Gaffer Andy Lowe on leadership and management training and mentoring

Bury-born gaffer Andy Lowe has a great deal of experience. He has used his knowledge about the workings of his department to support mentees via the ScreenSkills Mentoring Programme and has also invested in his own personal development by completing Leadership and Management for Film Professionals, a course funded by ScreenSkills using National Lottery funds awarded by the BFI as part of the Future Film Skills programme.

A glance down his credits you’ll see some of the best of British production, including Paddington 1 and 2, Black Mirror, Suffragette and The Crown, the latest series of which he was working on before lockdown struck.

“My unit (known as the king unit) had finished filming in Spain, Scotland and London, just a week before lockdown,” says Andy. “We were due to go to the Pyrenees for the avalanche episode and film scenes of Princess Diana in a chalet and a hospital and Prince Charles on the slopes, but Covid got in the way. So, the production team decided in edit during lockdown that they didn’t need that side of the storyline and just showed the VFX shot of the snow hitting the camera and the rest you hear about through the Queen and monarchy.”

Andy has been a gaffer on all the series of The Crown and has become used to working with the same team, often in the same locations, with a distinct lighting and look required, but that hasn’t made him complacent or set in his ways.

Instead, he is very much open to learning from others and exploring new ways of doing things,on The Crown and other projects. This is why the ScreenSkills Leadership and Management for Film Professionals course, which he attended in the summer of 2020 during lockdown, proved so enlightening and important.

“You’re not taught how to be a head of department (HoD), you learn it along the way, and even after 20 years of working my way up from spark to gaffer and on small- to large-budget projects, I certainly don’t know everything. Even for producers who might have gone to film school, the reality of producing is quite different,” says Andy.

“I’ve done reading up on leadership and how to manage a team, but it’s not something that I’ve previously seen offered as a course to our industry. So, when I saw the ScreenSkills one promoted, I jumped at the chance and it proved great, especially talking to other HoDs about their own leadership skills, experiences and opinions.”

He was particularly taken with the course leader talking about the need for HoDs to discuss a management plan of attack at the start of a production, rather than just each having their own approach and sticking to it no matter what.

“If more of us (HoDs) did this course and then worked together on productions, we could discuss the management style, what’s going to work according to the project and crew involved, and factor in things like personalities and diversity. That could be far more efficient and make everyone feel involved,” insists Andy.

“Sometimes it seems like we’re just picking things up as we go along and then don’t discuss them again. We figure out how to do things for a show, but then the next job might be a film, so do things differently. But if we all discussed and collaborated on these management processes generally it would feel less like we are trying to make things up or re-invent the wheel each time.”

Picking the right team and getting the balance of personalities is also key, insists Andy. Sometimes it’s about egos with the louder voices getting heard and the quieter voices suffocated. “When you’re working on a project you don’t necessarily want 10 loud people or just those who are active, it’s good to also have people who take a back step and assess things differently, who can give you a different perspective.

“You don’t want everyone to be the same, technically and creatively. It’s important to have different views, methods and opinions, as the course emphasised. The electricians I work with go and work with other gaffers, so if they bring with them things that I wouldn’t necessarily think of, that’s great.”

Andy has certainly been putting these principles and perspectives into practice, including on his current project, a Star Wars spin-off series shooting at Pinewood Studios. The details of the project are, unsurprisingly,  under wraps, but Andy says the importance of selecting and managing his team in the right way has never been more important with Covid protocols taking centre-stage.

“We’re having to do temperature tests every morning, Covid tests three times a week, and crew are required to wear face coverings, including visors when near the actors, as well as cleaning and social distancing, so it takes a lot of concentrated effort, and I need to be aware of the physical and mental effects on team members,” says Andy. This is where a combination of clear instructions and listening are key.

“As much as you want to get things done and plan beforehand, you also don’t want to be a control freak and must leave space for change and different ways of doing things.”

While open to learning from others, Andy is also keen to pass on his knowledge, which is why he has already been a mentor through ScreenSkills, to two people trying to make their way in his line of work.

“One of them wasn’t sure which discipline he wanted to do, so I explained a bit about the industry and what was required of electricians, grips and camera crew,” says Andy. “The other was hoping to make the transition from electrician to director of photography, which he thought would be a quick short cut. However, as I explained, if you want to be a DoP nowadays, it’s probably best to go to film school and start shooting things, as going through lighting is rare.”

He is open to doing more mentoring but has a busy schedule for 2021 with Star Wars lasting until the summer and then the next series of The Crown is expected to start filming straight after.  It is quite mind-blowing to contemplate working for such a long stretch. “But I’m not going to complain.”