What is a Gaffer?
The gaffer serves as the chief electrician on a film. They are in charge of all electrical work on a film. The term gaffer is an old-English word for boss and predates the film industry by some four hundred years. One of the gaffer’s main responsibilities is to ensure the health and safety on set by conducting risk assessments and maintaining electrical safety during production.
The gaffer is also responsible for the lighting budget which determines the lighting instruments, related equipment and power sources to be used on a film. Gaffer tape is another example of the lexicon of film—although similar to duct tape, it doesn’t leave behind a sticky residue—and is used to tape down cables to the floor so that people don’t trip over them.
Gaffers work closely with the lighting director, or director of photography, to put the director’s vision of the look and feel into practical terms. In addition, the gaffer is responsible for everything electrical including the off-set needs of hair and makeup, craft services, transportation and talent.
During a shoot, the gaffer is in charge of where to position the lights as well as operating the lights. They’re in charge of the lighting crew and are the middle man between the director of photography and the rest of the lighting crew. Additionally, gaffers are responsible in making sure all legal and safety regulations regarding electricity, driving and employment are followed.
The gaffer works closely with and supervises the electricians and grips. The electricians are the ones who do the actual placement of the lighting instruments and wiring for the distribution of electrical power. Grips handle everything non-electrical that modifies the light. This includes setting up stands for flags, diffusers and gobos as well as passive fill tasks of bouncing reflected light back on the subject with shiny boards or other reflectors.
Grips, under the supervision of the gaffer also handle negative fill requirements–the blocking of unwanted light sources as well as blackouts—completely blocking out exterior light (for instance, the sun) when shooting interior scenes.
The gaffer must be prepared for 12-18 hour days for weeks or months at a time and be able to deal with constant pressure—nothing happens on a film set until it’s been lit so for this reason, lighting personnel including the gaffer are often the first on the set and the last to leave.
“Hurry up and wait” is a time-honored description of what it’s like to be on a film set. As the gaffer, everyone is waiting for you to hurry up and get the scene lit. This can create a lot of pressure on the gaffer, especially when there are time constraints on the location or the crew is about to go into unplanned for overtime. Part of your job is to be able to handle the pressure and never let them see you sweat, while efficiently taking the time to light the scene correctly as determined by the lighting director.
Part of this efficiency will come from lighting the next setup while filming the current setup. A setup is basically the same thing as a shot—where everything is lit and placed based on where the camera is located. Move the camera, lights, actors or anything else and you probably will require another setup. Depending on the complexity of the setup, you should plan to shoot between 15 to 40 setups per 12-hour day if you have a large professional crew. That breaks down to 20 to 45 minutes per setup which isn’t a lot of time to relight a scene and doesn’t count time spent on multiple takes because the actors are having problems with their lines.
Gaffers play an integral role in filmmaking. Notice the lighting comes first in the classic saying, “Lights. Camera. Action.” If you decide to become a gaffer, it will require learning a lot of new skills, a lot of hard work, and devotion to long days back-to-back. Once a gaffer, you will never look at a film the same way you do now.
Learn about being a Lighting Director.