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Interview

A Key Grip Reveals the Biggest Crime an Actor Can Commit on Set

A Key Grip Reveals the Biggest Crime an Actor Can Commit on Set
Photo Source: Tina Rowden

Fresh off Discovery’s upcoming “Manhunt: Unabomber,” key grip Chris Birdsong explains what his lighting and rigging technician job entails and what that means for actors—plus his personal telltale sign that an actor is an amateur.

Grips are light geniuses.
“The key grip is in charge of shading, shaping, cutting, coloring, and diffusing light. The electricians [and] the gaffer bring in the light. And then grips come in behind them and make it pretty. We also do a lot of the rigging, so if a light needs to be funneled from the ceiling, we’ll build the rigging and hang light to make sure it’s safe and secure and not going to fall on anybody.”

READ: 9 Tips for Your First Time on Set

Marks exist for a reason.
“Every good actor knows that you’ve got to hit your mark, and there’s a reason for it. It’s not just because that’s where the director wants you; it’s because that’s where [we] have all done [our] best to make the shot look good for, where you were standing when we did the rehearsal.”

Don’t be a light hog.
“Don’t block the other actor’s light—ever! We light it in such a way that it should never happen. If you feel like you’re shadowing even a little bit, shift your weight to the other side of your body just a hair. It doesn’t take much, [and] you can definitely tell when an actor’s not quite as experienced.”

The crew are artists—and people.
“Be nice to the crew! Be respectful of the people who are making you look beautiful. We work very hard day and night to try and be as stealth as we can and not be in the way of actors as artists. We’re just as much artists as they are, and we take our art very seriously. If the lighting looks bad on a show, we’re like any artist who is unhappy with the painting they’ve created.”

Acting isn’t just acting.
“Acting isn’t just about knowing your lines and being able to act like somebody else. It’s knowing your place on set. When you’re doing cross coverage on two actors talking to one another and one of the actors is shadowing the other actor and they’re completely oblivious to it, even though they can see the shadow of their own head, and they’re still not moving, that’s one of the most amateur moves you can make as an actor.”

Follow the grip’s guidelines.
“[Crew members] never want to pull an actor out of their character by being in the way. You want to be a stealth little ninja, but in the same sense, you’re also setting some guidelines because they can’t completely have free reign. Otherwise, the cameramen aren’t going to know where they are, and the focus pullers aren’t going to be able to pull focus properly because they don’t know what distance away from the camera they are. Actors are somewhat confined while shooting.”

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