I belong to the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees, local 52, electrical craft. My union card says I’m an electrician but we are also known as lamp operators, juicers or sparks. There are two organizational systems for motion picture lighting technicians. In Europe, Asia and Africa, under the British system, the electricians carry out much of the work that falls to the grip department in the U.S., where the lighting work is split into two groups: electricians and grips. An electrician handles the placement, service and operation of the lighting instruments and accessories—as well as running and managing the power sources and electrical distribution systems for the lighting and all other electrical needs on a film set. In both systems, the grips are responsible for camera support and camera movement; in the U.S. they also work closely with electricians to shape and adjust the quality of the lighting with their own equipment, which consists of all manner of frames, diffusers, reflectors and rigging. All the crafts are unionized, and there are strict rules about violating the various disciplines; for example, I may have set up a light, plugged it in and turned it on, but if the wind gets up and I need a sandbag to weight down the light, a grip has to supply and place it for me. Here I’m mainly talking about what electricians do.
1 show (n.)
A movie is known as a show; a TV program is an episodic show.
2 gaffer (n.)
The gaffer is the head of the electricians (it may be related to one of its meanings in British English—the boss, the old man), and is the communicator between them and the director of photography or cinematographer. The DP determines the look of the film, of which composition, focus, lighting, and choice of camera lens and film stock are all components. The gaffer translates the DP’s wishes into technical terms, giving instructions to the electricians on what light is needed and where to position and focus it so the desired effect is achieved. The gaffer’s second-in-command is known as the best boy, and the day-to-day running of the electric crew and its equipment package falls to them.
3 day player (n.)
If I only work on a set for a day, I’m what’s known as a day player. There are usually seven to eight shooting electricians on the core crew of a medium-sized shoot who will report to work every day. On bigger scenes, typically on large night exteriors, dozens of day players may be called in to assist the core crew. I worked a night on Men in Black 3 recently and there were 35 electricians out of a total of 400 people on the shooting crew. We were lighting up the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, which were featured in the background during the scene. It was a huge setup.
4 leg (n.)
A leg is a line of power from a generator or power grid. Each leg is denoted by a different color, and all the electrical cables on the main feed are correspondingly color-coded. There are five lines involved in a three-phase electrical system: three hot legs (or phases) of red, black and blue; a neutral-return line, which is white, and a ground (earth) line, which is green. Each color has to be connected to another of the same color, or you’ll risk blowing up the system. Electricians run tens of thousands of feet of heavy cable over the course of a shoot on location, and in the studio. As soon as shooting is over, the cable is wrapped up and returned to the truck. A generator operator or “genny op” is an electrician who runs the generator and monitors the balance of the electrical load being pulled across its three phases. Periodically he will instruct the shooting electricians as to which phase they should add additional lighting to continue to balance the power source. The genny op can frequently be heard calling out over the radio system, “Okay, stay off black, red is the high leg.”
5 key, fill and back lights (n.)
There are several main types of lighting that are employed, often in concert for all lighting setups. With the key light, an electrician establishes the shape and form of the subject. Fill light is used to fill in the shadows from the key so there’s less contrast. Negative fill takes light away. Edge light is used to highlight and define the outlines of shapes in the frame and to create separation between the different elements; it is often directed from an opposing angle to the key light. Light directed from behind a subject towards the lens is known as a back light. There are a million different ways to light a scene, using any number of varied combinations of these methods. Light can come directly from the source onto the subject—direct light—or can be reflected or bounced off different surfaces back onto the subject—bounce. Light can be unfiltered (hard) or diffused (soft).
6 blondes, redheads and more (n.)
Every type of light has a nickname, most of which evolved from the early days of film and are often essentially the same instruments that Charlie Chaplin might have used; some are brand names from the company that makes them, like the Midget; others were named by individual sparks or DPs, or named after them. Here are a few:
7 kill the blonde (v. phrase)
Funny things happen when lighting nicknames get combined. You’ll overhear odd calls on-set from the gaffer to the crew, such as “I’ll take a baby on a pony in the living room.” A baby (see no. 6 above) is a type of light; a pony is a low style of stand. Kill the blonde means “turn off the 2,000-watt open-faced tungsten light.” The chimera (see no. 6 above) is a collapsible soft box made of fabric that is attached to the face of a lamp to contain and diffuse the light. It was developed by a photographer, Gary Restler, who got tired of lugging cumbersome foam-core soft boxes around to his shoots. The original soft box was invented by the celebrated Spanish cameraman Nestor Almendros, who worked with the director Terrence Malick on Days of Heaven, and it became know as a Nestor after its maker.
8 C-47 (n.)
The C-47 is—a clothes peg or pin! This is an electrician’s ammunition, which is why we also refer to them as bullets. C-47s are used to attach colored gelatins to the barn doors of a lamp (barn doors are the movable flaps around a lamp’s face that help shape the light). No one seems sure where the name C-47 originated, but it may have been a cover for the gaffers in their invoices to the studios, in an attempt to conceal the true nature of the line item from auditors, who frowned on spending money on things like clothespins; or after a type of military aircraft, as versatile as the clothespin; or a catalogue number that stuck. Wherever the name came from, it can sometimes be the source of a joke on set. If you get someone new who’s very green and doesn’t know what anything is called, you ask him to go get you some C-47s; then you watch him go mad trying to figure out what they are. They’re regular old-style wooden clothespins. Plastic ones are no good, because they melt when they come into contact with the hot lights. You can tell who the electricians are on set just by looking at them, because they wear C-47s clipped to a piece of string tied to their belts or on the hem of their shirts. If you run out of them you’re in trouble.
9 scrim (n.)
Scrims are used to reduce the level of a light. These disc-shaped metal screens are placed over the face of the light, to cut down its output without altering the color temperature (which is measured in Kelvin degrees, named for the Belfast-born engineer and physicist William Thomson Kelvin) or the light’s spread. Single scrims cut half an f-stop’s worth of light; doubles cut a full stop. Cookies are a type of wood or metal scrim made up of random organic shapes, to be placed in front of a light to break up the beam and create the effect of natural shadows.
10 tungsten (n.)
As most people know, a tungsten bulb contains a filament, made of the metal tungsten, which glows at a certain temperature. It is a white light that burns at roughly 3,200K. (Orange-tinted sodium vapor streetlights burn at about 2,700K.) HMIs (hydrargyrum medium-arc iodides) are specialty lamps that burn at roughly 6,500 degrees kelvin, to simulate daylight. They run off electrical or magnetic ballasts that are placed at a distance from the light and serve to limit current and supply the proper voltage. HMIs enable the easy shooting of daylight interior scenes during after dark. Film stock and digital sensors record color differently from the human eye. For instance, fluorescent light, which we see as a whiter hue, appears very green on film. Often existing light sources will have to be balanced or corrected—sometimes by adding color-correcting gels and other times by physically changing bulbs to specialized color-corrected sources. If you’re shooting a scene in a subway station, for example, you might have to change out all the bulbs on the platform and/or on the train so that they match the color temperature of your own lights; or sometimes you may color-correct your own lights with the necessary gels. So there’s a lot of adjustment, both during and in post-production.—JOSHUA VAN PRAAG
Joshua van Praag is an award-winning filmmaker and photographer. His shorts and pictures have been exhibited in a wide range of venues, from the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York to the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, and at film festivals like London’s Raindance and the New York Independent Film and Video Festival. During his 10 years as a lighting technician, JvP traveled the world and worked on more than 40 feature films under directors such as Martin Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci, Wong Kar Wai, Woody Allen and Jonathan Demme.