Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Behind the Scenes 8: The Lighting Department

What the heck is a Gaffer?

The Gaffer is the head of the Lighting department, also often known as the Electrical department. The quaint job title comes from the archaic English name for 'the old man'. (Lord of the Rings fans will remember that Sam Gamgee called his father the Old Gaffer).

Until quite recently film technicians were highly unionised and the only way to get a union card was to be invited in by an existing member. As a result, sons followed their fathers into the business and a lighting team could consist of an entire family, with the Old Man at its head! Check out modern movie credits and you'll still see the same surname feature quite frequently.

Another version has the name Gaffer deriving from ship's gaff poles and claims that the earliest lighting technicians on film sets were off-duty sailors, or that the first sound stages had canvas roofs that were opened and closed with large gaffing hooks (fishing hooks) to control the amount of light entering the stage. I prefer my explanation!

The Gaffer works closely with the Cinematographer and determines which lights to use to create certain effects or moods, the strength, size and position of each light, as well as making adjustments throughout the scene for cloud cover or the brightness of the sun.

He should be a certified electrician, since his responsibilities not only include designing pretty lighting effects, but also maintaining the electrical equipment and ensuring health and safety for everyone in the film unit.

The Best Boy is the second in command in the team, the Gaffer's right hand man (and on very rare occasions right hand woman). He's the foreman, in charge of the team's logistics, such as ordering equipment, scheduling the team, keeping time-sheets and liaising with Production, as well as over-seeing teh rigging of lights and cables.

Spark with Checkerboard reflector
The majority of the team, the workers, are lighting electricians known by the nick-name of Sparks. These are the junior electricians who do the manual labour of carrying and rigging lights, laying cables, placing trace or gels over the lights, hanging black-out cloths etc.

The Generator Operator (most commonly called the Genny Op) does ... well, that's fairly self-explanatory, isn't it?

Generators are necessary no matter where the film unit is shooting, whether it be a game reserve with no access to power, or a surburban house. Since film lights require a huge amount of power, it would be hugely unfair to expect the location owner to foot the power bill - and might even blow the house power! The film lights also need to be matched to the generator (eg, single phase or double phase) and all the connectors and cables also need to match.

The Genny Op's duties also include ensuring the generator has enough fuel to keep running so the entire film unit isn't stranded in the middle of nowhere without power.

Finally, Rigging Electricians are the electricians who move ahead of the main film unit, laying cables and positioning lights for the next scene while the main unit is still shooting elsewhere. Not every shoot has (or can afford) this advance team, but they are certainly worth it when time is of the essence.

Next week .... the Grips Department. [Get your mind out the gutter, you erotica writers out there!]

Image courtesy of www.training728.com


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Behind the Scenes 7: the Camera Department

If the Director is God on a film set, then his right hand henchman slash Archangel Gabriel is the Cinematographer or Director of Photography (abbreviated to DP or DoP, depending on which country you're in).

The DP heads up the Camera Department. While the men and women working below him might purely be technicians, who know stuff like focal lengths, lenses and filters, and more recently bits & bytes, the DP has to be an artist too. He designs the lighting, the angles and the overall look of the pictures we see. Ever admired a stunning sunset in a film, a sweeping shot that quite literally moved you to tears, or the gritty realism of a shot that made you completely forget you're watching a movie? That's the work of a great DP.

On larger shoots the DP might not actually operate the camera, but rather supervise the bigger picture. In which case, he'll also have a Camera Operator for each camera. This is a senior technician, who is in charge of an entire camera unit.

DOP and Focus Puller at work on a shoot in Mozambique
Beneath the DP / operator is the Focus Puller, often called by the far less interesting name of 1st AC (1st Assistant Camera). Apart from being the chief assistant to the DP, changing lenses, and occasionally even operating the camera while the DP or operator stands back to get the bigger picture, the Focus Puller's main job is to ensure that the relevant part of each shot is in focus when it needs to be. That's not as simple as it seems.

I remember a shoot once where the focus puller was crouched in the back of an open-topped convertible with the camera, and the focus had to shift from the approaching traffic light, to the redhead standing on the kerb, to the driver inside the car. And all this while the vehicle was in motion. No mean feat!

I'm dating myself here when I say I still love the look of real film. Film has an incredible texture that somehow feels natural to the human eye. If a subject in the foreground is in focus, the background tends not to be, and vice versa. And this kind of mimics the way we see in everyday life, because even with 20/20 vision, our brain seldom focusses on absolutely everything at the same time. Talk about brain overload!

Modern digital cameras tend to have a 'flatter' look, meaning absolutely everything is in sharp focus, and personally I find that lacking in character. Luckily, as technology improves, digital cameras are starting to mimic film.

But I digress!

Below the Focus Puller (or Pullers if it's a multiple camera shoot, since each camera needs its own
focus puller) are the Clapper Loaders. And no, before you ask, (s)he doesn't clap any loads.

Unless there are trainees on set, the Loader is the junior of the team, and gets to do all the fetching and carrying of the heavy lens boxes, filling out of camera reports (eg. which lens or filter was used on which shot), and the making of tea and coffee for his superiors.


In the good old days of film, he (or she) loaded the film negative into the magazines that were attached to the top of the camera, and he operated the clapperboard. These days, with memory cards replacing film magazines, he doesn't do much loading anymore, but the name has stuck. And I think it sounds way more interesting than '2nd AC'.

What's the purpose for the clapperboard? Check back here when I cover the Sound Department.

The camera team also includes a VTO. (Aren't all these abbreviations cool? We film industry insiders can have whole conversations that no-one but us will understand!) VTO stands for Video Take-off Operator, and it's a fancy way of saying 'the guy with the monitors' (or gal). When we first started using VTOs on set, it was a trainee with a monitor and a VHS machine who hit record, stop and play. These days (I say that a lot, don't I?) the VTO has sophisticated computer equipment that not only plays back each take after it's shot so the powers-that-be can scrutinise what has just been filmed, but he can practically edit the entire show on set, adding in special effects and everything.

Another 'must have' member of the team is the DIT (Data Imaging Technician) or Data Wrangler. I won't go into the detail of the differences between the two job titles (though I could!) but suffice to say this person is a cross between a computer programmer and a camera technician. This individual ensures that the data coming off the memory card has not been corrupted, monitors image quality, keeps detailed logs of every shot, and hopefully is able to fix any technical glitches that occur on these new fandangled digital cameras.

There's a host of other camera team staff who are hired in on an 'only when needed' basis, like steadicam operators, aerial cameramen, underwater cameramen ... but this blog post is already thesis length, so I'm going to leave it at that!

Next week I'll be looking at the Lighting Department and answering Anonymous' question of 'What is a gaffer?'

Friday, February 15, 2013

Freebie Friday!

Blaze, our Minxy anthology, is FREE today and tomorrow on Amazon - our special Valentine's gift to you. It is available from Amazon and Amazon UK.

Jennifer Shirk is also running a give-away of her latest Entangled book, A Little Bit Cupid, on the Minxes blog. Leave a comment and stand a chance to win.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Behind the Scenes 6: The AD Department


In the film set hierarchy, the Director is supported by a number of teams that we'll meet over the coming weeks: The ADs, Camera, Lighting, Grips, Art Department ... and a host of others.

The Assistant Director reports directly to the Director and Producers, and works closely with the Production team.

During pre-production his (or her) responsibilities include doing script breakdowns (literally breaking down the script into individual elements: how many cast are needed in each scene? is it day or night? any special technical requirements? how long will the scene take to shoot?) and then scheduling the shoot accordingly.

Scheduling a film shoot is very much like doing a massive jigsaw puzzle, fitting together a hundred different elements that have to be taken into account: location constraints, actor availability, the budget, and in the case of TV series, the deadline for delivery of each episode.

On set, the AD's main function is to manage the film unit, to make sure everyone knows what they need to do and when they need to do it, and to communicate the director's wishes to everyone else. He is effectively the coordinator between the many departments.

The AD also coordinates the background action, making sure the extras look natural and realistic and don't draw attention away from the main action, and he keeps track of the shoot's progress. Is the day's shoot running on time or behind schedule? Does he need to crack the whip to get the shoot back on schedule?

In between all of this, the AD is also in constant communication with the Production team, preparing the call sheet for the next day.

The AD usually leads a team of assistants. In the comments section a few weeks back, Sally Clements asked how many ADs there are in the team.
The answer is that this depends entirely on the scale and nature of each production. The majority of the commercials I work on, the poor AD works alone with no assistants (and poor me gets to do half his work). On a big budget feature film, there'll probably be at least two 2nd ADs, and double that again in 3rd ADs, plus Set Runners. And that's just the main unit.

A second unit (another complete film crew, usually smaller in size than the main unit) might be required to film additional scenes while the main unit is filming elsewhere. So a second unit could be shooting aerial or underwater footage, stunts or SFX, while the director and actors are doing their thing on anotehr location.

The 2nd AD's main duty is to liaise with the cast, notifying them when they need to be ready, chasing them through hair & make-up and wardrobe so they're ready when needed, and notifying all cast of their call times. He (or she) distributes information, works with production to create the call sheet, and fills out paperwork such as the daily production report.

The 3rd ADs assist the team by passing on the ADs instructions to other teams, supervising extras, assisting with stopping passing traffic. They're a step above the Set Runners, who used to also be known as Gofers ("Go fer this, go fer that").

The team might also include Cast Coordinators, who do exactly what their title says. They manage everyone who appears in front of the camera, signing the cast in and out, checking they are where they need to be, and that they're wearing the right wardrobe. You won't believe how many times extras get lost, go wandering off, or how much time they spend around the craft table. Or how often they forget to return costumes after the shoot!

To become an AD, there's no formal training that can prepare you for the job, only experience. Most ADs start at the bottom as runners and work their way up. The most valued skills for any AD are leadership abilities, time-management and organisational skills, an ability to work well under pressure, a strong voice, and a great big dollop of people skills.

My long-time friend and one of my favourite ADs at work on a KFC commercial.


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Behind the Scenes 5: The Director

Image courtesy of www.123rf.com

Forget that classic image of the film director with megaphone in hand. The person who rallies the troops on the film set is the Assistant Director - and ADs very seldom use megaphones. (We're a bit more high-tech these days; we use two-way radios with headsets).

The Director's role is to create the Vision for the movie. The responsibility for making the movie work, for translating the script into celluloid, falls entirely on his or her shoulders. During pre-production, he interprets the script, hires the crew and cast he thinks will best suit his vision, and gives direction to all the other departments.

The director usually has the final say on which locations are selected, which actors are cast, what types of lenses are used to create the look, how the actors will be dressed etc. (Though if the director's still quite junior and still proving himself, he may have his decisions vetoed by the people with the power.)

Many people liken the director to a general in the army. He gives the orders, but he still has to answer to and accept orders from the government.

Once principal photography (ie. actual filming) begins, he's usually the guy (or gal) sitting quietly behind the monitor, watching the action. He directs the actors, working with them on their performances, and provides leadership to the entire film unit.

Much like writers, the most special skill that directors bring to movie productions are themselves. Their vision is the filmic equivalent of a writer's 'voice'.

Each director works differently, depending on their temperament. Some will be more involved, more vocal, while others will be quiet and restrained. Some will shout and throw tantrums (yes, I've worked with a few of those), some believe they're gods, and others are really great people to work with (thank heavens, that's the majority I work with).

Supporting the director is a team of assistant directors, the subject of next week's post.