Jul 13, 2010

film term of the day: Gaffer

Gaffer: the chief electrician on a film crew; maintains lighting equipment and works with the Cinematographer to light the set

The Cinematographer or Director of Photography (DP) is in charge of the artistic look of the film. The gaffer is the grunt who gets it done. The best boy is the gaffer's assistant. The electrical crew reports to the gaffer.

Lighting is one of those things in a movie that you take totally for granted. If it is done well, you don't think about it. If it is done poorly, you will probably think or say to yourself, "Hey, I can't see what's going on." Without light, there is no film exposure (or digital image) and no movie. The gaffer will never be famous, but his work is indispensable.

Example: Sometimes there are little pinpoints of light visible in an actor's eyes during a closeup. These are special lights called eye lights. A light is set up to reflect off the subject's eyes, giving them more depth of emotion and is just one of many lights used at the same time on a given shot. The gaffer is likely to be the one who chooses the right light for this job (as well as all the others), though most DPs are quite knowledgeable about the many kinds of lights available. As a licensed electrician, the gaffer is aware of all aspects of a given light's function including its required wattage, how to handle it safely (most lights on a film set become very hot), what color gels to use in order to achieve a desired effect, correct placement of the light relative to the action or subjects on camera and so on. The gaffer maintains intimate knowledge of all lights on a film set (of which there are easily dozens of varieties and hundreds of individual units). Lights are usually rented for the duration of the production schedule from a warehouse that specializes in film equipment, and this inventory is managed by the gaffer and those who report to him.

This brief article cannot come close to illuminating the amount of knowledge and hands-on expertise a gaffer employs on the job each day.

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