Features and Columns · Movies

An (Illuminating) Beginner’s Guide to What a Gaffer Does on a Film Set

Ever wondered what, or who, a “gaffer” is? Well, let’s … shed some light on the subject.
Only God Forgives film lighting gaffer
Anchor Bay Entertainment
By  · Published on July 16th, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay that offers a breakdown of what a gaffer does on a film set.

The term “gaffer” has a confused etymological history. There’s a line of thought that believes the word originated as a contraction of “godfather.” It then steadily evolved to broadly mean “boss” or “master.” Another school of thought ties the word to British slang for a tool called a “gaff,” a hooked metal pole used to adjust stage lights. Considering that, as members of a film crew, gaffers are effectively masters of lighting, both of these definitional histories effectively sum up what it is that gaffers do.

On a film set, gaffers function as the chief lighting technicians and the heads of the electrical department.  They typically report to the director of photography and are responsible for executing their creative vision. They play a huge part in how a film ultimately “looks.” So even if you don’t work in the industry, if you’re a fan of cinematography, it’s valuable to learn more about how gaffers do what they do.

In that spirit, we heartily recommend checking out the video essay below as it offers a more in-depth explanation of the role of a gaffer, what their average day on set looks like, and tips from someone with industry experience.

Watch “What A Gaffer Does On Set: Crew Breakdown”:

Who made this?

This video essay on the role of a gaffer is by In Depth Cine, a YouTube account dedicated to providing its audience with practical rundowns and explainers on some of the more technical aspects of movie-making. Gray Kotzé, a documentary DP based in South Africa, is the man behind the channel. You can check out Kotzé’s portfolio on their website here. And you can check out In Depth Cine on YouTube here.

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Meg has been writing professionally about all things film-related since 2016. She is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects as well as a Curator for One Perfect Shot. She has attended international film festivals such as TIFF, Hot Docs, and the Nitrate Picture Show as a member of the press. In her day job as an archivist and records manager, she regularly works with physical media and is committed to ensuring ongoing physical media accessibility in the digital age. You can find more of Meg's work at Cinema Scope, Dead Central, and Nonfics. She has also appeared on a number of film-related podcasts, including All the President's Minutes, Zodiac: Chronicle, Cannes I Kick It?, and Junk Filter. Her work has been shared on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, Business Insider, and CherryPicks. Meg has a B.A. from the University of King's College and a Master of Information degree from the University of Toronto.