The Fastest Gaffer in Pittsburgh

Jokerboxes Fortune CookieEarly in my career, the production company I worked for was shooting a commercial on a sound stage in Pittsburgh. One morning in a pre-production meeting, it became clear that the ambitious schedule would require a gaffer that could work very fast while delivering great quality. But who? Who could accomplish this feat of lumens? Just one man’s name was spoken. Everyone whispered when they said his name. Like they were speaking of a legend. I was thoroughly intrigued and wide eyed at the thought of working with… The Fastest Gaffer in Pittsburgh.

The morning dawned on the first day of the shoot. I managed to be within earshot as the Director and DP spelled out their vision of the scene to the infamous gaffer. As I listened, they spoke with an intoxicating mix of tech-talk, production slang, and poetic descriptions that conveyed the vision they had concocted in their heads. When the conversation was over the gaffer was left standing there alone to gaze at the set and the rigging above. His crew huddled casually nearby. Resting on apple boxes, cases and clutching coffee. Speaking only in quiet tones. 

The calculating Gaffer stood there nearly motionless. Not speaking a word….for a full minute. Then two. Then three. After I watched the tenth minute tick by on my watch, I couldn’t resist anymore. I spoke. “Is there anything I can get started on for you? I heard that you are very fast, and I want to help in any way I can.” 

With his concentration broken, he swung his attention from the set and rested it squarely on me. I could feel its weight. He responded coarsely, “I’m fast because I only set a light once. I don’t spend a lot of time moving things around. But I can only do that if I have it figured out. And I can only figure it out if you’re not talking to me.” He wheeled his gaze back to the set and resumed his silence in earnest.  I suppose his retort should have embarrassed me. But that’s not what I was thinking. I knew I was just given the secret. Its simplicity was golden. If this bit of production philosophy were found in a fortune cookie, it would have read: “To go fast, begin by going slow.” 
As I watched, the day proved it out. He was very, very, fast indeed. The instant he had the lighting thoroughly figured out he turned to his waiting crew. Shouting a list of orders like an old sea captain. His words scattered the men like the group had been hit by a giant hammer. Each crew member hustling off in a different direction. 

By the time he and the DP declared the set ready to shoot, it was alive with color and drama. And we were ahead of schedule by 8 minutes. Not one instrument had to be moved from its original position. All the banded lay where it had been placed. Each light stand stood faithfully in its first intended location. And the lumens painted the scene to look just as it had been in the Director and DP’s minds.

Today, fifteen years later, I still have to resist the urge to fly into action at the start of each setup. When I’m setting up a shot, I force myself to take a few unrushed minutes and look at my options. I visualize the shot as thoroughly as I can. I’m keenly aware that the whole world wants me to get going. My crew is itching to work, the producer is anxiously looking at the schedule, and the client wants to see their money in action. But, if you resist all of that and give yourself a moment to visualize and develop a plan, you will end up finishing the day stronger. And on time.

A hundred years ago filmmakers noticed that they had the same problem. And they figured out a solution. They created a simple golden rule called: “Block, Light, Shoot” And for the last hundred years it has worked pretty well. Block, Light, Shoot, means that you should work in a three-step process. First you block the scene. Working in just available light, position the camera and actors as you like them.  Second, you light the scene. Now that your blocked, you know where the edges of frame are. And you know exactly where the actors faces will be pointed. You can easily visualize the direction of the light. Now you can light. Third, and lastly, you shoot the scene. This is when you get to eat the cake you have been baking. 

Block, Light, Shoot, is a simple concept that is sometimes lost on the inexperienced DP or gaffer. One sure sign of a green DP is that they start lighting before the camera is even built. Making decisions based on assumptions. Late in the lighting setup they finally look through the camera and realize the shot would be better from “over there.” Moving the camera “over there” usually means all the lighting must move too. Do this on every setup and pretty soon your crew is trying to light a moving target. By the end of the day, everyone is frustrated, you’re stressed out, and the producer is up to his/her eyeballs in over time. So slow down and take a minute. Once you can see 80% of it in your head, then act. If you make block, light, shoot, a habit, maybe one day in a production meeting somewhere, your name will be spoken in whispers, like they’re talking about a true legend.  

- By Ben Mesker

1 comment

  • Joe Torina

    Hi Ben,

    Hope this finds you well. I heard about your new products through Mark Moore. They’re terrific.

    I love this article also. Very well said. It is exactly the approach I employ in every phase, particularly in pre and post.

    My best to Donna. Good things happening so let’s talk soon.

    Joe Torina

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published