God said (reportedly) “Let there be light” and there was. Sounds simple enough, but absent omnipotence, getting proper lighting on set or in the field isn’t always so straightforward. It’s because of this that today in Zeferino Professional Lighting we want to talk about the work of the Gaffer.
Gaffer is British slang for “grandfather” and is meant as a term of respect. In the early days of the movie industry, the lighting equipment was often huge and extremely heavy. The only people experienced in moving that kind of stuff around were longshoremen – the dock workers who load cargo onto ships. These guys were unionized and worked in highly structured teams. At the top was the older and more experienced “grandfather” or – Gaffer. Of course, that meant his most experienced apprentice was – can you guess? – his Best Boy.
The first thing to determine, on any shoot, says Jessica Creech Gaffer, is all the locations that you will be shooting at. Take a notebook with you and write down the locations, time of day the scene will be shot and any other observations you make about the setting. This is especially important when you are shooting outdoors, since controlling the environment with ultra-limited resources is next to impossible. That doesn’t mean you can’t use your ingenuity to work around many issues though. The Director of Photography (DP) will be relying on you to help him or her think ahead to identify difficulties you may encounter, so speak up if you notice obvious impediments that will affect how and where the scene is ultimately shot.
“A lot of the terminology has changed with the confluence of photography and digital cinema,” explains Peter Trilling, a director of photography. “Traditionally, in the motion picture world, grips are assigned the task of setting, securing and rigging lights, along with cameras. They don’t really design the lighting of film sets or interview situations … The real responsibility of lighting falls to the gaffers. They are responsible for lighting the set, in most cases at the behest of the director of photography.”
“It always starts with the director communicating his or her vision for what the lighting style should be,” says Vidal Cohen, a grip with 20 years’ experience on films and TV programs including Daddy Day Care, Californication and Pushing Daises.
“Nothing is really impossible if the people you have working with you are creative and know their business,” Cohen says. “A good lighting team will give you what you want even if you’re not exactly certain what you want. Otherwise, they’ll engineer creative workarounds to stay on budget.”
Finally we want to give you 3 tips:
If you want to be a Gaffer…
… Learn all there is about film equipment, especially lighting equipment. The gaffer is in charge of all the lighting personnel. While the cinematographer (another name for the director of photography) is the one who decides how to set up the lights, the gaffer is the one who must turn these requests into actions.
…Understand that you have a great responsibility and learn to be a leader. You are in charge of the lighting team, which means you need to keep a group of tired, weary and overworked people to keep going even when they are about to drop. Lead by example.
In Zeferino Professional Lighting we are lucky to work with great Gaffers. So we want to encourage you to share your opinions and advice on this profession. And if you’re Cinematographer we would like you to tell us what is for you a good Gaffer.