The Job of the Gaffer Defined
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The Definition of Gaffer
The Gaffer is the head of the lighting and electrical departments on a film set. They are responsible to the Director of Photography. Their job begins in pre-production where they work with the Director, the Cinematographer (or Director of Photography) and the Key Grip. During these collaborative pre-production meetings, the visual aesthetic of the film is determined as well as the logistics for achieving the desired look.
From there, the gaffer is charged with implementing the lighting required. Before production starts the gaffer will scout locations, determine lighting equipment needs, power requirements and cost out the electrical and lighting budget for all equipment and crew members.
The Gaffer’s Key Responsibilities
Once filming begins, the gaffer makes sure that the lights are properly set up, pointed and connected to a power source. The lights may need to be scrimmed, baffled, filtered or otherwise modified to create the desired aesthetic. The gaffer works with the key grip who is in charge of the grip crew and the non-electrical equipment used in lighting (stands, flags, gobos, scrims, reflectors, etc.) The gaffer is assisted by the best boy electric who acts as his foreman for the electrical and lighting department crew. The key grip is assisted by the best boy grip who acts as foreman for the grip department. They all work together to make sure the lighting takes place according to plan.
The key skills required of a gaffer include knowledge of all the types of lighting available and how to use which lights for which scenes, depending on the aesthetic design for that scene. They must be able to have their crew setup and strike lights quickly. Lighting of a scene is often the most time-consuming task involved with filming any scene and an inefficient lighting department can wreak havoc on budgets.
Good lighting is second only to good audio as the most important technical aspect of a film. Unlike audio which can employ post production techniques like ADR to fix bad audio from a shoot, lighting is much more limited and expensive to fix in post.
While the majority of the work that is involved in lighting a film is physical in nature (transporting and hauling the equipment, setting up the lights and related equipment, running cables, etc.) the gaffer is in large part a creative artist. They basically paint a scene with light and shadow. A good gaffer can look at a lighting setup for a scene from 50 yards away and call out for minute adjustment to improve the lighting without even looking at a monitor. That’s because they have developed a refined sense of what the camera sees and how it is influenced by lighting.
Other Gaffer Skills
Besides lighting that makes a scene look normal, there are a variety of other tasks that fall to the gaffer to make work. Shooting an interior scene against an exterior window, transforming high noon into an awesome sunset, recreate the flicker of subway lighting, or turning daytime into night should be part of the gaffer’s normal bag of tricks.
Unlike many film production positions, the gaffer is the head of the lighting department with no traditional ladder for advancement. As the gaffer grows in reputation, their upward mobility comes largely from working on bigger and longer shoots with larger budgets.
The Career Path for Becoming a Gaffer
The path to becoming a gaffer is varied. You can start as a production assistant or grip and work your way up. Or you can attend a film school and get to observe first hand, and even take part in, multiple film projects. In either scenario, you’ll want to observe the lighting process from beginning to end and gain an understanding of how the camera and grip departments work with each other.