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 Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).