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Filmmaking Tips and Tricks for Cinematographers and Grips

Michael Maher

Here are some professional tricks of the trade from the man who literally wrote the book on being a grip.

Top image Californiacation set via Shutterstock

I am currently reading Michael G. Uva’s The Grip Bookand I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a must-read for all of those considering getting into filmmaking and video production.

This book is full of photos and detailed illustrations showing you everything from clamps and camera mounts to safety ties and taco carts. There are even accompanying how-to videos on the Focal Press website.

The book’s author Michael G. Uva has agreed to an interview with PremiumBeat, so keep your eyes peeled in the weeks ahead — and if you have any questions about grip work, sound off in the comments below.

In the meantime, here are some great secrets to filmmaking and a few of Uva’s Tricks of the Trade.

Just starting your career in the motion picture industry? Odds are you will start working as a grip or electrician. Oftentimes, you may actually find your true calling in one of these departments. I know plenty of people who have worked as grips for years. It can be a very fun position that is very mentally challenging.

As a grip, it’s your job to make a production work with whatever tools you have available. If the director calls for a last minute shot, you may need to go into full MacGyver mode at a moment’s notice. (If you don’t know who MacGyver is, just wait for the reboot.)

Grip Tips on Clothes

Pro Tips and Tricks for Cinematographers and Grips - Guide to Grip Clothing

One of the first things you will need to do to become a grip is to learn how to dress and what to carry. You aren’t going to be on camera, so you don’t need to wear your fancy new shoes. Dress for comfort and weather.

You’ll want to have comfortable shoes, because you will be on your feet all day. A lot of grips and crew member wear dark clothes, which is preferred but not always necessary — especially if you’re shooting in the desert. The location weather should be a key consideration. Will you be working before the sun comes up? There’s a good chance it will be cold. The most common combinations on set are t-shirts and jeans or cargo shorts and fishing shirts — which have lots of pockets and breathe well.

Grip Tips for Tools

Pro Tips and Tricks for Cinematographers and Grips - Tools
Image via Shutterstock 

As far as your grip bag and gear go, there are plenty of standards like carabiners, a hammer, an array of tape, as well as a tape measurer. Also, be sure to always have your own pair of ear plugs in your bag. For a hammer, Uva recommends a nice straight claw-type Estwing hammer — these are great for pulling nails. Pro tip: When building, hammer the tip of the nail before driving it into a piece of lumber. This will help prevent the wood from splitting.

When working with screws, draw circles around screw heads on the back of fly-away walls. That way when the time comes to move the wall, you will have a quick count and location of every screw you need to take out.

With hammers, screwdrivers, and other tools — some grips attach a lanyard or small roped loop around the end, that way they can attach the tool to their wrist. “Some folks make a small loop that goes over their wrist while working high in the perms, green beds, or from a tall ladder.

There are two schools of thought on this issue: If you drop the tool, it should not fall. If you fall and the lanyard gets hung up, it could be a different problem.”

Grip Tips for Tape

Pro Tips and Tricks for Cinematographers and Grips - TapeImage via Shutterstock

As far as tape goes, it’s not just gaff tape you will need. You will need ATG tape, which is often called snot tape on set. You will also want some white tape to mark damaged equipment — which is a standard throughout the industry. Photo black paper tape is often used instead masking tape because it will almost disappear on film due to its matte backing — as photo tape uses a black glue as opposed to the white glue in masking tape. Black photo tape is great for masking and flagging lights, as you can easily tape off up to two inches of a fluorescent light tube to reduce unwanted light.

On the topic of photos and tape — did you know that you can use a ball of tape to get rid of unwanted glare from a picture frame on set? If a reflection shows up on camera, just place the ball of tape behind the frame to tilt it up, down, or to the side. It may look odd in person, but done right it will register as a flat frame on camera.

As always, there are tons of ways to use gaff tape on set. One of Uva’s recommendations is to put gaffer tape over the wheels of electric scissor lifts. This prevents them from marking up newly painted surfaces. You can use all sorts of tape of different varieties and colors when it comes time to tape marks for the dolly. Uva usually has three or four different color tapes pre-torn into tabs for dolly work.

Also, be sure to always tab off the tape so its ready to peel when needed.

Grip Tips for Working With Gels

Pro Tips and Tricks for Cinematographers and Grips - Gels
Image from KeepOnTruckin via Wikipedia 

Tape comes in handy for all sorts of tasks. One of Uva’s tricks is to use a tab of tape on a gel, and then staple through it. This will prevent the gel from ripping or tearing. Furthermore, you can mark and label gels with magic markers, as they will not show when light is projected. Often you will see the color of the gel labeled, or you may see a note for a specific shot or set piece.

Gels are also great for a last second rain hat. Caught on a rainy set without a cover for the camera? Use a gel frame and lighting gel over a camera to protect it from water. Aim the gel side up and the frame side down to prevent water from filling the frame. Be sure to angle to rain hat so the water runs to the rear and side.

Grip Tips for Measuring

Pro Tips and Tricks for Cinematographers and Grips - Measuring

It always benefits you to have your tape measure on your person at all times, but if you left it on the other side of the set — pull out your wallet. A US dollar bill is 6.14 inches long, great for rough estimates. Alternatively the average credit card is 3 3/8 inches long and 2 1/4 inches wide.

You should also know the length of your wingspan. If you spread out your arms side to side, know the distance from one finger tip all the way to the other. Unless you are an NBA player with a massive wingspan, odds are your wingspan is about 2 inches longer than your height. So when the time comes for you to grab some rope, you can measure length by using your wingspan. Let’s say you have a wingspan of 6 feet. Then the length of rope across your wingspan will be 6 feet, and once you start looping the rope you can quickly measure out 50 to 60 feet of rope in no time.

For more tricks and a ton of insider knowledge, check out The Grip Book: The Studio Grip’s Essential Guide Fifth Edition from Focal Press.