From gaffers to grips: a guide to who does what in the film industry

Film critic Antonia Quirke celebrates the heroes behind every scene in a new Radio 4 programme

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There can’t be a movie-goer – casual or committed – who hasn’t sat through the credits at the end of a film without thinking, “Who are all these people?” Best boys, grips, gaffers, camera operators… the mysterious roles unfurl before us, sometimes for full minutes at a time at the close of block-busters, a whole encyclopaedia of enigmatic occupations. And even more so with the long-running television series that are defining this era of screen entertainment: Peaky Blinders, Game of Thrones, The Crown…So many curious job titles are listed after the cast that they’re often (somewhat churlishly) sped up, zipping by like so many congregants being unceremoniously ushered out of a cathedral.

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As I’ve written and talked about film most of my professional life, it seemed absurd that I was unclear about who does precisely what to make them, and these past months I’ve been hanging around the sets of movies and TV dramas, hoping to speak to crew members in their spare moments to learn more. Do pull up your chairs.

A gaffer, it turns out, is a lighting expert, who translates what the director of photography envisages into reality, finding ways to achieve, say, perfectly replicated sunlight, or the subtle flickering of candles on actors’ faces.

A best boy wrangles all the on-set sparks (electricians), making sure the gaffer has the electrical power he needs. He gets zero sleep, because his phone perpetually pings with work-men saying they can’t make it in tomorrow.

A camera operator operates the camera – obviously. Yes, but let me explain. When you see photographs of a person on set handling the camera, looking intense and in control, and you’ve assumed it’s the Oscar-winning director, it most likely isn’t; it’s the camera operator (who never wins an Oscar, because there’s no such award category). They have the camera physically strapped to their body or in their hands, actually achieving what the cinematographer (who also gets Oscars) has specified.

Curiously, it’s the grips who are some of the best talkers, even though their job is so physical – they make sure the camera moves smoothly, obsessively laying perfect tracks about the set. Dan Inman, the key grip on BBC2’s Peaky Blinders, tells me, “What drew me to the job was that it’s a lot of manual handling, because as a kid I was quite sporty. It involves lifting, pulling and carrying the kit to the location over any kind of terrain.”

As he speaks, his face – carelessly sunburned after busy days filming outdoors in Dudley during the May heatwave – softens. “But then over time I learnt that it’s not just bits of metal. There are really intricate pieces to each part of kit, some that have to move from three inches off the ground to 60 feet in the air.”

A fascination with what cameras can do and also with what actors achieve the other side of them, and for the group effort involved, runs like silk thread through every conversation.

Gary Hymns, a grip of renown, working on Bond films and most recently on the new Star Wars movies, is a marathon runner too, and is entirely absorbed by his work.

“Filming the Day of the Dead opening sequence of Spectre in Mexico City, we were in and out of windows and dropping 60 feet with Daniel [Craig], and making three shots look like one, and I just couldn’t sleep the night before, wanting to get it right.”

Was he truly nervous? “Oh yeah,” Hymns stresses. His role was clearly a choreographed and highly tense performance in itself.

This depth of connection is something that I see time and again. For instance Ben Turner, the visual effects supervisor on Netflix’s The Crown, did subtle, clever work to turn 100 extras into 30,000 people on screen for Princess Margaret’s wedding sequence in the forthcoming second series. He gently spoke to the extras about how they had to wave their flags with imagination, even though each figure will be reduced to less than 1cm high in the final scene.

Jo McLaren is the stunt coordinator on the new JJ Abrams movie Overlord, which is filming this summer. She once doubled as Kate Winslet in Titanic, and recalls how her eyelashes and brows were singed off when she played a martyr being burned at the stake in the opening moments of the Cate Blanchett movie Elizabeth, a scene that horrified me when I first saw it in 1998.

“That was a hot burn,” she humbly admits with understatement. The make-up girls at the time apparently wept with shock.

But perhaps most memorably, Sean Savage, camera operator on Game of Thrones– who I meet as he’s packing up equipment before setting off to film the final series this summer, standing with his sleeves rolled up in a room piled high with lenses – describes filming the incredible Battle of the Bastards sequence at the close of series six, where Jon Snow clambers up from beneath countless dead and dying.

Savage was physically inside the fray himself, right in the chaos with his camera, to properly capture the sense of war and panic.

“All the actors were piling on top of me,” he recalls, in a heart-stopping monologue that illustrates a modest but ineffable joy in his own commitment and talent. “Then when I saw the darkness completely cover Kit Harrington’s face, I shouted at him to open his eyes, to fight, to get up, which he did. And he forced his way through the stunt guys, to freedom.”

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Quirke’s Cast and Crew is on Radio 4 on Monday 19th June at 4pm