AN OVERVIEW OF THE ELECTRICAL DEPARTMENT
The Electrical Department provides the lighting for any production that wants to use more than natural available light. The department works closely with the Director of Photography in order to fulfil his/her creative vision for the production's lighting. The electrical department also works closely with lighting companies, who usually supply equipment for commercials, film and TV productions. The Electrical department safely rig and set lighting in line with the Director of Photography’s plan and then de-rig the equipment before returning it to the lighting company.
Head of the Electrical Department is the Gaffer. The Director of Photography (DOP) or Camera Operator (on small scale productions) head up the Camera Department. The DOP is in charge of the overall look of the production. The Gaffer (also know as Lighting Director) is responsible for designing and executing the lighting plan. They will provide the power needed for for the lights, and work with the Grip to shape the light.
Once a DOP has chosen their prefered Gaffer, he/she will come on board in preproduction and attend prep and production meetings. Sometimes the grip and electric departments will be given a couple of days or even weeks of prep for a project. This time is needed to do several things that will make life easier while on the project. On a high end TV drama production - this time is used to read the script, watch any look references supplied by the DOP, discuss the lighting approach, equipment needed and schedule.
The Gaffer will work on equipment lists which are analysed by the Production Manager/Co-ordinator who try to make everything on the list a reality by liaising with lighting companies to get the best deal on the kit list. If the shoot involves a lot of lighting, the kit will include a generator (genny) and a large truck to transport everything to the shoot location. Any electrician tasked with driving a truck or genny needs to have a HGV licence - and liaise with the Location Manager in advance of travel in case they need to check the weight-bearing capacity of any bridges on route.
The fully assembled Electrical Department are present through principal photography and they use a range of equipment, a lot of which is rather cumbersome and bulky. Lighting equipment may include HMI, Tungsten, Fluorescent, and a menagerie of stands, scaffolding and accessories to support these different lighting options. High budget Dramas sometimes require lighting balloons (large inflatable lights which shed a soft overall light - great for ballroom and courtroom scenes). The team may be required to build a ‘tent’ around a doorway using scaffolding and blackout drapes - if you’re shooting a night scene during the day.
To work in the Electrical Department, you need to be a good communicator (and diplomatic!), as you’ll be spending long days with a volatile mix of actors, production staff and crew. It also helps to have an eye for detail and high levels of accuracy in order to carry out intricate instructions under tight time constraints.
WHAT ARE THE ENTRY LEVEL POSITIONS IN THE ELECTRICAL DEPARTMENT?
Intensive industry experience is the most obvious route into this role, though it helps to have a grounding with a a electrical qualification and a background in this area. You could apply to be a lighting trainee through Creative Skillset’s Trainee Finder, which gives hands-on experience in the industry and will help you build contacts who will become essential when looking for work - it’s a crowded industry so you need to put in extra legwork to make sure you stand out as someone worth employing again.
You could start out as a runner in broadcast, commercial, film or in-house at an independent production company. As an office runner within an independent company, you might get the opportunity to play with kit (eg. tidying the kit room, cleaning lenses, or preparing a kit for a crew) or you may be asked to assist a camera operator on VT shoots or interviews - which might involve some hands-on experience with lighting equipment.
Working as an assistant at a kit rental company is another way to build your kit knowledge, learn the lingo, and it’s an invaluable way to meet freelancers/HoDs who come in to ‘kit prep’ and ‘check out’. This environment is the ideal way to absorb industry jargon (there’s a lot of it in the technical departments!), and ask questions about what it’s like to be in production. Make friends/be super polite to HoDs and sparks as they hire crew and if you express your interest in production - they might take you on as a department runner, or trainee depending on the production’s budget/your capabilities.
Work experience in a lighting company will also help - there are quite a few companies out there that supply equipment to the theatre, film, TV and events industries. Research them on google, write up a list of companies in your area and make contact! Lighting is very technical and will require you to take some electrical qualifications, so the more practice you can get before entering the TV industry, the better.
If you start out as a trainee, your main duty will be to assist in the movement of lighting equipment, and helping with the power supply. Duties may include checking stores and flashing out. Trainees and junior technicians follow the instructions of the gaffer and best boy - always supervised by the senior lighting crew. Be prepared to be treated as the junior of the team - and when you’re not following instructions - make your department a tea/coffee round - electrics and lighting is thirsty, energy-sapping work!
When you’ve proved yourself as a trainee, you could start applying for lighting technician/spark jobs (technicians are most commonly known as 'sparks' in the industry). Stepping up, duties will include: safe installation, moving and operation of lighting equipment, and use of accessories and mounting to modify and manipulate the light to give the desired effect. Sparks follow the instructions of and work to gaffer and best boy in regard to the positioning of lighting. They assess and monitor power supply systems, install wiring for lighting equipment, prepare battery lighting equipment and systems and assist with and undertake basic generator (genny) operations.
IN WHAT OTHER AREAS OF THE INDUSTRY CAN THIS POSITION BE FOUND?
Electrical technician (spark) positions are commonly found on TV dramas (soaps, series), commercials and entertainment productions that can justify the extra hands and costs. A lighting team can also be found within other areas of broadcast on programmes that are shot in a studio environment. Positions can also be obtained at independent studios across the UK, who employ in-house lighting technicians/studio managers to help out when the production doesn't have a lighting team. They are less frequently found on documentary and single factual programmes, which tend to have very low budgets and small crews, or they use self-shooting PDs/lighting camera operators. However, sparks can be found on days here and there on larger budget documentaries. As always the size of the crew is determined by the size of the budget.
You will often see Spark credits on the following productions:
If you’re interested in entering the electrical department and find work as a runner on any of the above productions - make the 1st assistant director (1st AD) aware of your passion for lighting, as they might be able to open the door to the department for you. If you’ve completed your list of runner duties early on a particular day, and the gaffer or spark are open to you joining them during your downtime, they may teach you about the kit, lighting setup or general etiquette of the running of the department.
WHAT ARE THE ROLES WITHIN THE ELECTRICAL DEPARTMENT?
Gaffer. Also know as chief lighting director, or lighting director/designer on a broadcast studio production, the most senior position, can combine all roles in one, or separate if the budget allows
Lighting designer. More common on theatre or massive entertainment shows which require a lot of pre planning.
Lighting Cameraperson. Responsible for lighting as well as camera operating if gaffer hasn’t been employed.
Best Boy. More often found on drama or larger productions that require their job description.
- Spark(s)/lighting technician/electricians. Sometimes separate, sometimes combined positions
WHAT IS THE CAREER PATH IN THE ELECTRICAL DEPARTMENT?
With experience under your belt as a studio/floor runner and/or trainee, you can progress and start applying for junior technician jobs in whichever genre you feel most passionate about. It’s important to think about your long term goals at this stage. For example, there’s not much point in going into TV drama if you don’t watch dramas or have an appreciation of how they’re lit. You will learn crucial practical skills and production etiquette as a junior, which will help you to progress over a few years to more senior roles, such as best boy and eventually gaffer.
With seniority comes more creative control and responsibility. The further up the career ladder you go, the more accountable you become for mistakes, and the more people you will need to guide to ensure your department runs like a well-oiled machine. If you don’t fancy working on massive scale productions, you might consider making a name for yourself in factual or documentary, where you’re more likely to be working on your own or with a very small crew. If you also have an interest in camerawork, you will still carry a lot of responsibility as a lighting cameraperson (often managing sound yourself too) in documentary/factual, but the creative freedom and subject diversity can be reason enough to keep you in this genre.
If studio entertainment, game shows, comedy or children’s TV is more your thing, the upper echelons of the career path after gaffer are lighting designers and lighting directors.
WHAT SKILLS DO LIGHTING TECHNICIANS HAVE?
Understand relevant health and safety laws and procedures
Work comfortably at heights
Good communication and interpersonal skills
Flexible and able to work as part of a team
Able to take direction
Knowledge of different types of lighting equipment, accessories and effects
Work quickly and accurately
Eye for detail
Good literacy, numeracy and IT skills
Patience and attention to detail
- Stamina and physical agilit
WHAT IS THE ELECTRICAL DEPARTMENT LIKE TO WORK IN?
Sparks are usually the first in the department to start work and the last people to finish, so make sure you have stamina and are physically fit for long days using heavy equipment. If you’re working on programmes shot by multiple cameras (eg. OB, studio, fixed-rig) which are broadcast live or recorded 'as live' it can be intensive, stressful and exhilarating as there’s no room for error.
By supporting senior members of the electrical department, sparks learn how the gaffer/lighting designer/director treats the clients, how he/she communicates with the DoP/director and everyone else on set - it’s a unique vantage point so keep your eyes and ears wide open!
Travel is inevitable for crew members (all over the UK and abroad), which equates to periods spent away from home, and can be challenging if you have a family. You have to be adaptable and have a thick skin to cope with fluctuating schedules and last minute travel to faraway places. A driving licence is a valuable commodity as being able to get yourself on location gives you more freedom (you won’t have to wait for a lift!) and opens up more job opportunities. If you want to add a string to your bow, get a HGV licence to make yourself even more indispensable. A Class 2 qualification will be a real asset. When driving anything 7.5 ton or over, a CPC qualification will be required, which is a certificate of competency recently introduced.
You need to be able to take direction and work as part of a team, working under pressure and in stressful situations. If you like your home comforts and familiarity - this isn’t the job for you! On the plus side: you will get to meet some amazing people, and no two days are ever the same. There’s great camaraderie within the department - and once you’re in with one team, they’re likely to recommend you and/or take you with them on jobs repeatedly. It will help if you have a head for heights, as most lighting is positioned above eye level and you’ll be helping to rig it up safely.
WHAT’S IT LIKE WORKING ON FACTUAL AND DOCUMENTARY SHOOTS?
As a rule, on documentaries or single factual programmes, the electrical department is much smaller, or nonexistent. It's also why DoP's are known as lighting cameramen as they take on the responsibilities of camera, lighting and grips. When shooting in restrictive or hostile environments - there simply isn’t the space or power supply to support a lighting plan. In the field (on location) lighting duties might be carried out by a runners, researcher, assistant producer under the direction of the cameraman/woman. In recent years in these genres, camera crew have become more multi-skilled and hands-on across all the departments. They prepare and label stock/rushes and other materials. They maintain and prepare camera accessories, sound and lighting equipment, data wrangle, and sometimes direct scenes too. At the other end of the spectrum, commercials have the biggest production budgets, and will employ a proper Electrical Department (on higher rates).
DO I NEED ANY QUALIFICATIONS?
City and Guilds 17th Edition qualification in Electrical Installation, BS7909 and BS7671 are a standard requirement, and insisted upon by lighting companies. You may not actually use much of what you’re taught in the industry - but it’s a helpful set of skills to have if the TV work dries up and you’re looking for filler jobs. An apprenticeship is a good start, JTL are one of the biggest training facilitators for young people wishing to follow the electrical route - you’ll be learning on the job and being paid for it. Read up on the options here. The next qualification you should be looking to include is The Skillset Certificate in Temporary Electrical Systems (SCiTES).
You do need to have a real desire to enter this department and display common sense when it comes to health and safety procedures, as you’ll be working with (and be responsible for) lots of technical equipment.
Should you wish to gain a better understanding of the Electrical Department and cinematography as creative mediums then you could consider a short course:
Short courses should provide the basic skills, but there’s also a lot of specialised courses too - covering topics and skills currently in demand within the industry:
Operating scissor lifts and genie booms (Cherry Picker lifts)
Health and safety inc. health and safety in public places
HSE Electrical safety at places of entertainment
Skillset Certificate in Temporary Electrical Systems (SCiTES)
Operation of computerised dimming consoles
Phrases YOU WILL HEAR IN THE ELECTRICAL DEPARTMENT:
Rigging. Setting up lights and equipment before production.
Bash. Handle and store cables.
Consumables/Expendables. Items considered to be consumables are things like batteries, camera tape and, of course, gaffa tape - lots and lots of gaffa tape.
Honey Wagon. Mobile toilets used on location. Called this because that’s the colour of the dirty water when they’re emptied!!
Back lighting. Lighting the subject of a shot from behind to provide depth by separating the subject from the background.
Blonde. 2,000watt variable-beam, portable lamp. Blonde refers to the yellow colour of the lamp’s head or metal casing.
Red head. Lightweight, variable beam, 800watt light.
Key light. Main light source in any set up that provides the ‘key’ to the scene’s appearance.
Lighting Camera Person. Lead cameraperson in TV productions (that don’t employ a Gaffer or DOP), who is responsible for the framing and lighting of each scene.
Sun gun. Hand-held light that runs from batteries and can give an intense beam.
Tungsten lamp. Lamp with a tungsten filament that has to be colour balanced for daylight with a blue gel.
Gels. Gels control the colour of the light. Gels (or filters) are thin sheets of transparent coloured plastic, usually dyed polyester. Sometimes fixed over lamps using Crocodile Clips or “crocs”.
What hours will I be working?
According to BECTU, the union responsible for the Electrical Department, for a lighting technician, a day is defined as 10 hours working + 1 hour lunch (e.g. 08.00-19.00). A continuous day e.g. 08.00 – 17.00 must include a 20 minute break away from set. The 10 hour working day can commence from 07.00 until 10.00. Earlier or later calls – hours worked before 07.00 will be charged at 1.5T. Call times after 10.00 will still be charged from 10.00. Any time worked over the scheduled 10 hours will be charged at 1.5T for the first two hours and £70 thereafter. Overtime after a continuous working day (9 hours) should be £70 p/h. Crew are paid using the ‘buyout’ model (paid a daily flat rate), however preparation, wrap time, time away from set and travel are often not factored in to workers’ schedules. Unfortunately, overtime rates rarely apply to most bread and butter work in the industry today, mainly being the preserve of TV Dramas, Feature Films and large Commercials.
What are the industry bodies for the Electrical Department?
How much do Technicians get paid?
Some productions will have you on a 5 or 6 day working week, with a 10 hr day cited as ‘social hours’. You can charge extra for over-time, antisocial hours and night shoots. Bectu (Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union) have their recommended Lighting Department Rate Card, which sites the lighting technicians’ Rate for any TV work shall be £240 minimum per day (inclusive of holiday entitlement). On a 5 day Day week it will be £1200 minimum (inclusive of holiday entitlement). A 6 Day week will be £1440 minimum (inclusive of holiday entitlement).
How long will it take to go from trainee to best boy?
As with a lot of production careers - it largely depends on your tenacity and drive. If you show your initiative, do your homework/research and go above and beyond the standard requirements, you will be rewarded. It may take three years to get your qualifications and complete an apprenticeship. At this point you can start working on location for a fairly simple film or television shoot, or in a television studio. With some experience you can then move to feature film or commercials work.
Why is the best boy called the best boy?
The best boy in the best electrician in the Electric Department. Best boy is also the head assistant to the gaffer. They are second in charge, typically watching over the electric truck and rentals, while managing and scheduling the rest of the department. Where the gaffer remains on set with the DoP, the best boy carries out and manages all other jobs in the Electrical Department. They may also be referred to as 'best boy electric' so as not to be confused with the best boy grips, or assistant chief lighting technician if working in a TV studio.
Before the lighting and grip departments were established, the gaffer would ask the key grip to borrow his “best boy” to assist in the electric department. It became a common term in both departments, which is why you’ll see two different best boys on credit lists on films and high end dramas. If a woman is employed for the job, she will still be referred to as the best boy!
What can I do to speed up my progress into the Electrical Department?
Working on short films and friend’s projects are definitely good ways to bolster your competence within the Electrical Department. It’s worth remembering that you meet many people on short films, and creating good working relationships on a freebie project can lead to paid work. Offer to design the lighting plan for the project, and follow it through to your best ability. Some kit hire companies are willing to give low rates (or the odd freebie) to new talent in the industry - so work your magic!
Going to free industry trade shows such as BVE in London provide a great opportunity to test out industry standard kit, attend masterclasses, swat up on new technical trends and do some networking. It’s also a good idea to go to technology events, UK screen host two industry events every year.
Another thing to look out for is when kit hire companies exhibit at industry events and advertise on site ‘hands-on demo days’. Sign up to kit hire and lighting company e-bullets and you’ll get the opportunity to go try out loads of lighting kit and sample the latest technology for free. It’s also another opportunity to grow your network - and potentially find work. If you live in the city, you could probably expect to attend a demo session every couple of months.
What’s a tech recce?
It’s when the technical departments go to a location in order to familiarise themselves with the facilities (eg. power sources) before principle photography starts. Tech recceing is a very important process for any department in the prep stage for a project, especially grip and lighting.
It’s your opportunity to get an idea of how and where the scenes will play out, ask questions and coordinate with other departments or crew members.
Technicians/sparks aren’t usually invited to tech recces, but you will when you step up to best boy position. Here are some very specific things you need to look out for during tech recces:
- Listen in and participate in lighting and gear discussions.
- Make diagrams, lists and take notes as needed
- Make equipment lists or make sure package truck lists meet the needs of the production
- Figure out cable runs and find safe places for gear storage
- Determine genny and/or truck placement
- Special Equipment requirements
- Discuss rigging requirements (including lights, special stands, scaffolding, aerial lifts etc.)
- Equipment staging area
What kit do the Technicians/Sparks use?
- Screw Driver
- Craft Knife (with extra blades)
- Metal Crocodile
- Clips (for pinning gels)
- 2” Black Paper Tape
- Cube Tap (to split AC line into 3 U-grounds)
- Line Tester/Circuit Tester (for troubleshooting)
- Clamp Metre (measure AC/DC voltage and test continuity)
- Stripper, Cutter, Crimper (for building special fixtures and making repairs)
- Electronics Tool Kit (for Best Boy to use on precise repairs)
- Measuring Tape
Speed Wrench (quick rigging)
- Allen Key set
- 4 Ft Spirit Level
I feel I am being unfairly treated who can I go to?
The first port of call is always your Head of Department (gaffer), but if they are unavailable or are the problem visit the production manager/line producer who has an overall duty of care to the crew.
Thank you's ...
My First Job in TV would like to thank Dave Hutton for giving up his time to add advice into this career guide.