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What's a grip?

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In the U.S. and Canada, grips are lighting and rigging technicians in the film and video industries. They make up their own department on a film set and are led by a key grip. Grips have two main functions. The first is to work closely with the camera department, especially if the camera is mounted to a dolly, crane or other unusual position. Some grips may specialize in operating camera dollies or camera cranes. The second is to work closely with the electrical department to put in the lighting set-ups necessary for a shot.

In the U.K., Australia and most parts of Europe, grips are not involved in lighting. In the "British System", adopted throughout Europe and the British Commonwealth (excluding Canada), a grip is solely responsible for camera mounting and support.

The term 'grip' dates back to the early era of the circus. From there it was used in vaudeville and then in today's film sound stages and sets. Some have suggested the name comes from the 1930s-40s slang term for a tool bag or "grip" that these technicians use to carry their tools to work. Another popular theory states that in the days of hand-cranked cameras, it would be necessary for a few burly men to hang on to the tripod legs to stop excessive movement of the camera. These men became known as the 'good grips'- as they were constantly being instructed to 'keep a good grip on the tripod'.

U.S. grips may belong to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes. Canadian grips may also belong to IATSE or to Canada's other professional trade unions including Toronto's Nabet 700, or Vancouver's ACFC. British grips usually belong to BECTU (Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph & Theatre Union).


On all union jobs, grips do not touch the lights themselves. The placement of lighting instruments and the power distribution to deliver electricity is handled by the electricians who work under a gaffer. Grips do, however, handle all of the equipment not directly attached to the lights that diffuse and shape the light. This work is done by setting stands that hold flags, nets, diffusion frames or other gobos in place in front of a lighting instrument to shape the beam of light. This is called "cutting light" and is where much of the art of lighting is achieved.

Grips also set "passive fill" which is a term for the reflected light that is "bounced" back onto a subject on the "fill" or "non-keylight" side. The first choice for most film-makers' fill is a product known in the US as beadboard and called "poly", short for polystyrene, in Europe. It is actually rigid insulation made for the construction trade, but was adopted to the film trade because of its "true-white" color and "soft" bounce.

Grips may also be called on to set "negative fill", which is the cutting of ambient or non-directional light to raise contrast on the subject. This is achieved by setting "solids" made of black fabric, either flags (up to 4'x4') or rags (6'x6' or larger) on the "non-keylight" side or wherever the negative fill is desired.

When shooting day exteriors, grips perform similar functions, but with the sun as the light source. Grips use overhead frames up to 20'x20' or larger for the shaping or filtering of sunlight. The lighting set-ups for these exterior shots can become quite extensive, with the use of boom lifts common. Lifts are especially useful at night when they are rigged to raise lights high in the air to create moon-effect lighting.


Grips also satisfy rigging needs on set. Simple rigs can be menace arms that offset lighting instruments to reach over set walls or goalposts that span the set to rig over actors and crew. More advanced rigs can include working with pulleys, steel cable or trusses. Grips are also called on to rig picture cars on process trailers and placing camera and lights all around the vehicle to achieve driving shots. This often includes the use of hood mounts, side mounts, suction cup mounts and other proprietary clamps to attach film equipment to vehicles.

Grips are also called on for "blackouts" and "tenting-out" windows and doors for day-for-night shots. Day-for-night is a term used for describing when film crews shoot scenes set at night during the day. When shooting interiors day-for-night on location, grips need to cut all the daylight entering onto set. If the scene is "blocked" or staged away from windows or other openings to the outside, the light may be simply blacked out with cloth or plastic sheeting. However when windows or doors are seen from camera, these openings must be tented to allow some exterior dressing to be seen. In some cases windows must be tented to allow a light, usually a tungsten source, to be placed just outside to create a needed effect. Day-for-night is a time consuming and labor intensive choice for producers and only used when scheduling or location restrictions do not allow actual night shooting.


Grips are also responsible for safety on the set as it relates to the force of gravity. Insofar as stands, ladders, scaffolds, and overhead rigs are properly installed, grips are charged with making them safe because the other crew members will invariably have to climb on, walk around, or otherwise negotiate the different grip set-ups. As regards legal statute, the key grip may even be held liable for injuries that happen on set, especially if the injury is the cause of something falling down onto somebody. Injuries due to electrical shock, chemical exposure in makeup applications, food poisioning or other injuries directly related to other departments are obviously not the fault of the grip department.


A grip's job is a craft that is a cross between that of a mechanic and that of a construction worker. As in those vocations, grips need hand tools at the ready and most carry the following items: a walkie-talkie, a razor knife, an eight-inch adjustable wrench, a 25-foot tape measure, a 3/16" hex speed-wrench, a multitool, a small flashlight, a permanent ink marker, and work gloves. Additionally, a grip might also carry a torpedo level, spring clamps and a roll of 2" black paper tape on his or her belt.

Do you know what a Key Grip is? How about other jobs?

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