Film gaffer

Gaffer

aka: Chief lighting technician

You have likely read the job title gaffer on a film’s closing credits. But do you know what a gaffer does on a film set?

Like all film jobs, the gaffer has a series of professional duties to complete when making a film. They are the head of the electrical department and work closely with the director of photography. Their job role is a mix of both technical and creative expertise. 

On this page, you can find a complete gaffer job description. We’ll also discuss the job role skills, education, pay, and work route options.

What is a Gaffer?

The gaffer, or chief lighting technician, leads a film or television’s lighting department. The lighting team consists of many specialists, such as sparks, console operators, and genny operators. Not to mention, the best boy, the gaffer’s second in command.

Gaffer is still used in British slang to mean boss or old man. But the film terminology comes from theatre when people used lamplighter gaff poles to adjust stage lighting. The term was popular in Hollywood during the 1930s, and filmmakers still use it today. 

What Does a Gaffer Do?

gaffer adjusting a light

The gaffer works in the lighting department. They take orders from the director of photography and lead a team of lighting technicians. One of their main tasks is to help the DOP create lighting plans for every scene and location within the film.

They attend tech recces, hire equipment, and set up the lights. There might only be a few lighting assistants on a small film set. However, on major productions, the gaffer can have huge teams of assistants to lift and set up lights for them.

Gaffers also have an important role in electrical health and safety. During filming, they will watch over the lighting setups and make sure that everything is safe.

Gaffer Job Description

The gaffer begins work in pre-production. First, they read the script and make a note of any lighting requirements. During this stage, they will have many meetings with the director of photography to plan the film’s lighting. In addition, they hire a lighting team, hire lights and draw up any lighting plans for each scene.

When production begins, the gaffer is always on set leading their team. The gaffer works closely with the DOP and set up lights for every new scene. At the end of the day, they strike the set and tidy up all lighting equipment. The gaffer is also in charge of the film set electrical safety.

Pre-production Duties

To begin with, the gaffer reads the screenplay and makes notes on any lighting changes. Then, they work closely with the director of photography to design the film’s lighting. During this stage, they hire the lighting team, attend tech scouts and gather equipment for the shoot. The gaffer will also create lighting plans for each scene and location.

  • Create a script lighting breakdown
  • Attend meetings with DOP
  • Hire a lighting team and rent equipment
  • Create lighting plans for each scene

Production Duties

The gaffer works with the DOP, director, and producer during filming to determine the lighting setup. Above all, they must help the DOP create the film’s look. During filming, they lead their team and ensure electrical safety on set. After the wrap, they help to strike the lights and return all equipment in working order.

  • Work with the DOP to light the film
  • Lead the lighting team
  • Look after electrical safety on set
  • Strike sets and return all equipment

Education and Skills

closeup of an ARRI film light

The gaffer is the head of the lighting department. They are fully qualified electricians. So, to pursue this role, you first need to study lighting. You will need both in-depth lighting knowledge and an understanding of the filmmaking process.

After you have your electrical qualification, you can start your career as a spark or lighting trainee. It’s important to watch how other gaffers work in this job role. You also want to take a general film production course either at a film school or a short workshop.

The gaffer needs strong communication and leadership skills. They may also need to work at heights, lift heavy equipment, and work long hours. In addition, they will understand creative lighting, how to fix broken lights, and look after electrical safety on set.

  • Fully qualified electrician
  • Full filmmaking knowledge
  • Teamwork and leadership
  • Creative lighting knowledge
  • Lighting and Electrical safety

Gaffer Career Route

The gaffer can work across film, TV, and theatre. As mentioned, the gaffer must be a fully qualified electrician. It’s typical to start work on film sets as a spark or lighting trainee. You might also find apprenticeships that will provide on the job paid training. Another route is to start out working in theatre or by working at a film rental house.

You need to have plenty of experience before you find yourself in the gaffer job role. Many filmmakers start their careers working on student and low-budget films. It’s also important to network with filmmakers, which you can do by working on various film sets. If a producer or DOP likes you, they repeatedly ask you back on projects.

Gaffer Salary

The day rate of all film industry crew members depends on the project type and budget. So, you get less pay for a low-budget indie film than for a high-end TV project. If you look at our crew rates, you can see how the rates change depending on budget and job role. Of course, your pay will also take into account your personal experience. 

The gaffer is the head of the lighting department, and you will get paid more on union projects. The IATSE union has a starting day rate of $570. So, for the average 6-day work week, you will make at least $3,420. However, you can still ask for more based on the job and your experience.

Finding Work

At the start of your career, you can find entry-level jobs on film job sites. The entry-level job roles for a gaffer are spark or lighting assistant. You might also find work placements as a lighting trainee or lighting department driver. 

Another route is to start working on low-budget film sets within the role. That way, you can learn the job role through hands on practice and work up to higher budgets. Even so, you must learn all elements of the job role, including getting an electrical qualification.

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ScreenSkills is a charity that provides industry news, training, and resources for the UK film industry. As well as, having regular training opportunities they also now have a jobs board for professional production positions.ScreenSkills is a charity that provides industry news, training and resources for the UK film industry. As well as, having regular training opportunities they also now have a jobs board for professional production positions.

Wrapping Up

To sum up, the gaffer is a technical and highly skilled job role. You need to become a fully qualified electrician to find professional work in this role. The gaffer is also a team player who understands film production.

This career is a good match for lighting experts who want to bring more creative flare into their work. But remember, it will take time to get into this job role, especially on higher-budget projects. However, this is an in-demand job role with a lot of opportunities to grow.

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