A Gaffer’s POV
As a non-union gaffer I work on a lot of low budget projects. This feedback is from working as a gaffer for several years in Los Angeles. If you are a professional producer – you don’t need to read this. If not, please look this over. I wrote this to save me stress and save you stress. I also wrote it to save you money! Who doesn’t like saving money??
“Just tell me your budget. Please just tell me the budget.”
Communication – Budget woes
I’ve been in situations where a producer refuses or is scared to tell me the budget. Why? Please don’t do this. What are you trying to hide? Your 10% fee for ‘saving money’? I need to know the budget so I can figure out how much gear and labor is going to cost us and help find solutions if something goes wrong. Me and the BBE (Best Boy Electric) are keys to helping your lighting budget stay on track. Our job is to help you, not hinder you, in this endeavor. Your budget will tell me what our limits are in terms of lighting and what experience level I should look for in my crew. This saves us money in the long run.
Please listen to me. I am telling you what you need to get this film made from my department. If I’ve scouted and talked to the DP and the AD I know what we need. I once asked for a 6500W generator for an exterior shoot because I knew we had to record dialogue and could run the power from a long distance and not screw over sound. What did I get? I got a 2000W generator… because it was ‘cheaper’. Needless to say… sound was in trouble…
If I ask for a certain generator, it’s for a reason. If I ask for a certain amount of stingers, it’s for a reason. When I put together a lighting package, it should be within budget and ideally we use every piece of equipment and nothing goes untouched (personally I hate having equipment on a truck that I asked for and we didn’t use it, it’s wasteful and IMO paints me as inefficient/inexperienced). I am here to help you, help all of us, so please listen to a department head’s concerns.
*Grabs at invisible walkie that should be pinned to my shirt*
Communication – Walkies
One of the greatest things I ever heard on set was an AD asking the Production Coordinator (or someone in production teaching/asking someone): “Does G&E have their walkies? If they don’t have their walkies ASAP you are literally burning money.” He was exactly right and I love this guy for saying this. G&E needs their walkies ASAP. Why? Because we have some of the heaviest gear on set to move and we need to start staging and setting up ASAP.
And in some cases, we need to run power for other departments ASAP. Make up and wardrobe need power? Crafty needs power? Art needs power? Your other departments can’t function without electricity and in some cases need it ASAP or we fall behind schedule. You do NOT want to fall behind schedule (remember that burning money thing?). We need to be able to talk to each other to drop the generator, discuss our power run, discuss staging and discuss the first setup – my team needs to begin prepping lights (some take more time than others to prep) and dropping cable ASAP.
Walkies are also essential in that I need to communicate any lighting adjustments or changes that may occur. If we need something from the truck, it is highly disruptive and inefficient for me to be yelling in a small room (or on set, or anywhere really) for something, or worse, if no one on my team is nearby or in ear shot. I need to be able to communicate instantly, especially if I’m on a separate floor or across a field or if we need to be quiet or if there’s a safety issue.
The walkie is how I make the magic happen, with a press of a button and a sentence; a light can be turned at an angle where it looks better or makes more sense for the actor – or if something is about to ruin a take – I can quietly get it fixed just in time (usually within seconds!). It’s magic and makes communicating on set simple, easy, effective and cost efficient. Can you imagine me having to yell every 5 minutes or running across set to change something? It’s happened. And it’s a huge waste of time and resources… and time is money! Communication is absolute key to G&E getting their jobs done in a timely manner.
“But the gear was so cheap!”
Cost Efficiency – Good Gear
Do you have any idea what working with crap gear is like? Imagine trying to fill out paperwork and every pencil you grab… the lead breaks, the eraser doesn’t work – you go for a pen – it doesn’t work, you scribble and scribble and shake to get the ink to come out… so you go for a marker – but it’s all faded and doesn’t show up – so you finally… reach for a highlighter… what!?
Basically, when you opt for cheap gear for your G&E, you’re asking to burn more piles of money. Every time a C-Stand doesn’t open correctly, or a light suddenly dies, or a flag needs a hole covered, or a stinger starts to smoke and burn – you’re costing us precious time, you’re costing the entire film time, you’re slowing us down and you’re adding to our frustration. Most importantly, you’re endangering crew and talent safety. Our gobo knuckles and stands need to bite hard – they need to stay in place…. or a light or piece of grippage may go careening into an actors head. No bueno. We need good gear to get things done correctly and quickly – TO SAVE YOU MONEY.
When gear starts to break or not work right – you’re costing production money – remember that cheap gear you preferred? It’s not so cheap now that we’ve lost an hour of production because the generator stopped working and all the lights went out and someone tripped and fell… So if we have the right gear upfront, we know things will go smoothly and no one will be waiting on us. But when you opt for the cheap gear… you’re asking for trouble.
“Anyone got free hands?”
Cost Efficiency – Crew Skill and Knowledge
If you’ve told me your budget and I’ve scouted and I know what we’re up against – I’ll know who can get the job done. On the higher budget stuff, my BBE takes care of hiring… but on the lower budget stuff I’m more involved with crew. Personally, I take into account any ‘red flags’ that have appeared – budget, location, schedule, rate etc. If you have a low budget offering low rates – it’s going to be very difficult for me to ask union level guys to help us out (vice versa for high budget stuff). The union level guys are well experienced, professional and often don’t have time for low budget projects (they’ve climbed the ladder already, why take steps down?).
So that leaves me with less experienced guys (the cheaper you go the worse it gets – you get what you pay for!). Then there’s the inbetween guys like myself who have a lot of experience but also have a lot more to learn. To the point – the less experienced crew need to be taught things and can you guess what that means? It means more time. If I have to teach a guy how to run a stinger safely, or how a light works or explain a piece of equipment, etc etc, more money goes into the burn pile. I don’t mind teaching – if there’s time for it – but if there’s not… then every second I spend teaching someone something is a second of it not getting done.
If I ask for a certain amount of people for crew – it is for a very important reason – and it’s because I know how long it takes to set equipment up. If I know the truck is half a mile away and we don’t have carts – so we need to carry gear – it costs time. If there are stairs and no elevator – more time. If there’s a long cable run or we have a tow plant – more time. If we have a super intense schedule ahead of us and are understaffed – more time. And if you know my department, you know how production can come to a grinding halt because we’re understaffed. I abhor it when production waits on me – I want to be lit and to be shooting. If I’m on my phone – it’s a good thing – because that means we’re shooting.
“I was almost seriously injured once…”
Cost Efficiency – PAs
I have heard on so many sets “well we have some PAs that can help you”. Remember that part about teaching people stuff? This is like having a soccer team and you just added someone to my squad that doesn’t know the rules ‘but they can kick a ball!’… Simply put, I do not have the time and what a waste of time and money (and you thought you were saving time and money by not hiring a G&E crew member? Wrong. So wrong.) Not only do I not have time to teach someone my department but it’s a huge safety issue (and budget issue). I once had a PA grab a light they knew nothing about ‘to help us wrap’ and they ended up breaking a very expensive piece of equipment. Please… stop trying to save money YOUR WAY and trust and listen to your department head. Inexperienced hands cost time and money.
“OT baby OT!”
Cost Efficiency – Labor Law
I’m getting tired of explaining California Wage Law for the Motion Picture Industry. Here’s a quick list – you can do your own research.
1 – Grace does not exist for non-union. If I like your AD, if everyone’s been nice, I usually waive it for low budget stuff. If you make me angry, I will charge an MP (meal penalty). IT IS THE LAW.
2 – Do not go over 6 hours – we need a 30 minute break every 6 hours. IT IS THE LAW. Guess what happens if your AD pushes us past that 6 hour mark – your budget just EXPLODED – every crew member whose 6 hour time got violated just got 1 hour pay of their hourly rate. Non-union is allowed 1 MP per day. Often overlooked is an MP from the 2nd meal that never arrives (breaking the 2nd 6 hour mark) if we go into OT (overtime).
3 – Overtime starts after 12 hours – it is double time after 12 hours. IT IS THE LAW. I highly suggest you discuss the schedule with the AD and the department heads to discuss wrap times. Soooooo many sets I’ve been on where wrap is called at the 12 hour mark and my crew has a 2 hour load out. Thank you for the 2 hours of overtime?
I’ve been in many fights where my crew was constantly pushed past 6 hours without even asking. In my naivety, my crew has gone far past 6 hours and from that mistake I refuse to let my crew be exploited – I understand schedule constraints sometimes – but producers, directors, whoever – please be empathetic when it comes to labor law. It’s not the MP that I care about – it’s what my and my crew’s time is worth to production – WE. ARE. HERE. FOR. YOU. – please do not take advantage. The worst thing you want is an angry gaffer that gives zero ****s about your project. They will light bonfires of money like you’ve never seen.
“What do I love most? A full blocking rehearsal.”
Cost Efficiency – BLRTS
So… time is money, we get it. How else does time factor into this? If you want a well oiled lighting machine that you never have to worry about – you adhere to the rules of movie making magic. This is top notch efficiency and if you go off track from these basic rules – you’re asking for trouble.
Block it – I need to see where the actors are going to be and where the camera is going to land so I know where to set up lights and run power. This saves us time and money so I don’t have to move equipment and waste time. I don’t need to hear the actors lines (that’s what rehearsing is for) – I just need to see where they’re going to be/not going to be.
Light it – We need our time on the set. Sometimes we can share with other departments. Sometimes we can’t. Let’s discuss with the AD.
Rehearse it – Let’s see that camera movement and the camera frame and where the actors are and where my lights are.
Tweak it – Do we need to make adjustments? Yes? Make them now? No?…
Shoot it – Lets get some takes and make magic.
I hope this guide helps you communicate more effectively with the G&E departments. We’re all here to help someone’s dream come true or make something beautiful or hell just make some money. Let’s work together as a team!