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Gaffer Kudos & Crimes

Published : 3rd January 2005

I spent a good deal of time gaffing all manner of small projects, after learning how to light and shade by watching and doing as a hand on small and medium projects for many years.

I tend to design all my own lighting, often by instrument choice and placement, although with a better gaffer known to me, of which there are only a few, I'll gladly welcome the recommendations of options that look better, create less work for the crew, or work for more setups than what I came up with.

As a DP who is primarily involved in low budget work, it's imperative that I have a gaffer who is both hands-on and on the same page as I am; there for the day's shoot, looking ahead to the location three days away, and watching and discussing dailies with me- even sitting in on supervised telecine sessions.

Some of my gaffers have been on a clear track toward DP, and as long as they are content to gaff for me now, I encourage all the collaboration and education we can get together.

I have three guys I always call first; one is well-seasoned and I can work with effectively and we almost never speak; he watches me, anticipates me, and covers me. I'll not see him for months but he'll call up and say "check out this seminar or event or movie"...always thinking of ways to better himself and me by keeping up and in touch. I don't think he's ever called up and said "got any work?" It tends to find him. And he looks out for me. See why he's at the top of my list? Usually, he's a Best Boy, but I only think of him as "my best gaffer".

The other two are really young guys who are totally talented and will end up great DP's I suspect. Their energy and enthusiasm is infectious and keeps me on point after many long days. One in particular hung with me through two very painful underpaid features; yet he was always there, asking "what's next?" I owe him big time.

A good gaffer will bring more knowledge of options than I'd have; a good gaffer has worked under countless DP's, with various size crews and packages, and can readily throw in appropriate options when we scratch our head for doable solutions based on limited time, equipment, or manpower resources.

On the dark side of the coin, there's plenty wrong with a few of the working pros out there.

When I gaffed, there were DP's I made look great who frankly had no business shooting anything besides ENG, who were thankless and abusive. I also had a gaffing experience where I was the scapegoat for exposure mistakes; the producer obviously clueless to the fact that the gaffer doesn't touch the camera…so I'm certain he badmouths me to this day.

I had an always stoned or drunk gaffer who did very high quality work, and I learned a big bag of tricks from him; but I'd not have him on set again unless he cleaned up.

I produced one show with another DP and had the gaffer he chose who rode out in the grip truck 700 miles to the first location, and by the time they arrived, he had the crew, all my prior comrades, firmly convinced it would be a bad shoot, production was out to get them, and he did everything he could to cover the fact he was inept; never hands-on, more of an equipment manager than a gaffer. After a week of BS, I fired him and almost had to call the Sheriff to get him to leave the hotel. He padded the gear list when it could have easily been trimmed instead, and over loaded the 10 ton truck by 3000 pounds, causing dangerous and very costly tire blowouts; probably got a kickback from the rental house but that’s a whole other story.

I had two particularly awful experiences with gaffers, and because of those two I now hand-pick or very carefully screen gaffers unknown to me : If one is to simply be provided because they come with the truck and I cannot pre-approve them or decline them, I will simply decline the job offer.

Both criminal gaffers were on projects that at the time were big- step-up shoots from anything I'd done before.

On one, I had the gaffer, selected by production, standing by as I was getting close to ready for Famous Actress's first close-up on the show. He leaned in next to the matt box, and with Famous Actress 4 feet away looking right at him, says in a voice all on set can hear, "do you want me to do something about that funky shadow on her face?"

A few key points here :

A) If the shadow is obviously funky, then yes, I probably do want something done; maybe I hadn't seen her eyeline and tweaked it yet, I don't know. Maybe I was nervous because it was a big deal shoot to me and I hadn't noticed it- I don't know. Maybe some people would've investigated and eliminated the problem, which as it turns out, was a hairdressing issue, but
certainly my problem to notice.

B) If you wanted to make me look inept and have Famous Actress lose confidence in Unknown DP, great, you succeeded. She absolutely didn't trust me from then on and kept asking for reassurances of my beauty lighting from - guess who- our Hero Gaffer.

C) If you ever want to work for me again, Hero Gaffer, you won't. I'm sure you don't care, but that's OK. I don't either! Lesson to be learned : even if you are an a-hole, you could whisper on set to make me look good and then talk about how crappy a DP I am behind my back later when I'm off-set. That we you and I both get what we want. I get a little respect and you still get to look like a loser.

The other time was all-time.

I was on another, earlier, very big-deal to me shoot. The shoot ultimately that convinced me to move to L.A. and hang a DP shingle. But I digress...

I had spent a great deal of time on location mapping out a shot list and lighting plan, with the gaffer. Now gaffer was the cheap guy in town, and production hired him to provide as a sub his labor, the truck, the packages, and , this is very important, the crew, who was on his payroll.

There was much work to be done and a tight schedule- so what else is new?

The producer/director had hired a string of first-time or part-time DP's on prior shoots who'd variously screwed up his efforts, from mildly to hugely. He had used this same gaffer before, and trusted him. This gaffer, it turns out, was a closet DP. He wanted my job, in a very big way, on this very shoot.

So on the first day, we have an interior lit by simulated flame that absolutely must be shot at the same time as 2nd unit footage that must obtained on the stern of a paddleboat going down the nearby river.

The producer comes to me and says- "OK, you need to get on the riverboat and shoot B-roll. Our gaffer will shoot first unit here". I was aghast. He had his arguments, and was after all director, so I told the gaffer the level to light it to and the stop to expose it at. ( Later in dailies, the neg was thin; he consistently under-lit / under exposed, apparently from years of lighting video and fighting auto iris).

So I come back and the cast and crew see our Superman gaffer as the de facto DP, before they've seen me do anything.

Well, we travelled to our big set to find my lighting plan for the week, which required a pre-light day, had been "adjusted" by superman. It was completely different than what I asked for and yes, it was also way too dark. He used instruments a full stop lower than what I asked for. Other promised, required items simply weren't on the truck.

Schedule demanded I just shoot it.

So I had to push a stop and lean on telecine for the rest; the next two weeks were non-stop fight and the producer, who you'll recall didn't trust DP's, would always double check anything I said against Superman's opinion, which was always at odds with mine.

Superman wouldn't get big guns off the truck; I knew I'd have to, and did have to, tweak in telecine to lose the fabric pattern on griffolyn outside windows that should have exposed blown out. Had it been going to print I would have been completely screwed- one of many examples.

The last week of the shoot, as I'm trying to make a scene work and look right, I ask for the exterior 12K to re-position 6 or 8 feet up the street for a big difference. The gaffer says "NO. It's where it needs to be".

I cannot cheat the talent or the lens; I MUST move the light.

I went outside and asked Sparky to move it. Sparky says...


"Royce, man, you know we're with you and we feel for you, but Superman cuts our payroll checks and he said absolutely no lighting changes unless he makes them or we're fired on the spot. We can't listen to you. Sorry, bro."

I looked back at the doorway of the saloon and there stood Superman, looking defiantly at me.

Producer said "Superman likes it. Just shoot it.".

I have a long list of crew recommends, and Superman is at the very top of my OTHER list ( there are a disproportionately high number of sound mixers on that "other" list, but that's a different therapy session).

Royce Allen Dudley
DP / LA


Royce Dudley wrote :

class="style9">>I looked back at the doorway of the saloon and there stood Superman, >looking defiantly at me. Producer said "Superman likes it. Just shoot it.".

I cannot imagine myself in such a situation - if it was really as you say. Sounds bizarre. But I think at that point one might consider not shooting a bad shot which you were not allowed to be the DP (there's no other way of putting it - given the situation you described). I would've asked, hey if it looks unacceptable in dailies, who gets fired? If it's 'superman', I'd be happy to shoot it for them and make a lighting plot of the offending light on how NOT to light it for the re-shoot, and find out the availability of your real Gaffer.

Otherwise, usually my AC's at my side - it would've been "oops, where'd the fuses go? Geez, the pressure-plate's missing..."

I was amazed though that some would simply think of the Gaffer as the guy who comes with the truck, or some other deal the Producer has made.

I think right there I would've insisted otherwise, early on in prep when things aren't as pressure-cooker as the shoot. To the utmost respect to Transport, Gaffers are not truck drivers, and vice versa. All Key positions are crucial to any shoot and you need to get the best people around. That's not to say some guys cannot drive a truck too - I just wouldn't base my crew preferences on that convenience, and would try my all to convince the Producer of this.

And then there's the low budget factor. When someone drives 700 miles and has a lousy deal - it takes a certain level of character to keep your chin up - a bitter person would just wilt and infect others with that attitude.

Mark Doering-Powell
LA based DP


Royce Dudley wrote :

class="style9">> Producer said "Superman likes it. Just shoot it.".

Man, I have to say that I am amazed yet horrified by these "bad gaffer" stories. I got into gaffing when at one point in my life I had the realization that helping other people who were talented (whether DP's or directors, or both) on their independent projects could be just as gratifying (well, almost as gratifying and certainly less frustrating) as doing something that was all about me and my ego and my art.

Anyway, I just shake my head at these stories and think "this is why it's so difficult to find new DP's", because nobody wants to hire anybody unless they've already worked with them in some capacity. Human nature, but the bad apples just amplify it.

As far as what I like in a DP, I'd have to say basic communication is at the top of the list.

I was on a job once, a well-paid job that was fully scouted, and halfway through the day the DP turns to me and says "we'll be using the Revolution on the next shot". I'm sure the look on my face said it all -- I had absolutely no idea we'd need to light this particular set to an F/11 until that moment. We'd been shooting at maybe a f/2.8 - 4. Yikes! For some reason he'd never mentioned this in the scout or any other time. Fortunately I'd covered my ass with enough big units for the wider shots that I was able to pull it off, but there was some luck involved.

That's the kind of thing that will give you gaffer a heart attack. Or when the DP suddenly decides to do something else that he hadn't thought of before that's basically impossible, or almost impossible. Or something that he brought up before, then definitely ruled out. You want to give your guy whatever he asks for, and the last thing you want to do is tell him "no".

So the more the DP can communicate early on about what he even MIGHT want to do is really helpful.

And the more you know your DP the more you can anticipate what he might want, or not, or how he might change his mind. Which is always very gratifying, when the DP turns to you with that look on his face that says "I know I said we wouldn't do this? But how hard would it be if we did it now?" and you're covered.

I did used to work for one guy who thought that any kind of suggestions, from anybody, was "arguing". It was very frustrating because to me that showed a complete close-mindedness on his part. I was there to help him and he didn't want to listen to it, he was insecure enough that he found any efforts to help him were "arguing" and "insubordinate". (we don't work together anymore). I'm happy to do whatever the DP wants, the DP can overrule anything I say or suggest, but it's part of my job to suggest things. As long as it's the right time. There are times when it's not appropriate.

For myself, I love it when my crew suggests easier or better way to do things. "Why don't we just do *this* instead?" can make a fellow just say "duh, of course!" sometimes.

My crew often has a different point of view of things than I do, just as I have a different point of view from the DP. The DP's looking at a gazillion things, I'm just looking at one, the lighting.

Okay, getting long-winded now, will stop.

Phil Badger
gaffer, Los Angeles
http://home.earthlink.net/~badger111/index.html


class="style9">>You want to give your guy whatever he asks for, and the last thing you >want to do is tell him "no".

Then again, if it's going to be difficult to achieve I want my gaffer to tell me so. I'll frequently turn to my gaffer and ask, "How hard to...(insert impossible task here)" and I'm truly asking how hard that would be to do. If it's incredibly difficult and time consuming odds are I'll say "Forget it."

Gaffers who don't know me usually suffer from inner turmoil when I ask that question. I can see it on their faces. They want to say, "You MUST be KIDDING!" but they honestly try to figure out how the heck they are going to make that impossible task happen. I'd rather they just have an open conversation with me about it : "We don't really have the manpower, but if you can buy us an extra 45 minutes we can do it if a chiropractor is standing by."

I remember years ago shooting second unit on a low-budget feature. The first unit best boy was gaffing a couple of shots for me. My next shot was going to be inside a huge warehouse and the sun had gone down. I thought I'd have a chance to shoot in there (proving my worth to the producers) if I had a 12k. I asked this guy, "How hard to get a 12k off the truck?" He froze... then told me to walk away, for my own safety. He could have simply said, "Um... yeah, we can't really do that, first unit demands are too great and we don't have the guys." I'd have said, "Okay. Just wanted to know my options." Instead he had to imply physical violence if I pushed him. Needless to say I haven't worked with him since.

>>I did used to work for one guy who thought that any kind of >suggestions, from anybody, was "arguing".

I can see that as frustrating, although I've also worked with gaffers like that. Lights start going up before you've even discussed an approach. Very frustrating. There's a local gaffer about whom it is said that he has two modes of working : (1) doing it his way; (2) doing it his way pissed off, after you've asked him to do something different. I worked with him once, he isn't even on my list. It's too bad, he's very experienced and otherwise has a good reputation.

When I was a camera assistant I worked on a feature where the gaffer was the guy who owned the truck. He wanted the DP's job so he'd prelight everything when possible. He had a low-budget feature "Use hard light because it's easy to cut" mentality whereas the DP had a "Use soft light because it looks good" mentality. The gaffer was fired after the first week.

I remember the DP asking the gaffer to soften a PAR, implying that he wanted to put something like an 8x8 grid in front of it. The gaffer put some opal on the doors. There was a basic conflict there that never was resolved.

>>For myself, I love it when my crew suggests easier or better way to do >things. "Why don't we just do *this* instead?" can make a fellow just say >"duh, of course!" sometimes.

Oh yes. As long as it's done quietly. I'll even give the gaffer credit if it works. I did a shoot a few months ago where we had to light a spokesperson in front of a sign etched in a wall. I had been thinking we'd do interesting things with a couple of Source 4's to bring the sign out but once we were there my gaffer said, "Hey, can I show you what I can do to that with a couple of Kinos? It won't take long." I said "Sure!" and he laid out a couple of Kinos under the sign, uplighting it. It was perfect. I

was cursing myself for not thinking of that myself, but when the director said the sign looked nice I told him I agreed and that it was the gaffer's gag to light it that way.

The problem I run into with this particular gaffer is that when we work together we usually have a conversation at the start of the setup and then he just makes it happen. I stand around and watch and dial him in a little if I have to. To the producer it looks like I'm drinking coffee while the gaffer and his crew are doing all the work. One client ended up thinking that the gaffer was totally responsible for all the lighting, and we did a very small shoot recently where the client said, "I can't hire afford a gaffer on this one so you'll have to make do. It doesn't have to look that great." Er... helloooooo!!!

I've discovered there are a lot of gaffers around that are used to covering for DP's who don't know how to light. They just go ahead and do it and the DP takes the credit. When I work with one of them I usually have to take them aside early on and say, "I like to think I know something about lighting. This has to be more interactive. Stop working around me and try to work with me. Humour me."

Every once in a while I work with a gaffer who thinks I'm nuts. Currently my favourite piece of grip equipment is a piece of copy paper. We'll put up some negative fill and I'll have a grip tape a piece of 8.5x11 white paper in the middle of it. It's perfect in certain situations, but apparently it's a little unorthodox for some. I once told a gaffer that I thought 216 was a little thin for my tastes and got a look I won't forget for a long time.

Art Adams, DP [film|hidef|video]
San Francisco Bay Area - "Silicon Valley"
Dramatic License #CA14886
http://www.artadams.net/


>>To the producer it looks like I'm drinking coffee while the gaffer and his >crew are doing all the work.

Art, you the first thing you MUST establish is the claim that fresh coffee is not only vital to the creative process, but in fact an essential component of the equipment package.

Given the choice between having 3 lights & no coffee or 2 lights and coffee ?

Remember, it's the light bulb that goes on in your head that really makes the shot.

Sam Wells
(but certain thought balloons should be hidden with Duvatyne from the Producer & Director)


Phillip Badger writes :

>>I was there to help him and he didn't want to listen to it, he was >insecure enough that he found any efforts to help him were "arguing" >and "insubordinate".

Yeah, but you have to remember that the assh*les always seem to get the work.......

So just bite your tongue and gently bend the design in your preferred direction.

Clive Mitchell
http://www.bigclive.com


>>Currently my favourite piece of grip equipment is a piece of copy paper.

Very underrated, I borrowed about 50 sheets of the stuff from production for a video clip crowd scene and lit them with the bounce derived from the follow spot cutting a shaft through the crowd and bouncing off the copy paper taped to each of their backs.

Nick Paton
Director of Photography
Brisbane, Australia
www.npdop.com


>>Remember, it's the light bulb that goes on in your head that really >makes the shot

Yeah, but then I forget to cap the viewfinder... fogged film!

Art Adams, DP [film|hidef|video]
San Francisco Bay Area - "Silicon Valley"
Dramatic License #CA14886


Clive Mitchell wrote :

>>Yeah, but you have to remember that the assh*les always seem to get >the work...

Oh, I definitely know who gets the job! It ain't me, it's the DP, and the director above him. So I'll try to keep my mouth shut if the guy wants that, but it's a real habit to suggest ways of doing things that will be more efficient and work better. It's really difficult to not do that part of my job, and I always say "I'll do it however you want, but ..." Or I'll say "yeah, we could do that, but I was thinking maybe we could ...."

Like I said before, I love it when my own crew guys suggest better ways to do things that I might be overlooking to me (not to anyone else of course, although in a situation where everybody knows everybody really well and we're all friends it's okay). Makes my job easier, makes everybody look good. I remember one job, I asked my crew "would you rather run banded up to the perms, or 2 ought? They actually voted for the 2 ought, which surprised me, but they're the ones who had to do it, so hey, it was good by me.

Phil Badger,
Gaffer
LA


>>I'll even give the gaffer credit if it works...

I used to work at a tabletop facility as a gaffer where it was well known by the crew that if it looked great the Director/DP got all the credit even though he wasn't even present when it was lighted. But if it looked bad, the gaffer was taken to task in the screening room. The gaffer had all the responsibility of lighting as well as determining exposure.

The only kudos the gaffer got was he was hired on the next job. It was very stressful and frustrating especially considering that the Director/DP was making about 30 times much money for his day rate as the gaffer. I know the money aspect of it shouldn't figure into one's work ethos but in these scenarios it was just another insult to injury.

I did learn to light and shoot tabletop through those experiences though but I often wonder if it was worth the pain....

Jim Sofranko
NY/DP



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