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

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