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What is a Key Grip?

A Key Grip is the backbone of on-set film production, masterfully shaping light and camera movement to breathe life into each scene. They lead the grip crew, rigging equipment that controls the visual aesthetic, ensuring every shot is cinematically perfect. Curious about how their magic touch transforms a set? Dive deeper into the world of a Key Grip with us.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A key grip is actually the chief supervisor of a union crew responsible for moving lights, dolly tracks, cranes and scenery. While grips are primarily hired for their physical strength and construction skills, a key grip also has some administrative responsibilities.

This person works very closely with the head electrician, known in the movie business as a gaffer. As part of a pre-production movie crew, the key grip, gaffer, director of photography and a location producer will discuss the logistics of a specific filming site. All of these people must understand the needs of the script and have an understanding of how difficult a particular location shot might be.

The key grip works closely with the head electrician on a set.
The key grip works closely with the head electrician on a set.

The key grip must determine if lights can be rigged up safely on a mountainous set, for example. Cameras often work on a system of tracks called dollies. It is the work of grips, working under the supervision of a key grip, to install these tracks and remove them after the shots. Even if the film is shot on a set inside a studio, grips must move walls and lights to accommodate cameras and dollies.

On many film sets, the cameras work on a system of tracks that are called dollies.
On many film sets, the cameras work on a system of tracks that are called dollies.

Because the position of grip is almost entirely unionized, breaking into the ranks is difficult without connections. An entry-level grip can make 25 to 35 US dollars an hour, but may only work two days a week. Those two days can last 18 hours or more, however, and overtime wages are substantial. Experienced grips with good work practices can be promoted to the position of 'grip boss'. The grip boss works closely with the key grip in order to translate general orders into specific job assignments.

Most film work is contractual, so any qualified grip may be hired as a key grip for the duration of the production. Quite often the production company will hire a respected and experienced key grip and then allow him or her to handpick a crew. A film construction crew which works well together can help a director meet his own production schedule with minimal downtime.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the primary role of a key grip in film production?

The key grip is the head of the grip department, responsible for the setup, maintenance, and adjustment of all the equipment that supports cameras, including tripods, dollies, tracks, jibs, cranes, and static rigs. They work closely with the director of photography to help achieve the correct lighting and camera movements, ensuring that the visual elements of a scene are captured as intended. The key grip's expertise is crucial in crafting the film's visual aesthetic and ensuring the safety of on-set operations.

How does a key grip differ from a gaffer?

While both key grips and gaffers play essential roles in lighting and rigging on a film set, their responsibilities are distinct. A key grip focuses on camera support and movement, as well as the physical manipulation of light through diffusers, reflectors, and flags. In contrast, the gaffer, also known as the chief lighting technician, is responsible for the design and execution of the lighting plan, working under the direction of the director of photography. The gaffer manages the electrical department, ensuring that the lights are correctly positioned and powered.

What skills are necessary to become a successful key grip?

A successful key grip must possess a combination of technical knowledge, creative problem-solving skills, and physical strength. They need to be well-versed in the use of various grip equipment and have an understanding of camera lenses and movements. Leadership skills are also vital, as key grips manage the grip crew and collaborate with other departments. Additionally, they must be adaptable, able to quickly respond to changes on set, and ensure safety protocols are followed at all times.

Can you describe a typical day for a key grip on a film set?

A typical day for a key grip starts with a review of the day's shooting schedule and a meeting with the director of photography to discuss the visual requirements. The key grip then leads their team in setting up the necessary equipment for the day's scenes, adjusting for camera movements and lighting needs. Throughout the day, they are hands-on, modifying setups as needed and ensuring everything runs smoothly and safely. The day ends with dismantling equipment and preparing for the next day's shoot.

What kind of training or background do key grips typically have?

Key grips often start their careers working in lower-level positions within the grip department, such as grip assistants or dolly grips, learning the trade on the job. Many have backgrounds in film school or technical courses, but hands-on experience is paramount. As they gain experience and demonstrate their skills, they can advance to the position of key grip. Continuous learning is essential, as they must stay updated on the latest technologies and techniques in camera support and rigging.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular MusicalExpert contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular MusicalExpert contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon997205

fuc my key grip you useless commie cunt

anon263582

I was assigned this duty as work study while attending Gonzaga University in the early 90's. It was not until just now I was able to put the name "grip" to it. Thanks so much for "my" update.

anon98700

I don't know much about film making but have attended Julliard University of Arts and have learned a lot about grip and set design and wood, mostly constructing. It is fun and a good school with hands on a lot. Mostly I learn how to write good scripts and wire the lights, too.

anon94960

Really if you want a degree it would be a film production degree in general. The construction stuff you could learn from live theater or on a real construction site. You could work for free on some independent films or befriend some union people. For camera you could check out workshops; there is some short theme stuff at Maine Media College and there is some video production stuff at Austin School of Film. Your options are endless.

anon72582

@ Rhapsody: If you want to learn how to do various jobs that film crews tackle, then I suggest attending a film school. Some people say you can learn it on your own, but it's a little hard to learn most of this stuff without learning by hands-on.

Right now I'm attending Full Sail University and I spend a lot of time working with the equipment. Full Sail doesn't spend most of their time in books -- they get their hands on it. That's the best way for you to learn.

If you can't go with Full Sail, then you could always look around for other places, but best thing would be to find a somewhat "known" and respected film school. Hope this helps.

anon44949

Scad - savannah college of art and design, be sure to take hofstein.

anon32171

This is funny I found this article, I have been helping my friends with a pilot for a tv series with set building out of the kindness of my heart. They also asked me to be a "grip" when it's time to shoot and I said "sure" without really even knowing what a grip was! Who needs a membership to a gym anyway!! thanks!!!

Rhapsody

What sort of degree would one get in order to be best prepared for the technical -grip, builder, camera- part of the "behind the scenes" movie jobs? What colleges would be best to attend?

I have done live theater for some time and it has mostly been props and Assistant Stage Management positions, however I am also interested in working behind the scenes for the movies. Such as sound, lights, scenes, props, editing, and filming.

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    • The key grip works closely with the head electrician on a set.
      By: Sudheer Sakthan
      The key grip works closely with the head electrician on a set.
    • On many film sets, the cameras work on a system of tracks that are called dollies.
      By: A_ya
      On many film sets, the cameras work on a system of tracks that are called dollies.