Have you ever watched the credits at the end of a film and wondered what language they were written in and what in the world it all meant? Not everyone watches credits of course, but I'm always surprised at how many people do. The Film Geek and I knew we were on the same page on our first movie date when we both stayed in our seats at the end of the movie to watch the credits without even asking the other first if they wanted to. I weeded out quite a few potential boyfriends with this little trick.
As he has been in the thick of pre-production for months and is three weeks into principal photography on his latest feature, I've brushed off my language skills so I know what the heck he's talking about all the time. I've never worked in film, I was always in television. Some of the jargon is the same, but film really is a language of it's own. So as a public service (and to annoy your friends no end) I've put together a FilmSpeak Primer. Now you too will be able to decipher those pesky credits.
Oddly named crew positions...
Gaffer - Department head for the Electrical area. The term came about one of two ways, depending on which story you want to believe. First is from the stick they used to use to adjust the lights, called a gaff stick. Second is from the term "old gaffer" which came about as a way of defining seniority. Whoever had survived the longest without electrocuting himself got the job as the top electrical guy - the gaffer.
Best boy - the next step down in the Electrical department. If female can be called Best babe.
Rigging electricians - do a lot of the grunt work, laying camera runs and other cables.
Key Grip - head of the department that handles all the non-electrical equipment on set that relates to lighting and camera. The name "Grip" comes from the name of the equipment cases they carry, which are called grips.
Best boy (or babe) grip - next step down in this department. They are below the key grip but higher in rank than the plain old grips.
Rigging grips - the ones who build the trusses for the overhead light grids.
Strike grips - the ones who "strike" or tear down the set when the crew is finished.
Swing grip - someone who goes back and forth between grip and electrical.
Grips have a reputation, deserved or not, as being a little rough around the edges, you could even say coarse. Some of the most astounding things can come out of their mouths. (To be fair, this could be said about anyone on the set at any given time). And there can often be friction between the grip and electrical departments.
Film Geek joke - What's the difference between a grip and an electrician? An electrician will take the dishes out of the sink before he pees in it.
So those are two of the key positions - the gaffer and the key grip. The third (and last) key position is in the Camera Department and is the camera operator. All of these positions report to the DP, the Director of Photography, also known as a cinematographer. The DP is in charge of all the technical aspects that create the "look" of the film, such as designing the lighting. They work closely with the director to create this look.
The Film Geek is a Director of Photography. However, he has worked in both grip and electric, so when he tells me stories about these two groups I tend to believe him. He's usually too tired to make things up. Here's another one of his tales...
A few years ago one of his classes was getting practical experience by working on one of his shoots in assistant type jobs. He introduced a couple of the female students to the grips and then, out of earshot of the students, said ( not totally joking) "Please don't sleep with my students." "Okay," the key replied agreeably. "Whose students can we sleep with?"
The Assistant Director is responsible for keeping the production on schedule and on time. This can be a very thankless task. The AD runs herd on everyone from crew to talent to pokey directors. Weather delays, transportation hold-ups, equipment malfunctions all combine to make the AD a very high strung individual indeed.
Film Geek joke - How can you tell the AD's kids on the playground? They're the ones running around telling the other kids they only have fifteen minutes left to play. How can you tell the Teamster's kids on the playground? They're the ones watching all the other kids playing.
Now we come to the Camera Department positions.
First Assistant Camera (AC) - the First AC is surgically attached to both the camera and the DP at all times. They clean lenses and filters and load film magazines on and off of the camera. The First AC works with the Second AC to move the camera into position for each shot.
Second Assistant Camera (AC) - the second AC is known for their leg strength. They need it. They are permanently attached to the First AC and when the DP calls for an item such as a film magazine or lenses and filters, the First AC tells the Second AC to go and get it. It's an unwritten rule that you never run on a film set, you "walk with purpose." The Second AC walks with purpose all day long. They also do the slate at the beginning of each shot and keep the camera reports up to date, noting how much footage has been shot, what shots are on each roll, etc. This information is invaluable to the editors during post-production.
clapper/loader - this is the second lowest person on the camera team. It is typical of the idiocy that is film hierarchy that this position is usually filled by the least experienced person on the team, but that they are given the most delicate and potentially disastrous job. The clapper/loader loads the magazines, the film containing device that clamps on the back of the camera. This job, threading film into a magazine that looks like a convoluted pinball game, is done entirely in the dark, completely by feel. Imagine an oversized sewing machine bobbin crossed with a rat maze. It's usually done in a camera bag but can be done in a completely dark camera truck. Either way they can't see a thing. And film is expensive. If it's loaded wrong or exposed to light in any way...see ya. Game over. They don't often get a second chance if they screw up. And they get paid crap.
Production Assistants - this is the true grunt position on the crew, speaking of getting paid crap. They do everything from making copies to getting coffee for the talent to taking the director's dog to the vet. (Sometimes they even babysit the DP's kids when the shooting schedule changes unexpectedly and his wife has to work). Eighteen to twenty hour days are not unheard of. Film is a business that is very big on "paying your dues" and PA' s are at the very bottom of the ladder. One of the Film Geek's friends had a t-shirt that said "I've overpayed my dues and I want a refund." I'm pretty sure everyone who saw it wanted that shirt.
These positions, with the exception of the DP are all called "below the line" positions. I'm not really sure what the "line " part of it means, although I think it's an accounting thing that shows up on the budget above or below a certain line item. The "above the line" positions are the producers, director and DP. The title Producer can mean many, many things, ranging from someone who puts up the money because they've "always wanted to be in film" to the very hands on producer who has their finger on the pulse of everything. The director is the one directly responsible for bringing the film in on time, on budget and looking good, and is the one who is made a hero if things work out or a schmuck if it flops.
Okay, class over for today. Aren't you sorry you asked? (Whattya mean, you didn't ask?) Doesn't it make you want to see a movie right now so you can begin translating for your friends? Study hard, because soon we'll have a lesson on film lingo on the set. I'm still figuring out how to put the funniest, completely unprintable lines in. It may be awhile.