Understanding Film Lighting & The People Behind Them

FILM LIGHTING, gaffer, key grip, cinematography, american society of cinematographers, cinematographer, film school, independent film, moviemaker, guerrilla filmmaking, indie film, film crew, cinematography, short films, film, filmmaking stuff,

Film Lighting: Lights & The People Behind Them

Film Lighting a set entails people, equipment, and technique. The Gaffer, also known as the Chief Lighting Technician, is directly responsible for executing the Cinematographer’s lighting plans and usually runs a small crew of electricians and best boys. The Gaffer is responsible for interpreting and executing the lighting setup based on Director of Photography (DOP) requests. Most gaffers start out as best boys or have a background as an electrician.

Basic Lighting

Diffusion is a technique used to make light cooler to the eyes, natural on your subject and in your film. Basically, hard light produces distinct shadows, which highlight imperfections. Soft light forms opaque and spread-out shadows. Stage lighting uses diffusion filters also known as diffusion gels, which soften the light in order to lessen or disperse shadows or brightness. Gaffers need to be able to quickly interpret the DOP’s broad set of instructions for lighting a scene and execute the plan using the right equipment.  Bottom line- no lighting means no shooting!

Grips & Best Boys

Grips operate the film lighting and rigging on a set. They set up, take down, transfer, and adjust dollies, lighting, and cranes. They are also in charge of the non-electrical side of modifying the lighting. Best boys are basically in charge of all the equipment, maintenance, and operation of the equipment. Best Boys can work on the grip side or the electric side.

These folks typically work out of a grip truck which contain hundreds of pieces of equipment. For any independent filmmaker out there, grip trucks can be rented by the day for about $300-$500. The price can also depend on the size of the truck that is needed. Trucks are typically classified by the ton. Large sets might need a 5 ton truck while smaller indie size films can get by using a 1 ton truck.

More on Grip Trucks

Grip trucks carry a lot of equipment which is inventoried before the rental and can be used by the crew for whatever they need on the set. You are also charged mileage sometimes when renting a grip truck so it would be wise to find one that is close to where you’ll be shooting. The truck itself contains all kinds of necessary equipment that is used by the Grip, Gaffers, and Best Boys.

Most Grip trucks contain this type of equipment:

  • Sandbags
  • C-Stands
  • Maffler clamps
  • High rollers
  • Mirrors
  • Reflectors
  • Light Grids
  • Expendables
  • Complete list of equipment on a Grip Truck can be found here: Grip Truck Equipment List


Some of the items in a grip truck are known as expendables. Expendables are inventoried before and after you return the truck. Expendables are basically adhesives, paint, fog, clothespins, zip ties, and other one time use products.  Much like a wet bar in a hotel, you are only charged for what you use. To cut budget and save, sometimes it’s better to have your own expendables. Most of the time expendables on trucks are often overpriced. One thing your crew will use over and over again is tape and a lot of it.

Here is a list of adhesives that are typically used:

  • Black Gaffers Tape
  • Photo Tape
  • Duct Tape
  • Screen Tape
  • Freelance Grips, Best Boys, and Gaffers

Grips and Gaffers sometimes can be found on Production Hub or some might be looking for work on Craigslist. Pay can range from $200-$250.00 a day (8-12 Hours). If they have their own equipment and lighting, pay can go for $250.00 -$400.00 a day. It is not unusual to request a Gaffer that has his or her own equipment. If the gaffer has his or her own equipment be prepared to pay a little more for compensation.

Most professional gaffers are part of a Union and of course their pay is reasonably higher than a freelancer. Most important thing is to find some people with plenty of experience because these folks are responsible for the overall safety. When you are dealing with lighting and other electrical equipment, do not hire someone that does not know what they are doing. Checking references is highly recommended before you hire anyone working on lighting as a freelancer.

End Note

Film Lighting is essential to filmmaking and it’s something every filmmaker should take very serious. Safety alone and the liability that comes with it when working with electrical equipment is your overall responsibility. You can cut corners on a lot of things in filmmaking, but don’t do it with the lights and the people behind them.

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