

Best Boy Grip: same as the BBE (best boy electric), different truck.

Dolly Grip: The grip who's in charge of the camera dolly. No, not the dress-wearing kind of dolly, but a very heavy wheeled hunk of steel which can roll (on metal track), and has an arm which can raise and lower the camera in order to create those fancy moving shots that take forever to set up and audiences don't even notice. Dolly track, when laid down, must be perfectly level or the camera shakes as the dolly's moved down the track.

Grips: Grips, in addition to precision shadow-casting, are responsible for general safety on set. They build ramps, reinforce stairs and handrails, move set walls, hang pipe grids and greenbeds (walkways which are suspended over a set), build tents outside building windows so we can shoot night scenes during the day, and assemble and operate those gigantic, complex camera cranes.
Don't believe those ads on the back pages of certain film-related publications ("Learn to be a grip movie technician in 10 days!"). Grip is not an entry-level position.

On a show with more than one shooting unit, these positions will be duplicated for the second unit, and shows with rigging units will have a rigging gaffer and rigging key grip with associated personnel. On shows without a rigging crew, the best boys are responsible for pre-rigging sets.

I could go on (and on and on and on), but I'll stop here.

If you're writing something and aren't sure about what any particular crew person does, please don't guess - just email me and ask. Although I sometimes take a few days to answer emails, I'll be more than happy to help.

Unless you want me to go insane - in that case, just keep it up with "all the gaffers". I'll eventually snap, I promise.


Anonymous said...

Grips are responsible for 'general safety on set'? Really? I must have missed that memo. Maybe someone else needs to do some fact checking?

mike80 said...

Yes, as a member of the Grip Union, with over 45 hours of industry safety training, and 15 years in the biz, I can tell "anonymous" that we (Grips) are indeed responsible for general safety. Now, if there is a safety issue, the correct place to report it is to the 1st assistant director. If the safety issue falls under the purview of the grip dept. (involving physical safety of the rigging, lighting,set walls, stunt rigging when grip aided, grip equipment, etc),then the 1st ad tells the Key Grip. The Key is also expected to be a "safety steward" for the crew, and to be the leader in pointing out safety and health hazards to the AD.

lizriz said...

Was that an industry publication??? How completely lame.

Here's a question though, I did think the term "electrics" was correct. Is "lamp operators" more correct?

she said: said...

Why do they call them "best boys"? I've always wondered that.

Not Bridget Jones said...

Here on the east coast, we call them electrics, not lamp operators.

It seems like there is a good joke in there with "all the gaffers." Maybe "everybody's a gaffer and nobody is a grip?" (grip just sounds better in that sentence than electric).

By the way, do you know the etymology of the word "Gaffer?" The archaic meaning is "old man" or "grandfather."

karoshi said...

Yes, Mike80. That's how it works on paper. In the real world? Not so much.

Peggy, dig your writing, even when it's more amusing than accurate. Creative license, right?

Shelby said...

great blog!

Anonymous said...

Sitting around on set (as you do in the Set Decoration or Art Department, unless a flurry of activity is required, usually necessitating a 4 AM call) conversation turned to unique group names, such as "a gaggle of geese"or "a murder of crows". Someone, I can't remember who, came up with "a tantrum of decorators", which caused much mirth, and leads me to the possibility of the same being applied to grips, or electrics, or wardrobe, or anyone else in this twisted profession.

Throw 'em on out there, brothers and sisters.

"A Vanity of Actors"?

Anonymous said...

A BLOB of Teamsters

you better believe I'm anonymous

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't that be a SLOTH of Teamsters?

Peggy Archer said...


A SHOCK of juicers?

As a point of clarification:

Yes,responsibility for general safety on the set falls to the grips. Department-specific safety issues do not. I am expected to tape down my own cables and make sure that I've not obstructed a doorway, but general issues like building a ramp or padding a low ceiling are in grip country.

Now, if the grips can break a guy off to deal with the issue is another story entirely.

We're still called 'electricians', but the official term is "lamp operator" or "set lighting technician".

I've heard that the term "best boy" came from when the department head would bring his son to assist him - his "best boy". Don't know if that's true or not.

Oh, and due to something that happened tonight at work I'm going to turn the comment moderation back on for a bit.

I'll 'splain later.

Anonymous said...

Hey anonymous, Yeah I guess you didn't get the memo. Probably cause your not a union grip. It's very well known that when a piece of equipment is set in a compromising position or a condor is moving we spot the operator, spot the steady cam so as not to run into anyone, especially the "Fluff and Puff Crowd" i.e. Makeup and Hair depts. who are always setting their stuff in the way.

Anonymous said...

Do you get your name in the credits?

Charli said...

When I think of lamp operator, for some reason I think about Lucy and her having a lampshade on her head. I'm sure that's not the required dress as a lamp operator, but I hope it made you laugh.

I thought a gaffer was king of gaffer tape (lame joke).

EcamirG said...

i thought the origin of 'gaffer' was a reference to the early days, when stagehands were often longshoremen or sailors, and they brought their 'gaff's with them, but it must be pointed out that i am more than a little retarded.

i actually read something the other day that made reference to "all the leadmen on set." my eyeball fell out, onto the page.

Mike80 said...


Hollywood (by which I mean "movie biz") is not the real world - so you can give up that little expectatation.

You must be non-union, because it has been like that on every union show I have ever been on. Or in production - which is really an office full of people who exist to try to take all the credit and keep the working man down.

Hope you enjoy your lack of dental plan, pal.

Fulff and Puff said...

You mean I've been telling the "728= 7 electricians 2 lights 8 hours" joke all wrong? I never knew it was 7 gaffers.

And as a member of the "Fluff and Puff crowd" I always find it amazing that my 10 inch by 10 inch set bag always seems to be "in the way" yet the c-stands and flags strewn around video village and the open ladders or unused dolly track blocking the only entry to set is somehow okay.

When I tore my ACL going from my trailer to set was it because I tripped over a hair chair or a makeup set bag? Nope. It was some closed up dolly track placed thoughtfully, in the dark, across the only access point into a dark building. Was there a working light? No. How about some cones? No. (and yeah, it was a union show) Our crap may always be "in the way", but then, so is yours.

scrimburns said...

Ouch... Fluff and Puff!

I thought he/she was called the Gaffer because they used to use gaff poles to pan and tilt the instruments on the grid. Some of us still do! It's an art form, actually.

During a build, the construction coordinator is responsible for safety, not the key rigging grip, as I recently found out.

Lastly, on the east coast, lots of best boys work on the sets as much as they're on the truck.

like the blog. hope you find new work soon. happy thanksgiving

Ed Padgett said...

Ms. Archer,

Thank you for sharing what the different job titles actually do.

Have always wondered, but never took the time to do the research.

Have a happy Thanksgiving.