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Volume 4, Number 5
May, 1999

Get A Grip!

by Greg Tennant

I was walking across a rooftop in Santa Monica the other night about 1:00 a.m. in the drizzling rain, lifting up heavy stuff and trying not to get shocked to death by 220 volts of electricity or scarred in the face by shattering bulbs exploding from the sudden cooling of raindrops on hot quartz glass, when I thought of explaining what a grip does, since the question came my way on a Christmas card the other week.

Grips carry stuff. That's the basis of their name. They also assemble, set up, and rig stuff. Together with the electricians (who handle specifically lights and power cords), they are the set crew. They carry sandbags, dolly tracks, light stands, 6-by-6-foot and 8-by-8 and 12-by-12 and occasionally even 20-by-20-foot metal frames supporting tarps made of black or white plastic or white parachute silk or heavy black cloth or occasionally black netting of specific density to cut light transmission by half or by a quarter. They carry c-stands (short for Century stand), which are telescoping stands with a knurled ball at the top made for holding smaller nets and flags of black cloth in front of lights in order to control the beam precisely and specifically. Electricians put lights on stands and plug them in and point them, and grips put flags and nets and silks in front of them according to the Director of Photography's requests. Also grips will be the ones to put up lights if they need to go in special locations not accessible by light stands, like if they need to hang from the ceiling or stick out over the edge of a building or protrude from crevices or who knows what. There are all sorts of little grip gadgets designed for putting lights in every conceivable location, and they're all kept in boxes either on the grip truck or in the taco cart, which is the mobile collection of grip stuff taken from the truck to have close at hand. Things like gator grips, platypuses, chain vice grips, c-clamps with studs, baseplates that can be nailed or screwed to things, mafer clamps, pipe clamps, furniture bar clamps, scissor clips, beaver boards, and so forth.

Occasionally besides small oddly-placed lights, grips also participate in the setting up of extra-huge lights. The big brutes that you occasionally see in pictures of film shoots, the large 3-foot-wide arc lamps, take three to six people to set up, and sometimes have to be raised 12 to 18 feet off the ground to simulate the sun or the moon. So grips build scaffolding platforms out of heavy steel pipes and 1-inch-thick plywood boards, then hoist up the giant light stands and the giant lights with the help of several of the electric crew. Then, both grips and electricians have to grumble quietly in their teeth when the Director of Photography decides to change his mind about where these great lights on platform-towers actually need to be; then they say it was all a drill, and we all did real well on the drill there, but now comes the REAL job, which is to put it fifteen feet farther over, or down the hill or somewhere else altogether. It's a close call as to which is harder, the drill which has to be undone to put the light in another place, or the drill that was simply that and nothing more, because the light suddenly isn't needed after all, anywhere.

One thing grips have to do, especially when they're just starting out, is always look like they want to work. In other words, here's a little story:

I was working as an extra grip on a feature, "It Came From Outer Space." They were calling me in for two- or three-day stretches when they needed an extra hand. So we were out in the desert, 50 or so miles away, having arrived at 12:00 noon. We shot in daylight for a while, but most of the work was to be done at night. So, some time around 10:00 or so, maybe 11, we were out on the rocks with a bunch of stuff set up working away in the cold in the middle of December, when it started to rain. We kept on shooting until the rain got heavy enough to show up on film, and then stood around half-sheltered under some of the larger griffolyn sheets, the plastic sheets in metal frames used to bounce light off for a soft reflective effect. After a while, they decided that the rain wasn't going to quit right away so we should retire to the trucks and wait there. So we went back out in the rain and covered up with plastic whatever wasn't already covered, and gathered up whatever really shouldn't have been getting wet and took it back to the truck. We all got inside the two moving-van-sized tractor-trailers that hold all the lighting and grip equipment, and stood around for an hour in the cold night, smoking and farting and thinking up things to say (well I didn't smoke, but plenty of film crew people sure smoke, and talk about football and types of equipment and stuff like that). Finally they decided the rain wasn't going to stop at all and we could all go home. This was round about midnight. So we got to leave everything where it was and drive 50 miles back home to come back tomorrow. As soon as we were driving away, of course, the rain stopped. But we left anyway.

The next day it was decided, and I got a call saying so, that I would be one of the ones to go not back out to the desert but actually to a studio closer by and set things up for the day after that, when we'd be finally shooting indoors. This I was glad about. So at 3:00 p.m. I went to the studio and waited around for about three hours for certain materials to be delivered, and when it finally was, I and two other guys set about hoisting 10-foot-long steel pipes up to the 25-foot-high ceiling with heavy ropes but without the aid of pulleys, and chaining them to the rafters at a specific measured distance from the floor. Then we used two scissor-lifts to drive around and hang 20x20-foot black curtains from the pipes to enclose on 3 sides an area for the set to be built in. Well, it may not seem like much, but by 1:00 in the morning I was quite incredibly tired from all that heavy lifting. It's just hard work to drag 50 feet of rope over a wooden beam with however much a 10-foot steel pipe weighs tugging at the other end, and to do it however many times we had to do it for all those pipes. Plus it was 1:00 in the morning after a previous day of 1:00 in the morning after cold and rain. Anway, nobody cares about that. Because meanwhile, as we were rigging the stage, the rest of the crew was back out in the desert. Now, the guy in charge of grips (who was an idiot, by the way), had decided that I and the remaining one other guy now on the stage should, when we got done rigging, come out and help them in the desert. This I wasn't interested in, but I was going to because that was the order. The other guy I was with also was on for this day only, and he wanted to get enough hours because he hadn't understood at first how cheaply he was going to be paid compared to what he was used to. So the second decision that came in from the field was that neither of us would go to the desert, but in fact one of us should actually go home from the stage early, because he couldn't afford to pay any more man hours and he'd need them later on. He had to budget, you see. Well this other guy was irritated, because he wouldn't get the hours he wanted; but never mind, because that was the order. I minded, though, because it was meaning that he would leave, and I would have to finish up the stage myself. But, that was the order.

Then, the next order was that we were to both finish the stage, but then we could both go home. And then, about 1:00 in the morning as we were finishing up, the head guy called from the desert again and asked if one of us could actually come out after we got done on the stage, because they were just so tired and in need of help, and it was raining and they were miserable. Boy, did I sure ever not want to go out there. I could have made a super killing in overtime, too, since they were paying $12.50 an hour for the first 8 hours, then time and a half for a few hours and double time after that. I could have made $350 for the day. But I would have been nearly dead. He said we didn't have to, because he knew we'd been working so hard and had already put in a full day and they were planning to work until the sun came up and he wouldn't make us do that, but couldn't one of us please come out? So me and the other guy who wanted the hours talked it over, and we decided he would go out because he wanted the hours. Fine. I could go home. I knew, though, that nobody would be happy about it, because I was choosing to rest while they were still working. He shouldn't have asked me. He should have made it the order, and I would have done it. But, also, I could have decided to go help them.

Anyway, I was there with them the next night on the stage. They had worked til dawn, actually to 10 a.m., so they had to be allowed 8 hours to rest before the next work time, so we actually started shooting on the stage at 6 p.m. and worked all night long. They were all pretty glum to me, or actually they were just tired and pretended to be good-natured about it, but one guy did tell me, in "joking" manner, that you always have to look like you want to work, in order to make a good impression on your employers so they'll hire you back the next time. They told me about how it had started to rain but they kept working anyway because it wasn't showing up on the film, and then it got even colder and the rain froze all over the metal equipment, and they sat out a downpour but then kept on working, all night long until the sun came up with hands freezing to metal and slipping on the ice and everything else. I knew I would have broken, and I tried to tell them that, but they "joked" that I was wimping out. I told myself it didn't matter so much because I was new at this, and still had time to build a reputation. Maybe that's backwards thinking.

Anyway, I worked with them on the stage all night long, staying awake, breathing stage fog from fogger machines because the scene called for fog. That's treacherous material to be breathing for 14 hours, no matter how "non-toxic" it's supposed to be. I helped them break everything down and wrap it all up and put it away in the trucks, and we got out at about 10 a.m. again. That was the last day of the production, and I was going back to San Francisco for Christmas that weekend. The guy who got me that job called me once for another job while I was in San Francisco, and I called him back when I got back to Los Angeles, leaving him a message, but I haven't heard from him again yet. I should be keeping in touch with him better.

So the thing is, as a grip, you have to always look like you want to work, no matter how terrible or back-breaking or health-endangering the situation is. In other words, you have to be a soldier. This is physical work, and it's heavy work, and it lasts for a long time so you need incredible endurance. This is why I'm really afraid someone might actually call me and ask me to do another job. It's hard.

What I'd rather do is get paid to be a writer. Writing's got its own problems, like it's terribly lonely and isolating, plus you have to come up with new stuff all the time, and not just new but interesting stuff that no one's ever thought of before. You know what, though, with all the movies and TV shows coming out that are all just like every other one in the world, I think the trick is actually not to think up new stuff but to think of the old stuff in new ways. That's what you have to do.

Anyway that's the lesson in filmmaking for today. Oh, if you want to know the terms, they are these: the Key Grip is the chief of the grip squad. The Gaffer is the chief of the electrician squad. The Best Boy is the second in command to the gaffer. He's the electric first mate. They also have Best Boy Grips, which are the same thing, second in command to the Key Grip. Think of Mr. Spock as Captain Kirk's Best Boy.

The reason the gaffer is called a gaffer is from the first days of shooting on stages, when they used a gaffing hook to reach up and adjust the lights on the overhead lighting rigs. They liked having a secret jargonistic name, so they've kept it even though they don't use gaffing hooks on stages any more. Gaffing hooks are used in the circus, too, and they must have come from sailing or fishing. You use a gaffing hook to land big fishes and whales. Nowadays there's so much shooting done on location, so nobody cares what special things happen on stages. Anyway, I guess now we have ladders.

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