Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Explaining the World of Film

Part of my research in Los Angeles amounted to trying to understand the responsibilities of some of the different people on a film set. The director is pretty clear -- she's the one with the big picture, artistically, and the one who calls the shots (literally and figuratively).

The actors... the make up artists... costume design... all good.

But here's a few roles you've undoubtedly seen on credit lists, but probably don't know.

"Gaffer" -- what does a gaffer do? Actually, a gaffer is on set to help when mistakes happen. He (generally a he) has no preassigned job, other than to be around and keep an eye out. When a camera's still got its lens cap on, or someone's slip is showing, or a huge fixture is about to fall from the ceiling and kill the star -- that's when the gaffer steps in. Part utility infielder, part secret service. Very well paid.

"Grip" -- on a movie set, a grip is someone who holds things. The lights, the camera, a reflection board -- anything. If someone goes to get you a coffee, when they come back with it, they're a grip. If an actor has to hold something in a shot, for the portion of the film they are also credited as a grip, and receive extra wages accordingly. (That's actually how Will Smith and Tom Cruise make so much money on their films. They have big base salaries, of course, but nothing like the millions you read about. No, instead, they have in their contracts that they must be holding something for a certain number of minutes in the film.)
In certain circumstances, grips are paid not only by how much they hold but by how tightly. The more force a grip exerts, the higher the salary.

"Key Grip" -- it's just as obvious as it sounds. The key grip is the grip who holds keys. Not their house keys, of course; that would be just silly. But any keys related to the shoot itself.

Lastly, "Best Boy". The best boy is probably the most misunderstood job of all; people think it's a child, or it's someone who is especially favored for their performance past and present. Actually, it's a term of derision. The best boy is the person on set who is being most difficult. The best boy is made to stand in one corner of the room for the entire day, and everyone else on set is allowed to rub leftover food all over them. It's a throwback actually to the days of Our Gang; the children on the set were so notoriously difficult, they set up the best boy role to discipline them. (Alfalfa's hair was an earlier technique used; it was tossed out when the kid ended up becoming so popular as a result of it.)
Everyone on set except the biggest stars have it in their contracts that if they are designated best boy, they will sit and take it until they are left off the hook. (And if you're on a set, and a big star wigs out, you can see the crew nod at each other and mumble "BB".

Tip: If you're an actor and a crew member comes up to you and says "You are the best!" they don't actually mean they like working with you.)

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