If you've ever read the end credits of a motion picture, you may have encountered such titles as best boys, swing gang leaders and gaffers. Believe it or not, these are real jobs performed by professionals. Many of these confusing job titles have gone out of vogue, but they hearken back to the very beginnings of film making. Such is the case with gaffers, professional electricians primarily responsible for lighting and electrifying a movie set. The term is often used interchangeably with chief lighting technicians these days, but the tradition goes back to the earliest film studios.
Lighting a primitive studio set often involved the use of ceiling-mounted mirrors to reflect natural sunlight. In order to move these mirrors throughout the day, long poles called gaffs were used by electricians or other crew members. The actual need for reflected sunlight may have disappeared, but the name remains as an honorary title for experienced electricians. Gaffers often work closely with the director of photography to set up special lighting effects or supply electrical power to stage equipment.
Gaffers are also responsible for hiring qualified electricians and assistants. They must also know which filters to employ for specific effects, and how to simulate such conditions as a moving train or flashing signs in the distance. Electricians must also pay close attention to safety measures.
Some do-it-yourselfers may be familiar with an adhesive called gaffers tape. This product looks similar to cloth-backed duct tape, but it is not quite as adhesive. Gaffers actually use this tape to bind cable wires together or attach lighting fixtures to other surfaces. Since movie and television sets are designed to be temporary, the less-adhesive quality of the tape allows electricians to remove set-ups without significant residue.
Gaffers often work their way up the ranks from basic electrician to best boy, the movie industry's name for a gaffer's chief assistant. Some people may be hired by a movie company as electricians, but they may not necessarily have specific training in that area. Basic set electricians may only be required to move electrical cables out of the camera operator's path or flip switches according to cues from the lighting director. Gaffers, on the other hand, usually have extensive electrical training and a strong interest in the artistic side of film making.