Gaffer – What One Is and What They Do5 min read

gaffer shining film light through a prism on set
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Creating shows using any approach requires a lot of expertise. Stage, film, and television productions have a wide range of needs. Handling those needs means securing the right professionals for the job, and that can include a gaffer.

If you’re relatively new to the production world, you may not know exactly what a gaffer does and why they are such a critical part of the team. If that’s the case, here is a look at what a gaffer is, the position’s main responsibilities, the skills gaffers need, and more.

What Is a Gaffer?

Generally speaking, a gaffer is the head of a production’s electrical department and the chief lighting technician for the show. The name “gaffer” is derived from “gaff,” a British slang term for a tool that assisted with adjusting stage lights. However, while the terminology originated with stage slang, the job is actually associated with film and television.

In most cases, a gaffer coordinates heavily with the production’s director and producer, as well as the photography director. This allows the gaffer to get a grip on the overall vision and make lighting decisions that align with it.

Gaffer is also a supervisory role. Typically, a gaffer leads a lighting crew, coordinating the efforts of the group to ensure the lighting for scenes unfolds as planned.

Gaffer’s Main Responsibilities

As a production is getting underway, gaffers fill a very specific role. They are an active part of the pre-production process, as well as crucial while filming is underway.

While the precise nature of their responsibilities can vary a bit from one production to the next, certain duties are pretty typical.

Here is a list of common gaffer primary responsibilities:

  • Meets with key production leadership and stakeholders to understand the vision
  • Reviews the script to identify moments where special or specific lighting effects may be necessary
  • Creates a lighting plan to execute the overall vision
  • Craft an electrical plan to support lighting needs on set
  • Coordinates with grip crew for needed rigging
  • Assembles and coordinates the efforts of the lighting crew
  • Identifies fixture needs based on the required lighting effects
  • Oversees lighting as scenes unfold, making adjustments when necessary

Gaffers may have additional responsibilities. For example, if a production is smaller or lower budget, the gaffer may take on some of the lighting crew tasks personally. They may also play a role in managing the electrical department and lighting budget, ensuring funds are allocated based on production priorities.

Areas of Expertise and Critical Skills for Gaffers

Gaffer working on a film set setting up lights for interview

Having the right areas of expertise and skills is crucial for gaffers. Without the proper skillset, the gaffer may not be able to handle the core responsibilities associated with the role.

Here are some must-have skills for gaffers:

  • Lighting Equipment and Tools (rigging, fixtures, gels, dimmers, etc.)
  • Lighting Consoles
  • Lighting Design Plans
  • Electrical Components and Wiring
  • Power Distribution
  • Film and Television Production
  • Location Scouting
  • Color Theory
  • Color Acuity
  • Creativity
  • Leadership
  • Organization
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Attention-to-Detail
  • Safety Protocols and Best Practices

It’s important to reiterate that safety-related expertise is essential for gaffers. Improper power distribution creates hazards. It could cause someone to experience an electrical shock, which is potentially deadly. Additionally, incorrect electrical setups create fire hazards, putting many people at risk.

As with all jobs, additional skills beyond those listed above may be necessary. What each production may need can vary, so some jobs may ask for more capabilities or can have unique requirements that ensure the selected person can succeed.

Gaffer Career Path

Gaffer is an upper-level position in the lighting and electrical department. To become a gaffer, most professionals work their way into the job. However, they may begin the career path through formal education.

In many cases, having a television and film production-related degree or an electrical-related degree can put someone on the road toward becoming a gaffer. Specific coursework in power management and electrical design is always beneficial. So, if a person opts for a film degree, it’s wise to add those into the mix.

After that, securing a lighting crew position, then moving up into the best boy position is the most common approach. By starting in an entry-level crew role, a person can hone all of the crucial foundational skills for the job. Then, as their expertise grows, they can move up in the lighting and electrical department, gaining additional capabilities that can eventually land them in the gaffer position.

However, that is only one approach that may work. In the film and television industry, there are usually numerous pathways that can lead to a position, and they are all equally viable. Ultimately, if a path allows someone to gain the necessary expertise and skills, that’s what matters. Once that occurs, they can fulfill the requirements of the gaffer job, allowing them to play a crucial role in a production’s success.

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