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DP - Gaffer Relationship

Jacob Mitchell

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Hey everyone,


I'm currently a student studying cinematography, and have found some dilemma when working with a gaffer. Often times I am very controlling in pre-production; I know exactly what light I want where with what gel and how many foot candles it will read. However, I feel like just handing my gaffer a floor plan is a disservice to them as a part of the creative process.


What is your experience/take on the Gaffer-DP relationship? Where are the lines drawn? Who does what when in pre-production?


Thanks a million!

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Depends on the relationship; each one is different. I personally think the best way is to have a good plan (or build a plan with them) and then be open to augmentation and their suggestions as you go.


(edited for additional thought)


I think what you really have to understand to work well in this business is how to deal with all types-- a hug portion of the job as a DoP which is often under represented is knowing how to work with and best utilize the people that you have. This being the case, you have to take each crew member you work with as an individual and learn their strengths and weaknesses on set so you can all gel together to make something. It's a managerial position as well as a creative one.

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I think the relationship with your gaffer should be one of mutual understanding across the board. If you show up with a game plan, your gaffer should be all thumbs up and making it happen.


I personally like telling my gaffer what I'm looking for and letting them come up with the game plan. It allows me to back off and focus with the director on the shot, rather then focusing so much on lighting. Generally I've found a brief explanation gives the gaffing team some time and that gives ME time to work with the director. When the shot is ready, then I'll make some tweaks to the lights before shooting, sometimes with actors ready to go.


I'm very hands-on however once things are setup. I'll adjust lights, I'll move things, I'll even put gels up if necessary. I've pissed off quite a few "hired" gaffers working this way, but they get use to it quick.


I also like working with the gaffer with what's on the truck. I think that's hypercritical, so I'm generally giving the gaffer a list and he will add what he wants and we'll sometimes go to the rental house together. If it's a smaller truck, I will go pick it up myself and sometimes test things like HMI's before showing up to set and finding out they're broken... been there, done that. I also go through all the camera equipment and insure I've got everything before the shoot. There is nothing worse then showing up and finding out you're missing something.

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If your project is small and you know how to light it, you can easily get by without a gaffer and just hire swing crew. Make someone a best boy, someone a key grip and call it a day. Cause it sounds like all you need are hands to move and rig stuff safely. Sometimes there isn't time to "discuss" every lighting decision you make. I've had gaffers who suffer suggestion syndrome where you can't ask for something without getting back a hundred substitutions for it. That can be frustrating in a time crunch scenario. A gaffer has to trust you and have your back or they can really slow down the shoot and make it a grind. So if I can get away without one, I'll just hire a really experienced swing crew.


That said, I'm assuming you have some sort of background in G&E and you understand safety concerns, protocol, setiquette and the like and won't make dumb mistakes that a qualified gaffer would stop you and the rest of the G&E crew from making. G&E gear is dangerous to newbies and you can make horrible errors that can cost people personal injury and property damage if your not careful. But assuming you know all that...


It all depends on the shoot. If you are doing a ton of electrical distribution, huge night exteriors etc. Then you will absolutely need someone in charge but for basic shoots, maybe not. As Adrian said, it really depends on your crew and their personalities.

Edited by Michael LaVoie
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Honestly I think that's awful advice. If anything you want a gaffer and not swing crew, just so you don't have to waste time on lighting which should be spent with the director, and that's not even getting into all the safety and experiential concerns. If you gaffer has too many suggestions for you; then you only need pull them aside and explain that you just need something quick, or figure out a better way of communicating in the first place.

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From the vantage point of a lamp op, you see DPs, often early in their careers come from a low budget background where they do everything, and don't really 'get' what a good gaffer offers.


The most successful approach tends to occur when the DP and the gaffer start with a discussion about what the DP wants to achieve, and then they bounce ideas off one another about the best way of doing it. Sometimes, if the DP has a specific plan in mind you might just go with that. Other times the gaffer might suggest something that delivers the same result but is more flexible, or quicker, or cheaper, or just plain better. The trick here is collaboration and utilizing the talent and skills of the people around you.


A good gaffer is going to be your best ally on set. They provide a second set of eyes, a very large bag of tips and tricks, a vast range of experience, and can let you focus on telling the story rather than getting distracted by the mechanics of lighting a scene.

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DPs can be very controlling in pre production if necessary but on set it is better and more productive to just trust the gaffer and mostly give the necessary suggestions/guidelines how the scene and shots should look, light direction+motivation etc. with as little technical details as necessary.

Nothing's more annoying than a DP harassing a good gaffer with continuous unnecessary micro management if they already know what to do ("use two clips for that gel and three for that" etc...)

A good gaffer can very well manage by him/herself if just knowing what kind of look you are after and which shots and angles you need + other basic info.


it's a bit same thing with the directors who want to control everything lighting/grip/camera related technical stuff and not letting the other HODs to do their job...


It may be different if you can't get a good experienced gaffer, only some basic student lighting crew... then you may have to be your own gaffer and choose the most experienced spark to be a best boy. but that takes lots of time from camera+director related stuff so I'd advise against it unless absolutely necessary or if you have 3x more time for the shoot than usual.

( I've had relatively inexperienced crew most of the time in indie shoots and had to do gaffer things in addition with the DP stuff, you sure can wear both hats but it is often very slow compared to having a separate experienced gaffer on set. the DP should be more of a creative person than concentrate on purely technical things which can very well be handled by someone else)

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Thanks everyone for the awesome advice!


It's interesting to see everyone's perspectives and takes on the relationship. I think for my next project I'm going to try and collaborate much more with the Gaffer, even going as far as making no initial technical decisions and just collaborating creatively and from a conceptual standpoint with my gaffer. I think I may have been so controlling due to my lack of trust, as often I'm working with other students.

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