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Just Shoot The Gaffer Mk2 ...

class="style5 style7" Leading into The Ideal Gaffer

Published : 9th April 2005

Andrew Gordon posted a question and I feel it wasn't answered by enough people and it kind of got off topic. Since I have some down time these days, I would like to repost it in my own words.

What do you DP type folks look for or want in a gaffer. Since it is what I have done for the last few years, I am naturally curious.

What have you hated?

What have you loved?

What do you wish them to do more than anything.?

Also, anything else you can think of. However, please keep on topic if you can, I really want to hear from a wide range of DP's, so I can disregard everything they say...

Just kidding...

Maurice Jordan
West Hollywood, CA


I think it's the job of the gaffer and 1st A.C. to make the DP look good.

It's the job of the DP to make the Director look good.

It's the job of the Director to make the Producer look good.

It's the job of the Producer to make the investor look like a genius for having the foresight to invest his money in such a wildly successful project.

Jessica Gallant
Los Angeles based Director of Photography
West Coast Systems Administrator, Cinematography Mailing List
https://cinematography.net


Maurice Jordan wrote :

> What do you DP type folks look for or want in a gaffer.
> What have you hated? What have you loved?

To immerse themselves with the DP to accomplish the required look - take it as seriously as they do. Work with production (via Best Boy or themselves if necessary) to have the required crew & equipment - and to remind the DP ASAP that it really will take 7 guys so many days, etc. But the best move is when they tell the UPM they actually don't need the approved man-days on a particular night since he can leapfrog it, thereby gaining the trust.

Suggest better ways to the DP, but humour us when we insist on doing it another.

In any Key, I like the ones that also are proactive in seeking out and suggesting new gear - the ones that visit vendors, CineGear, etc. so they know what's happening in their craft.

To lead their crew and keep the department's spirits up - there's plenty to complain about on a film set - it wouldn't be one if there wasn't any complaining. But keep the needless wining away - that's what any good leader can accomplish.

Example of a good gaffer with initiative: its almost lunch, the last setup in the alley is lit. But after lunch we have very little time to move across the street to light another night/ext. He keeps one guy with us, and breaks the rest of the guys on his own. There's a joke that its the first time they get to eat while its still fresh and hot. They come back early to start the move while we're still chewing. Its an IA show and all the MP's and so forth are worked out with UPM (who later tries to suggest the idea after its already underway) and it saves us a good deal of time. And as any good gaffer, he says to the UPM jokingly, "leave us alone, it was my idea."

That sort of explains the oversight and big picture thinking that's valuable in any key.

Mark Doering-Powell
LA based DP


My biggest measure of a good Gaffer is one who understands what I going for on a particular project. When I really click with someone, by the end of the shoot I can usually let them pre-light a set without my input and when I arrive there's very little tweaking needed.

It's very akin to my work for a Director.

I have the goal that when he/she looks through the eyepiece or checks the monitor that I already have the perfect frame set without a word said between us.

I want a Gaffer to become an extension of myself, just as I am an extension of the Director. Sure there are fresh ideas and concepts that I like when my Gaffer brings to me, but if he were to toss me something completely off the wall that didn't fit in with the work we had been doing then I would be very concerned.

Mitch Gross
NYC DP


class="style9">"Go make it look like 7 or 7:30 am and make the window face north east."

It really is a wonderful thing when you can work for the first time with a DP, and after a few setups have them say that to you. Of course, those are the good times...sometimes you click, sometimes you don't.

I remember one shoot where I was able to prelight two setups ahead in the same office building while leaving my Best with the DP for touch ups. The kicker is that we had a very modest lighting package.

I believe it is very much about efficiency. Efficiency of movement, efficiency of equipment allocation and efficiency of time. If you can think three shots ahead (while still working on the current one!), perhaps you won't be four setups behind. It's all very Zen or something... Tai Chi?

I miss Gaffing greatly. I really enjoyed it.

Nathan Milford
Camera Technician
New York, NY


>What have you hated?

A gaffer with a totally unsophisticated eye who expects me to sit back and let him light everything and then gets pissed off because I ask him/her to do things they don't understand.

Or a gaffer with a totally unsophisticated eye who forces me to dial him/her in on every light placed.

Or a gaffer who pitches an idea to the director that the director loves but that I hate.

Or a gaffer who stands in video village and announces loudly, "This sure isn't the way I'd do it, but that's what Art wants..." (I saw this guy recently at a networking function and immediately walked the other way.)

>What have you loved?

My current regular gaffer is totally collaborative. He has an understanding of what I like and he understands what I describe to him. He has carte blanche to make suggestions, and more often than not I love what he has to offer. He's not going to go off and light the set before talking to me first. We usually have a quiet conversation before launching into a setup, toss a few ideas back and forth, and then make it happen. I'd say on average 50% of any setup is me and 50% is him.

I also like that I can remain "big picture" and not have to be super specific. If I want an 8x8 grid with a certain amount of light through it, I leave the choice of fixture up to him. Or I can describe an effect and he can tell me how he can pull it off.

There are some gaffers you can just trust that they are there to help you. There are others that are there to light their own shows their own way, or that are gunning for your job. I love the former and never rehire the latter.

Someone else mentioned that a great gaffer does something for you that you wanted but hadn't asked for yet. I love that.

>What do you wish them to do more than anything.?

Help me instead of hinder me. Be suggestive but not pushy. Don't get pissed off if I don't like their idea. Don't do their own thing and force me into wasting time undoing a lighting setup they put up while I was talking to the director about something else. Be efficient and think ahead. Allow me to save some face when I make a mistake and it turns out they were right all along. Occasionally laugh at my jokes.

>A good example would be a recent film where the DP was trying to >catch a subtle "moonlight through the window" shot. His request >was obviously going to result in a dimly lit and moody scene, >however, I decided it would be better to raise the illuminance level >up to studio standards.

Hmmm. I suspect we've worked together on at least several occasions.

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


As a career live-action gaffer turned VFX super and DP, I have to admit I find both sides of the coin interesting.

As a gaffer, my mantras, muttered under my breath, were on the order of the following :

"There are many paths to the kingdom"
"Style is the DP's, execution is the gaffer's"
"Gaffers must be ego-free"
"The DP's job is to get the job, even if we are the ones that have to do it."

Early in the game, I had a brilliant mentor who would let me go down paths to see where they would lead, occasionally allowing me to learn the hard way at the client's financial expense when I lit us into a corner.

Living as I did in a secondary market (NY) I spent a number of years cheerfully mixing it up with a combination of docs, commercials, music videos, and high end corporate/industrials, while still gaffing the NY portions of a number of foreign features and gaffing a handful of east coast features.

I had clients who would call every single light by position, height, spot/flood etc, and I had other clients who would walk into a location or a studio, look at the set, announce, "I think we should have a big window feel from around here...not too much fill...maybe pick up a bit of the floor color as though the sun were hitting a bit of floor somewhere, and I want to shoot at light 4....do something nice in that area over there...." and would walk off to hang with the client and agency, not to be seen again until it was time to shoot.

From a creative side, I obviously enjoyed the latter type of client more, but I learned a great deal from both sorts and the vast continuum between. As a gaffer in a secondary market with a NY apartment rent and a taste for scuba trips, I did not have the luxury of choosing my clients...as long as they had enough budget to hire me, they chose me.

Like many gaffers, I tended to meet my clients when their "usual" gaffer was double booked...and sometimes I would keep them for a while. Since I was one of the partners at Liberty Lighting, I covered my partner's clients frequently when they weren't available, as well as picking up some "cold call" work from clients looking for a "gaffer with truck."

We had a number of production companies who would book one of us with our gear long before they had a cameraman booked- we gained a number of cameramen as clients that way.

One of the particular skills a good gaffer learns is in handling his DP to keep him (the DP) in his comfort zone - sometimes that means doing things that won't look as good as they could and sometimes it means taking extraordinary initiative in designing and executing a lighting scheme...reading your DP and knowing when to talk, when to shut up, and when to just chill for a few minutes is invaluable...I was sometimes good at it, sometimes really bad at it.

One of the occupational hazards of a career gaffer is that the better you get and the longer you play, the more likely you are to be more experienced than your DP's, especially in the commercial/video markets

As a gaffer coming from a fairly sophisticated background of theatrical lighting design and execution, one of the first lessons I had to learn was not to get emotionally invested in any of my lighting schemes or ideas - fighting for a good idea that a DP wasn't enrolled in served no purpose.

I always felt that our job as department heads was to service our client (in my case the DP, even if I were being paid by the producer) and to make his or her path as smooth as possible. Since I often had my truck(s) on the job with a lighting package with which I was oh so intimately acquainted, I would frequently suggest a path that maximized the potential of that set package - but never against the wishes of the DP.

On smaller jobs, I would be half the lighting crew...sometimes half of the grip/electric crew...and it was all about execution...but on larger jobs, the gaffer's role is as much managerial as anything else...until the job gets big enough that you can have a dedicated best boy wrangling manpower and materiel and a rigging gaffer getting it all in and out for you.

Different people seem to be better suited (or at least more comfortable) with different sized jobs, so the idea of using different gaffers for different kinds of gigs, while disappointing to whomever is sidelined, is not totally without merit.

On the other hand, some work environments are so highly charged with political issues, having someone at your back who is TOTALLY loyal to you may trump some other technical considerations...

I think that my diverse background in lighting and rigging across a number of different industries and markets has truly informed my craft shooting visual effects... but I think it makes potentially a difficult guy to gaff for, or even to key for, because as I am defining the various tasks in my head, specific ways of accomplishing those tasks spring unbidden into my mind.

Lighting is very much the "easy" part of shooting for me because it is the arena in which I have played the longest, and in a way, it should make it easy for me to delegate a lot of those tasks to someone else, but conversely, since it is the part of the game that comes most naturally to me, I have to fight my impulse to burrow into the lighting details because it is such a comfortable place for me.

So who is MY perfect gaffer?

He or she has to be loyal to me (at least on those days where we are working together) and has to make an effort to hear me out as I describe what I want to do and how I want to do it...even if we both know that he/she will end up talking me into a totally different solution - for me, talking about the "how" of something helps me cement in my mind what the "whys and "whats" are...that's just part of how I get there.

The quality of my work depends on the quality and motivation of the crew that I work with - if I have to spend a lot of energy "winning over" a crew that is not mine, I still get what I want but I am usually more tired at the end of the job than I want to be. Generally anyone I bring to the party will look out for me... a gaffer or key grip who can tactfully steer me out of danger is more likely to work for me again than one that loudly announces on set that I am asking for something stupid...but part of a DP's job is to listen to the skilled and qualified people with whom you are working...with the broad experience they bring to the party, they may have seen or done something that has informed their craft that might just save your ass.

I know we are only going to be shooting steam, dust, and broken glass elements for a few days, but I still need my gaffer to stay engaged, and off the phone enough to stay below my annoyance threshold (I gained at least two long-time clients as a gaffer because my predecessor spent too much time on the phone and not enough time on the set - as owner operators in a day/playing market, this is an occupational hazard - for keys it must be avoided)

As boring as our little job may be, in order to stay in MY comfort zone, I need to believe that my keys are there to help me to get it done the best way possible...if I want to fuss - we fuss. I'm the one that will be taking the heat in dailies if what we shot isn't exactly what the client thought they wanted.

When the producer starts stepping on the gaffer and the key grip with regard to the cost of what they need (and this is a big a problem on a $200 million dollar show as it is on a weekend indie freebie) it is my job as a DP to fight for what the gaffer has ordered for me – there is a good cop/bad cop routine that as a gaffer always involved the producer asking me why the price was what it was and my replying that the DP wanted X number of 12k's or maxi's or whatever and then the producer asking whether I could slim it down and my calling the DP to see what we could cut...and at some point, it was between the producer or UPM and the DP to sort out what was uncuttable - I felt I could not trim the DP's lighting order without his/her consent.

I've been in VFX here in LA for a long time now, but I have not quite been able to bring myself to sell my set box and give up my 728 card (LA Set Lighting Technicians) or my 52 card (NY Studio Mechanics.) There are a few friends out there for whom I will still gaff a few days a year - the immediate gratification of the job is a refreshing switch from the months involved in seeing a series of VFX shots work through the edit and the pipeline on features.

Of course when I am shooting I like to think that I am trying to be the sort of DP that I used to like to gaff for...but I doubt if I am succeeding. The people who gaff for me tend to be diplomatic enough that I can pretend.

Mark Weingartner
LA based
erstwhile gaffer


Jessica Gallant wrote :

> It's the job of the DP to make the Director look good.

Isn't it the job of everyone to make the Director look good? I've worked on some shoots where the Director never seems to do anything and then, when the finished product has been seen, everybody says how well directed it was

Mark Wiggins
DP/Operator/London
www.productionbase.co.uk/cv/scare


Maurice,

Thanks for asking.

It's a delicate subject. In a gaffer I look for someone that will understand what I'm trying to do and how I'm trying to do it. He (or she) will execute my requests well, and, depending on the level of trust, will either make or suggest improvements that are on the same mental line as what I have asked for. There are many different ways to correctly light a scene, each one different but not necessarily wrong. But once you have embarked on a way, you're committed to that flavour.

There are two things gaffers frequently do that drive me nuts. One is suggesting something slightly different every time I ask for something. If I ask for a 5K through a Chimera, I don't want to hear, "How about a 9 light through a frame of 216?" The other bad habit is to come up when we're 3/4 done roughing in and make what would have been a great suggestion had we taken a different path an hour ago.

You know you're working with a great gaffer when you look over and find that they added that cookie (or diffusion or special on the plant) that you WOULD have asked for if you hadn't been putting out fires somewhere else.

Marty Mullin
DP
Los Angeles


If you can light a bedroom scene, where a woman is in bed with a horse - and hide it in the shadows-you don't see the horse on the other side of the bed until she turns on the bedroom lights in the dimly lit room to answer the phone (laughs) This is a scene in the movie "Airplane" by the way (big laughs)-1980?

It seems to me the difficulty is in dealing with extremes, expressionist/low key scenes(like the look in Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" for instance, one of my favourites)

A gaffer should be able to collaborate in achieving the desired look and be innovative-

John Babl
Miami


Art Adams writes :

>A gaffer with a totally unsophisticated eye who expects me to sit >back and let him light everything and then gets pissed off because >I ask him/her to do things they don't understand.

The problem here is that most DP's are lighting illiterate and need to be shown how to do things properly. While you might think we have unsophisticated eyes, it's actually the DP's eye that is not yet sophisticated enough to appreciate lighting at it's pinnacle of perfection.

I often have to take charge on shoots and redesign the lighting right there and then before each take. Quite often the DP and sometimes the Director will have a problem with this, but they will often back off at the threat of physical violence.

I tend to regard myself as the best gaffer in Hollywood and believe that I have saved many a film from box office disaster by enhancing the image with lighting that was in direct contrast to that requested by the DP. A good example would be a recent film where the DP was trying to catch a subtle "moonlight through the window" shot. His request was obviously going to result in a dimly lit and moody scene, however, I decided it would be better to raise the illuminance level up to studio standards. I achieved this using a bank of eight Arri 10K HMI's gelled with sheets of Congo blue. The result was excellent in that it created a thump of light splintering through the window and blasting the interior of the set with a psychedelic maxi-moon effect that made anything with the slightest hint of fluorescence burst into life and made the airborne dust iridescent like cosmic snow. It took a lot of persistence to make them appreciate my lighting, but in the end they made a half hearted go at shooting the scene before wrapping for the day.

To my great disappointment I was asked not to return the following day when they re-shot the scene. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised since anyone with my technical skill is bound to experience the big green monster of jealousy now and then, but I went in the following day and threw paint stripper over all their cars to teach them a lesson.

Max Candela
Hollywood's number one super-gaffer and background artiste.


Maurice Jordan wrote :

> What do you DP type folks look for or want in a gaffer.

I want someone who thinks along with me. Its a game, have the next light I'm going to want ready to go, before I ask for it.

Steven Gladstone
New York Based D.P.
www.gladstonefilms.com
East Coast CML List administrator


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