Have you ever sat through the credits of a film or TV show and wondered what in the heck 99% of the people listed actually do? To answer these questions today we launch the first in an ongoing segment:
The “What is a….” series.
Each post will delve in to a specific job and describe what exactly the position does on a given day of production. We will also do our best to note the key differences between TV and film jobs, as they often get lumped together but are not always involved in the same process.
Today’s we answer, What is a KEY GRIP?
The term “Grip” often refers to the technicians on a set who are charge of all the rigging, dolly track, camera and lighting installations. As with many things, the term most likely started in the theater. Calling for a grip meant get the wrench or tightening tools used to hang various props, sand bags, lights and such. Eventually, the people who would be in charge of setting up and securing all of this came to be called “Grips” in the same way. Another fun origin theory revolves around needing a good, firm “grip” to secure and tighten all the equipment before shooting so nothing would break or fall. Either way, the term stuck.
The “Key Grip” is the person in charge of the entire Grip department. They usually work hand in hand with the DP, or Director of Photography who can also be known as the cinematographer. The DP’s job is to create the visual picture for each shot a per a Director’s instructions. Everyone involved in the actual creation of each shot falls under the DP’s guidance.
The Key Grip is then used to implement the orders from the DP to his or her team. On a large production with dozens if not hundreds of people, a “Best Boy Grip” will be used by the “Key Grip” as the second in command. Much like the army, a set has a chain of command where duties and responsibilities get handed down so the Best Boy Grip takes the orders from the Key Grip who got them from the DP, etc.
As a brief aside, the term “Best Boy” can be a male or female and derives from old apprenticing terms of a Master calling upon his best student as his “Best” boy or most trusted and experienced. In the same way, the Best Boy is the most trusted assistant to the head of the department. Think of them as the foreman for their department, which is usually in Gripping or Lighting.
Grips are NOT involved in the powering or placement of the lights themselves, as that falls under a different department. Moreso, their job is to place the various light stands, filters and diffusers that the lighting department will be using to set up their shots. As seen above, the cover above the car and the shutters on the lights are assembled by the Grips. The Lighting department is then in charge of powering and placing where each light will go.
Working closely with the camera department is another aspect of Grip work. Everything from tripods to dolly tracks to jibs and cranes fall under their control. Working closely with the operators and again the DP, the grips install all of the tracks for a moving dolly shot and the hardware for all forms of crane or jib arms. They also set up the tripods to rest the camera equipment on for a given shot. Securing all of this gear is an essential element to getting a good shot as any loose tracks or camera equipment could result in a failed shot, an injury and possibly thousands of dollars in damages and overhead expenses.
Finally, Grips are responsible for all the rigging on a set, which means they hang and support all of the structures such as the lighting truss and scaffolding that will be needed for a shoot. This is the aspect that involves the most time and safety because the gear being hung will be extremely expensive and oftentimes very heavy. With a system of ropes, chains and wires, the Grips must carefully assemble and secure everything here so that everyone on set can work safely without fear of anything falling down on to them.
This is not a job for those scared of heights. Most lighting trusses can hang high in to the air and will require an extended time up there to set up and secure all the bolts, screws and locks necessary to keep it stable. With so much weight to support, the Grips must be on the top of their game to ensure a safe work environment.
Typically, a Key Grip will be involved in any production from the get-go as scouting locations and Tech looks are the first step in creating a production. The Key Grip will have to get an idea and the inventory of all the gear they will need, the amount of time they’ll have to set it up and where the gear will be rented from. Once the blueprint is in order, the Key Grip will plan it all out with the DP and other departments then have his Best Boy Grip and Grip team implement the setup. Long days and lots of heavy lighting will be in store, so plan accordingly. Grips will oftentimes be among the first on set and the last to leave as they are building and tearing down.
Getting a job as a Grip is not necessarily something you can get a degree in but rather requires hard work, often a lot of heavy lifting and also a lighter touch on some delicate instruments. Oftentimes, it means getting to know the right people and expressing a willingness to start at the bottom. You may work several jobs as a Grip before being offered the chance to move up to a Best Boy or Key Grip position.
Being able to take and process orders is essential as is working well with others. That does not mean it is mind-less work however. Building up a set can often involve some creative problem solving and also understanding certain weight ratios and math. Having access to and knowing how to use the tools below is certainly a step in the right direction as well:
C Wrench, which is the essential rigging tool. Loosening and tightening would be impossible without it.
Multi-tool or Leatherman, which is every technician’s best friend. Basically a swiss army knife that has various blades, pliers, wrenches and screw heads all in one easy to carry tool.
Levels, which again are a must since it is useless to lay dolly tracks or a truss if the darn thing isn’t level.
Scissors, since you will almost certainly be cutting rope to hang various gear with.
Tape Measure, screw drivers, clips, wire and anything else that will come in handy when hanging and securing.
A major difference between TV and film work is that Grips’ responsibilities get delegated to more departments in TV. For instance, where a grip deals with all installation, lighting and rigging, a TV set has a separate department for each. Utilities, for example are the closest thing to Grips but usually do not have any involvement in the lighting department. Likewise, the rigging is usually left to a company that specializes in assembling the trusses. All of this can change from production to production and each union shop may have slightly different responsibilities that it hands out to its crew. For the most part though, Grips are more jack of all trade in film while their work is more specialized in TV.
So, next time you watch a movie or TV show, think about all the hard work that went in to setting up that set or shot. How long it took to get all the cameras in position, the lights set up and everything hung safely and securely. The amount of time, energy and effort that was put in to allow the actors, directors and producers to create their vision will give you a new appreciation for the hard work of a production.