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What is a Gaffer?

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  • Written By: Cassie L. Damewood
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2016
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A gaffer is the person in charge of the lighting for a movie or television set. She is also called the chief lighting technician. The gaffer is technically in charge of all power and electricity functions on the set, but she is most commonly associated with the lighting that creates special effects and illusions. Her job often includes the lighting design as well as its execution.

From pre-production through the final cut, the gaffer is instrumental in making the production a success. She confers with the cinematographer and director before production begins. They assess the electrical needs on the set and make note of any scenes or effects that may require special equipment or additional power sources.

Once the set is in place, the gaffer transitions into a more supervisorial role. She studies the script and confirms what moods and effects the director and cinematographer are seeking to create. The set electricians are directed by the gaffer in generating a wide range of lighting effects.

Special lighting effect requirements vary tremendously depending on the production. They may range from something as simple as creating a person’s silhouette on a wall to a grandiose task such as transforming nighttime into day. Other lighting challenges may entail creating the illusion of flickering lights on a plane taking flight or the dimly lit interior of a car traveling down a desolate country road.

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Gaffers are often expected have a truck in their possession that is full of special lighting equipment and peripherals. The trucks often have boxes full of plastics, shading tools and reflective materials to create a myriad of lighting images. One popular device gaffers use is different colored plastic sheeting that is applied to windows or lights to create images of setting, rising and midday suns.

A gaffer usually gets most of her training on the job. If she has no experience, she will likely be hired as an electrical lighting technician, commonly referred to as a rigger. The rigger, the lowest-ranking electrical staff member, has the job of connecting all the power on the set and placing the lights in the correct locations. In addition to climbing into and around dirty places, the rigger has to endure the heat of the lights she is placing around the set. Most employers prefer to hire those with some related education or experience.

The word gaffer comes from the British English word for a boss or an older man. It was originally used in the 19th century as a term of respect for an elder male in a village, usually a person in charge of workers. Despite its original reference to a masculine authority figure, it is now used to refer to either a male or female in the position of chief lighting technician.

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