A gaffer is in charge of the electrical department on a production. Working closely with the director of photography, the gaffer’s job is to help execute the DP’s vision by designing the lighting. Their main tasks include figuring out the right light placement; selecting and managing the electrical equipment and lighting instruments for each shot—including colored gels and filters; running cables; setting up generators; overseeing a team of lighting technicians, and maintaining safety. During the shoot, they monitor the lighting conditions.
Gaffers are also heavily involved during pre-production, studying the script and meeting with the director, DP, and key grip to map out the aesthetics of the film. They must also communicate with producers and production managers to determine what the project’s electric and crew budgets are, as well as hiring their best boy electric.
According to gaffer Chris Strong (“Se7en,” “Gone Girl”), a typical shoot day “is being on set to watch the first rehearsal, the actors leave, and then the stand-ins come in and you start figuring out camera angles and lighting for that scene. Then you start lighting. The same process is repeated throughout the day until they wrap.
“My questions for the camera department are: Is this the shot? Are these the sidelines? Is this the correct framing? For set decorating: Is this where furniture is gonna go? Are these the right practicals? Are there specific practicals that require specific bulbs and do you have spares for them? My work with the grips has to do with making sure lights are properly cut, softened, shaded, etc. And, of course, with the director as to the actual action of the scene, where the actors will start and stop and such.”
On a smaller production, the work of a gaffer and that of a grip tend to get rolled into one position (without any support staff) who reports to the director of photography. On very small productions, all three of these jobs—gaffer, grip, DP—may fall under the job description of the DP, meaning they’ll be setting up lights and gear and working the camera themselves.
Grip + Electrical
Chief lighting technician
Gaffers are the head of the electrical department and supervise a crew that consists of the best boy electric, lighting technicians, set electricians, and lamp operators. They report to the director and DP, working closely with them as well as the key grip.
Like all jobs in the film industry, salary depends on a variety of factors, such as experience, location, equipment, and the budget of the project, but for gaffers who are in a union, certain pay scales are set and productions must obey them. Gaffers on major productions can earn an average of $47.43 per hour, according to Production Beast, and with a median income of $95,035 for those in film, according to Paysa.
Many gaffers start out as PAs or in the entry-level positions they ultimately supervise, serving as lamp operators, set electricians, and best boys before moving up in the lighting department.
Experience + Skills
The role of a gaffer is an extremely technical one that requires vast knowledge and experience within the fields of electricity, lighting equipment, color theory, and photography. As the gaffer is head of a department, having administrative and interpersonal skills are a must (though much of the administrative work is taken care of by the best boy electric, their second-in-command), as well as being adept at safety protocol. Gaffers will also need an electrician license, certification, and safety training. (These are issued on a state—and sometimes county—level. State-by-state electrician license and certification requirements can be found here.)
Another key trait of successful gaffers? A cool head. “You could walk into a job like ‘Mission: Impossible,’ ‘Transformers,’ ‘13 Hours’—these jobs can be overwhelming. On paper, they look immensely unachievable,” says gaffer Martin Smith. “I’ve stood there on some days and felt really overwhelmed—sweaty palms, nervousness. But you gotta break it down; you gotta look at the smaller parts. If you break it down into small chunks of work with your team, with your rigging crew, anything is achievable. You only learn that by working.”
While schooling always helps, it’s more useful to have hands-on experience on a lot of different sets before occupying the position.
For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!