Film School Friday – What is a gaffer?

Gaffer Episode Summary

In this episode of Film School Friday, Corey and Bill talk about what a gaffer is and what their role is on set.

Gaffer Episode Notes

From origin story to master of the craft, this week we discuss what a gaffer does on set and Bill explores leathery hands.

“Master of light, the lightsmith.” – Bill Cornelius

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Gaffer Transcript

Corey (00:00):

Welcome to film school Friday, I’m Corey.

Bill (00:12):

I’m bill,

Corey (00:12):

And together we host the InFocus podcast. Film school Friday is our special weekly edition where I get to quiz bill to see how much knowledge he’s actually retained from film school over the years. In this week’s episode, we’re talking about what a gaffer is and what they do on set.

Bill (00:31):

Speaking of film school, one of the things I remember very specifically from film school was my production tech teacher telling us what where the term gaffer originated, because it’s, it’s kind of a funny word. If you don’t know it in the context of film,

Corey (00:47):

Please enlighten me.

Bill (00:49):

So according to him and according to a Google search to verify that he was correct, a gaffer back in the old days was somebody who used a staff with like a hook on it that was called a gaff to move overhead lighting in a church or play theater area or whatever it might be. So the term gaffer comes from that as the person who is the chief of lighting on a film set chief electrician.

Corey (01:17):

Okay. So if we think about a gaffer on a film set on the day of a production, the key responsibility, clearly circles around lighting, but w you know, if you were to think like this individual, give me just a quick rundown of like all the things they would be responsible for, and maybe the relationship they have with others on set.

Bill (01:38):

So, yeah, the gaffer is, is your chief lighting person. They communicate very closely with the DP director of photography to make sure that the lighting is what it needs to be. The DP leans on the gaffer to make the, the lighting happen both logistically technically, and make sure it’s all executed properly. So the director communicates the vision to the DP. The DP goes to the gaffer and says, look, we need the lighting to be XYZ. And then the gaffer then goes to the electricians and the folks in his or her department, and they make that happen. They do the tweaks to the lighting. They do all the adjustments, all the gaffer is overseeing all of those aspects of the lighting,

Corey (02:28):

Clearly an important role on set, you know, and I think, you know, it may be a great opportunity for us to maybe track down a gaffer here in town and, and get them on the show to talk through, like, what does a day in the life of a gaffer look like? I think that would be cool.

Bill (02:43):

And there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of great gaffers in town. I’ve, I’ve worked with a few over the years. One in particular was on the very first music video I ever worked on when I was 23, maybe it was a country video and this guy came in and just immediately knew how lighting should be set up for every single situation you can imagine, because, you know, we always say that most of what you do on set is problem solving. This guy would show up. The DP would be like, this is how we need to light it. And he would immediately get to building some crazy contraption. Like he built a tree at a C stands that had a bunch of lights dangling from it. And it lit the scene exactly the way it needed to be lit. I mean, this guy was, he was sharp. And so I I’ve had experience with a few gaffers in town that just like, they, they blow me away, just the attention to detail and just the, how quick they are to solve a lighting problem or to, you know, just give the DP what they want, no matter how Complicated.

Corey (03:46):

To be able to create that look like true artists with, with lighting. Right?

Bill (03:51):

Oh yeah. And I, and there was a, another funny story. I worked on a home improvement pilot years ago, and the gaffer on that was a guy from LA who had been doing it for decades. And I remember shaking his hand and it was like touching a leather glove just because he’d had his hands on so many highlights over the years, his hands were just calluses. And he was like onset, grabbing these, these mole Richardson lights. And just with his bare hands, just peeling them back. Those things are like a grill. You could cook something on those lines. And he would, he would look at the sky and he’d be like, the clouds are gonna clear the sun in three, two, one. And it would be sun. I mean, this guy. Yeah. That’s, that’s a gaffer. That’s a strong gaffer game.

Corey (04:37):

That’s impressive. I mean, that’s, that’s artistry. It is master of the game

Bill (04:42):

Master of light, the lightsmith.

Corey (04:45):

Nice. All right. Well, I feel much smarter about the role of a gaffer. Definitely well informed. So once again, bill, you passed. Nice job,

Bill (04:55):

Yes. Thank you.

Corey (04:56):

Excellent work. That’ll do it for this week’s film school Friday. Thanks for tuning in, please, please make sure you feed your crew and we’ll catch you next time.

Bill (05:06):

See you later.

Corey (05:08):

We know you have plenty of podcast options and we appreciate you choosing us. Join us next week to hear me put bill to the test. Once again, check us out And if you liked what you heard today, go ahead and subscribe. We’ll be here when you get back.