Unscripted TV

Gaffer (Unscripted TV)

Also known as: Senior electrician, Production electrician

Gaffer (Unscripted TV)

What does a gaffer do?

Gaffers have all the power when filming, quite literally. They head up the team that sources, installs and runs all the electrical equipment needed to make a programme. They are responsible for cables, lights and generators.

The role of a gaffer varies depending on the type of unscripted TV show being made. On a multi-camera studio show, the lighting is designed by a lighting director. Gaffers work with the lighting director and camera team to understand their desired light effects and to figure out how to achieve them. They work out the positioning of the lights and any other electrical equipment. They head up a team of electricians (sparks) that is responsible for moving and setting up this equipment. They make sure everything has been properly tested and is being used in accordance with health and safety laws.

If an unscripted TV programme is being shot on location, the gaffer works directly with the director of photography (DoP). In these instances, the role is more like the role of a gaffer in film and TV drama. They recce a location and think creatively with the DoP about how to achieve lighting effects. They establish what kit is needed where and when and they specify the necessary power systems and required crew.

Gaffers can be staff or freelance. They tend to be employed by a studio for multi-camera shoots and by facilities companies for outside broadcasts. On smaller, single-camera shows, the camera department might be responsible for the lighting and other electrical equipment.

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What’s a senior electrician good at?

  • Electrical knowledge: have electrical qualifications and a thorough knowledge and understanding of circuits, power supplies, motors, cables, fuses, thermal relays, fault current protection switches, heating, air conditioning and more
  • Lighting skills: have a good eye for colour, be knowledgeable and experienced at using all lighting equipment and aware of what can and can’t be achieved on each location
  • Communication: use strong leadership skills to give direction and collaborate with crew from other departments, have strong interpersonal skills for working with the public, onscreen artists and contributors
  • Health and safety: know health and safety regulations including legal requirements, show strong attention to detail, be confident climbing ladders and working at heights
  • Organisation: schedule the required crew, supervise kit requirements, oversee the rig (setting up), the use of equipment and de-rig, work within budget and meet deadlines, troubleshoot and offer alternative solutions

Who does a gaffer work with?

Gaffers oversee a team of electricians (or sparks) and communicate closely with the lighting director and camera operators, as well as the producer, director and production manager.

How do I become a gaffer?

Gaffer is a senior role. You need electrical qualifications as well as lots of experience of electrical and lighting work on a TV set before you can do this job. You might get your first job in the industry as a kit room assistant and from there progress to electrician (spark) before becoming a senior electrician.

At school or college: 
You can take A-levels or Highers in maths and sciences. 

If you want to go straight into a job or apprenticeship, the following Level 3 vocational qualifications will equip 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

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.

Go to ScreenSkills information on apprenticeships for the main apprenticeship schemes in television. 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.

Get a degree: 
You don’t need to go to university to become a senior electrician, but if you want a degree, you could study either electrical engineering, and learn about making films alongside that, or TV production, and qualify as an electrician in the usual way. Have a look at ScreenSkills’ list of recommended courses and select one in unscripted TV. We recognise courses with our ScreenSkills Select award where they offer training in the relevant software, dedicated time to building a portfolio and have strong links with the unscripted TV industry. 

Get work experience: 
Try to get work experience on a TV set by writing to local production companies and asking if they offer any. Keep an eye out for work experience opportunities at the BBCITVChannel 4Sky and the PACT Indie Diversity Training Scheme. You could also get work experience with a company that does electrical work, such as a lighting company.

Look outside the industry: 
Electricians are needed across many different industries in industrial, commercial and domestic environments. You can gain experience of working as an electrician in another industry that you can later transfer to a role in unscripted TV.

Take a short course:
Hone your skills by taking a specialist course. Go to the list of training courses recommended by ScreenSkills to see if there is one in lighting or electrics.

Get to know people in the unscripted TV industry by attending events. Meet professionals and ask them questions about their work, while demonstrating interest in and knowledge of the industry. Offer to provide them with your professional contact details and try to stay in touch with them. Go to Network well to learn how to do this.

Network online: 
Create a LinkedIn profile. See if there are Facebook pages or other social media groups for people making unscripted TV in your area. There might even be groups for runners and trainees. Join them. Create a ScreenSkills profile. There are a lot of crewing agencies that will charge you to be on their books. Sign up to the free ones initially. Wales Screen, Northern Ireland Screen and other areas offer free crew databases. Find a film office near you and get connected. If you do sign up to paid sites, make sure they specialise in the areas in which you’re interested. 

Search for jobs: 
Research unscripted TV production companies that you’d like to work for and watch the programmes that they make. Regularly check their websites and job listings websites to see if they are advertising for roles. You can also send in a short speculative letter with your CV to the production manager. Register your CV on websites like The Talent Manager, which is used by most broadcasters and independent production companies when looking for staff. StartinTV offers tips on creating your CV and attending interviews, as well as some advice for your first day working in TV.

You might also be interested in…

Being a lighting director in the film and TV drama industry. You might also be interested in being a gaffer in the film and TV drama industry.

Further resources