How to Become a Working Gaffer: The Essential Guide


The gaffer is a vital department head for every film set — without electricity, there are no lights, no microphones, and no cameras.

Their skills are highly technical but absolutely essential. Without the gaffer, there simply is no film. If you’re interested in being one of the most important people on the set, you’ve got a few things you have to learn first.

What is a Gaffer in Film?

Perhaps one of the most esoteric job titles on any film set is the gaffer. You’ve probably asked yourself at some point: "What is a gaffer in film production?"

What does a gaffer do? What does gaffer even mean?

The definition of gaffer is two-fold. It’s an old English term meaning “boss”, and it refers to the head of the electric department on a film set.

The electric department is in charge of everything that:

1. Requires electricity, and

2. is within the frame and needs to be exposed.

A gaffer combines deep technical knowledge with management skills.  They aren’t just technicians. They manage technicians, all the while working alongside a cinematographer.

What Does a Gaffer Do?

As the Electric department’s head honcho, the gaffer is tied into every other department’s electrical needs.

As the demands of each set are unique, the definition of a gaffer may vary.

Hair and makeup need their vanities powered, catering needs work lights, and transportation needs to charge their trucks.

If you're worth your day rate, you won’t stray far from the cinematographer, often glued to a monitor or dolly.

This is their natural habitat.

Gaffer - Video Village - ProductionBeast

Your new home! (Celebrity not included)

This close-knit relationship develops out of necessity: the gaffer has to be able to take lighting direction from the DP Then take that direction and use it to measure and assess lighting levels on set.

Dialing in that monstrous light 60 feet above the set for the perfect close-up requires the ability to delegate, lead, and - above all else - clear communication.

By definition, a gaffer has a complex and technical role on set. The gaffer has to know all the camera’s parameters (ISO, shutter speed, aperture), any camera movement, and where it’s looking.

They also need to understand the DP’s technical needs: how much exposure is needed and in which direction on the scale. This decision takes all post-production and coloring aspects into consideration.

You have to understand that you're lighting for the camera: your lighting doesn’t necessarily define the final image.

In this way, some sets may appear either very dark or very bright, very flat or too ‘contrasty’ to the untrained eye.

This is why it’s important to have a trustworthy and knowledgeable cinematographer and gaffer combo. Exposure on-the-day takes into consideration the DP’s plans for coloring. 

Key Grip vs Gaffer

It’s easy to confuse the gaffer and the key grip -- both report to the cinematographer, both have best boys, both have a reputation for being blue collar crew members.

Gaffer - West Side Story - ProductionBeast

They are also known for their elaborate dance rumbles with each other. West Side Story (1961)

The exact duties of the key grip belong to their own article, but an easy rule of thumb is that you define gaffer by electricity. Is it electric and plugged into a generator? 

That's your responsibility. Leave the grip crew to their rigs and focus on your wires.

How to Become a Gaffer

The definition of a gaffer is the chief of a team of set electricians.The gaffer understands what is and isn’t possible given all equipment on-hand. But he also understands his team and what is and isn’t possible with them.

You should know the limits of your equipment. Since electricity is formulaic and fixed in how it behaves, it can’t reasonably be stretched (although, gaffers know how to do that, too).

Within a few minutes of walkie chatter on channel 7, a gaffer may be fed amperage information, then direct the movement of a distant light 1/8” for the perfect eyelight.

Copy that, gaffer?

Most gaffers begin life set electricians. This makes sense, as we define gaffers by their relationship to electricity.

Learning the fundamentals of light choice and placement is one of the elements that makes a good gaffer. The best way to learn this is by doing it.

The only way to develop an eye for lighting is by doing it practically. Lighting theory only goes so far.

By definition, a gaffer also has to be an expert in resource management. Specifically electricity management.

They often have to crunch numbers and do the math to ensure there is ample electricity for a whole array of uses on a film set.

It’s also important to have a close working relationship with the cinematographer, who is often responsible for hiring you. Some big name cinematographers have a team they always work with.

You should do the same for your team of electricians. ProductionBeast’s social networking and group building tools will allow you to keep track of your favorite hires and stay in the good graces of your favorite cinematographers.

Moving up the Ladder

It isn’t uncommon for set electricians to work for years before gaining the necessary know-how and connections to become full-time gaffers.  Most have to work as best boys for before getting a chance to run the show.

At a certain point, you'll become eligible to join the union, I.A.T.S.E. Local 728. This brings certain perks, most notably minimum salaries, a pension, and healthcare.

It also brings certain drawbacks: if you belong to the union, there’s no working on non-union shoots. Ultimately you have to decide if it’s worth the trade-off, but know that if you want to work on a big studio shoot one day, those are all union.

What Does a Best Boy Do?

We’ve talked about the definition of gaffer, but what does a best boy do?

Well, first we need to establish that we’re talking about the best boy electric, as opposed to the best boy on a grip crew.

Gaffer - West Side Story 2 - ProductionBeast

Remember. Dance rumbles.

The best boy definition is simple: they’re the gaffer’s right-hand man.

The best boy is charged, among other things, with:

  • Managing set electricians (officially called Set Lighting Technicians, or at the crew level, juicers) in their day-to-day tasks 
  • Hiring and firing 
  • Keeping the equipment truck in order
  • Organizing equipment pick-ups and drop-offs

In short, the best boy does everything the gaffer can’t do since they’re busy working with the cinematographer.  

Best boys are often found fiddling with generators, or measuring cables with what looks like magic, but it’s just an amp clamp.

The definition of gaffer is the head of the electric department. And since the electric department does what it says on the tin (provide electricity on set), best boys are skilled in the technical minutiae of how to best provide electricity to the set and beyond.

This usually involves generators when on location.

If you’re looking to build an electric crew, your first hire should be the best boy. Check ProductionBeast for best boys available and ready to work.

What is a Gaffer’s Salary?

The typical gaffer salary can vary depending on a few things. First and foremost is whether you're an IATSE union member or not. On ‘union’ shoots, salaries are contractually fixed and can be up to $47.43/hr, including rentals.

The average salary for a gaffer varies depending on location, experience, and whether the gaffer has his own equipment or not.

It is common for gaffers to own their own equipment including all the necessary lights and stands required for a variety of applications.

Some gaffers make a good living working on non-union film sets, subsidizing their income with their own lighting package rented to productions at a discount compared to those available from bigger rental houses.

As such, the gaffer’s salary is best calculated on a shoot-to-shoot basis for most non-union film shoots. For the most part, gaffers negotiate their hourly rates for non-union shoots on a case-by-case basis.

It’s important to know the going rate for different gaffers with different skill levels in your local market. Do some research on ProductionBeast for more insight into the market and see typical gaffer salaries.

Wrapping Up

What does a gaffer do?  He powers the entire set.

Gaffer - Electricity - ProductionBeast

Just like how transpo has to be there on time, the lights must shine and the camera has to roll.  The definition of gaffer is that they’re the masters of electricity.

You are, literally, the generator that powers the entire set.  Put your profile up on ProductionBeast and start searching for jobs.  There are sets out there that need you!



#Filmmakers: Here's the 'Essential Guide to Becoming a Gaffer' from @StudioBinder #indie #filmmaking #setlife

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