Who is the Head Electrician on a Film Set?

The gaffer is the head electrician. This means that they are in charge of all the lighting personnel. How they got this name, I have absolutely no clue – but rumor has it that the name gaffer predates the sound era in a time when electricity was used to a lesser degree than today. The early stages had canvas roofs that were opened and closed to emit varying degrees of light. This canvas was moved with large gaffing hooks which had been traditionally used to land large fish. I won’t swear that this is the actual reason we call them gaffers, but it is the only explanation I have heard that sounds reasonable.

A gaffer in the motion picture industry is the head of the electrical department, responsible for the execution (and sometimes the design) of the lighting plan for a production. Gaffer, outside of the motion picture industry, is a traditional British English word for an older man or boss. It is essentially a variant on grandfather, used as a term of respect for a village elder, and applied to those in charge of workers since the 19th century.

“Gaffer” within the motion picture industry originally meant moving of overhead equipment to control lighting levels using a gaff. Experienced gaffers can coordinate the entire job of lighting, given knowledge of the time of day and conditions to be portrayed, managing resources as broad as electrical generators, lights, cable, and manpower.

Gaffers are responsible for knowing the appropriate color of gel (plastic sheeting) to put on the lights or windows to achieve a variety of effects, such as transforming midday into a beautiful sunset. They can re-create the flicker of lights in a subway car, the motion of light inside a turning airplane, or the passage of night into day.  Usually, the gaffer works for and reports to the Director of Photography (the DP or DOP) or, in television, the Lighting Director (LD). The DP/LD is responsible for the overall lighting design, but he or she may give a little or a lot of latitude to the gaffer on these matters, depending on their working relationship.

The gaffer works with the key grip, who is in charge of some of the equipment related to the lighting. The gaffer will usually have an assistant called a best boy and, depending on the size of the job, crew members who are called “electricians”, although not all of them are trained as electricians in the usual sense of the term. Colloquially they are known as ‘sparks’ or ‘juicers’.

Gaffer tape is but one of the many types of tape that a gaffer, key grip, or any other member film crew uses in a variety of situations. Other types of tape include paper tape, adhesive transfer tape (also known as snot tape)[3], electrical tape, J-LAR, and cloth tape.

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