Gaffers and Grips: What Do You Do Again?

“What Do You Do Again?” is Stareable’s new weekly column profiling the different film production roles. What roles should we profile next? Let me know in the comments!

After five weeks of Lord of the Rings jokes, I finally learned what the heck a “gaffer” is! We’re talking about grips today too, but there aren’t any safe-for-work jokes about that title, so here we are.

What do gaffers and grips do? Lightning round:

  1. Gaffers are in charge of the execution (and sometimes the design) of lighting a scene, and are sometimes credited as the “Chief Lighting Technician”
  2. Gaffers have the best tape
  3. Grips provide camera support, especially when the camera is in an unusual or unconventional position
  4. Grips also help build the lighting equipment as specified by the DP and/or gaffer

Misconceptions

Gaffers can help you take the One Ring to Mordor. I’m telling you- this joke does not get old.

Gaffers and grips are the same. Think of it like this: the gaffer is theory, the grip is execution. The gaffer knows where the lights should be placed for a scene to look right (sometimes but not always at the direction of the DP or director), and the grip builds the lights to be placed.

You don’t need gaffers outside. While it’s true that, especially for indie films, there’s not a lot of options for setting up lights outdoors, gaffers are still really important team members. You know those big circles?

Yeah, those. They’re called reflectors, or five-in-one reflectors, and they aren’t just to make a rando look busy- they’re to help redirect light when setting up a light isn’t possible. Plus, each colored side of the reflector has a different purpose. Watch this video for examples:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ew5724I7zwk

Grips are the same as PAs. PAs, or production assistants, often end up helping with the building and breaking down of set, but not alone, and never without supervision. Grips are highly specialized and can inform the other members of the crew which equipment will be required to get the planned shots in order to realize the vision of the director and DP.

Common mistakes

Not delegating. Even if you’re a team of one on an indie project, there are likely other people around who can help out with some basic instruction. Nothing slows down a project more than one person insisting they can do everything themselves. My dude, that’s why you have a crew. As long as you’re not asking an actor to help (unless that actor is also a crew member or a close friend), ask for assistance! There’s no shame in that!

Jumping the chain of command. Unless otherwise delegated, the gaffer reports directly to the DP, and the grip reports to everyone on set who has equipment that needs assembling. While offering suggestions is always helpful, especially on an indie set where resources are limited, you are not in charge (again, unless otherwise delegated). This is the point in the “What Do You Do Again?” column where we’re getting into roles that report to someone, instead of roles that are ends unto themselves, and it’s important you realize this before signing on.

Not paying attention once the camera rolls. Most of a gaffer or grip’s job happens before the cameras roll, but that doesn’t mean you can go hang out by the craft services table for the rest of the day. Often, subtle changes in the environment, even indoors, will occur that require repositioning the lighting and other equipment, and sometimes a problem will appear during a take that didn’t present itself during setup. Example: one actor consistently blocks the light of another because of their in-scene movement, making it necessary to reset the blocked actor’s light so it’s always unobstructed.

How can I learn to be a gaffer or grip?

As with most production jobs, you should start as a PA, observe, then start seeking out promotion in the roles you find most appealing. There’s no better way to learn than by doing, at least for hands-on skills.

Final Thoughts

While frequently misunderstood and overlooked by the general public, gaffers and grips are vital to the efficiency of a production, because they’re highly specialized and able to take over the more technical parts of running a set.

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