In a nutshell
- Grips are essential skilled technicians in the film industry, responsible for controlling camera movement and shaping lighting to create captivating, cinematic experiences.
- The grip department has evolved over time and now includes several specific roles such as key grip, best boy, dolly grip and “hammers” to support both the cinematographer and gaffer in achieving the director’s vision.
- Becoming a grip requires a combination of hands-on experience, training through film schools or unions and self-study using resources like industry magazines, books and mentorship from experienced professionals.
Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” Consider the term grip. Is it a person, place or thing? In the film business, the label refers to a group of individuals with sometimes unclear roles that cover a variety of tasks and responsibilities. Nonetheless, a good grip provides an essential service on a film set.
This article aims to shed light on the role and value of grips as a department and as a skilled group of craftsmen. Without them, a film set would not run smoothly.
The term “grip” is said to come from the handbag early film helpers used, which held their “bag of tricks.” These included hand tools, clamps and gadgets used to attach cameras to various structures like train railings and car fenders. Over time, the term grip became associated with these individuals and their work.
As for the history of grips, it’s hard to pinpoint where and when their legend began. Having been a grip myself, I, the author of this article, can attest that they are like “jacks of all trades,” required to demonstrate skills in various areas. Consequently, the grip’s function has evolved over time. For many, becoming a grip is an entry-level position on a film project. However, grips’ responsibilities can range from simple tasks like holding a camera for a tired operator to complex feats of engineering that involve design, fabrication, and precise execution. In short, an experienced grip is worth their weight in gold!
The Oxford Dictionary defines “grip” in the following ways:
- To take and keep a firm hold of; to grasp tightly.
- (an) emotion; as in, to be “gripped” with excitement.
- A firm hold; a tight grasp or clasp.
- An effective form of control over something.
Think about all these loose definitions. In each case, we can find keen examples from the film set that put the term “grip” in its proper context.
In the beginning
During the early days of cinema, audiences were captivated by visuals known as “phantom rides.” These were short films that showed the rushing landscape from the point of view of a speeding train. This unique angle on the world was made possible by mounting the film camera to the front of the engine. These striking visuals were accomplished by handypersons who could clamp a camera to a railing, window, door frame or other train feature, providing a firm and secure hold on the camera while filming in precarious situations.
As movie audiences matured, the demand for better imagery and larger spectacles created the need for more ingenuity in camera placement. Cinematographers needed to find more unique points of view for telling stories, leading grips to become more creative as cinematography tools evolved.
Throughout their evolution, the grip department expanded to include several specific roles. The “key grip” is the department head who works directly with the gaffer, shaping lighting, and the cinematographer, moving the camera, all to achieve the director’s vision. The “best boy” is the assistant to the department head, responsible for managing manpower and equipment. If special help or gear is needed for a shoot, the best boy will acquire it. The dolly grip is in charge of all camera support on set, from tripod placement to operating the equipment that moves the camera. The rest of the grips are nicknamed “hammers” because, in Hollywood, grips still carry hammers to secure hardware in the catwalks above studio sets.
All in a day’s work
Assisting the cinematographer with camera movement, grips employ various methods to ensure smooth and controlled shots. By revealing characters or actions at specific moments, grips contribute to a more immersive experience for the audience.
One tool grips use for camera movements is the camera dolly. Numerous manufacturers supply dolly equipment to the film industry. It’s the dolly grip’s responsibility to use these tools effectively under the cinematographer’s guidance.
To achieve stable camera movements with dollies and cranes, grips often need to construct special tracks. These tracks guide and stabilize the camera during a “tracking” shot, and grips are in charge of laying and leveling them for the cinematographer.
Have you ever been captivated by a sweeping camera motion as it soars over a scene or gracefully pulls away from a protagonist surveying their surroundings?
In “High Noon” (1952), the film begins with a close-up of Marshal Will Kane scanning the town street he must protect from outlaws. As the camera pulls away, revealing the dusty scene, we see the hero standing alone, ready to face the threat. In this case, the camera angle symbolizes Kane’s situation. Grips make such shots possible by using cranes and jibs to support the camera, creating lofty movements that enhance the mood of a scene.
Cutting and shaping light
In the early days of filmmaking, the process was mainly an outdoor activity. Studios had not yet been established to control shooting conditions. One of the distinct advantages filmmaking offered was to show audiences locations and visuals that were unique or inaccessible in everyday life. For the grips, that meant aiding the cinematographer by schlepping heavy equipment to these exotic locations, then helping in the setup and breakdown of the gear for filming.
Early film stocks had low ISO sensitivity, necessitating plenty of sunlight for proper exposure. Since electricity was still in its infancy and electrical lighting tools were not yet refined, grips utilized various reflectors and shading devices to create shape and texture in early cinematic images.
Once the industry gathered momentum, companies like Westinghouse and Edison Laboratories made tools for lighting for dramatic expression possible. This marked the beginning of the cinematic lighting era. Grips shifted from solely assisting cinematographers with camera support to helping a new crew member, the gaffer, with executing supplementary and creative lighting.
The gaffer was responsible for transforming generic, broadly lit images into more stylized, three-dimensional renderings that added mood and dramatic context to carefully crafted shots. Grips helped the gaffer with cutting and shaping light.
Shaping dramatic lighting required specialized tools, which became the responsibility of the grip department. In addition to their growing set of camera support gear, grips now had to perform double duty by offering camera movement and support solutions as well as lighting control solutions.
Cutting and shaping tools
Grips use various specialized tools to help gaffers control dramatic lighting on set. Grip equipment can often be rented through vendors in large cities. Companies like Matthews Studio Equipment, American Grip Co. or Norms Inc also offer gear for purchase.
Flags and Nets
Flags shape cinematic lighting by “cutting” away parts of a light beam that fall on areas of the set the cinematographer wants to keep shadowed. Nets function similarly, controlling light beams not by masking them but by reducing their output in specific ways. They limit the intensity of the beam on set objects. Grips use “C-stands” to hold these lighting control tools in place.
Diffusion can be defined as any material that softens or reduces the contrast of a light beam. Grips use various methods to attach diffusion to light sources. This includes applying “gels” directly to lights using clothespins, often called “C-47s.”
They can also attach diffusion gels to “open frames” supported by a C-stand and introduce the frames into a light beam, giving the light a softer look and feel.
When shooting outdoors, grips frequently use large overhead diffusion, or “butterflies.” These soften and reduce the contrast of harsh direct sunlight.
Contrary to some misconceptions, grips do not handle electricity or electrically powered equipment on set. That responsibility falls on the gaffer and their electricians, commonly known as “juicers.” However, grips do use reflectors, or “shiny boards,” to redirect natural sunlight onto a scene, eliminating the need for electrical instruments during location shoots. Heavy-duty stands to support these devices, which are stored on the “grip truck.”
Large reflective textiles like “Griffolyn” or “Ultrabounce” can also be used to reflect sunlight on film sets. Grips use large frames to support these “rags,” providing rigidity and directionality. Butterflies can be used off the “deck” or rigged overhead using large stands. Rags may be flown indoors using stands or hardware rigged from a studio’s grid.
In addition to their usual responsibilities, some grips have highly specialized skills involving custom mounts. Audiences now expect higher levels of action and spectacle in movies. This requires grips to use techniques reminiscent of their beginnings, such as mounting cameras to trains. Today, various vehicles like cars, motorcycles and boats require special attention for unique and exciting shots.
Grips often mount film cameras on the driver’s side of a “picture car” to capture the driver and passenger while the vehicle is in motion. This is called a “running shot” and needs an experienced camera grip to design and execute the rig. Camera mounts can be rented or purchased from vendors like Modern Studio Equipment.
Resources and education
If someone wants to become a grip, where can they find resources and information on the craft?
Colleges across the country offer numerous film schools and certificate programs. Although having a film degree is not required to work in the industry, it can be beneficial to possess higher education for such a competitive and specialized field. A degree from an accredited institution demonstrates commitment and provides advantages like networking, broad topical study, hands-on learning, critique and historical context. If you prefer structured supervision and mentorship, joining a labor union like the International Alliance of Theatrical and Studio Employees (I.A.T.S.E.) may be the right path. Unions offer advantages such as collective bargaining on contracts, safe working conditions and long-term employment benefits like retirement programs and insurance.
Joining a labor union takes time and patience. Qualifying experience must be gained through “permit” hours on contracted jobs. Maintain good communication with your local trade organization’s business agent, as they can refer you to best boys and department heads who need trainees
If self-study is your thing, there are various resources to learn about the grip profession, including industry magazines. For those who enjoy reading about filmmaking from a cinematographer’s perspective, check out American Cinematographer Magazine, published in cooperation with the Cinematographer’s Guild.
If you prefer books and “how-to” manuals, consider “The Grip Book” by Michael Uva, a retired key grip. “The Grip Book” has had many versions over the years and is currently in its sixth edition.
Some notable grips and their work
The film industry is filled with many skilled technicians who have been valuable mentors. Many of them have played a crucial role in my development as a craftsman. My big break came on a job for Lucasfilm Ltd. titled “Radioland Murders” (1994). Key Grip Charles “Tom” Hinson took me under his wing and taught me rigging techniques that I still use today.
Alan Rawlins was an early influence, best known for his work on “Interview with a Vampire” (1994). “Chunky” Huse, a stoic Englishman, showed me the value of tools and tradition. Stuart Abrahms helped me put the pressure of large jobs into the proper perspective. Don Duffield, an old friend, was key grip on “Sheena: Queen of the Jungle” (1984) when I was a young best boy electrician.
Jim Kwiatkowski demonstrated how technical a key grip could be in executing their craft. We worked together on “Bad Boys II” (2003). You may recognize his work from some of your favorite Spielberg films. While on the “Pirates” franchise, I witnessed some of the most impressive feats of grip engineering in my career. Mike Popovich, the key grip, was famous for his complex rigging work with intricate cranes and lighting balloon rigs. You can learn more about these amazing grips through the Internet Movie Database.
The grip will remain
The role of grips in the film industry is essential for creating a captivating, cinematic experience. These skilled technicians work closely with cinematographers and gaffers, using specialized equipment and techniques to control camera movement and lighting. Their expertise, creativity and adaptability enable them to produce stunning shots that enhance the storytelling process. As the film industry continues to evolve, grips will remain a crucial part of any production team.