The Gaffer's Role
As a part of our series ‘Of Grips, Gaffers and More’ we talk about another crucial role in the production crew- that of Gaffers. Previously we presented the roles of Cinematographers and Grips.
Most Directors of Photography (DP) swear by their trusted gaffer. A gaffer is the chief electrician on a set. He implements the DP’s lighting plan. Lighting is of utmost importance for a good shot. It provides the right hue and sometimes haze to make the shot look the way the DP wants. The DP is responsible for the overall lighting design, but delegates the implementation of the design to the Gaffer and the Key Grip. Gaffer is in charge of everything related to lighting on the set.
A gaffer has mastery over the vast array of lights, lighting equipment, and lighting techniques. He is the head of the lighting crew and has a sound knowledge of the sets. He is involved in pre-production planning and location scouting. It is a gaffer’s job to brief the lighting crew about all aspects of the shoot. He is in charge of safety of the crew and advises about issues such as working at heights, handling equipment, etc. On location shoots, gaffer will supervise the rigging of lighting equipment. A skilled gaffer needs to anticipate the DP’s needs and has to be prepared with resources to facilitate smooth shooting. He can point out shortcomings to the cinematographer and depending on his relationship with the DP, can even provide technical solutions to make a better picture.
Due to the technical nature of the job, most gaffers have knowledge of and experience in the electrical field. Like most production jobs, the hours are long, schedules are tight and dependent on many external factors, so flexibility is key. It being a physical job, gaffers need to be strong and fit. Aside from the physical requirements, gaffers need to be creative to use different means and tools to provide the exact lighting that a scene needs. Gaffer is assisted by the best boy and the lighting crew who work long and stressful hours. A gaffer needs to have patience, tact and ability to keep the team together. Communication and people skills are vital for a gaffer.
Though no formal training is required to become a gaffer, courses in stage lighting or film production will prove very helpful in finding work. Detailed learning comes from working on the sets. Most, generally start out as lighting crew, then graduate to best boy before transitioning to the role of gaffer. Try to land a job as a set production assistant and work your way to the electrical department. Be willing to learn and keep your ego aside. Show your enthusiasm to the DP. It will take a few years to become a gaffer but once you get there, the career could be very satisfying. “The Set Lighting Technicians Handbook” by Harry C. Box is often considered the bible for film lighting and electrical work. Technology has also impacted lighting in a big way. A lot of lighting controls have now been computerized. A gaffer should be able to use the computer as a tool. An updated knowledge of lighting and cinematography mobile apps can also be very useful for a gaffer.
In India, big budget movies hire gaffers. In smaller budget films, talented light-men take on the responsibilities instead. They may be 1st Assistant, Assistant DP or Chief Camera Assistant. In India, Mulchand Dedhia is highly regarded in this field. He is known for his work on Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011) and many domestic productions. His daughter Hetal Dedhia is now the first female gaffer in the film industry. Another prominent gaffer is Abdul Hamid Shaikh who now heads the lighting department at MAD Studios, Mumbai. Being a gaffer can be a challenging yet a very rewarding experience. If you have the drive, are detail oriented, are a good listener and communicator and have excellent soft skills, you are sure to succeed as a gaffer.
Photo- By Noroton - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6977498