Film and TV drama

Gaffer (Film and TV Drama)

Also known as: Chief electrician, Supervising or chief lighting technician

Gaffer (Film and TV Drama)

What does a gaffer do?

Gaffers work closely with the director of photography (DoP) to bring to life the overall look of a film by creating and controlling light.

They work with the DoP to understand the desired light effects and figure out how to achieve them. They go on recces too see how the lighting will work on location and draw up a list of the kit that will be needed to achieve the artistic vision.

Then they pitch for the kit. They put in a request to the line producer for the equipment they need and appoint a best boy to hire the crew and order the gear.  During filming, they work out the positioning of the lights and fastest way to change the lighting setups between shots. Gaffers mediate between the DoP and the rest of the lighting crew. 

They’re also responsible for safety and need to comply with the law on electricity, driving and employment.

Watch and read

What’s a gaffer good at?

  • Understanding light: have an artistic eye, know the techniques required to achieve different lighting effects and the kit needed to achieve them
  • Electrical knowledge: have an in-depth understanding of circuits, power supplies, motors, cables, fuses, thermal relays, fault current protection switches, heating, lighting, air conditioning and more
  • Knowledge of film-making: be able to understand the production process, particularly the roles of the director of photography and how the gaffer role fits in
  • Communication: be able to draw up plans and explain them to the crew, communicate well with the director of photography and the lighting crew, be clear and approachable even when making quick decisions under pressure
  • Organisation: work within budget, schedule the crew and the kit requirements, prioritise and meet deadlines
  • Working at heights: be good at climbing ladders as most lights are set up above head height

Who does a gaffer work with?

How do I become a gaffer?

Gaffers should be fully qualified electricians, so your first step is to get yourself qualified and experienced in electrical installation. Then you need to develop contacts in the film and TV drama industry to get experience working on film sets. Look at the lighting trainee job profile to learn more about how to do this. Once you have found your way into the lighting team, you need to work your way through roles outlined above.

At school or college:
If you want to go straight into a job or apprenticeship, the following Level 3 vocational qualifications will help you:

  • BTEC Diploma/Extended Diploma in Electrical and Electronic Engineering
  • City & Guilds Advanced Technical Diploma in Electrical Installation
  • EAL Diploma/Advanced Diploma in Electrical Installation

You don’t need to go to university to become an lighting trainee, but if you want a degree you could either study electrical engineering and learn about making films alongside that, or you could study film production and qualify as an electrician as you do. If you want to study electrical engineering, take A-levels or Highers in maths and sciences.  If you want to study film production, choose whichever subjects you enjoy the most.

Get an apprenticeship:
An apprenticeship is a job with training, so it’s a great opportunity to earn while you learn. In the past, it has been challenging to find jobs as an apprentice within production companies, although there is now a Creative venue technician apprenticeship standard, with a specific pathway designed for people working as trainee lighting technicians. It might also be worth looking for a job as an apprentice that will give you a qualification as a domestic or commercial electrician.  This will make you handy on film sets at a later point.

These are the relevant apprenticeships throughout the UK:

Before taking any apprenticeship, check what you’ll be learning with your prospective employer and college, so you can be sure it will be giving you the skills you want. Check out What’s an apprenticeship?  to learn more about apprenticeships and find an apprenticeship to learn how to find one in your region, or approach companies directly. Go to ScreenSkills information on apprenticeships for the main apprenticeship schemes in film and television.

(If you’re already a qualified electrician:)

Learn about film:
Take a photography course to learn about light. Learn as much as you can about the role of the director of photography.

Go to ScreenSkills’ events to meet people working in the lighting department. This is a key way of getting a job. Try to find someone who will take you on for paid work or unpaid work experience. Look at our page that explains how to network well.

Work with a kit hire company:
Get work experience with a kit rental company. Look for companies that supply equipment to the theatre, film, TV and events industries. Get to know the best boys coming in and ask if they would take you on as a trainee. See our advice on approaching employers for how to do this.

You might also be interested in…

Be a lighting designer in theatre. There are also opportunities in commercials, music videos, stop-motion animation. Or you might be interested in work as a moving light operator, setting up moving lights and programming computer cues.

Further resources