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What Do Gaffers and Cinematographers Do?

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Read Time: 3 min

For this tutorial we'll explain what do gaffers and cinematographers do. We'll think about the relationship between the key people that are responsible for creating the lighting environment on set. We'll be breaking this down at a beginner level for those of you who are not familiar with how departmental lines are drawn on a film set.

key people on setkey people on setkey people on set

The two key departments that are responsible for lighting, (in the sense that it appears in the finished product) are the electrics department and the camera department. 

The electrics department, (also known as the lighting department) is generally composed of the gaffer. The gaffer is the head of the department and works directly with the director of photography (also known as the cinematographer) who is the head of the camera department. This can be explained simply below:

  • Gaffer - Head of the Electrics Department (Lighting Department)
  • Cinematographer (Director of Photography) - Head of the Camera Department
DOP and the GafferDOP and the GafferDOP and the Gaffer

The Electrics Department

Under the gaffer you have the best boy electric, which is unfortunately a bit of an outdated term these days. We now tend to say best person.

The best person is not only a hands-on second in charge from the department, but is also responsible for organizing the department and any other electrics assistants that work under them (these are often called third, fourth, fifth or sixth electrics).

best personbest personbest person

The Camera Department

The camera department is set up in a similar fashion, with the cinematographer/director of photography or 'DOP' at the head, who is the creative lead, working closely with the director.

camera departmentcamera departmentcamera department

Underneath the DOP, there is the first assistant camera, (often called the first AC) who is generally responsible for not only being the focus puller on set, but for managing the rest of the camera department, including the gear. 

first acfirst acfirst ac

How it All Works on Set

So that's the general layout of the camera and lighting department. Now there are definitely some other nuances as well, which depend on the specifics of the set and things may shift a little bit depending on where you live. However, what we described above is the general layout of the camera and lighting department.

set hierarchy set hierarchy set hierarchy

As you can see, a film set is quite a hierarchical space, and it's important one set for everyone to know their responsibilities. It is necessary to understand this layout, in order to understand how these ideas and creative decisions can eventually flow down to someone working in post production and how you might want to communicate with these roles.

post productionpost productionpost production

The DOP and the gaffer work in tandem, both as department heads. The gaffer supports the DOP to support the creative vision of the director. They do this by creating the lighting environment and shaping the light together.

  • The Gaffer - The gaffer is responsible for actually physically manipulating the lighting technologies to do so.
  • The Cinematographer/DOP - The DOP is responsible for creatively composing that vision within the frame, all stemming from the wishes of the director.
working togetherworking togetherworking together

It's really important that these two roles work very well together, and you'll often find that an experienced gaffer and DOP will have a great language of shorthand communication between them on set. Especially when one is working to describe what they need from the other, even if they've never actually worked together before. 

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