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Lighting plays a crucial role in the "look" and "feel" of films and theatrical productions. Gaffers work behind the scenes of productions as electricians, creating lighting and special lighting effects to enhance the visual impact of the show. They usually set up, maintain and operate light fixtures, control devices, and the associated electrical and rigging equipment used for television, motion picture, and theater and stage productions. Gaffer is British slang for "grandfather" and is meant as a term of respect. Sometimes called lighting technicians, they use lighting fixtures, color filters, patterns, light modifiers and various methods of control and manipulation to create different lighting effects.

Gaffers have to find electrical power sources and then transport portable generators or power transformers to and from the set each day. In the early days of the film industry, the lighting equipment was often huge and extremely heavy. Nowadays, the gaffer has assistants, called Best Boys, to help with the equipment. They are in charge of all the electrical aspects of a film set, making sure that everything that needs power, including the film trailers and the craft service truck, has it. They organize the power distribution through many cables and wires, which are always scattered around a film set. So, if you were to walk around a set, you would have to be careful not to trip over the various wires. In theater, gaffers must figure out how to hide these wires behind stage.

Even an indoor set can cause difficulties for a gaffer. Lighting each set is dependent upon the 'feeling' the director wishes to create. Gaffers must be able to respond quickly and know how to brighten up or dim a specific scene as required by a director.

Also, there may be a research aspect involved in each project, depending on the subject matter and historical significance, etc. Gaffers need to understand lighting in relation to the historical context and desired ambience of each production. When working on smaller productions gaffers may have a bigger say in the artistic qualities of the lighting and attend production meetings to discuss lighting needs and special effects with directors.

Gaffers are also in charge of many other different kinds of equipment, including adapters, supporting fixtures and connectors, as well as the lights themselves. They also deal with the maintenance of electrical equipment, which requires the use of hand tools and a specialized electrical knowledge. Many gaffers supply their own tools on sets. Gaffers are required to constantly update their knowledge and stay current with any new technologies in the film, television and theater industries.
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  Interests and Skills  
Gaffers must be visually creative and have the ability to concentrate on the lighting and electrical functions during a production. They are often required to move heavy equipment and must be able to respond quickly to technical problems while observing safety precautions in any film or production. Gaffers should be comfortable with heights, because much of the lighting is always set up at a considerable height.

They must be "team players" and have the ability to adapt to a variety of production styles and deadline requirements. Gaffers must keep up with changes in technology. The work is most rewarding for those who enjoy working with tools and equipment on tasks requiring precision.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Study the script and consult with the director to assess what electrical power and lighting is required
  • Select lights and electrical equipment to be used and organize any additional equipment
  • Set up, focus and operate light fixtures and equipment
  • Control consoles and auxiliary equipment
  • Operate the lights during the performance
  • Use manual or computer control consoles to control lighting and electricity throughout a production
  • Perform routine maintenance functions such as replacing lamps and damaged color filters or patterns and maintain lighting equipment in safe working conditions
  • Explore new techniques and special effects
  • Working conditions for gaffers vary a great deal from one job to another. Gaffers generally spend a lot of time on their feet and the pace of work can become hectic. Last-minute changes are often required and safety precautions must be observed when handling hot lamps, climbing ladders or working on high voltage electrical cables and equipment. Gaffers are routinely required to lift and carry equipment.
  • Hours of work also vary. For example, those employed by large television stations generally work 40 hours a week, including some evenings and weekends. Gaffers covering important news events or working on television series may be required to work 10 to 12 hours a day, sometimes from remote locations and in bad weather conditions. Those employed in motion picture and theater productions may be required to work highly irregular hours, with short deadlines. Some travel may be required to film in remote locations or accompany theater and concert productions on tour.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Gaffers are generally employed by television stations, television networks, film production companies, cable companies, theater and dance companies, concert promoters and independent motion picture production and other freelance contracting companies. In motion picture and theater lighting, employment may be seasonal or short-term, and even seasoned workers may experience periods of unemployment between jobs.
  • Many workers are freelancers, particularly in theater; therefore gaffers must be able to handle an inconsistent money flow. The flip side however, is obtaining more freedom in your work schedule.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Experienced gaffers in large organizations may advance to supervisory positions such as lighting director or designer. They may also move to become a video director or show designer. Further advancement generally requires postsecondary education (which may be acquired through specialized workshops and seminars). Gaffers may also move into positions dealing with operating, repairing and installing electronics.

  Educational Paths  
Many community colleges and technical institutions offer two-year programs related to theater and film production and technical lighting. This is not required by any theater company or film studio, however will weigh higher than those without education or experience.

Gaffers need a basic understanding of electricity, color theory, lighting equipment and light modifiers, and must be able to apply their knowledge in a variety of situations. In the past, most gaffers learned on the job. However, the field is becoming more and more technical and competition for positions is getting tougher. Again, most employers prefer to hire people who have related education or experience. Creative talent and training is a definite asset for gaffers who want to advance in the field.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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