The art of filmmaking is, in no small degree, the art of managing and manipulating light. Controlling light’s brightness or softness, its temperature, and its shape is a technical task requiring battalions of laborers who must finesse every clamp and lamp to get the lighting just right for the camera’s lens. The work is hard, but the craftspeople and technicians behind these tasks make movie magic happen. If you’re interested in getting started in lighting and electrical, Backstage is here to help you get started.
- What is the grip department?
- What is the electrical department?
- What does a typical day look like for someone in G+E?
- What gear/tools does G+E need on set?
- How do I get started in G+E?
- What training and skills do I need to work G+E?
- Where do I find work in G+E?
- What materials do I need when applying for a job?
- How much money will I make working in G+E?
- Do I have to join a union?
- Do I have to live in L.A. or New York?
- Ok, I’m ready to start my life in G+E. Where should I look for inspiration?
The grip department is responsible for all the equipment that moves camera equipment (“rigs”), sets up and operates dollies and cranes for the camera operator, and controls light (both natural and artificial). The department includes the key grip, best boy grip, and grips rigging, dolly).
The key grip is the head of the grip department and works closely with the gaffer to make sure any rigs needed for lights make it to the right place at the right time. They often coordinate directly with the DP and director, making creative decisions for shaping the light in a given scene.
Key grip Chris Birdsong puts it this way: “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.”
The best boy grip reports directly to the key grip, assisting them by managing crew, ordering gear, keeping tabs on equipment, and making sure the key grip’s orders are implemented.
Grips handle lighting equipment, manage the camera’s movement and rigging, build tents or screens, and make sure sets and rigs are safely built and maintained. They’re jacks-of-all-trades who do the labor of building the creative and logistical infrastructure of a shoot. Rigging grips handle any special rigs needed to capture a shot and dolly grips build camera dollies and dolly tracks, and push the dolly.
The electrical department is responsible for any and all electrical needs on set: setting and managing lights, running cables needed to power equipment on set, etc. “If it has an electrical pulse,” says Dave Donaldson of Grip Tips, “it starts with [the electrical department].” The department includes the gaffer, best boy electric, electric (comprised of the rigging team and set electricians (often called “spark”), and a generator operator.
The gaffer is the head of the electrical department (also referred to as the chief lighting technician) and coordinates with the director, DP, key grip, and best boy so all of the lighting elements come together successfully for every shot. They select lighting gel, bulbs, diffusion filters, etc., and are the chief electricians on the set.
Kelly Clear, chief lighting technician on Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” describes the job as a mix of “coordinating how the rigs—all the lighting [and] power—get put in, location to location,” and working “with the DP and director [to determine] what the lighting is going to be,” and then making it happen.
The best boy electric (sometimes known as the assistant chief lighting technician) reports to the gaffer as the second in command of the electrical department. He or she is the lieutenant who turns the gaffer’s needs into tasks and is responsible for making things happen. They rent gear, hire electricians, tracks the department’s expenses, and tells the crew what’s needed for every scene.
The electricians consist of two different groups: rigging electric and set electric. Both are part of the principal photography phase of a production; the rigging team lays and hangs cable for the entire production and moves all the lights, while the set electricians check the work of the rigging team, ensures all departments have power, and sets up lights for every shot.
One note: The positions listed above for both grip and electrical are standard on larger productions with decent budgets. However, on a smaller set, it’s common to roll both departments up into a single position: a grip/gaffer. Assuming there are no complicated light setups or camera rigs needed, this hybrid will be able to perform all the roles of a larger G+E team. According to L.A.-based filmmaker Noam Kroll, “a talented Gaffer/Grip will help your DP get the most out of their shots by helping them to focus their ideas more clearly and effectively.”
When you’re a member of the grip or electrical department, days are long and physical. If you’re working on location, the weather and climate can make the job even more challenging. And no two days are the same: Peggy Archer, a lighting technician whose credits include “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Memento,” says she loves her work because “it’s something different every day.”
Russell G. Senato, a grip on “Minority Report,” echoes Archer: “I’ve been strapped to a camera crane moving 65 miles per hour, I’ve been floating in the middle of the ocean in a wet suit surrounded by dolphins.”
So while there’s rarely a “typical” day on set for G+E, their respective jobs are all about executing orders that come down through the chain of command. Once the director decides what he wants a particular shot or scene to look like, the DP helps translate that vision into a physical reality which is then communicated to the gaffer and key grip. The gaffer takes that information, figures out the electrical math and necessary equipment, and relays orders to the best boy electric, who gives marching orders to their electricians, lighting technicians, and lamp operators. From there, the lighting technicians and lamp operators physically place the light where it needs to be, while electricians make sure everything is powered properly.
While the electrical team is doing their work, the key grip is also taking his instructions from the DP to his team, and tells the best boy grip what needs to be built, setup and procured to achieve the look the DP wants. The best boy grip relays the information, and the grips get to work setting up the equipment that will control the lights (set by the gaffer’s team) and allow the camera to move. Once everything is set, the key grip and gaffer await further instructions from the DP.
Want to see what the final product of all that hard work is? Check out Film Riot’s explanation of different types of dolly shots, how they come to life, and what the finished product looks like, and filmmaker Josh Olufemii’s video that breaks down different lighting scenarios on a set and the equipment needed for each.
Every member of G+E should carry a personal tool kit with them at all times so anything they might need is quickly accessible. Larger gear like cables and C-stands and standard accessories like gels and scrims are provided by the production (thanks to all the ordering done by the best boy grip and best boy electric).
Practically speaking, comfortable and durable shoes are critical to your health and mobility during long, physical days on set. You’ll also need a pair of durable work gloves to protect your hands while carrying heavy objects, securing and tightening components of equipment, and adjusting heated lighting instruments. A billed hat is also a good idea to block light and allow you to see clearly, as is a headlamp to illuminate a path on a dark set and increasing your visibility when hauling equipment.
A grip’s toolkit should include:
- Spud adapter
- Nail on plate
- Scissor clip
- Mafer clamp
- Matthellini/Cardellini clamp
- Chain vice grip
- Grid clamp
- Crescent wrench/wrench multitool
- Multitool (like a Leatherman)
- Paper tape
- Permanent marker
- Tape measure
- Circuit tester
- Utility knife/razor
A gaffer’s toolkit should include:
- Screw driver
- Circuit tester
- Cube tap
- Paper tape
- Light meter
You’ll also need an easy-to-carry tool bag or belt to keep it all in is wise. Bonus points if you can fit a few pain relievers and energy bars in to keep you going on particularly physical or grueling days. Of course, you can add or remove anything from your kit as you gain experience and deem things necessary or unnecessary. If you’re a union member and are working on a union production, there are certain requirements regarding what must be in your tool kit as a member of the grip or electrical departments. (To find out what those union requirements are, you’ll have to contact your Local specifically—each one has different rules and regulations.)
The best way to start working in the grip department is to get a job as a set PA and shadow the grips. Working with the construction or rigging teams can give you the necessary understanding and skills for professional grip work as you continue to learn on the job.
For electrical work, you’ll likely also start out as a PA. Gravitate towards and become friendly with the electricians and gaffer; working around lights and experienced lighting technicians will help you learn the fundamentals of good light choices. You can also try working at a lighting house (where the gaffer orders all lighting rentals from). If the gaffer needs additional crew members or someone who specializes in a particular piece of equipment, you’re in.
Grips and gaffers aren’t required to have any formal training, but a deep knowledge and understanding of the equipment is a must. Instead, grips and gaffers often cultivate their professional knowledge through experience and apprenticeship. Specific training and certifications can be offered through unions locals, too.
(If you start your career as a set electrician, you will need a license and certification. Since these are issued on a state—and sometimes county—level, you’ll need to find out what the requirements are based on where you live/plan to work. You can find state-by-state electrician license and certification requirements here.)
Aside from a technical understanding of equipment and electricity, grips and gaffers need to be quick problem-solvers, communicators, and collaborators. Every scene, set, or location is a puzzle to be solved. A grip or gaffer never wants to be the reason a production’s flow slows down; they must listen carefully to their assignments and have the competency to do the necessary tasks—and to ask for assistance when they need support.
Most importantly, grips and gaffers must have a sense of safety—which is why a tiered, work-up-the-ladder, approach to entering the field is encouraged. Recklessness around rigging, electricity, or hanging could seriously injure someone, cause a power outage, or throw a shoot off-track.
Working in lighting and electricity demands an energized and strict work ethic. On-set, tasks can be non-stop and physically demanding. Grips and gaffers need to work efficiently, be aware of their surroundings, and work as a team to accomplish the goal, achieve the shot, and then do it all over again.
G+E crew can find work through their connections, professional network, job boards like Backstage (more on that below), and their union.
At the beginning of your G+E career, you’ll want to look for PA jobs and gravitate toward the electricians, gaffers, grips, and best boys whenever possible and appropriate.
And, as with many crew jobs, getting hired in G+E is about who you know. Any connections you’ve made along the way—yes, even those student films—will count towards your ability to land a job; let your network know you're looking. If you’ve already worked as a PA and made a good impression on the key grip or gaffer, stay in touch—they may just hire you for their next shoot.
Besides your resume and IMDb page, tangible materials aren’t all that important when locking in a gig. Your ability to build up experience and network is what makes you hireable; a good reputation will get you the next job.
The amount of money you can expect to make working in G+E depends on several factors: your level of experience, how frequently you work, and your location. Another major factor is the size and budget of the production: large, complex studio shoots will likely require multiple, tricky camera and lighting setups, guaranteeing you more time—and money—on set. For example, on a $200 million film, a gaffer would stand to earn $125,469, the best boy electric would earn $64,475, an electrician would earn $43,070, a key grip would earn $113,920, the best boy grip would earn $76,679, and a grip would take home $57,124. But most films don’t have a $200 million budget.
Best Boy Grip: $50,000 - $75,000
Key Grip: $60,000 - $100,000
Electrician: $35,000 - $75,000
Best Boy Electric: $35,000 - $51,000
Gaffer: $51,000 - $85,000
(If you’re a member of a union or guild—more on that below—and are working on a union production, you’ll be paid according to the union’s rates.)
As a grip or electrical professional can join your local branch of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).
Because the professional entertainment world is made up of freelancers, it’s a workforce of unions. Joining a union not only opens up more work opportunities, but it also provides benefits, protections, training, and security. In Los Angeles, IATSE Local 80 represents grips, and Local 728 covers lighting workers. For New York City, electric and grips are represented in Local 52. Mixed union local offices serve workers across crafts, like Local 479 that represents crew workers in Atlanta.
The steps required to join the union will depend on your local branch. For example, Local 481 (New England) requires that you’ve been a resident of the jurisdiction for at least 18 months and “have a minimum of 30 days of work in the craft in which you are applying.” Local One (New York City) says that “if you can demonstrate that you have the skills and work ethic needed in today’s highly competitive work environment on a consistent basis, you will earn membership,” though you also must also earn at least $35,000 per year for three consecutive years with union-affiliated employers. (Or you can do a three-year apprenticeship.) Basically, you’ll need to get in touch with your local union to determine the steps for joining.
Though you do not need to be a union member to work as on a crew, your ability to be employed will depend on the type of production it is: union vs. non-union. If it’s union, then yes, legally they must only employ union members. (However, if you’re non-union and they want to hire you, they can...as long as you join the union.) The benefits of being a union member and working on union productions are support and protection: contract negotiations, a set pay scale, safety requirements, and health insurance.
But early in your career, you likely want to leave yourself open to as many job opportunities as possible, for as long as possible, which often means non-union work. Until you can guarantee that you’ll have a steady stream of union work and a network that will hire you regularly, you may want to hold off. (Joining can also be expensive and time-consuming, so take that into consideration as well. Since membership rates vary depending on your Local of the union, you’ll need to check with them directly to find out what membership costs.)
To consistently have access to the most gigs possible, living in New York City or Los Angeles is strategic. However, Atlanta also has a booming film industry where crew jobs are plentiful, and Canada has a growing film ecosystem because of tax credits and incentives.
Even if you’re not in a major city or production hub, there are still jobs to be found. Contact local colleges that have film programs to see if student films need crew; local theaters may also hire crew (though the jobs are not exactly one-to-one with a film set); research local filmmakers and creatives who produce video in your area and reach out about working together. Job boards can also be a wonderful resource for work in smaller markets. Backstage, Mandy, ProductionHUB, MediaMatch, Staff Me Up, and EntertainmentCareers.net all allow you to search for crew openings based on your location. Also be sure to check in with your city’s office of film and TV, if one exists, as they list local productions that either need crew members or that you can contact to offer your services.
Despite the technical aspects of work in the grip or electrical departments, there is a lot of creativity and clever problem solving that goes into it as well. It’s important to develop your own style and technique, especially when it comes to a career as a key grip, but you should also learn from the best and study up on what the greats are doing.
For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!