You’ll most likely see the job title gaffer in the credits at the end of a film. But do you know specifically what they do on a film set?
Like all film jobs, the gaffer has a series of professional duties to complete during production. Their position is a mix of both technical and creative expertise.
So, whether you have an interest in pursuing the role or wish to understand more about film crew roles in general. The following guide will break down the job role, with tips on education, salary, and career advice.
What is a Gaffer?
The word gaffer is still used in British slang to mean boss or old man. But the film terminology comes from theatre, where lamplighter gaff poles adjust rigged stage lighting. The term was picked up in Hollywood during the 1930s.
Also known as the chief lighting technician, the gaffer is the head of a film or television’s lighting department. The lighting team consists of specialists such as sparks, console operators, and genny operators. Not to mention, the best boy who is the gaffer’s second in command.
The lighting team needs to work together quickly and effectively during the setup of every individual scene. With this purpose in mind, the gaffer must be a proficient team leader.
This next section will break down all of the responsibilities a gaffer has throughout the various production stages.
The director of photography and line producer typically hire the gaffer. One of their first tasks is to read the script and make notes of any lighting changes. They will normally employ the lighting team, and attend any tech scouts with the DOP and key grip.
Afterward, the gaffer will decide what lighting equipment is best for the job within the budget. Lighting plans are drawn up and shared with the team. Each scene will need an individual lighting plan created.
During filming the gaffer will work with the DOP, director, and producer to determine the lighting setup. Above all, it’s their primary duty to help the DOP create the film’s cinematic look.
In addition, they lead their team, make any lighting changes, and are responsible for electrical safety on set. Lastly, the gaffer will help strike the lights, and make sure to return all equipment in working order.
Gaffer Education & Skills
A gaffer is a fully qualified electrician. So in order to pursue this role, you will need to train in lighting installation. In-depth electrical knowledge is needed, as well as a full understanding of the filmmaking process.
There are a few ways to learn these skills. Firstly you could take an apprenticeship in electrics, such as through Screenskills or Electrical Careers.
You could also take a general film production course either at a film school or university. On the job, work experience is a must since you will need to learn how a lighting department works together.
A gaffer should have strong communication skills and be able to lead. You may also need to work at heights, and the work can be physically laborious with long work hours.
Other skills include knowing how to use light artistically, working within a budget, fixing broken lights, hiring and organizing a crew schedule. Safety precautions and being aware of electrical procedures is also essential.
Gaffer Career Route
To begin their career, a gaffer will need to become a qualified electrician. You might also benefit from work experience which you can acquire through working on low-budget or student productions. Even so, you will need to develop a full understanding of filming lighting equipment.
There is no one correct route to any film role, but typically a gaffer begins as an assistant. You could also start as a lighting trainee, before moving up to more responsibilities.
Other possibilities are gaining experience from theatres, or working at a kit hiring company to get yourself familiar with the equipment. You can discuss career routes with gaffers on the Roger Deakins Forum.
Gaffers are self-employed, so you will be able to negotiate your rate throughout your career. How much a producer will pay you depends on your skills and experience level.
Many gaffers start as sparks (lighting technicians), where they will begin at £150 per day. In contrast, a gaffer can take home between £250-£500 per day depending on the scale of production.
Want to know about other film crew salaries? Check out our updated page on production crew rates.
To sum up, the film gaffer is the head of the electrical and lighting department on film and television sets. It is a challenging role that requires a lot of skill. Still, it could provide an enjoyable, alternative career for the right candidate.
Do you have any questions about the gaffer role? Let us know in the comments section below, and will answer all questions we receive in detail.