Who are all these people? Part 3: The Grip department

The lighting department is comprised of two separate but equally important departments; Grips and Electricians (lamp operators, lighting technicians).

How can you tell a grip from an electrician?

I’m not going to answer because I have to work with these people on set.

However the answers are here:



This entry, The Grips…
When “real people”or “civilians” (our terms for those not in the industry) refer to the personnel in our industry they call everyone “grips” because that term that is most associated with “the Biz”.   We envision Grips as the hard as nails, too cool for school, muscle of the entertainment business.  This perception is reinforced in the feature film, “Tropic Thunder”:

The Tropic Thunder production crew have a video conference with studio exec Les Grossman]

Les Grossman: Which one of you fuckfaces is Damien Cockburn?

Damien Cockburn: Uh, that’s me, sir. It’s an honor to finally meet you. Get some face time.

Grossman: And who here is the key grip? [the key grip raises his hand] You? You! Hit that director in the face, really fucking hard!

Key Grip: [reluctantly walks over to Damien] Sorry, man. [punches him in the face]

Grossman: This is all your fault, you Limey fuck! You shit the money-bed, my friend.

(Wikiquote: https://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/Tropic_Thunder)

Ouch!  Gets funnier every time I see it. http://youtu.be/0PV6bZpileI

The grip profession predates the film industry.  When the major forms of entertainment were carnivals, theatre and the circus the only riggers with experience working with canvas and rope were the ex sailors.  These men landed on shore and took jobs in the theatres and in carnivals.  They could easily handle the jobs of rigging the canvases of the tents of the circus and the backdrops of the traveling theatres.

   The sailors had canvas duffle bags with drawstrings. When the circus train reached its destination, the grips would grab their duffle bag exit the train, toss it on the ground and start the day’s work of erecting the circus tents and rigging.

At the end of a long day of hoisting canvas, tying ropes and driving stakes into the ground they were too exhausted to reach down to the ground and hoist the duffle bag onto their shoulders so they sewed canvas handles or “grips” onto their duffle bags. They were referred to as the guys with the “grips” on their bags or simply “grips”.

When the moving picture industry started the men best prepared to deal with a mobile theatrical production were the theatre and circus grips.  Silent pictures we initially filmed outside in the bright sunlight on giant turntables that the grips rotated to face our most economical lighting source, the sun. They also erected canvases and shelters to reflect light or cast shadows. They moved the walls on the turntables and were in charge of construction on the set and on location. The industry’s 12 hours standard work day was intially installed to take advantage of every hour of availble sunlight. The Standard 14 hour work day that we work today was designed to take advantage of dedicated professionals that love the job and could care less about raising a family and maintaining marriages (Like you didn’t know I’d sneak a shot in).

Duties of the Modern era grip department 

The Key grip (head of the grip department)

The Key grip is not just the person put on the production to punch the director (one Steven Spielburg for every 300 Damien Cockburns) in the face. He/She has many duties and there is usually a long line for that task.

Steven Spielbergh once said that if he was ever on a desert island he’d want to have a good book and his key grip.

The Key grip is the mobile engineer and rigging master of the production. The history of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of key grips are the main reason directors are so obnoxiously unreasonable, demanding and oblivious to safety and possibilities.

We, the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.

Konstantin Jireček

The key grips and their crews have been spoiling directors and directors of photography for so long that they feel comfortable asking for pretty much anything. That’s one of the reasons that the key grip is also charged with making sure rigging and camera movements are safe and practical. Someone has to be a clear thinking and responsible adult when you have directors and DPs that are hyper focused on “getting the shot”.  The key grip generally tempers the enthusiasm on the set with knowledge, experience and ingenuity. He guides the crew of grips in rigging and safe camera setup and movement.

As a part of the lighting crew the grips also have the responsibility to help shape and enhance the lighting. After a fixture (lamp) is in place and lighting an area there may be areas of the set that have to be protected from light such as a reflective surface or a shadow created to define a doorway or keep light off a one subject (talent/actor) or out of the lens of the camera.  The key grip directs the crew of grips to set the necessary “flags” to accomplish this.  A well placed flag can be the difference between seeing a boom or camera shadow  or the “ghost” of a crew member in the reflection in the window.

The key grip is just as much a master of engineering improv as Kevin Hart is at comedy. This “thinking on your feet” ability should be ubiquitous in our business and in all departments and generally ferments with experience.  The grip department is also responsible for set mobility, “wilding” (moving) set walls and set re-construction. The key grip is also the default construction foreman. His crew will deal with structural elements of the built set. If the construction crew built it, the grip crew makes sure it moves in and out safely.

Best Boy Grip (master seargeant or first lieutenant)

The day to day labor requirements,  equipment order and preparation is the responsibility of the “best boy” grip. The term “best boy” is applied to the seargeant at arms for both the lighting (electric) and grip departments.  When the department heads or “keys” we’re employed by the studios they often wanted to bring their entire crews. The studios however kept a staff of lighting and grip crews in house.  Since training a new crew to exactly how the keys wanted tasks executed in the manner of which they were accustomed to the keys would lobby to at least be allowed to bring the most experienced and dependable member of their crews that could relay the keys orders and preferences to the crews on permanent staff at the studio.

The best boy keeps track of personnel or manpower requirements, equipment and expendables orders and tracks budget for the grip department. Dollies, cranes and special equipment orders for each shooting day as well as maintenance are guided by the best boy.   He is essentially the key grips right hand man (which frees that hand up for punching the director in the face, really hard).

Company Grips (hammers) 

The grips that work with the shooting company are the standby infantry to execute the orders of the key grip and work with the electricians and camera department to set up lighting and camera. These are the crew members that lift and move the dollies, set the flags, tie off the rigs and safety the lights. The company grips are usually extremely familiar with the methods, style and tendacies of the  key grip, gaffer (head lighting technician) and director of photography. That’s one reason that lighting and grip crews stay together for many projects. They build rapport and efficiency which expedites setups and facilitates anticipation which is the benchmark of a great crew.  An ounce of anticipation is worth a pound of reaction. The company grips also move all scenery and sets that were constructed by the construction department. “Wilding” walls ( removing and replacing the modular walls of a set) is also the duty of the company grips. They are the “shooting crew” construction department also.

Rigging grips (more movie ninjas)

When the shooting company arrives on location and can get right to work it’s due to the prep crews that arrived two days before and done a lot of “heavy lifting”.  On the stages the modular walkways that hover above the “permanent” sets are also rigged and constructed by the rigging grips. There are various other duties that the rigging and company grips have which cantu sulky evolve as the industry expands.  The rigging grips come a variety of flavors: chewy, salty, bitter and sweet. They generally are not required to have a working “set equiette” as the duties are straightforward and are determined by notes from the scout.

“The Anatomy of The Tech Scout”: https://filmmakersinfo.wordpress.com/2016/03/07/anatomy-of-the-tech-scout/)
Bruce Bellamy        IATSE Local 44.           brucebellamy@mac.com    (323) 382-5412.

Best or ninth best on-set dresser depending upon how much coffee I’ve had and who else is available.


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