Key Grip, Film Job

Grips work with the camera department to set up rigging for camera supports. Any scaffolding needed to get cameras where they need to be is put up and secured by the grips, as is any rigging needed to set up cameras on a vehicle for driving shots.

From simple rigs such as standing tripods to complex pulley systems or helicopter shots, grips handle the equipment needed for every possible camera angle. This means they are responsible for much of the on-set safety, as many rigs not only hold the cameras but also the operators. The safety precautions taken while building camera supports and any special equipment needed (for example, the stunt coordinator may request help building a ramp) could mean someone’s life.

In the US, grips also work with the electrical department to set up the rigging for lighting and secure equipment to modify the lighting. Like the camera equipment, the lighting support must be secure to ensure the safety of everyone on set. Some of the other lighting equipment they handle includes breadboard (polystyrene, or poly, in Europe), used to create passive fill lighting, and black fabric solids to create negative fill. They may put up tenting to block sunlight coming in through windows, or overhead frames to filter it.


Key Grip and Best Boy

The key grip is the head of the department. He figures out how many grips will be needed for the job, and hires them; he handles planning meetings with other departments and determines what the director and the director of photography want for shots.  Being ready for the right shot can mean ordering special equipment as well, such as lifts, a truck suited to rough terrain, cherry pickers, a remote head, or even a crane. More unusual vehicles might be needed to handle snow or water, snowmobiles and boats can help get equipment where it needs to go.

The key grip determines most of this while on the location scout.  Further considerations include travel to the location and specifics once there. What’s the address? Will all trucks fit through underpasses and stay under overhead wires? Are there timed sprinklers on-site that could ruin expensive equipment? Who should be called in case of an issue with the site?

Once on site, the key grip becomes the coordinator. He’s ordered the correct amount and diameter of track, whether curved or straight, to ensure that all shots can be captured; now he directs his department to lay it out where it needs to go. He will coordinate which dollies to use where and with which accessories, what light diffusers are needed for which lights, and where rigging equipment needs to go (all pre-arranged with the director, producer, and cinematographer.) He relays these commands through the best boy/best girl grip.

The best boy grip (or best girl) is the liaison to the rest of the department. As foreman, he takes general orders from the key grip and divides the work into specific tasks for each grip available. In addition to delegating, he deals with other minutiae that the key grip doesn’t have time for: keeping inventories of each equipment truck, arranging for any needed rental equipment, and ensuring that there are enough expendables to complete the shoot (such as tape, nails, gels, foam core, show cards, etc.)

Renting an equipment package that has those expendables available “as used” will help keep costs down for the production company. Another way to help keep costs down is for the best boy’s status reports to the key grip include accurate time estimates for each task , within three to five minutes.


Tools a Grip Should Keep Handy

Key grip on the set, outdoors

Due to the construction nature of their job, grips often keep a variety of small tools with them.  A long tape measure and adjustable wrench are often useful, and a multi-tool always is; a flash-light  permanent marker, and razor knife are often needed as well. Clamps and a level are good tools to have when rigging up a camera support.

The key grip may also want to maintain additional tools in the equipment truck, such as a brush for cleaning battery terminals and jumper cables, to ensure that the truck arrives on time. (An empty gas can paired with a siphon solves immediate fuel issues, too.) A compass is useful to determine where the sun will be for sunrise shots, and a 100-foot tape measure will ensure accuracy when placing equipment. Other general construction or mechanic equipment may also be needed.

Though the key grip is ultimately responsible for his own department, it is well received if his department can help out where needed on set. Some key grips order common equipment such as sandbags and apple boxes towards this end. A coat hanger and Slim Jim (if legal) are great for helping crew members get into vehicles they’ve locked themselves out of. A tow strap is also helpful in case someone gets a car into a ditch.


How to Get Started

Most states (and countries, for those not in the US) have a film commission you can call. They can provide phone numbers for local film commissions, who can then give you a list of key grips and best boys registered with them.

They can also tell you where and when something is being filmed near you. While speaking with local film commissions, you should also register yourself with them as a grip or production assistant. If there are no local film commissions, you can even speak with the state film commission about setting one up for your area.

Once you have those names of grips in the area you can start contacting them. Write or call and tell them you’re interested in becoming a grip. Be honest, you should tell them you’re new at it, but if you show your excitement about the job and tell them you’ll work hard, some of them will give you a chance.

You can also try showing up on set. Ask for the key grip or best boy and introduce yourself. Make sure to apologize first for bothering them while they’re busy, but let them know you’re trying to get into the industry. If you can afford to volunteer your services in exchange for the opportunity to learn, many of them will gladly allow you to perform small jobs for the day. If they’re happy with your work, it creates a good opportunity to ask for a job with them on their next shoot. Anything you can do to show them you’re willing and ready to learn will help you get into the industry.

Volunteering is not the only way, however. You can look for a job with a company that rents out studio equipment first, to give yourself the opportunity to learn about the different types of equipment a TV company or movie studio might need. Local theatres and playhouses sometimes hire interns, and TV stations have stage-hands to handle their equipment. Many high schools have A/V clubs who may need additional adult supervisors. Any company who does film production or lighting, or handles the equipment needed, can serve a good jumping-off point to get into filmmaking as a grip.