How to Become a Gaffer

Article Image
Photo Source: Shutterstock

Also known as chief lighting technician, the gaffer plays a significant part in the film industry’s grip and electrical department. Serving as the head of the electrical division, a gaffer’s role entails supervising a crew consisting of best boys, lighting technicians, set electricians, and lamp operators. They report to the director and director of photography (DP), working closely with them and with the key grip. However, before moving up in the lighting department, many gaffers actually start out in the entry-level positions they ultimately supervise. This means they know firsthand what it takes to climb the film industry ladder.

Interested in becoming a gaffer? From the job requirements to how much a gaffer makes, here’s everything you need to know about this supervisor role.


What Is a Gaffer?

Gaffer setting up a lightElizaveta Galitckaia/Shutterstock

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. 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 the project’s electric and crew budgets and hire their best boy electric

What Does a Gaffer Do?

Setting up lights on Episode 104 of 'Inventing Anna'Episode 104 of Inventing Anna. Cr. Nicole Rivelli/Netflix

The primary responsibilities of a gaffer include figuring out the proper 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. The work doesn’t stop there, either. A gaffer also monitors the lighting conditions during the shoot to ensure the set’s ambiance is up to snuff. 

According to gaffer Chris Strong (“Se7en,” “Gone Girl”), a typical shoot day begins with being on set to watch the first rehearsal. Then, when the stand-ins replace the actors, that’s when a gaffer starts figuring out camera angles and lighting for that scene. The process is repeated throughout the day until production wraps. Strong says he works closely with the camera department, set decorators, grips, and directors to make sure everything runs smoothly. “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, [I work] with the director as to the actual action of the scene, where the actors will start and stop and such.”

Grip vs. Gaffer: What's the Difference?

Setting up lights on a film setguruXOX/Shutterstock

Many people tend to get the role of a gaffer and a grip confused. On a smaller production, the two positions tend to get rolled into one. That person then reports to the director of photography, or DP. On very small productions, all three of these jobs—gaffer, grip, and DP—may fall under the job description of the DP, meaning they’ll be setting up lights and gear and working the camera themselves. But what exactly is the difference between a grip and a gaffer on a regular production? The gaffer knows where to put the lights throughout each scene, whereas a grip builds the actual lights. A simple way to look at it is that a gaffer provides the vision and the grip offers the mechanical work.  

What Is a Gaffer’s Average Salary?

Gaffer adjusting lighting on setElizaveta Galitckaia/Shutterstock

Gaffers earn an average hourly wage of $17.26. Data also indicates that salaries typically start around $12.74 per hour and can bump up to $41.26 per hour. As for top-level gaffer earnings, they can start at $41.26 per hour, or $85,825 per year.

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 are represented by IATSE Local 728, and there are minimum set rates for union productions. For more information about rates, visit IATSE Local 728’s wage scales.

What Are the Education Requirements to Be a Gaffer?

Lighting devices on a film setgnepphoto/Shutterstock

The role of a gaffer is a highly technical one that requires vast knowledge and experience in electricity, lighting equipment, color theory, and photography. As the gaffer is head of a department, having administrative and interpersonal skills is a must (though much of the administrative work is taken care of by the best boy electric, their second in command). Knowledge of safety protocols is also key; gaffers may need an electrician license, certification, and safety training. (These are issued on a state—and sometimes county—level. It's a good idea to check state-by-state electrician license and certification requirements.)   

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 beneficial to have hands-on experience on many different sets before occupying the position.