The Gaffer handles the lights and any electrical equipment on the set or on the location. He works under the Director of Photography (who is also called the "DP", or the cinematographer).
This tech memo is a sketch of what you should be doing as a Gaffer. It is not a full treatment on the subject, but enough to get you in harmony with the DP so that things can get done on the set quickly. Obviously if you are a professional Gaffer you know all the material in this memo and quite a few additional tricks of the trade no doubt. Nevertheless, the purpose of this memo is to introduce the subject of gaffing and present some introductory procedures that might be applied to Super 8 & 16mm demo films as well as low budget 35mm features.
Basically, your attention, as a Gaffer, should always be glued to the Director of Photography (the "DP"). You should be trying to look his way as much as possible so that you will not miss one thing he says or one little gesture he makes. You will be getting instructions from him as to how to trim the lights and how to get them ready for shooting. Speed is of the essence.
Getting the Electricity
When a lot of lights are being used, it is necessary to tap into the main power output of the building being filmed in. I will define "a lot" for these purposes as more than 5,000 watts.
This essay will deal with amounts of light less than this amount so the techniques to be used by the DP and his Gaffer will be in accordance.
If you're using less than 5,000 watts, you will not have to tap into the main power output of the building. Instead, what you want to do is try to find three separate electrical circuits in the building. Usually, in homes, distinct circuits can be found by running extension cords to separate floors or to front and back portions of the building. You can check the circuit by throwing the circuit breakers (or fuses) and then seeing which lights operate on those lines. Many times the circuit breakers will be labeled, so this makes it easier. Normally, a domestic establishment will have 15-20 amp circuits. Each one of these circuits will handle about 1500 to 2000 watts of power. That would be about three to four 500 watt photo flood bulbs or one 2000 watt soft light.
The best way to get low amounts of power to the place of filming is to simply use a heavy duty extension cord. A lawnmower extension cord (about 100 feet) is workable. It is a good idea to wire onto the end a dual receptacle box. This way four distinct lights or extension cords can be plugged in.
Larger amounts of power must be carried through 4-0 cable and spiderboxes, such wired into the mains. This must be done by an experienced Gaffer. If you have never worked with one, please do not attempt to do this yourself, you may electrocute yourself. If you are interested in professional Gaffing, get a job as a Best Boy, the Gaffer's right hand assistant, and apprentice.
Getting Set Up Quickly
Once you have gotten the "set hot", you should be alert to the DP, as already stressed. Up until this point, you are basically responsible for getting the electricity onto the set. More than likely you will not have to involve the DP in this activity; just be sure that there are no special requirements for the set ups. Normally, a good DP will indicate what areas it is okay for the main extension cords to enter the set so as to be out of the sight of the camera. On the other hand, the DP might not know right away and may very well be extremely busy conferring with the Director as to the requirements of the set up. In this case, use your own judgement by getting the necessary light extension cords to central portions of the room, or set. This does not mean right out in the middle of the floor, it just means to an accessible spot.
Once this is accomplished, you will work with the DP in getting the specific lights set up and pointed in the correct directions. The DP normally will have gotten his instructions from the Director and will now work with you. In general, the DP will let you know what lights to bring into the set (or onto the location). You should store any and all lights otherwise not in use neatly near the set and readily accessible.
The DP will have a light meter and it is a good idea for you to have one too. The best type of meter is the incident type, like a Seconic, Weston or best of all, a Spectra. Your meter should be equipped with a non-hemispherical light reader. This will give you the true value of the light falling on the subject from any one given direction. This is what you want to control, how much light is falling on the subject from each given light. The DP will usually be standing on the set near the subject to be filmed and he will have you move the light closer or farther to the subject. When it is right, you are supposed to secure the light at that spot and shining and in that direction.
Be prepared for a lot of changing and moving of lights and do not get upset if things have to be done over and over again. Sometimes it is just not possible to predict what the lighting will look like until it is viewed through the camera or a contrast viewer.
Again, and for the third time, you are the righthand man of the DP, so it is very important to keep your attention on him so that when he needs to change something or move something or add something in the way of light, he can do it quickly. When shooting, every second of set-up time is expensive. Your basic product is: LIGHTS THAT ARE QUICKLY BROUGHT TO THE SET AND BEING DIRECTED IN THE PROPER DIRECTIONS PER THE DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY'S INSTRUCTIONS.
When your function is done, it is a good idea to stay out of the set area as much as possible--but within eye and ear shot of the DP. Do not answer or take directions from anyone else on the set.
1) Pair of heavy gloves
2) Light meter
3) Volt meter
4) Pair of insulated pliers
For more reference see pages 200-201 of Low Budget Features by William O. Brown.
© 1989, 1979 by James R. Jaeger II All Rights Reserved