In North American filmmaking a key grip is a senior role for an experienced professional necessary on every set. Their responsibilities are extensive and range from supervising grip crews, assessing what equipment is necessary for each shooting location, coordinating the transportation of this equipment and its set up, arranging the general movement and positioning of the camera and collaborating with the director of photography. The key grip relies on the best boy as their second in command to aid in coordinating the grip crew.
Industry myth claims that the name grip originated from the early days of the film industry when a set consisted of a director, camera person, assistants and workers. Workers acted as handymen, setting up all equipment needed, working from a kit, container or bag containing their tools. This bag was known as a grip and as the industry evolved and workers began to separate into specialized groups, the name grip stuck with those that worked on rigging.
A typical career path of a key grip is someone who has worked in the industry for years and proved themselves worthy of more responsibilities. Those that have attended film school or completed training courses typically have an advantage as they provide an important technical understanding of the set procedures.
Region to region the role and responsibilities of a key grip can differ. In the US key grips are in charge of the set-up of both cameras and lights, despite unions preventing key grips from touching lights, whilst in places such as Hungary key grips are able to move lights around to their suiting and electricians simply deal with ‘everything that’s connected to a lamp’.
The work of the key grip is subtle but the result is of great significance to the final production. Within the industry many key grips are known for their ability and work in well-known movies, such as Vanessa Alexis' work on Black KKKlansman, Tana Dubbe on the set of Sex and the City, and many more.
The job of Key Grip is a challenging one, demanding long hours, manual labor and travel. The roles and responsibilities that come with this are extensive and, as a result, Key Grips are expected to possess a wide variety of skills. These include creativity, adaptability, good communication, patience, agility, comfort with heights and leadership qualities.
Communication is particularly essential as much of a Key Grip's work comes from their collaboration with Directors, Gaffers and Electricians as well as the management of the Grip Crew. Some of the most important work between the Director and Key Grip happens in Preproduction where meetings are held to discuss the vision for the project and how, through lighting and rigging, the Key Grip can bring this to life. To ensure that each series of shots can be created as envisioned Key Grips direct where equipment is placed, coordinate the rigging and work with the Gaffer on lighting positions. These meetings are typically followed by a location scout where the Key Grip will assess shooting locations and construct a general plan for the setup of lighting and rigging.
Key Grips are depended upon to source the equipment themselves. As equipment is expensive and the amount required is extensive, it is typically rented from production companies and the Key Grip uses discretion and experience to determine which companies from which to source the equipment. Often more than one company is relied on to fully satisfy the sizeable list of required equipment, all of which is organised in preproduction. The truck loaded with all the rented equipment is referred to as a Grip Package and the responsibility of its arrival to set also falls on the Key Grip.
Preproduction is also a chance for the Key Grip to assess how much work the project is going to take and hire Grips accordingly to form the Grip Crew. The Key Grip is assisted primarily by the Best Boy who acts as a second in charge, taking care of equipment, ordering supplies and supervising pre-rigging.
To enact the directors vision, the Key Grip is expected to keep up with a wide array of tasks to achieve specific shots. These can include rigging lights to vehicles for running shots, riggings silks and overheads, the placement of sand bags, transporting and adjusting heavy equipment, weather proofing lights and cutting and shaping lights. A Key Grip is expected to quickly address, and ideally anticipate, any problems that arise when completing these tasks.
To ensure that production runs smoothly Key Grips are required to have a personal tool kit with, at minimum, a 'claw hammer, screwdriver, wire cutters, pliers, crescent wrench, and a tape measure'. These basics are required by union contracts, as much of a film crew's safety and production depend on the ability of a Key Grip to efficiently and effectively complete their job. Alongside these basics, Key Grips are expected to be comfortable operating dangerous power tools and should add extra tools as they see fit.
Tools and Their UsesEdit
- Claw Hammer - For removing nails, providing better leverage than a typical hammer
- Tape Measure - Ideally between 25 and 30 ft tape measure, necessary to correctly adjust lights and to measure distances
- Lineman pliers - Appropriate for heavy-duty cutting, bending or gripping of an object.
- C-Wrenches - Aid in everyday rigging duties, 8-10" varieties typically preferred
- Chalk - Makes for easy marking of equipment when measuring, adjusting or setting up
- Gloves - For safety purposes durable work gloves are required
- Gaffer Tape - Easily tearable multipurpose cloth tape, useful when adjusting cables and cords, fixing equipment, etc.
- Torpedo Level - Small, portable levels, approximately 9 inches long, useful for rigging, lighting, etc.
Typically no degree is required of a Key Grip; however, those that have attended film school generally have some advantage as they are familiar with the processes of production. The IATSE also offers training and advancement courses that are beneficial to those looking to make it in the industry. However, in places such as Chicago, Key Grips are expected to train in lighting, makeup, props and craft services as a part of a three-year apprenticeship.
Despite the benefit a formal education can provide, the most significant criterion of a potential Key Grip is extensive experience on set. A suggested way to achieve this is interning for Key Grips or at equipment rental companies to gain connections and experience. Typically Key Grips will have worked within the Grip crew for many years and, as a result, have established strong relationships with the rest of their crew. Starting out in the Grip crew it is expected that, with more experience, potential Key Grips will follow the path of Grip, Dolly Grip, best boy and then rigging grip.
Typically those looking to be Key Grips can expect a minimum of $36.35 an hour based on IATSE agreements, with starting yearly income of $60,000/year, increasing based on seniority and experience.
Melissa Beaupre began in the film industry in 2004 in Vancouver when she would volunteer on short film sets. She worked in a wide vanity of roles whilst volunteering, such as lighting and gripping, accepting any work that was offered. As is typical of a Grip's career path, the connections Beaupre made on set further progressed her career from volunteer work to paid work on bigger and bigger sets. For example, a gaffer she met on 'Supernatural' was in need of a lamp operator on a future project and from that project she met a Key Grip who needed a Best Boy for his TV movie. More recently she attended college to become a Director of Photography, however her experience gripping led her to pursue a career as a Key Grip. She has Key Gripped on sets such as 'The Good Doctor', 'Space Force', 'A Million Little Things' and many others.
Michael G. UvaEdit
Michael G. Uva is an industry professional with over 30 years experience in the Film industry. Despite being a highly regarded Key Grip he never attended formal film school and rather learnt through on the job experience. His book 'The Grip Book', anecdotally documents his experiences and uses his acquired knowledge to build a handbook on the tips, tricks, roles and responsibilities of being a Grip. Now Uva teaches periodically at the University of California, Los Angeles and the State Film Commission to share his insight into the reality of the movie industry. He is credited as a Key Grip on TV series Rad Lands, Sister Sister, On the Line, Avenging Force and many more. Simultaneous to his work as a Key Grip, Uva established one of the largest privately owned rental trucks for grip equipment in Hollywood, which he has since sold off.
Vanessa Alexis grew up between Canarsie, Brooklyn and Haiti. Originally Alexis wanted to direct and write within film and attained a film degree from Hunter College in 2004. She started within the film industry by working in a movie equipment rental company in Brooklyn but eventually quit to pursue screenwriting. By chance Alexis came across a program to train grips and chose to participate out of curiosity. She participated in a number of odd jobs and eventually joined a union which offered her support and better jobs. She has worked as a grip on projects such as 'Black KKKlansman' and 'Orange is the New Black' and as a Key Grip on TV series such as '50 Central' and 'Ramy'. More recently, Alexis formed her own production company, Sweet Alexis Productions, where she writes scripts.
Key Grip, Tana Dubbe, majored in printmaking and painting at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond. She began her career gripping after assisting a photographer on his shoot, finding an appreciation for the, as she puts it in a New York Times Article, 'interplay of planning, building and fixing’ that the job required. Her first role as a Key Grip was on the film 'Never Die Alone' and has since Key Gripped on a number of high-profile movies such as 'Birds of Prey' with Margot Robbie, 'A Star Is Born', 'Iron Man', 'Iron Man 2', 'Bad Grandpa', 'Sex and the City and many more.
In other countriesEdit
In the US Key Grips are responsible for much of the rigging and positioning of the camera and, despite being in charge of the set up and arrangement of lights, are prevented from moving lights due to standards set by unions, similarly in the UK Key Grips work solely with cameras. Many find this division of labour unnecessary and time-consuming as riggers must be hired to move cameras for the Key Grip and electricians are expected to rely on grips for any help with flagging.
European Key Grips are expected to oversee the camera and all that comes with it such as dollies, cranes, etc., essentially taking on the US equivalent of a Dolly Grip. For example, on larger sets Key Grips will typically service Camera A whilst a second grip will service Camera B. The full responsibility of lighting is left to electricians whilst tasks requiring heavy rigging are left to grips. This typically means that European crews are made up of more electricians and less grips.
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