Key Collaborators: The Gaffer

- A new series highlighting the relationship a DP has with key creative personnel.


My friend Jasmine in Australia asked that I write about a DP’s relationship with the Gaffer. There are five key people I rely on when planning and a project. They are: the director, production designer, gaffer, key grip and the first AD. When shooting starts, the first five is joined by the camera operator, focus puller and the dolly grip. Later on, the film editor and I get to know each other well.

The subject of this musing is the Gaffer or Chief Lighting Technician.

I’m lucky to have worked with several world-class gaffers and the guy I try to hire first is Cory Geryak. Unfortunately, I have to get in line behind Wally Pfister, ASC – Phedon Papamichael, ASC – Robert Elswit, ASC and Mauro Fiore, ASC. In spite of these “impediments,” I do get Cory at least once a year. Sadly, he wants to move into camera so I’m not sure how long he’ll be a gaffer before he becomes the competition!

Regardless of who gets hired, there are several attributes I require from the gaffer.

1. - A thorough understanding of the script and my visual interpretation of the story.

2. – The capacity to enhance my vision with their own experiences.

3. – Knowledge of the latest lighting instruments and innovative techniques.

4. – Populating the electrical crew with creative, responsible and accountable

5. – Be fiscally smart and ethical.

6. – Bring your “A” game every single day.

During prep, the look of the movie gets shaped to everyone’s expectations. Remember, as the DP, our idea for the look of film is one of the reasons why we got hired. But in no way is it sacrosanct. The production designer and the director have their own visions too. If you shoot for Tim Burton or Gore Verbinski - hang on and hold your tongue because it will be their vision that you’ll end up shooting. Take the credit and run!

In most cases, it is the triumvirate of director, DP and production designer that craft the look of the movie. And if that look is extravagantly out of whack budget wise, the producer weighs in and forces us all back to reality. And I’m fine with that, aim super high, ideas don’t cost any money - but shooting does - so sometimes we do need parental supervision. This reality check will happen on every project you work on throughout your career, trust me.

The one thing I have to say now is that if you feel strongly about your vision, fight for it and prove through testing that it is the best way to go. You are the photographic author! Don’t give that up!

Our gaffer can help us with presenting the case too. There might be a look that requires some sort of special lighting effect. If that instrument isn’t available a good gaffer will have one custom built. I know of several such inventions and they are still in use today. In fact most, commonly used lighting instruments today have been developed out of some special need that ended up being a great commercial success as well.

If you are uncomfortable about the lack of progress in achieving the look of the film, your gaffer will be too. They will call friends, watch movies, think about tests and lend moral support as needed. Through perseverance and serendipity… before you know it… you’ll crack the code and be onto something that provides the path to success. You can’t do this alone. You’ll drive yourself crazy if you think you can.

The key to cracking the code is testing. Test everything – color, saturation, shutter speed, lenses, lamps, filters, gels and postproduction techniques. Don’t forget to look at classical art and the work of great still photographers.

Good gaffers study set plans carefully and will sound the alarm if the set is impractical to light or is being placed to close to the stage walls. They usually like to plan for bigger lamps so that the coverage and spread of the beam covers the zone of action and any frame rate that might be asked for. Bigger lamps need more space and gaffers are always fighting for space.

Gaffers are invaluable on a location scout. They look at practical sets objectively and will speak up if the place is impractical or potentially unsafe to shoot. Power lines, direction of sun, working on upper floors all add time to the shooting day and it is his and the key grips job to bring the bad news. Believe me, un-shootable locations are rarely chosen – at least in my experience. I’m sure some of you have your own horror stories!

You and your gaffer must be on the same page for day one of photography. Hopefully, you will continue to refine the look and streamline the process a little bit every day. Be prepared for the unexpected ups and downs and turn the obstacles into opportunities.

An experienced gaffer knows a lot about photography. For instance: if you frame for a wide establishing shot on stage, they will know to choose larger lamps and fall back to keep the equipment out of the shot. It’s one of the reason we shoot the wide shot first because inevitably as you tighten up, the equipment gets closer and closer to the subject as well. The gaffer will be familiar with your daily shot list as this serves as a guide for type and order of shots on the day. (I will do a musing soon on shot listing.)

Staying current with technology is essential to the modern gaffer and being familiar with the variety of camera systems in use will dictate the kind and size of lights they will propose. In other words they know how much light is needed to satisfy the ISO of the project. The new HD cameras are very “fast” and you can tailor a lighting equipment order because of this greater sensitivity. Gone are the days of racks and racks of 20K’s and maxi brutes. We still use them - but now we don’t need nearly as many. Night work in a city is the best example because now we use the available light as the base and then add to that base for the needs of each shot. Night lighting was a much bigger deal 15 years ago. Gaffers know this and can save the production lots of money by having the confidence to say that we can do more with less now. Shooting film has an inherently slower ISO but with the sensitivity of the negative and the resolution of the scanner, DP’s can expect almost expect the same result as what we see from an Arri Alexa.

On a practical level, I’ll give the gaffer an opportunity to have the first crack at lighting a set. Often, we’ll shoot with just a minor adjustment; maybe it needs a little more or less fill or - no fill at. Or I’ll turn off a light or add one in the BG to give the shot more or less depth. Possibly change the diffusion for more or less effect, etc. In most cases we will be shooting in only a matter of minutes. I would never give an inexperienced gaffer a shot at lighting a set alone. But by the end of the movie they should be able to - or I’ve failed as a mentor.

My gaffers carry meters and are expected to be able to call the stop if necessary. They need to do this if I’m operating or in a place where I can’t get a good angle for a reading.

Expect to get into minor arguments about light and exposure with your gaffer as they become wholly invested in the project just like you. Its fine – best friends argue all the time too!

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