Become a Gaffer: Training and Career Roadmap

Mar 04, 2020

Technicians who handle lighting needs on television and movie sets are commonly referred to as gaffers. To work in this field, candidates need electrical experience and can benefit from studying film production. Read on to learn more.

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Should I Become a Gaffer?

Gaffers design, set-up and maintain lighting and lighting-related electrical needs on film and television production sets. Gaffers often report to the Director of Photography and frequently supervise electricians on set. An understanding of the film-making process is a must as lighting affects the mood, meaning and look of every scene. Gaffers need to effectively communicate with cast and crew throughout the creative process and would benefit from technical and creative training.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Varies; technical certificate, associate, or bachelor's degree
Key Skills Manual dexterity; creativity and flexibility; working knowledge of electrical wiring and schematics, understanding of film-making process
Training On-the-job training with specialized equipment
Salary $43,770 (2018 median salary for audio and visual equipment technicians)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

The degree needed to become a gaffer varies and can include a technical certificate, an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree. These workers should have:

  • Manual dexterity
  • Creativity and flexibility
  • Working knowledge of electrical wiring and schematics
  • An understanding of the film-making process
  • On-the-job training with specialized equipment

According to the 2018 data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for audio and visual equipment technicians was $43,770.

Steps to Become a Gaffer

Step 1: Acquire Technical Knowledge

Gaffers set up all lighting elements on a TV or movie set. They must run wiring, build scaffolds and maintain the safety of their crew. Due to the technical knowledge required for the job, candidates can benefit from having experience in the electrical field. This experience best comes from a trade school or vocational program focused on electrician training. However, while professional experience as an electrician can increase a candidate's chance of finding work in the field, it is not necessarily required to become a gaffer.

Step 2: Assess Your Skills and Lifestyle

Working on film and TV sets often requires long and unusual hours. Gaffers must be prepared to work on tight deadlines and adjust their schedule to external factors, including the weather. They may also have to travel to work on films and TV shows that are filming on location. In addition, gaffers must possess physical stamina and strength to transport equipment and have the ability to multi-task and lead a team.

Step 3: Become Educated in Production

While there are no specific education requirements for gaffers, a bachelor's degree in stage lighting or film production can give prospective candidates an edge. Coursework includes stage and costume design, technical production and sound studies. Gaffers may also study theatre or choose to learn job skills through technical workshops or apprenticeships.

Step 4: Career Advancement

The key to becoming a gaffer is to work on set as much as possible to gain practical experience and develop necessary industry contacts. Candidates must begin in an entry-level position and work their way up. They may begin as a production assistant, complete an on-set apprenticeship or work in production positions, such as lamp operator or rigger. Competition in the entertainment industry is keen. Turnover is low in high-paying positions, and it may take several years for gaffers to progress and earn their positions. However, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that within the industry, specialists such as gaffers will see more employment opportunities than directors, writers or actors.

Gaffers can pursue training through apprenticeships or technical certificate, associate's or bachelor's degree programs in film production or a related field, and electrician training can also be helpful.

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