Light Department

The Lighting department plays a crucial role in most film crews.  Humanity lives by the light of the sun and, when it sets, artificial lights of different kinds and intensities are required.  Although some productions may make use of daylight, for the most part it is necessary to use artificial light to achieve the visual image required.  The different members of the Lighting crew are responsible, together with others such as the Camera crew or Designer, for the look and feel of the images that are captured on the screen.  They set up a wide range of lighting equipment to achieve a variety of moods, atmospheres and effects, as well as helping to make the actors, performers and participants look right for their roles.

All members of the Lighting department are trained to work safely with electricity, and all its obvious potential dangers.  They interpret the ideas of the Director, the Designer and other departments such as Make-Up and Costume, and choose the correct lights and equipment to meet the production brief.  Lighting has become increasingly sophisticated, utilising a variety of lamps and accessories to create special effects.  Some lighting set-ups are quite simple, and only require minimal lighting and a minimal crew, but dramas and feature films may require several hundred lights, many of which are computer-controlled.  The sheer variety of equipment means that Lighting Technicians, once trained, may take up specialist roles within the lighting team.

This is traditionally a male-dominated section of the industry, although some women now work in these roles.  Members of the Lighting department work in studios or on locations, both indoors and outdoors.  They must be qualified electricians and generally acquire their skills with a combination of on-the-job experience and college training.  It is usual to start work in a lighting hire company to gain a thorough knowledge of all types of equipment, but some individuals start their careers working in theatre.  Many of those working in the Lighting department become freelancers once they have established themselves in the industry.

All Lighting occupations require the following knowledge and skills:

excellent Health and Safety knowledge and awareness;

  • ability to work comfortably at heights;
  • good communication and presentation skills;
  • knowledge of different types of lighting equipment, accessories and effects;
  • literacy, numeracy and I.T. skills;
  • patience and attention to detail;
  • stamina and physical agility;
  • willingness to work long and irregular hours, and to travel;
  • full driving licence.

1. Gaffer

(aka Chief Electrician, Supervising or Chief Lighting Technician)

Gaffers are in charge of all the electrical work on a production, leading the team of technicians who install the lighting equipment and arrange the power supply in order to create the designed lighting effects.  Gaffers work closely with the Director of Photography to visualise in a practical way the ‘look’ they are trying to achieve.  Several years’ experience may be required in order to qualify for the role of Gaffer.  They may work on location, or on a film studio set.  On larger productions there may be more than one Gaffer, e.g., there may be a separate Rigging Gaffer who is solely in charge of the rigging team, in which case there will also be an overall Supervising or Chief Electrician.

One of the Gaffers’ key responsibilities is Health and Safety.  They conduct risk assessments and certify the electrical safety of the production.  They must keep control of the lighting budget, and oversee the work.  Gaffers help in the selection of the best lights and equipment for the production, ensuring that they are within budget.  They are in charge of the technical work of carrying out recces, and planning and preparing the lighting installations and equipment.

Gaffers check the list of lighting with the Best Boy to ensure that the correct equipment is ordered, and mediate between the lighting crew and the DoP.  They must be able to suggest and interpret ideas, and have a thorough knowledge of a wide range of equipment, and of its operation.  They position the equipment, and operate the lights during filming.  Gaffers need to be committed to completing the job, often in difficult circumstances.  They choose the lighting team, and must be aware of the legal regulations relating to working with electricity, driving, and employment.  Gaffers act as the spokesperson for the lighting crew. There may be a considerable amount of travel involved in this role, and irregular, unpredictable working hours.

Gaffers must to be imaginative, and need high-level technical skills proven over several years of work.  They must have strong problem solving skills.  Excellent communication and team leadership abilities are required, plus the ability to quickly gain the respect of their crew.  The role requires self-confidence and assertiveness, as they may have to walk onto a set of 100 people and direct others in their team.  Fast decision-making is essential, as well as the ability to justify their decisions.  The role also requires patience and tact, plus the ability to compromise, and to balance differing opinions.

2. Best Boy*

*aka Assistant Chief Lighting Technician, Assistant Chief Lighting Operator, or Assistant Chief Lighting Electrician)

The term Best Boy* comes from “The Gaffer’s Handbook”, an American publication, and refers to the best electrician in the team led by the Gaffer (Chief Lighting Technician).  Best Boys co-ordinate the team of Lighting Technicians, and deal with all the logistics and paperwork relating to the role.  They liaise between the production office and the lighting company, and relay information for the Gaffer.  Best Boys ensure that equipment is ordered, arrange its delivery, and ensure that it arrives in the right place at the right time.  They are also in charge of dealing with any damaged or malfunctioning equipment.  This is a senior lighting role, and varies according to the size of the production.  The Best Boy is the Gaffer’s right hand person.

Best Boys have specific responsibility for liaising with other members of the production team, e.g., the First Assistant Director, the Special Effects Director or the Art Director.  On location they may liaise with the building maintenance team,  or with the electrician in a particular building.  It is the Best Boys’ responsibility to check the lighting team members’ time sheets in order to verify the hours they have worked.  Best Boys issue written orders, and assist the Gaffer in co-ordinating the other lighting technicians in the team. The work is demanding, and the hours long and unpredictable.  Best Boys may work a six-day week, and up to 12 or 13 hours per day.

Lighting Technicians need several years working experience before becoming Best Boys, and it is unlikely that anyone would attain this position before reaching the age of 25.  They must be organised, able to motivate other team members and to communicate effectively with other production departments, as well as acting as the liaison with the lighting company.  Best Boys must be aware of Health and Safety legislation and procedures.

3. Genny Operator

(aka Generator Operator)

Generator Operator is a specialist role within the Lighting Department, and one a Lighting Technician may choose after initial training and some working experience.  The Genny Operator’s role is to maintain and operate the electricity generators which are taken to, and used at, locations where an electricity supply is difficult to obtain, or is insufficient for the requirements of the production, e.g., in a desert, in a field, on a bus or boat.

Generators are also used to supplement the electricity supply when a particular lamp requires more power than can be obtained from the ordinary electricity mains; and also to supply power to specific equipment, such as a satellite dish.  Genny Operators work within the garage department of a lighting company, in order to gain experience of the vehicles used to transport the generators.

Genny Operators’ main responsibility is to load the generator and drive it to the required location. They must ensure that it is fully operational, and that is meets the specifications required for the production.  They clean and maintain the generator, and carry out some maintenance on the carrier vehicle.

Any qualified electrician is able to operate a small generator (up to 20KW).  However, for larger generators, a specialist Genny Operator is required, holding a full HGV licence, in order to transport the generator to different locations.  For insurance purposes these specialists must be over 21 years old. They need a wide knowledge of the range of generators used for different purposes.  Ideally, Genny Operators should have had some experience of working with diesel engines; however, as vehicles’ systems become increasingly electronic, they should at least have some general mechanical awareness in order to be able to keep vehicles maintained.  Practical problem-solving ability is useful, as they may be working in difficult circumstances.  As is required of anyone working with electricity, an awareness of Health and Safety legislation and procedures is very important.

4. Lighting Technician

(aka Lighting Operator or Lighting Electrician; the nickname “Sparks” is also commonly used)

Lighting Technicians help to provide the relevant lighting and power supply for a film, either on a studio set, or on location.  Once they are fully qualified (having served as an apprentice or trainee for three years) they start to work “on the road” as part of the lighting team.  They usually require a minimum of two years’ working experience, and must have reached the age of 23 before they start to work on feature films or commercials.

Lighting Technicians’ responsibilities vary according to the size of the production, and the number of lighting technicians in the team.  Lighting Technicians represent the company who employs them, although many work freelance once they have established a reputation.  They are required to keep the equipment clean, and maintained in good working order.

Some Lighting Technicians are engaged in setting up the lighting equipment before a shoot starts (referred to as Rigging Electricians) and carrying out lighting tests.  Others (referred to as Lighting Storemen) work in the Lighting Store, which may be a temporary store set up in a corner of a studio.  They are in charge of all the light bulbs and other consumable items, such as the traces and filters that are fitted over lights to create particular effects.  Others are responsible for positioning lights during the shoot or recording.

The responsibilities differ from production to production, and Lighting Technicians must be able to adapt to whatever role is required of them.  They must report anything that goes wrong to the Best Boy, and be very aware of Health and Safety legislation and procedures.  Lighting Technicians work to the instructions of the Gaffer and the Best Boy, who acts as the team leader in co-ordinating their work.

Lighting Technicians must be able to work comfortably at heights.  The work is physically demanding, requiring stamina and agility, and the hours are long and unpredictable.  Qualified Lighting Technicians may work a six-day week and up to 12/13 hours per day.  They must be able to work quickly and accurately.  Good communication and interpersonal skills are essential, as is an eye for detail.

The role may involve travelling long distances.  A clean driving licence is usually required, and an LGV licence is often also specified, as Lighting Technicians may have to drive vans of various sizes, transporting equipment.  On a very small production there may be only one Lighting Technician working with the Camera Operator.  On larger productions the teams may be sizeable, so flexibility and good team-working skills are important, combined with the ability to take direction.

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