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Film Appreciation... What is a Gaffer?

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Much of the material included in this article has been adapted from Ephraim Katz's The Film Encyclopedia and Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film.

Have you ever been to a movie and sat through the credits only to wonder what those strange names were? Trying to read the flood of credits at the end of a movie is daunting at best and downright impossible under many circumstances. After all, gaffer, key grip and best boy are not titles that most people use every day -- but if you are a genuine movie buff, you may find the following credits interesting. (What the heck, you can always amaze and dazzle your friends with your knowledge, and at the very least you will do much better the next time you play "You Don't Know Jack"©.) Aside from that, your friendly local Film Teacher thinks it would be nice to give credit to the small army of people out there who really are responsible for the stuff we watch on the silver screen - as my grandma always said, "give credit where credit is due."

Associate Producer: The much-maligned title of associate producer can mean many things. These individuals often help the producer with numerous post-production activities including lab work, dubbing, and special effects. Occasionally, this title is granted to friends, relatives, and business partners of the powers-that-be.

Casting: Casting directors are not responsible for determining what the final cast list will actually look like. What they are responsible for is determining who will have the opportunity to audition for the producer and director of the film. A good casting director can make or break a film. If you have any doubts about that, think about the number of times you have seen an actor in a minor or major role turn in such a poor performance that it left you scratching your head in amazement and asking the question, "Wow! Who do you suppose they knew?"

Director: The director is responsible for the entire creative end of the film. Ultimately, the success or failure of the film rests with the director. Can you say, "big job"? The director determines the eventual look of the film, or at least they try to. Sometimes, creative control is removed from the director; when this happens directors have been known to have their name removed form the credits and to have the name Alyn Smithee substituted as director.

First Assistant Director: Think of the first assistant director as the film's general contractor. It is the first assistant director's job to turn the directors dreams into concrete reality. They are the people who make sure that every thing and every one is in the appropriate place at the appropriate time. These people wield tremendous power - they get to yell "Lunch!" It is also the AD's voice that appeals for "Quiet on the set!" and orders the camera operator to "Roll." Prior to the start of production, the AD is often assigned to break down the script for a shooting schedule (the shooting schedule is exactly what it sounds like - a calendar that lists what scenes will be shot in which order and on which days). This particular job often serves as a gateway to other positions, most notably that of director or producer.

Second Assistant Director: The second assistant director is the person who makes certain that the first assistant director's orders are carried out. They are frequently in charge of filming "we-the-people scenes" (scenes that feature casts of thousands where the primary actors are not seen). They are often assigned to film battle sequences and stunt sequences where extras are utilized. This particular job can also serve as a gateway to other positions, such as that of director or producer.

Script Supervisor: This is the person who is in charge of what is known as "continuity" in the industry. Continuity refers to the job of making certain that a movie that is actually shot out of sequence (most films are) eventually makes sense. Script supervisors make certain that actors say the same lines and wear the same clothing during each "take" of the scene. If the script supervisor does not do their job, the film is liable to have a bruise on one arm in the first scene and the other arm in the next. Script supervisors often carry Polaroid cameras so that they can consult pictures of the scene to make certain that everything matches up. This is an extremely important job. You can bet that if Harrison Ford has a hat on one minute and it is gone the next only to reappear without warning the moment the camera changes angles there will be a film critic out there only too happy to point it out.

Camera Operator: The camera operator is the person who is responsible for carrying out the cinematographers directions. They are the ones who actually aim the camera. This can take several forms ranging from tilts (moving the camera up and down), pans (moves right and left), and zooms (moves in closer or further away from the subject). It is their job to make certain that everything and everyone remains within the frame and in focus.

Cinematographer: The cinematographer or director of photography is just what the name implies. The cinematographer defines the photographic style or look of the film. The cinematographer is responsible for transforming the screenwriter's and director's concepts into real visual images. The cinematographer is second only to the director when it comes to creating the mood, atmosphere, and visual style of the film. This entails doing everything from measuring the light to lining up the shot. Lining up the shot is more involved than it sounds; it requires determining which lens and filter to use, the way to point the camera and how to mount the camera. In short everything from ascertaining the best camera angles, setup, and movement to determining the exposure, and lighting necessary to achieve the desired effect.

Gaffer: The gaffer is the head electrician. This means that they are in charge of all the lighting personnel. How they got this name, I have absolutely no clue - but rumor has it that the name gaffer predates the sound era in a time when electricity was used to a lesser degree than today. The early stages had canvas roofs that were opened and closed to emit varying degrees of light. This canvas was moved with large gaffing hooks which had been traditionally used to land large fish. I won't swear that this is the actual reason we call them gaffers, but it is the only explanation I have heard that sounds reasonable.

Best Boy: The best boy is the gaffer's assistant.

Key Grip: The key grip is the person in charge of all the people who move anything. This means that they are the boss of all the individuals who move scenery, cameras (these things often weigh a ton), and set up and take down the scaffolding that the lights, microphones etc. are hung on. In live theater, these folks are called stage hands, and in film they are called key grips. The way to remember this is to remind yourself that you can't move it if you can't get a grip on it.

Production Designer: This is the individual who is responsible for the "look" of the film. The production designer is responsible for the appearance of all of the movie's sets, locations and costumes. If it isn't an actor, the production designer was responsible for its selection. Production designers generally have a background in scenic design and or architecture. These individuals make a significant contribution to the "feel" of a movie.

Art Director: The art director is generally the production designer's assistant. They work with sets and locations.

Set Designer: The set designer translates the production designer's ideas and sketches into blueprints for the construction crew.

Set Decorator: The set decorator works with the production designer to select all of the decorations that will be used in a scene. This includes everything from furniture to carpeting to the drapes on the windows. These individuals are often the recipients of fan mail - the kind that asks where can I get a painting, a clock, a flower vase, etc. like the one that was featured in a film.

Property Master: The property master is in charge of procuring and preparing any object that an actor comes in physical contact with during a film. The prop department handles everything from food on a plate to weapons. If an actor touches it, it is a prop. If, for example, an actor throws a flower vase at a wall it is a prop. If it sits on the table and is never moved, it's set decoration. The prop department also handles promotional items and their placement in the film. Promotional items can run the gamut from candy and gum to which beverage an actor consumes in a film.

Special Effects: Special effects is the art of illusion that makes the dangerous, magical, expensive, or physically impossible seem perfectly believable. Special effects tend to fall into several broad catergories: optical, physical, animated, and computerized. In laypersons terms, the special effects department is responsible for anything that explodes, smokes, breaks away or bleeds on the set. If an actor has to bleed on screen it is the responsibility of the spfx department. If the blood doesn't have to burst out, then it is the makeup person's job. In short the special effects department is responsible for what has appropriately been referred to as movie magic. It's a great job if you can get it.

Production Assistant: The production assistant, or PA, is an entry level position. This position is the moral equivalent of serfdom, as these individuals often work for little or no money in the hopes of eventually advancing up the ladder. PAs are generally assigned every lousy task that comes along. So why do they do this? On the premise that their perseverance will eventually pay off in the form of a better job. Don't laugh -- today's PA may be tomorrow's movie mogul (they could also be the son or daughter of the producer, director or big name star).

Sound Mixer: The sound mixer records the dialogue and ambient noise of a scene. The sound mixer is in charge of all the microphones used on the set, everything form the wireless body mikes the actors wear to the big boom mikes that constantly hover over the scene. It is the sound mixer's job to make things sound like they look. For example, if actors are whispering the dialogue should be quieter than when they are shouting, and if actors are being filmed in the distance the sound should also reflect this. How important is this? If you have ever watched a film only to have the dialogue obscured by overly loud background noise or music you know how important this is.

Music Editor: The music editor's job begins in post-production. It is the music editor's job to insert the composer's prerecorded score into the sound track. This can be more complicated than it sounds, since the composer may have recorded the score before the sequence was even filmed, and as such the music may or may not be the right length for the scene.

Makeup Artist: These wizards of grease paint do the actors' makeup. In rare instances, The Academy has chosen to recognize them with an Academy Award for outstanding accomplishments in this area. The award was instituted in 1981and was first given to Rick Baker for "An American Werewolf In London"

Hair Stylist: Amazingly enough, the hair stylist does the actors' hair. Don't laugh, it can be a challenge to make a guy with a buzz cut look like he has a Mohawk.

Costume Designer: The costume designer is responsible for the appearance of the actors' wardrobes. The frequently design and sketch out the costumes for the actors in a film. The Academy Awards for Costume Design was first instituted in 1948 and was won by Roger K. Furse for "Hamlet". One the most recognized costume designers was Edith Head who died in 1981. Head received 35 Academy Award nominations, and was an eight-time Oscar winner.

Costumer: The costumer carries out the costume designer's directions. This can mean anything from purchasing or renting costumes for the actors to making certain that these garments have been altered for the actors.

Assistant to the director or to an actor: These individuals are the director's or actor's right hand man (I should say person since many women serve as assistants). These are the people who make certain that the director's or star's lives do not fall apart during the making of the movie. They do everything from making the director's or performer's schedule to running their errands (yes, they have laundry and bills to pay, too). These individuals perform personal and administrative duties for the director or actor. The power of this position varies greatly. One assistant may be nothing more than a glorified baby-sitter while another may be the power behind the throne. For a better understanding of what this entails read the irreverent book Wannabe.

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1999 Debbie Twyman. All rights reserved. TERMS OF USE