Film gaffer career guide

Film Career Guide: What Is a Gaffer?

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You will have seen the job title gaffer on the film’s credits. But do you know specifically what a gaffer does 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 film gaffer role or wish to understand more about film crew roles in general. This following guide will breakdown the job role, with tips on education, salary, and career advice.

What Is a Film Gaffer?

Lighting tape roll

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 was 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 set up of every individual scene. With this purpose in mind, the gaffer must be a proficient team leader.

This next section will breakdown all of the responsibilities a film gaffer has throughout the various production stages.

Gaffer Responsibilities

Film gaffer adjusting light

Pre-production

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 typically employ the lighting team, and attend any tech scouts with the DOP and key grip.


Afterwards, 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.

Production

During filming the gaffer will work with the DOP, director and producer to determine the lighting set up. Above all, it’s their primary duty to help the DOP create the films 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.

Education & Skills

ARRI film light

A film 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 organising a crew schedule. Safety precautions and being aware of electrical procedures is also essential.

Film Gaffer Career Route

Gaffer on film set

To begin, their career a future 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, a gaffer 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 by 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.

Salary Expectations

Gaffers are self-employed, and 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 on £150 per day. In contrast, a gaffer can take home between £250-£500 per day depending on the scale of production.

Curious to know what other crew jobs role salaries are on film and television sets? Check out our updated chart of film production crew rates.

Wrapping Up – Film Gaffer Careers

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.


Career Guides, Cinematography, Film Production

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