13 minute read


Job Title: Gaffer, Chief Lighting Technician

Job Overview

As head of the electrical department, the gaffer is responsible for designing and executing the lighting for a production. “My job is to light the set to the taste of the director of photography and to help make good decisions in helping tell the story with the use of lighting and natural factors,” explains gaffer Dwight Campbell.

Special Skills

A gaffer must understand the language of filmmaking and pay attention to details. He must be a problem-solver and have the ability to communicate well, not only with the director and cinematographer, but also when disseminating information to his crew. “I can't stress how important communication is when you're meeting with the director, production designer, or director of photography,” says gaffer Russell Caldwell. “If I don't understand, I ask questions until I do.”

A gaffer must have a well-rounded knowledge of the filmmaking process. To light a scene properly, he must understand photography and film processing.

Advice for Someone Seeking This Job

Most gaffers begin as grips, work into the job of key grip or best boy grip, then into electrical best boy, or directly into the role of gaffer. “Take any job you can get on a film project,” says Campbell. “Work day in and day out and find out what intrigues you the most. Learn everyone's job. Learn what interests you and then pursue it.

“I used to volunteer on AFI, USC, and UCLA films. I worked on projects for no money.” Even after he was already working as a key grip on successful features, Campbell continued to work on student or low budget projects for free whenever he was between projects, just to gain more experience and make new contacts. “Every day you help make a film, you meet 40 or 50 new people. All of those people are going to be looking for work tomorrow. All of a sudden you're networking, making a way into the working community of filmmakers. They're all trying to climb the ladder. You help them tell their story and they're going to remember how you helped them out. It's going to help you move up the ladder faster. Film is a collaborative art form.”

“If a person specifically wants to be a gaffer,” says Caldwell, “he or she should first get in the field and work as an electrician and do some rigging. You have to understand the concept of power and lighting. Find somebody who is willing to teach you. There are a lot of older gaffers who are willing to go for coffee and sit down and talk about their career, what interested them in lighting, and points to remember. A lot of cameramen wouldn't mind doing that also. Make friends with people at lighting rental houses and learn the equipment. There is always new equipment coming out—try to stay on the cutting edge.”

Watch a lot of movies [and notice the lighting used],” adds Caldwell. “There will be a time when somebody is going to refer to a classic [film] in terms of the look they want. Persevere. Don't give up. There is going to be a break, a recommendation. If someone comes with a great attitude, even though they may not be the most experienced, the attitude is going to make them fly.”

Professional Profile: Russell Caldwell, Gaffer

Although he is a second-generation gaffer, Russell Caldwell did not immediately follow his father into the business. Instead, the New York native studied music at a junior college in Florida, intending to be a jazz guitarist. On the road with a band, he relocated to Los Angeles, where his father was already working, and decided to make a career change. “At the time, it was all about the money for me. I realized I could make more money in film.”

What do you like least about your job?

“What I like least is the politics. That's a whole other chapter.”Russell Caldwell

What do you love most about your job?

“What I love most is when we get to have the set. The cameraman and I decide how we want a certain scene to look. We've discussed it, the rigging crew has put the lights in place for us, and now we have a little bit of time to create.”Russell Caldwell

Through a friend of his father, Caldwell was hired as a spotlight operator on the series Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. It took four or five months to accumulate his 90 days of work, enabling him to join the union. Soon he was being dispatched to jobs at MGM, Paramount, Universal, and Warner Brothers. Early on, he landed electrician work on features 1941 and The Black Hole, then the series B.J. and the Bear, and the pilot for Magnum P.I.

“I met some people that were involved in studio tape; they were doing video shows, so I did some of those.” While working on a made-for-television movie, he was promoted to best boy by default when the regular person was out sick.


* “Anybody wanting to get into this business better love filmmaking, because it takes long hours and a lot of hard work. But if you love the film business, it will treat you well.”Russell Caldwell

Caldwell returned to New York in the mid-1980s. While working on Big, he connected with brothers John and Jerry DeBlau, which proved to be an important step in his career. At the time, John was working as a gaffer and Jerry as a best boy (later moving up to gaffer as well) on most of the big features coming to New York.

“They were so busy. They would be getting calls to do two or three pictures at a time, so they began splitting the crew; half went with John and the other half with Jerry. When more calls came in, they split up more and that left room for me to work my way up to best boy and gaffer.” With the DeBlaus, Caldwell worked on about a dozen films, including Goodfellas, Regarding Henry, Glengarry Glen Ross, Scent of a Woman, and The Cowboy Way.

“It was on Regarding Henry that I moved up to gaffer. Jerry's father was ill, so there was a period of a few weeks where he was spending time with him. I got to work with the famous Italian cameraman Giuseppe Rotunno. He was marvelous to work with, so passionate and artistic. I learned so much during those couple of weeks working with him. I couldn't get that experience any other way than being there.”

On the recommendation of John DeBlau, Caldwell was hired to gaff the New York portion of Rob Reiner's film North. Shortly afterward, he moved back to Los Angeles. For a time he struggled, working nonunion jobs, until he was able to accumulate enough days to get back into the union. “You have to be scrappy. You have to be on the phone all the time or meeting people. Spend time in rental houses and try to find leads.”

Eventually, Caldwell picked up episodic television work—“Which is fantastic training, because you have to move very fast and still maintain a good look,“—and features such as Eraser, Selena, and Murder at 1600. Through a cameraman he met in New York, Caldwell got work on Erin Brockovich. “That was one of the best experiences I've had, because of the way Steven Soderbergh operates. He's a class act. Everything is organized and so prepared.”

Caldwell's latest projects include Simone and Just Married. He cites the people he has worked with over the years as the key to his success: “I can't stress this enough: most of the work comes from relationships.”

Professional Profile: Dwight Campbell, Gaffer

Dwight Campbell grew up in the suburbs of Detroit and became interested in filmmaking while in high school. “When I made my first film, I realized that writing a paper had very little impact, as opposed to making a film that lived on for years past the paper. It lived on in its own virtual reality forever. Once I realized that making a film was a statement, a process, and a collaborative medium that had life beyond the day, I realized that I wanted to make movies.”

Majoring in film at the University of Michigan, Campbell had an opportunity to work on student films. He worked on documentaries and other projects for the National Endowment for the Arts while in college. After graduating in 1978, he spent 18 months working for the oldest daily newspaper in the country, The Alexandria Gazette, designing and selling advertising space. “I realized that if I wanted to make movies, I needed to understand the advertising of films and the publications that help promote them.”

Leaving the newspaper, he relocated to Los Angeles to enter the producing and camera program at the American Film Institute. Like most film students, he worked on a variety of student films, filling whatever crew post was needed. Upon graduating in June 1981, he was one of the few students to walk out of the program and two or three days later be working on a feature: “William the Conqueror: a female-directed, low budget film. I was a general grip or electrician.”

Campbell was drawn to lighting early on in his career. “What led me to lighting was wanting to tell a story dramatically; knowing from working with different directors that lighting was the most dramatic way to have an impact on telling the story. You can create a way of elongating the day. You can punctuate a story with lighting. You can change a rainy day into a sunny day; you can make a gloomy day bright. You can make a picture colorful or monochromatic. You can make it a period movie, a contemporary film, or futuristic. You can make it soft, you can make it gentle, or you can make it harsh or crisp. You can make it look so natural that you don't see the moviemaking. It's just a beautiful picture that draws you in.”

During his first year out of film school, Campbell struggled to make ends meet. He picked up whatever work he could find, from student films where he gained experience and contacts, but made no money, to commercials. To supplement his income, he also served as the art director of a magazine published by Maureen Reagan. After about a year, he landed grip work on director Gregory Nava's film El Norte, affording the opportunity to work near director of photography James Glennon, whose work earned him an Academy Award nomination for cinematography. Campbell went on to work on the Oscar nominated short Tales of Meeting & Parting, directed by Lesli Linka Glatter and shot by Jack Wallner. “Then my career just skyrocketed.

“I went off and did Runaway Train for Cannon, as a key grip. Director Andrei Konchalavsky was nominated for an Academy Award.” By 1985, Campbell had moved up from key grip to regularly working as a gaffer. “I began to get larger and larger films, and then I hooked up with a cameraman by the name of Mikael Salomon and did eight features with him. His career took off and he took me with him. Once you're attached to a prominent cameraman, you're riding on the top of all the waves. Mikael is now a very successful director.”

Campbell's association with Salomon began on the film The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains and continued through several blockbusters, including Torch Song Trilogy, Zelly and Me, The Abyss, Always, Arachnophobia, Backdraft, Far and Away, and Alien3.

What do you like least about your job?

“What I hate most is being told how to light a scene before they've figured out how they are going to tell the story with the camera, or the dramatic action. They've missed the point of how to make the scene look better and more glamorous. It's about trying to have a seamless image that tells a story that's dramatically appropriate for the scene.”Dwight Campbell

What do you love most about your job?

“What I love most is the flexibility of the job, to be constantly changing and to have creative input in many, many different layers and ways.”Dwight Campbell

“The best compliment I could ever have is to have someone say, ‘I never realized it was a movie I was watching; it looked so realistic.’ To give an example of that, I have an uncle who used to be a pilot in World War II. He flew an A-26 plane, which was basically a small bomber. After World War II they made them into firebomb planes to drop fire retardant. That's what we used for Steven Spielberg's film Always. When I told my uncle that none of the actors ever left the ground and that all the footage was shot in processed photography, he couldn't believe it. We created the illusion that John Goodman, Richard Dreyfuss, and Holly Hunter were flying planes, but they were on the stage the whole time. With processed photography, we projected images behind the planes, the actors, and on a screen in front of the plane that reflected into the windscreen of the plane, and created an illusion of reality. When you looked in the plane and saw Richard Dreyfuss or Brad Johnson flying the plane, you saw a reflection on the windscreen that was flipped in reverse.”

Initially, Spielberg had doubts about using processed photography to create the illusions needed for the film. He had consulted friend George Lucas and was considering using blue or green screen. But cinematographer Mikael Salomon, with the aid of Campbell's lighting skills, filmed a test for Spielberg and proved they could create a believable effect using the technique.

“The beauty of processed photography is that whatever you shoot is what you get the next day. You see your $10 or $20 million actor doing his performance live with all the elements in a completed piece of film that you can use for your movie, as opposed to a blue or green screen, or other optical, that you have to finish in post. Three or four weeks or a month down the road, you don't have what you need in post and you have a very expensive reshoot. Even though it's expensive up front, it's very cost-effective, saving thousands of dollars in post costs—and you know you have it in the can.”


* “I've always said that if the story is not good, we shouldn't do it. You're only going to get recognized on a project where the script and the acting and the directing works. It could be the most beautiful movie in the world, but if the story does not meet the major demands of a dramatic film, it's just going to be passed; you're not going to get any recognition.”Dwight Campbell

* “I would suggest reading The Five C's of Cinematography: Motion Picture Filming Techniques [by Joseph V. Mascelli, Siman-James Press, June 1998] because I think you need to understand filmmaking. The next thing I would suggest is studying all the great painting masters. Learn how they controlled the light within the paintings they've done and try to figure out how you can do as well or better when you make a film. If you walk through a museum, look at the most beautiful paintings on the walls and select one that you'd like to recreate. That's the daily challenge of a gaffer: how do you create on film the look you see in front of you? How do you control that look on film stock? If they can create it in a two-dimensional canvas, then you should be able to create it on a film plate. Anyone can shoot an image for the moment. It's how you sculpt that image with lighting to deliver consistency over a half-day or a full day that matters.”Dwight Campbell

He continued to work steadily throughout the 1990s, serving as a gaffer on Super Mario Bros., The Three Musketeers, The Shadow, Hard Rain, Girl's Night, Out of Sight, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, on the IMAX 3-D movie Cirque de Soleil: Journey of Man, and on the television series L.A. Doctors. It was there he met writer/director Gary Fleder, leading to work on the Fleder-directed feature Imposter. “He's a very talented director and a very good writer.”

Campbell reteamed with cinematographer James Glennon on director Alexander Payne's film About Schmidt. “It stars Jack Nicholson. It's very stylized, a great looking film. Alexander is an incredible writer/director/filmmaker with clear visions of what he wants to create. And, it's always fun to work with a cameraman that you've worked with before. Jim [Glennon] includes everyone in the filmmaking process.”

He recently finished working on Haunted Lighthouse and is gearing up for another picture.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareers in Film and TelevisionLIGHTING AND GRIPS - Job Title: Gaffer, Chief Lighting Technician, Job Title: Rigging Gaffer, Job Title: Key Grip