07/01/2013 04:52 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2013

All The Doors to Hollywood and How to Open Them - Gaffer

What is a Gaffer? What does a Gaffer do?

A Gaffer, Jay Yowler tells us, is head of the electrical department and right hand man to the Director of Photography (who is sometimes referred to as the Lighting Cameraman). "The D.P., by the way, is really the most important person on the set. Any D.P. can be a director, but not every director can be a D.P. -- and I've worked with a lot of them!"

The Gaffer and the Key Grip, Jay explains, work hand in hand: The Grip is responsible, at the Gaffer's direction, for cutting light or diffusing it as the D.P. wants, for increasing or darkening it, for hanging perhaps 20 or 30 lights in different places and different heights. All to help create the mood that the Director and the D.P. want. "Light is critical to mood."

"Then," Jay says, "you have to balance your lighting in relation to ambient light, which changes throughout the day. And there's different lighting for different sorts of movies -- comedies are bright and flat, dramas want more contrast. It takes a lot of hands to do all this -- my crew will range from five to perhaps 20 people. And then I have a Best Boy who is sort of my foreman and handles all the paper work -- and he has his own crew of four or five electricians, too."

What was your background for all of this?

"I've been in the business since I was twenty. My best friend was from a seven-generation circus family in Wilmington, North Carolina. I hung around them, and my first job was as an unpaid apprentice, aiming at working my way up. I started by helping build generators, then learned how to operate them -- and gradually knew more and more. I started gaffing when I was twenty-four -- my first paid job was building a generator!" And his first movie, at Dino De Laurentiis' Wilmington Studio, was on the film Maximum Overdrive -- as a driver!

Where does the term "Gaffer" come from?

"It comes from England. In the era of gas lights, before electric lights on streets, a gas lighter used to go around at dusk with a pole called a 'gaff' to light the lamps. So he was called a gaffer. And the term translated to the lighting of electric lamps on sets."

Where have you worked?

"Just about all over the country, in every state -- as well as Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Mexico, Canada, and Russia."

What have been some of your favorite movie jobs?

"I've done so many I can't count -- Blonde Ambition, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Fame -- but I think the Farrelly Brothers films are among my best experiences. I'm referring to Something about Mary, Dumb and Dumber, King Pin, Osmosis Jones, Say It Ain't So, Me, Myself and Irene. Peter and Bobby Farrelly make it just a lot of fun to be on the set."

Who've been among your favorite actors?

"Again, so many. Bill Murray comes to mind and Charlton Heston -- extremely courteous and professional and helpful. If for instance their stand-ins were off set for a moment, they'd volunteer to stand in for themselves. And Sally Field -- she'd just sit there knitting, never leave the set, always thoughtful."

Do any particular film adventures come to mind?

"Well, there was The Darkest Hour in Moscow. The toughest film I ever did. It was a Sci-Fi movie, a six-month shoot, and an all-Russian crew. They were hard workers, but not of the skill level I was used to, and the equipment wasn't up to snuff. We had translators, but too often what they passed on to the crew wasn't what I'd said. I didn't have a good dimmer board operator, to program the lights -- it's an essential job, and hard to find a really first-rate one. Thought we'd never wrap. A nightmare."

And then, Jay recalls, there was Michael Mann's movie Manhunter. "There were three days left of shooting, and I'd just climbed on top of the generator -- when suddenly I heard three 'bangs!' and three bullets, real live bullets, went whizzing right past my head. I leaped off the genie, and the Transportation Captain appeared in a special effects truck and I jumped in and then there were more shots -- Terrifying. It turned out that the director ordered real bullets so as to increase the 'reality' of the film! No apologies at his end. I swore I'd never work with him again!"

What do you enjoy about the work?

"It's always different. You respond to new challenges, you get to light anything, anywhere. And you meet and work with so many talented, creative people. You exchange ideas. You get to travel, experience new places. I couldn't do office work, a nine to five -- this is the job that suits me perfectly!"

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