So.. What is this job REALLY All about??
In the beginning, there was the Cameraman. Then the Cameraman needed
to light up his subjects, so the Gaffer was born. After a while the
Gaffer lerned what the Cameraman knew, and the Cameraman learned what
the Gaffer knew - and so the Director of Photography was born. But
then there wasn't anyone to crank the camera anymore, and there
wasn't anyone to pick up those heavy lights and move them around. So
the Director of Photography hired helpers, and called them the
Cameraman, and Gaffer.
As the films got more demanding, the Cameraman revolted, and hired a
Focus puller, Key Grip and Clapper Loader to help him. Likewise the
Gaffer got sick of lugging cables and hired a Best Boy. Then the Best
Boy hired some helpers and called them Electricians. And everything
But then the Director of Photography met the Art Director over coffee
one afternoon, and somebody silly asked if it was possible to put a
light on the film set - one which would be seen by the camera. And
"It must look right" said the Art Director
"It must give out the right type of light" said the Director of
"It must be safe and able to connect to our electricals" said the
"Well you do it then" said the DOP to the Gaffer.
"NO!" exclaimed the Art Director. "I want it to look right! I must be
in charge of the light".
"The Gaffer's boys don't know how to make my light look right!!"
"NO!" said the Gaffer. "My boys are all with the filming unit. I
can't send one off just to wire up your stupid light on your stupid
"Well then who'se going to do it?" cried the DOP.
"I dunno. She'll be right on the night. Now can we get on with some
The title "Art Department Electrician", often called "Practical
Electrician" is given to the person generally responsible for
everything electrical on a film EXCEPT for the things that the Gaffer
is in charge of. This can vary from film to film. The Art Dept Elex
is usually hired by the Art Department and is often only a part time
job, depending on the demands of the film. A jungle feature may not
require one at all, whilst a futuristic action film or science
fiction film may require literally a whole department of Art Dept
electricians, under a Head Art Dept Elex position.
The Art Dept Elex's biggest task is to keep the Art Director, DOP and
Gaffer (three separate departments) all happy. It can be very
difficult having three different bosses.
The Art Dept Elex is basically an ordinary Joe Sparx "Domestic,
Commercial, Industrial" electrician who has a basic knowlege of many
different aspects of filmmaking. He must know about things like
colour temperature, frame rates, camera angles and color rendition to
keep the DOP happy. He must know about safety procedures and
electrical conventions in film, aswell as how to conduct himself on a
film set, to keep the Gaffer happy. He must have a wide appreciation
of production design and the "way things look", know where to get
strange and odd looking electrical props and special materials very
quickly, and be able to work in a construction environnment and
supply his own tools, to keep the Art Director happy. Finally he has
to be able to do this on a measly budget (as Set Electricals are
usually forgotten in budgets), he has to be able to do it yesterday,
and of course, it has to work. Perhaps the only concession the Art
Dept elex has, is that he is generally not required to be anywhere at
any particular time. As long as everything works properly on time,
his time is his to plan.
The job of the Art Dept Elex includes;
- Installation and testing of all "practical lights" on film sets before
the filming unit arrives.
- Safety testing and (if required) tagging of electrical
equipment used by the company (except for equipment controlled
by the Gaffer)
- Providing temporary power for construction, unit, makeup, hair
- Building working models of control panels, both realistic and
- Connecting large temporary "hook ups" for the Gaffer on
- "Electrifying" various props.
- Acting as a consultant to the Production Designer.
- The temporary connection of "hook ups" to obtain power
off existing supplies at locations by law must be carried
out by a licensed electrical contractor. As the Gaffer's
crew rarely includes such a qualified person, this task
usually falls to the Art Dept Elex.
A "Practical light" means any source of light which can actually be
seen by the camera. Normal lamps in a loungeroom would be an example.
Examples of lights which are NOT practical would include all the
Gaffer's lamps, which are always hidden from view. Although the odd
wall and desk lamps are obvious practical lights, there are many
examples of "prac lights" not normally thought of as such;
- Televisions and Computer Monitors
- Control panels, for example in a spacecraft cockpit.
- Outdoor street lights, signs, festooning, even fairy lights.
- Hand held torches, electrified "Hurricane lamps", even
- Electric stoves and cooking appliances on set.
- Even the light inside the fridge.
An example of a light source seen by the camera which would NOT come
under the control of the Art Dept Elex would be any light installed
on the costume of an actor, such as a robot costume - this is usually
handled by the Costume Department separately.
Who is the Art Department Electrician ?
Unlike other electrical staff on set, the Art Department Electrician
is usually a registered, licensed electrical contractor trading in
(at least) the same country that the film is being produced in. Quite
often he does more than just electrical work for films, still doing
ordinary "domestic, commercial and industrial" contracting aswell
when not employed on film work. Unlike other set staff, he has his
own company, tools, vehicle, and often an apprentice. He charges his
time to the production company based on how long a particular task
takes to complete, much the same as any electrician might charge you
to repair your stove or install a hot water heater. In some cases he
provides quotes to the production company before starting a
particular task - but usually there is insufficient time for this. As
a result, the Art Director has to have alot of faith and trust in the
Art Dept Elex, to be satisfied that the company is getting the best
deal it can, and that the electrician is not "ripping off" the
company. More often than not this leads to nepotism - a particular
Art Director will much rather choose someone he "knows well" as an
Art Dep Elex before going further afield.
The "Joe Sparks, electrician" aspect of the Art Dept Elex is very
important. Practical Lights and electrical props are usually just
that - real items obtained by the props buyers, often second hand,
and in a dilapidated (possibly dangerous) state. The Art Dept Elex
needs to have the experience needed to fix these items and test them
thoroughly, and install them properly - just the same as a real
electrician. Very often this means sourcing spare parts, often not
even available. In some cases props will need to be completely
rewired safely from scratch and yet still "look" like they were just
lifted from a scrap heap. Of course in other situations (such as
science fiction / fantasy) the Art Dept Elex will be called upon to
build many light fittings and electrical props from scratch, working
with construction staff, set dressers, props and model builders and
painters to achieve the look desired by the production designer.
The Art Dept Elex also needs to have an extremely good knowlege of
what is available, and where to get it fast. He should have all of
the major manufacturers' current and past catalogues in his office,
ready for instant access. More importantly, he must have at least
looked over them so he knows roughly what sort of things are
available when either discussing possibilities with the designer, or
fumbling over an old slide projector which must work by 7am the
following morning. In most cases the Art Dept Elex has business
accounts with a wide variety of electrical and electronics suppliers,
meaning that he can instantly order any item he needs and have it in
his hands as soon as possible. This can mean maintaining accounts
with over 30 different suppliers - which would be very difficult for
the production company to do itself, especially when they don't even
know if they'll use them at all. Invariably the Art Dept Elex is on
very good terms with these suppliers and is able to quickly obtain
goods at attractive discounts, something which might take production
office staff days to do.
The task of obtaining materials for Art Department Electrics is
perhaps the most challenging of all - especially in Australia. Of a
typical 10 hour day, it would not be uncommon for an Art Dept Elex to
spend upto four hours on the 'phone, or head buried in catalogues, or
rushing about town to search through warehouses for that elusive
part. In Australia, unusual items often need to be ordered from
interstate leading to a delay of 2 to 5 days which can be crucial in
One of the pursuits of a good Art Dept Elex is to try hard to "keep
ahead" of the production in terms of what will be required. Aside
from the obvious chats with the Art Director and Production Designer,
it's a good idea to keep abreast of what's happening in the
construction shop. That strange looking pile of wood in the corner
might be an airport control tower console next week. Now is the time
to check it out, take measurements and order parts which might take
up to one week to arrive before the set is ready to be dressed.
Likewise those wooden poles over there might be looking like they're
part of a band stand in a park, which needs lights inside it. Now is
the time to check if you should pre-wire some sections now before
it's assembled - to save hours of work trying to run cables into it
later once it's built. Basically the Art Director and Production
Designer have alot to keep on their minds and it's easy to forget
something. You're not going to hurt anybody's pride by checking if
something has been remembered before it's too late. Quite often when
things are "forgotten" until the last minute they become too hard (or
too expensive) to complete in time for filming. As a result they are
scrapped - the result being a set that's "OK" instead of "Excellent".
The Director will be the one who remembers which Art Department gave
him that little bit "extra" that he doesn't get back home. And it
costs no more - it just takes a bit of advance planning.
If possible it's a good idea to get a script and read it. You should
also look at the production schedules and call sheets, as these will
let you know what's coming up and how much time you have. Of course
it would be foolish to trust such sources of information - but all
the same they can provide you with insight as to how far it is
possible to go, or whether you should consult the Art Director and
perhaps suggest that "this might not work" and offer alternatives.
However beware - No director likes to hear that anything is
impossible or too hard - so prepare for the occasional sleepless
nights and 20 hour days. Rest assured that as long as your film's
title is not "Babe 2" or "Moulin Rouge".. then one day, it WILL be all over.