Grip at work
A grip at work on the Imax film Heart of India.
(Image: The Grip Works)

Andy Stead

Those of us in the film and television industry may be familiar with the terms used in the credits at the end of a movie, but most of the viewing public find them puzzling. The terms “gaffer”, for instance, conjures up an English landlord in flat cap being addressed by his labourers, while “best boy” is open to many interesting and varied interpretations.

Film terms like these are as old as the industry itself – over 100 years old, in fact – and each term refers to a specific and important function. Take “grip”.

Grips are by definition the lighting and rigging technicians in the film and video industries. They make up their own department on a film set and are led by a key grip.

A grip’s main function is to work closely with the camera department, especially if the camera is mounted on a crane, dolly – a specialised piece of equipment designed to create smooth camera movements – or other unusual position.

Some grips may specialise in operating camera dollies or camera cranes. In certain countries they also work closely with the electrical department to put in the lighting set-ups necessary for a shot.

Grips come in many shapes and forms: the key grip or first company grip is the head of the grip department, while the best boy grip or second company grip helps the key grip with logistics such as scheduling crew and equipment rental.

The third grip, company grip or gang grip works the set and takes direction from the key grip.

The construction grip constructs and dismantles the set. On a sound stage, construction grips are responsible for laying out, building, moving, and adjusting major set pieces when something needs to be moved to get a camera or lights into position. The dolly grip operates the dollies or camera cranes.

The term “grip” dates back to the early era of the circus. From there it was used in vaudeville, finally ending up in today’s film sound stages and sets. Some suggest that the name comes from the 1930s and 1940s slang term for a tool bag or grip that the technicians used to carry their tools.

Another theory is that in the days of hand-cranked cameras, a few strong men were used to hang on to the tripod legs to stop excessive movement of the camera. These men became known as “good grips”, as they were constantly instructed to “keep a good grip” on the tripod.

Grips also set “passive fill”, which is a term for the reflected light that is bounced back onto a subject on the fill or non-key light side. The first choice for most film-makers’ fill is a product called “poly”, short for polystyrene.

This is actually rigid insulation made for the construction trade, but was adopted by the film trade because of its “true-white” colour and “soft” bounce.

Grips may also be called on to set “negative fill”, cutting ambient or non-directional light to raise contrast on the subject. This is achieved by setting “solids” made of black fabric, either flags or rags on the non-key light side or wherever the negative fill is needed.

When shooting day exteriors, grips perform similar functions, but with the sun as the light source. Grips use large overhead frames to shape or filter. The lighting set-ups for these exterior shots can be quite extensive, with the use of boom lifts common. Lifts are especially useful at night when they are rigged to raise lights high in the air to create moon-effect lighting.

Grips also satisfy rigging needs on set. Simple rigs can be menace arms that offset lighting instruments to reach over set walls or goal posts that span the set to rig over actors and crew. More advanced rigs can include working with pulleys, steel cable or trusses.

Grips are also called on to rig picture cars on process trailers and place camera and lights all around a vehicle to achieve driving shots. This often includes the use of hood mounts, side mounts, suction cup mounts and other proprietary clamps to attach film equipment to vehicles.

Grips are also are required to do “blackouts” and “tenting-out” windows and doors. When shooting interiors day-for-night on location, grips need to cut all the daylight entering the set.

If the scene is “blocked” or staged away from windows or other openings to the outside, the light may be simply blacked out with cloth or plastic sheeting. But when windows or doors are seen from camera, these openings must be tented to allow some exterior dressing to be seen.

In some cases windows must be tented to allow a light to be placed just outside to create a needed effect.

Another area of grips’ responsibility is safety on set. Grips are charged with making stands, ladders, scaffolds, and overhead rigs safe because the other crew members will have to climb on, walk around, or otherwise negotiate the different grip set-ups.

The key grip may even be held legally liable for injuries on set, especially if the injury is caused by something falling on somebody.

A grip’s job is a cross between that of a mechanic and a construction worker.

As in those vocations, grips need hand tools at the ready and most carry the following: a walkie-talkie, a razor knife, an eight-inch adjustable spanner, a tape measure, a hex speed-wrench, a multitool, a small flashlight, a permanent ink marker, and work gloves. A grip might also carry a torpedo level, spring clamps and a roll of gaffer’s tape on his or her belt.

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