Key grips are responsible for all non-electrical support gear on a set: camera rigs (to stabilize movement and get a specific angle), rigging (equipment that lifts other equipment), and lighting rigs (to apply lighting effects and techniques). During pre-production, the key grip works closely with the DP and location scouts to determine and order necessary equipment.
“We control anything over people’s heads,” says key grip Tana Dubbe (“Iron Man,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “A Star Is Born”). “We’re mini-engineers on the fly.”
The key grip is also “in charge of shading, shaping, cutting, coloring, and diffusing light,” says Chris Birdsong, who has worked as the key grip on projects like “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Hidden Figures,” and “Rectify.” “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.”
Grip + Electrical
Head of the grip crew (lighting and rigging)
The key grip is the head of the grip department, overseeing a crew of grips (link to grip job page), best boys (link to best boy job page), electricians, mechanics, and crane and dolly operators, depending on the size and budget of the production. They report to the director of photography (DP).
As with any crew position, salary depends on experience, how frequently you work, and the size/budget/union status of the projects you work on. According to a 2017 survey from the Hollywood Reporter, experienced key grips make an average of $131,068 per year working on multi-million dollar studio films, and $41,000 to $59,0000 ($25-35/hour) on TV shows and low-budget films for a 40-week year. Key grips can stand to earn even more if they have their own gear and trucks to rent out when they’re hired on a production.
Key grips are represented by IATSE, which guarantees a minimum pay rate on union productions.
As the head of the department, it’s important for the key grip to know all the positions within it. Almost all successful key grips start out as production assistants in the grip department or as grips. From there, they can move into a more specialized position, like dolly grip or rigging grip, before becoming a best boy grip (who works directly under the key grip).
Experience + Skills
To be a key grip, you need extensive carpentry, rigging, and electrical skills, as well as experience and knowledge of equipment. Since it’s a physically demanding job, it also helps to be physically fit and healthy.
According to Dube, the job also involves “a million little math problems all day” to determine if a floor can hold a certain amount of weight or a rigging will be stable.
For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!