Film Set Jargon Explained!

Who does what on set?

If you’re not immersed in the industry, looking at a film set from an outsider’s perspective can be a bit of an exercise in confusion. What’s a boom, what does the gaffer do, and who on earth is the “best boy”?

It’s… well, it’s a lot of insider knowledge and industry-specific language that’s been developed in over 100 years of filmmaking history, and that’s a lot to catch up on if you’re on the outside looking in.

Fortunately, taking the complex world of filmmaking and turning it into something everyone can understand is part of what we do here at The Filmmaker’s Podcast! So we thought we’d take a look at some of the industry jargon, and explain what it actually means – starting with the people you’ll find working on a film set.

Gaffer

We start off as we mean to go on – with names that have no apparent relation to what they actually mean! Outside of a film set, if you call someone a “gaffer”, you might be talking about someone of, let’s say “elderly persuasion”, but in the wonderful world of filmmaking, the gaffer is the person ensuring that the audience can actually see what you’re trying to film.

A gaffer is a film’s chief lighting technician and head electrician – under the direction of the DP/ DOP (more on them later), it’s the Gaffer’s job to manage the implementation of all lighting and lighting-related personnel on their set. As you can imagine, that’s quite an important job, and one that needs a lot of experience to get right – whether the director’s a young up-and-comer or an industry veteran, the Gaffer is often one of the most seasoned staff members on any given film set. Explains why one of the theories behind the name’s origin is that it’s short for the “Godfather” of the shoot!

Key Grip

It’s all very well to have a good lighting setup for your scene, but if you want to film anything you need something else – the cameras! With cameras, you need someone to supervise them and ensure they’re working properly – enter the Key Grip.

The role changes somewhat depending on what country you’re in, but generally the Key Grip is the person managing the operation and maintenance of all the cameras being used to film on a shoot (the name supposedly comes from the bag of tools that camera operators carry around with them – the “grip”).

Like the Gaffer, the Key Grip’s a role with a lot of important responsibility, and has the same requirement of longstanding experience to ensure it gets done right. The Key Grip and the Gaffer effectively fill two halves of an electrical whole, ensuring that all the equipment needed to film properly is maintained, looked after, and operated properly, so that the actors can, quite literally, shine!   

Best Boy

With Gaffers and Grips, comes Best Boys. No story behind the name for this one, but that doesn’t make it any less important! Best Boys are the chief assistants to the Gaffer and the Key Grip, and it’s their job to manage the practical aspects of the production, so that their bosses can focus on working with the directors to realise the creative side of things.

There’s two of them on any given film set – the Best Boy Electric helping the Gaffer, and the Best Boy Grip helping the Key Grip. Best Boys will supervise things like hiring of crew and equipment, scheduling of deliveries and work shifts, setup and breakdown of cameras or lights on set, and generally maintaining the smooth operation of the department. They might also stand in for their boss when they’re on break, or if they have to be away from set for any reason. Best Boys are often compared to the foreman on a construction site – the ones chiefly responsible for making sure things get done.

“Best Boy” is a job title, not a description of the person – females are also called Best Boy.

Boom Op

Nope, it’s not what you’re thinking – the Boom Op’s got nothing to do with explosions.

That’s the Pyro’s job (you’ll have to join us for our next blog in this series)… but for now, we are going into the world of sound, when we talk about the Boom and its Operator.

Sound is one of the most important things when making a film, or any recorded media. If the sound’s even a little bit off, it can throw our brains out, it immediate jumps us out of the watching experience, so getting it right is vital for making a successful film, and the Boom Op’s one of the people ensuring that happens.

They’re not the head of the sound department – that’s the Mixer, sometimes called the Recordist. The Boom Operator is the person responsible for ensuring that the actors are being properly heard.

If you’ve ever seen a photo from a film set of someone holding a very long stick with something big and fuzzy on the end, that’s the Boom Op (for an extra bit of jargon, the fuzzy thing is called a dead-cat, and it goes over a microphone to minimise wind noise and background interference on an outdoor shoot). The thing they’re holding, the boom, is a very long stick with a microphone on the end; and the Boom Op’s job is to get it as close to the actors as they can, without being it in the shot. It’s harder than it sounds, and is one heck of an arm workout!

DP/DOP

This one’s not necessarily confusing because it’s esoteric and based in arcane film history – almost every industry has a position titled “DOP” somewhere in its hierarchy, but they all mean different things! In film, DP or DOP stands for “Director of Photography”, and considering it is such a pivotal role in the making of a film, it can be remarkably under-recognised outside the industry.

The DP, also called cinematographer, is to filming what the Director is to the acting.

The Director decides what the actors are saying and how they’re saying it, the DP decides how they’re being filmed while saying it. A slow zoom, a swooping pan, a far-out shot; the DP works with the director to decide how to translate what’s being done on set into an interesting, engaging, cinematic experience. In effect, the DP’s job is to make the film from the performance.

Some directors are more involved with the cinematography side of things than others – James Cameron is well known for being a filmmaker who’s practically director and DP on his films – so the role of the DP can be a bit fluid from film to film – you’ll often find DPs forming tight-knit partnerships with particular directors and filmmakers. Sir Roger Deakins has worked with director Sam Mendes on 5 out of his 8-film career, and has collaborated with the Coen Brothers on 12 different films.

The DP wields a huge amount of influence on the development and final product of any film, and it’s a bit sad that many outside the industry might not even realise that this role exists. So, next time you’re watching a film, look out for the DP’s name in the credits – they’re the ones who influenced what you’re seeing!

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