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What The Eff Is A Gaffer Anyways?

gaffsAccording to Bob McKenzie of Strange Brew, the gaffer on their set just went around making gaffs (playing tricks on people). That would therefore make him the person who prepares and facilitates all the practical jokes on sets and in the star's trailers...

If YOU know what a gaffer is, then you're a supernaut because even I, the great and knowledgeable Squish, don't, and if you thought that you'd hoard such treasures all for yourself, then I'm just about to burst your bubble, cause I'm telling the world!

Let's get to the nitty gritty. According to the dictionary, a gaffer is the head glassblower... and he blows the gaff, which is actually a very specific sail that they use in glassblowing... at sea...

gaffingNot buying it eh? Fine. In THIS movie-world context, the gaffer is the chief electrician in charge of lighting on a motion-picture or television set... but wouldn't it be cool to have a glassblower on staff at every film?

To clarify, it's not just the guy who tells that OTHER guy, "Hey, Kid! Plug that in!" They're responsible for the design and planning of lighting, so another commonly used title would be Chief Lighting Technician, but that doesn't nearly sound as sub-culture cool.

Imagine you have the fog, the ghost, the graveyard and the clock striking a haunting witching hour. You still need moonlight, but it's 3:00 PM. The gaffer is the one to set the night on fire (so to speak). Or, think of a rocking subway car where our hero is getting mugged by pistol-totting thugs. The lights flicker just long enough for Protagonist to pull the emergency stop-cord and get away! Without the gaffer, not only would the getaway opportunity be impossible, but it probably wouldn't look like they were in a subway train at all. Need a sunrise on a cloudy day? That gaffer girl is the one who can set that right up for you! Get it?


Now don't go blaming the gaffer when a scene is lit up stupid. They DO answer to the director of photography, who is in charge of everything lighting, but the gaffer would normally be the hands-on person following their instructions, depending on how 'hands-on' that D.O.P. is.

Now the etymology of the word is also very interesting: In 16th Century England, the term 'gaffer' denoted a man who was the head of any organized group of laborers. Also, sailing ships have a boom (or long pole) to move the sails with, and those booms are called gaffs. In the early days of film, crews used natural light, and stagehands (who were oftentimes beached sailors or longshoremen) would control the tent-cloths (much like sails) on a set using poles very similar to the ones used on ships, so these became known as gaffs as well. When lighting equipment became standard, the meaning reverted more to the 'head of a group of laborers', with solid roots in the sailing terms.

Finally, before you run off to set your sights on this exciting and lucrative position, remember you'll probably have to work your way up the chain, becoming an assistant to the gaffer first, otherwise know as the best boy, or if you're lucky, you'll end up as the key grip, responsible for some of the lighting equipment. Before we sign off, think about that famous scene in Citizen Cain, where the newspaper man looks down pensively and all we see of him in detail is the streak of light across his eyes while the rest of him was silhouetted in shadow.

Yup, there's an example
Yup, there's an example

Without a skilled gaffer, that memorable moment just would not have been possible. Thanks, buddy! There you go, now you know more than the next guy. That makes you smart. Thanks for reading.

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