Best guess is the term “grip” comes from the old English theater, and referred to a tool bag or “bag of tricks.” When someone called for the grip, a technician would fetch the bag. Over time, “get the grip” was a call for the person with the grip, and eventually the term stuck to that technician. In American theater the term is long forgotten, but it has translated into film and television production. The grip is now an on-set technician who is concerned with camera movement equipment and cutting or diffusing light to create shadow. The head of this department is the key grip.
The key grip works for the director of photography (DP) and supervises the crew of grips responsible for camera equipment and accessories and anything associated with the camera’s operation and movement, as well as anything that cuts or diffuses the lamps set up by the gaffer’s crew. He or she attends preproduction meetings with the director, producers, DP, and location scout to determine what special equipment may be needed during the shoot, then works closely with the gaffer on-set to supervise the positioning of scrims, reflectors, and flags that diffuse light and create shadow. During the shoot, the key grip will also assign grips to oversee camera movements that require dollies or cranes, as well as managing set operations like the movement of wild walls. Once the set is built and has been photographed, it is no longer the responsibility of the construction crew, but the grip department. Because they are in charge of all rigging, the grip department is responsible for safety on-set, and the key grip can be taken to court if an accident happens.
On large productions the key grip will have a best boy grip (male or female), who is the second in command, and a crew of grips who are highly specialized in specific tasks: set ops grip, dolly grip, construction grips, and crane operator. On very small shoots, the key grip may function as part of the crew, but generally this is only a supervisory role—the heavy lifting and laying of track is left to the grips. Most key grips will have at least some of their own grip equipment. A key grip often has his or her own grip truck, and will rent it to the production he or she is working on.
Skills & Education
A college degree is not required in this role, but training is. A degree in film and television production can introduce you to the filming process, the use of grip and camera equipment, and the artistic theory of photography. As a key grip you need to be mechanically inclined, with an excellent understanding of light, color, and electricity. Most working key grips are members of IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), which offers apprentice-training programs. Working as a grip on union productions is the only way to make the move up to key grip. Commercial or residential construction experience is also useful toward this role, as many working in the grip department have made the leap to film and television production through friends and close contacts.
What to Expect
This is a freelance position that requires long hours, travel, and (sometimes) manual labor. A good key grip is an effective leader, an excellent communicator, and a creative problem-solver. You are expected to be just as good at taking orders as you are giving them. You must be well-organized and great strategic planner, and comfortable with the great responsibility: The key grip is liable if someone is injured on the set. A key grip needs to be flexible and highly adaptable; locations, crews, and working conditions are constantly in flux. Keep in mind that in the production business, you are only as good as your last gig. As with most film production jobs, you will usually be hired again and again by the same handful of people, but every new job is another audition screw up on one and you may not be hired on the next. Once a best boy rises to the rank of key grip, he or she can work toward building a career in big-budget films and major studio productions or aim higher to try to become a DP.
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