Become a Gaffer
Gaffer Cole Pisano has worked on feature films, commercials, and music videos for the likes of Ice Cube, Halsey, and Nick Jonas. “The Gaffer is the head of the Lighting and Power Department on a film set,” he explains. “They work in pre-production and production to help achieve the desired cinematic image through setting up lights and running cables.”
As part of pre-production, the Gaffer collaborates with the Director, Cinematographer, and Key Grip to set up a unified aesthetic for the visuals of the film. They must also figure out how to logistically achieve them. This requires scouting the locations and where the lights can live in each setup, as well as figuring out where cables can be run, and finding a safe place to park the generator. This stage includes deciding how his or her team can be proactive in the shoot. Often, the Cinematographer will draw lighting plots as a reference point to help establish a plan. Other duties will include negotiating with Producers and Production Managers on the electric budget, cutting deals for equipment, and hiring crew.
Production runs smoothly when the pre-production work has been accomplished before shooting starts. If it hasn’t, the Gaffer must do double duty and wrap up the pre-production elements while managing his or her crew on set. It’s important for the Gaffer to be able to constantly work with their crew to make them as efficient as possible. Changing lighting setups usually takes the most time in a transition on set. If the Lighting Department is slow, shots will be cut and the production may go into overtime. If a production goes into overtime, money is spent very fast due to how many people are working. Therefore, the Gaffer is constantly giving his or her crew notes, jobs, and tasks to accomplish the vision for the scene and make the day run smoothly. When filming is taking place, the Gaffer is typically on a monitor focusing solely on lighting, making sure each of the shots match and there is no flickering from any lamps. Getting rehired or referred on to other jobs is contingent on how well a Gaffer is able to effectively make a plan and then accomplish it.
The Gaffer is the top position in the Lighting Department on a film shoot. So generally, once someone becomes a Gaffer, advancing in the career involves working on larger and larger shoots. “Many people break into gaffing by working on student and short films. As their reputation grows and they get to know more Cinematographers they’ll move onto larger sets and longer shoots,” says Pisano. The trajectory of a gaffing career is based on their talent and work ethic. Some people start working on studio productions after five years while others will still be doing student short films. It’s all a matter of networking, hard work, and talent.
Education & Training
Everyone has a different route into the industry. Some people get on set as a PA while others attend film school. Film school gives the chance to work on multiple sets, doing different jobs without the pressure of a professional environment. Whether attending film school or studying in their free time it’s important for aspiring Gaffers to understand other departments like Camera and Grip because it will help with collaboration. They can see where the other departments are at in their process and anticipate what is coming next.
The Gaffer must know how to effectively create a certain look with lights. “The more practical experience they have through working with lights and learning from professionals, the better off they’ll be. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and try to understand why something is being done a specific way. Learning how to gaff is a matter of being self-taught,” says Pisano.
Experience & Skills
“Safety is one of the biggest aspects of being a Gaffer,” Pisano warns. “Within their line of work, it’s easy to get someone killed or start a fire with the lighting equipment. Having experience, especially in safety practices, as a Set Lighting Technician or doing power distribution is crucial.”
Participating in a lighting crew before becoming the boss is a great way to learn from others. This is not to say people can’t begin with limited experience but it’s hard to understand all the different safety concerns and what each of the different lights do without working up from the bottom. Everyone on set trusts the Gaffer is taking safety precautions with their gear and, while there is a lot of information online, it’s not the same as getting practical experience. Get on set and learn how to be safe and what specific lights do.
In terms of essential personality traits, since Gaffers themselves deal with a lot of big personalities working on set in a high-stress environment, the ability to remain calm is important. It doesn’t help to butt heads or get distracted by interpersonal drama. Instead, they should be focused on managing and reducing it.
Gaffers should also be in touch with the needs of their lighting crew so they can make sure no one is being overworked or becoming dead weight. “Additionally, there are a lot of politics with Producers and other department heads, especially around budgets. Ultimately, the Gaffer is there to serve the Director and Cinematographer but they’ve still got to interact with everyone else and remain professional,” advises Pisano.
“A Gaffer’s lifestyle and work schedule constantly vary because it’s a freelance position,” Pisano explains. “Sometimes they’ll work ten days straight, for ten to twelve hours per day, with only one or two days off. Other times it’s just one day in a week. It really depends on when the jobs come in and how often the Gaffer wants to work.
Working isn’t limited to just being on set. A lot of days are scouting, prepping, or working from home. When the jobs start is also up in the air and unique to each job. Sometimes there’s a day shoot and then a night shoot right after, so Gaffers must manage their own downtime. They shouldn’t forget about their personal life but they also need to develop relationships with people who are okay with plans changing last minute. Gaffing can be a turbulent life with long stints of unexpected downtime.”
The crew positions the Gaffer collaborates most with on set are the Cinematographer, Key Grip, Lighting Best Boy, and the Set Lighting Technicians. Production Designers are worked with as well to discuss practical lights and provide the right type of lightbulbs. Sometimes, lights are even built into the set. It’s a highly collaborative position that depends on other departments.
“The best way to become a competent Gaffer is to start with an entry-level position in the lighting crew,” says Pisano. This means typically working as an Electrician or Lamp Operator. Internships or working for free on low-budget gigs are a great approach because they offer a chance for practical experience.
Working freelance is a networking game so if someone works hard on set, they’ll most likely be hired for future projects and gain referrals. As they display more competency within the Lighting Department, they’ll be hired or recommended for positions that have more responsibility. Putting it simply, most people begin by taking care of equipment, maintaining the lighting truck and prepping gear. Later in their career, they move up to managing other people doing those jobs, before taking control of the entire department.
Non-union Gaffers must set their own day rates, which will typically be less than those of union Gaffers. The union sets a pay scale for its members with which productions must comply.
Unions, Groups & Associations
“There are some great resources to check out for learning gaffing. Online forums are great, especially Roger Deakins’ forum. A lot of cities also have film organizations and the lighting unions offer classes regarding lighting and safety. Finally, check out The Set Lighting Technicians Handbook by Harry Box. It’s a little old but still has a ton of relevant information from a professional who’s been working for over forty years,” suggests Pisano.
- Study light by taking photos of it within houses and different environments. Gaffers must learn how it is created so they can replicate it on set.
- Take a photography class to learn why a Cinematographer is framing or requesting light in a specific way.
- Get on set as soon as possible. Gaffing is a practical, technical and creative profession best served by hands-on experience.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“The best way to become a great Gaffer is to ask a lot of questions. Be inquisitive about visuals in general and different lighting practices. Everything should be done for a reason, whether practical or creative, so figure out what it is. Sometimes it’s as simple as there isn’t time to run cable so battery-powered lights are chosen. Other times, a light is chosen because of the quality it gives off. Aspiring Gaffers should never feel stupid because everyone had to start somewhere and if they’re polite, people are willing to teach. Understanding the gaffing job through asking questions on set is the best way to learn.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The biggest mistake beginners make is focusing too much on the growth of their careers. When a Gaffer begins, a lot of them swing for the fences. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that it can set up high expectations that lead to big lows. It’s rare the first short someone makes goes to the Sundance Film Festival.
Even if that career opportunity arises, the craft still needs to be honed over time because that will help get future work. A Gaffer gets hired off their contacts with Cinematographers, not how a film they were on performed. It’s important to keep working without getting caught up in external validation.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“What is the business side of being a Gaffer?
From a practical standpoint, this is a huge aspect of the job that rarely gets addressed. Most people don’t realize it until they take their first gaffing job. The Gaffer is constantly dealing with the politics of getting deals for crew and equipment. They must also be on top of getting paid for jobs they’ve already worked. Sometimes it’s not about always taking the best rate but developing relationships and helping out Cinematographers they believe will be successful. The business aspects of being a Gaffer aren’t cut and dried but require constant maintenance.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“What is the best way to keep getting hired as a Gaffer?
Operating with integrity is the best way to get rehired as a Gaffer. The actual work of renting lights or hiring a crew is important but so is not taking advantage of people. It’s easy to push for as much money as possible and make the job easier, however, that mentality makes it less likely a Producer will rehire for future jobs. Additionally, crew members are relying on the Gaffer to stick up for their rights to the heads of production. Being ethical isn’t always easy, but it pays off in the long run.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Cole Pisano has worked as a Gaffer on various commercials, music videos, and feature films. Some of his commercial clients have included LG, Apple, Nike, Converse, Facebook, Pandora, State Farm, and Geico. He has also collaborated on music videos for Ice Cube (“Good Cop Bad Cop”), Zedd ft. Alessia Cara (“Stay”), Iggy Azalea (“Switch”), Halsey (“Colors”) and Nick Jonas (“Home”). Feature films credits include Shooting in Vain, Blackmark and The Boatman. Cole Pisano is based in Los Angeles.