Working as a Grip: Essential Tips for Safety and Success
The grip’s job is one of the most important and difficult on a film set. Let’s take a look at the details and see if gripping is right for you.
Film sets use large, heavy, and expensive equipment — day in and day out. The grip department is tasked with building and securing this equipment in the safest way possible. Gripping is easily one of the most physically demanding jobs on the entire set, but muscles alone won’t get you a callback for more work.
In this article, we’re diving into the jobs of the grip department — exploring the available positions and their associated responsibilities, and taking a look at a few of the essentials to bring with you to set. Then we’ll examine what it takes to be a great grip.
The Grip Department
The Key Grip runs the grip department. Key grips work closely with the head of the electric department — the Gaffer — as well as the Director of Photography and the camera department to create the set, shape the light, and secure and operate the camera and lighting support systems.
The Key Grip’s second in command is known as the Best Boy Grip. The Best Boy typically passes decisions made by the DP, Gaffer, and Key Grip to the rest of the grip team in order to build the support systems needed for each shot.
Depending on the needs of the production, grips who specialize in specific machines and equipment such as jibs, cranes, and large hydraulic lifts known as “condors” may get tapped to build, maintain, and operate other support tools the shoot needs. The most common of these specialists is the Dolly Grip. Dolly Grips build dolly tracks and are responsible for moving the camera and necessary operators during the shoot.
What is a Grip?
Grip work is usually some of the most strenuous physical labor on a production. Tasked with building, rigging, and operating all camera and lighting support, as well as implementing indirect lighting techniques, grips provide the foundations for any production.
The term “grip” is a carryover from the theater. Theater grips are stagehands tasked with moving scenery between acts — or as otherwise needed.
Collaboration with the Camera Department
In film, grips work under the camera department to build any support attached to the camera — and, if needed, operate those support mechanisms. This includes (but is not limited to) dollies and tracks, cranes and jibs, car mounts, and process trailers.
The primary responsibility of the grip, in this role, is to ensure safe and secure rigging and operation of the camera and its associated equipment. Because of this, all grips must have an intrinsic awareness of anything that could affect the stability of a load.
Collaboration with the Electric Department
The grip’s second role is to work closely with the electric department and the Director of Photography to shape and manipulate light.
While grips don’t handle the lighting fixtures themselves, they build and operate the stands, lifts, and other rigging for the lights. They also perform the critical tasks of rigging silks, scrims, flags, and other light manipulators to get the light quality the Director of Photography wants.
This discipline breaks down into two component functions: passive fill and negative fill.
Passive fill refers to bounced or reflected light. With the use of tools like bounce-boards, reflectors, silks, and other diffusers, grips shape and fill areas of darker illumination in the shot.
Negative fill is the opposite of positive fill. Grips use flags, scrims, and other “cutting” tools to block light to draw the eye to the subject of the frame — or darker areas — in order to create the character of light the the DP wants.
Tools of the Trade
The grip’s toolbox is likely the most diverse of any department’s. Grip trucks store and move this array of tools from location to location, and they require their own skill-set for effective navigation.
Outside of equipment provided by the production, each grip should come to the set with a few essentials — regardless of their level of experience.
- Boots: Wear a sturdy pair of boots that cover the ankle. The best boots for grip work have rubber soles with great traction, steel toes, and lace all the way above the ankle.
- Gloves: Bring a solid pair of work gloves. The best gloves have leather palms and polymer guards on the knuckles and the top of the hand. These provide a significant increase to grip tension, while protecting the wearer’s hands from fatigue and injury when carrying, securing, and tightening components of heavy equipment.
- Hats: Film lights are extremely bright. Billed hats and caps allow grips to block out the light so they can clearly see the loads they are securing.
- Headlamps: Film sets can get dangerously dark during the lighting process. Headlamps keep grips (and those around them) safe, not only by illuminating the path, but also by increase their visibility while hauling heavy equipment.
- Toolbox and Belt: A toolkit is essential for gripping. Yours should have an array of wrenches, screwdrivers, hex keys, rope, and a good pocket knife. A tool belt is extremely handy for keeping your most-used tools handy.
Is Gripping Right for You?
As I mentioned before, grips perform strenuous manual labor on set. To effectively grip, one must have a strong physique and the ability to move quickly and safely through potentially hectic and crowded locations — while carrying loads of equipment that can quickly get into the hundreds of pounds.
In addition to the physical demands of the job, grips must understand set hierarchy and take orders from different department heads to complete their tasks.
Perhaps the most important skill for any grip, however, is an acute sense for safety. The primary responsibility of the job is securely rigging extremely heavy equipment — above and around the cast and crew.
Precautions and failsafes must always be at the top of every grip’s mind while rigging — there are few positions on set that can lead to as much calamity, if not executed properly, like the grip’s. Severe injury and death can and does occur on set. When this worst case scenario occurs, it is often the result of a lighting fixture — or another piece of heavy equipment — not being secured properly and falling on unsuspecting members of the crew.
When gripping, always remember that you are engineering against forces of nature. Only with a very healthy respect for the forces at work against your rigs can you effectively protect fellow members of cast and crew.
Grip work most certainly is not for everyone, but great grips are always in high demand. If you’re considering pursuing this career path, work hard to learn the equipment and observe proper safety precautions.
Looking for more articles on the film and video industry? Check these out.
- First-Time Filmmakers: Finding No-Budget Locations for Your Production
- Set Tone and Atmosphere by Mastering the Establishing Shot
- Industry Insights: How to Sustain a Career as a Filmmaker
- The Four Most Dangerous and Avoidable Accidents on a Film Set
- On the Market: Five Great Key Lights for Five Different Budgets