There are generally two apprentice paths to becoming a Director of Photography. The most popular route is in the camera department, where one advances through the various camera assistant and operator positions before becoming a DP. The other, slightly less common route is in the electric (i.e., lighting) department, where one begins as a lighting technician and eventually becomes a gaffer, the cinematographer’s principal advisor on all things lighting.
There are pros and cons to both paths, and the DP’s experience level will inevitably be stronger in one area than in the other. Directors of Photography who come up through the lighting department, for example, sometimes have to learn how to work efficiently with camera operators. Camera assistants, on the other hand, have unparalleled access to the DP and to camera equipment, but no opportunity to learn first-hand how to actually light a set. This leads to a strange quandary for new cinematographers who come up through the camera department: as the DP they are generally assumed to be the lighting authority on set, but often have little or no practical lighting experience.
The smartest freshman DPs in this position recognize their weakness and hire an experienced gaffer to compensate. Others make the mistake of trying to prove expertise they don’t yet have, often micro-managing the very crew members they brought on to advise them. This puts the gaffer in an awkward position: though he is committed to helping achieve the DP’s photographic goals for the project and usually knows better than anyone what lighting is necessary to do so, he is often ordered by the DP to set lights that he knows are not the ideal choices for what they are trying to achieve. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this happen: a new DP without lighting experience panics in the face of a big lighting set-up and starts calling for specific lights that make absolutely no sense. When these lights don’t achieve the desired result, further panic ensues.
There are dozens of factors that go into every lighting decision: What kind of effect do we want? How much power will it require? How many lamp operators will be needed to set it up? How long will it take them to set the light? How many other lights also need to be set? What kind of grip support will be necessary? Even when the DP knows that a certain light will provide the effect he needs, there is no way for him to know about all these other variables.
So what’s the solution? In an ideal scenario, the DP involves the gaffer in the creative process during pre-production. The DP shares his photographic goals and references with the gaffer early on, keeps him abreast of how they apply to each scene, and works with him to shape the look. This requires a certain amount of trust, of course, and it can be difficult for a DP to make that leap of faith when working with a new crew. And there are risks for the DP, as not all gaffers are able to engage creatively at that level. But to treat a creative gaffer merely as a technician is to overlook a tremendous photographic resource for the project.
The best solution? Hire a gaffer you can trust, and then trust them.