By: Kristina Ensminger
If you’ve ever sat through the closing credits in the theater, you’ve noticed the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who make up the cast and crew of a single film. And, like me, maybe you’re curious about what some of those people actually do on set. Take a “best boy,” for example. How many gold stars must one acquire to become a best boy? Are there best girls? And what about a “gang boss?” That sounds more like a character in The Warriors than a crew member. When you have a problem on set is the gang boss the guy who “takes care of it?”
Most movie-goers are aware of the more common titles at the top of credits, so we’re going to spotlight some of the lesser-known gigs on set. So, next time the credits roll, you’ll be able to impress your friends with your film crew knowledge… or at least score some points on a Jeopardy! category someday.
1. FOLEY ARTIST
When “talkies” (motion pictures with synchronized sound) took the film industry by storm in the late 1920s, a new audio art was created thanks to Jack Foley. Foley was the first to record custom sound effects and sync them to the film in post-production, creating an entire art of sound design that never existed in the silent film world. This new practice required a sound stage to record the special effects, with a collection of peculiar odds and ends kept on hand to recreate everyday sounds. Doors slamming, floors creaking, phones ringing, swords clanking, and papers rustling are all sounds that are recorded through Foley once the film is shot.
One well-known Foley technique is snapping a stick of fresh celery to recreate the sound of a broken bone. You can also squish mayonnaise in your hand to mimic the sound of a worm crawling out of mud as supervising sound editor Owen Granich-Young explains. These days, entire archives of these custom sound effects exist, but back when Jack Foley was creating, everything was recorded from scratch. Technology has evolved since Foley art was created, but the modern-day sound stages are full of relics and miscellany from the past. Lucasfilm built four Foley sound stages at Skywalker Ranch, the newest of which looks like a mix between Santa’s workshop and a junk store, where mad scientist John Roesch conducts his sonic experiments for what is arguably the coolest job on a film.
2. PROP MASTER
The prop master (short for property master) is responsible for buying, renting, designing, or manufacturing all the props on a film shoot. If there’s an item that an actor carries around, touches, or interacts with as part of a scene, then it’s considered a prop. Props can include items such as phones, books, umbrellas, instruments, pens, dishes, food, guns, toys, and many, many other things.
Once all of these items are acquired, then it’s the prop master’s job to keep track of each prop and work with the script supervisor to maintain the continuity of these items in each scene. Try to imagine how many different scenes and locations there are in a single movie, and how many items in those scenes are touched, moved, and carried around throughout the course of a feature film. Every single one of those items is handled by the prop master.
Want to meet a real prop master? Here’s our Q&A with Elisa Malona, head of props for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
3. GANG BOSS
This gig is definitely less ominous than it sounds. There are two very different roles on set that share the title “gang boss.” The first is a transportation manager who coordinates and supervises all travel for the cast, crew, and production equipment to and from the set, ensuring that everyone and everything arrives to set on time. The gang boss is also responsible for securing permits and parking zones for all the production vehicles in each shoot location.
Another type of gang boss is similar to a foreman on a construction site. This gang boss is in the art department and is responsible for supervising whatever is being built on set and managing the construction crew. The construction gang boss is typically part of the ideation phase in pre-production. Once the set design is agreed upon, then it’s the job of the gang boss to execute that vision and bring those ideas to life. The gang boss makes sure the materials arrive on time, monitors deadlines, and manages quality control on all the construction projects.
A wrangler sounds like a character in a John Wayne film who wears dusty jeans and a lasso as a belt. Which sounds like a pretty cool gig. The wrangler on a film set isn’t a bad gig either. There are a variety of wranglers – animal wranglers, child wranglers, vehicle wranglers – depending on what the film calls for. Generally, a wrangler is someone who’s responsible for people or things that can’t care for themselves, such as wild animals, small children, and inanimate (but expensive) objects.
An animal wrangler is typically the person who’s training the animals to perform whatever actions or behaviors are necessary in a scene, as well as keeping them groomed and relaxed between takes. A child wrangler is more like a combination of an acting coach and a really enthusiastic babysitter. They keep the young actor(s) focused when it’s time to shoot a scene and watch over them when the camera isn’t rolling to make sure they stay quiet, safe, and entertained.
5. FOOD STYLIST
A food stylist for movies is the person who makes the food and drinks look appetizing throughout the course of the shoot. Sounds pretty simple, right? Cook some food, pour a glass of wine, and set it on the table – voilà! Nope. A single scene could take hours or even days to shoot depending on the scenario, so that plate of pasta or slice of cake needs to look fresh in every one of those 100 takes. Not only is the food stylist’s job to whip up food that looks good on camera, but the food also needs to taste good enough to eat… over and over, potentially for hours on end.
The food stylist acquires the produce and products necessary to make the food, then they have to prepare it while working on location (often from a food truck or a trailer). There’s also a bit of creativity and chemistry involved when adding food coloring, paint, sprays, or lacquer to certain foods to obtain the desired visual aesthetic. Once the food is placed with the actor(s) in the scene, then the food stylist refreshes and replaces food between takes, often preparing multiple servings of the same dish on long shoot days.
6. CRAFT SERVICE
Caterers serve the main two meals of the day on set, and craft service handles everything else. The craft service department was created to support the “crafts” on set – a.k.a. the production crew – and it provides all snacks, beverages, sandwiches, fruit, and sustenance between meals. In addition to making sure the snacks are stocked, the craft service department is also tasked with keeping the set clean.
Craft service is also the central social hub – like the water cooler of a film set – where you can find the cast and crew hanging out between takes. The sustenance provided by these “crafty” folks keeps everyone on set energized during long shoots. Not everyone can break for the sit-down catered meals, so the crew relies heavily on craft service to keep them going. In recent years, craft service departments have become more gourmet and artisanal, stepping up the typical sandwiches, bagels, and fruit to taco bars, fondue fountains, and freshly baked flatbreads.
The grip is a skilled technician who works across many departments on a film and is responsible for setting up, rigging, and securing nearly all of the production equipment on set. The grips work with the lighting techs, and once the electricians have set up the lights and the cables, then the grips build rigs to refine or “shape” the light – blocking or diffusing light, using patterns or shadows. Grips often assist the construction crew in moving sets, building walls, and creating platforms. They also work closely with the camera department to build rigs and mount cameras on dollies, ladders, or cranes to get a particular shot. Sometimes it’s as simple as setting up a tripod in a field, other times the camera might need to hang from a speeding tank.
The key grip manages all the grips on set, and partners with the best boy, gaffer (more on these later), and director of photography (DP) to strategize the best setup for each shot and build the necessary infrastructure to support the needs of each scene. Grips are the heavy lifters behind the execution of the film’s aesthetic, and they have a crucial role in bringing the director’s vision to life on the big screen.
8. PYROTECHNICIAN / ARMORER
This sounds like a role that might be specific to action movies, but pyrotechnics involve a lot more than just blowing things up (though that’s definitely part of the gig). A pyrotechnician is a licensed expert, both on the state and the federal level, who specializes in fire, explosions, and weapons. An armorer is a similar role but tends to focus solely on weapons (armorers typically have a background in the military, law enforcement, or have apprenticed under a professional weapons expert).
In addition to blowing up cars and buildings, pyrotechnicians also handle the use of simulated bullets (squibs), any kind of flames or smoke, and can even deal with shattered glass and other potentially dangerous and destructive items on set. The pyrotechnician / armorer also determines which weapons fit a particular era or style of film, makes sure all weapons are licensed for use, and educates the cast and crew about how to handle the weapons safely. This role requires a lot of communication and coordination between departments, from stunt specialists to the director to the camera operators, so the pyrotechnician / armorer tends to be the liaison that ensures everyone is on the same page before someone sparks the first match.
The Brits use the term “gaffer” as slang to refer to a grandfather, a godfather, or an older gent who’s seen as an authority figure (“There’s the ol’ gaffer!”). But in the U.S., the term usually applies to the chief lighting technician on a film set. The gaffer and the DP collaborate in the pre-production phase to design a lighting plan for the various scenes and settings. The gaffer oversees the implementation of the plan, working with the best boy and the key grip to delegate tasks to their respective teams.
In the early days of film, the studios used natural light to shoot, and controlled the quality and intensity of the sunlight by constructing a canvas ceiling that could be opened or closed using a gaff (a long pole with a hook at the end). Nowadays, there are computerized lighting boards that the gaffer supervises among other things, so no long hooks are required for the modern-day role, but the cool title still stands.
10. BEST BOY
We saved the best (boy) for last. A best boy is either the top electrician who functions as the gaffer’s right-hand man (er, boy) or the top grip who reports to the key grip – best boy electric and best boy grip, respectively. The best boy is considered second in command, supervising the crew and handling logistics so that the gaffer or the key grip can remain on set. The best boy electric manages everything from the lighting technicians to the equipment, and monitors the electrical load to the generator so it doesn’t blow out. The “best boy” title seems to apply regardless of whether a man or a woman holds the position, but there are more modern ways to refer to this role – “assistant chief lighting technician” rather than “best boy electric.”
The etymology of the phrase “best boy” isn’t clear. The movie terminology glossary on IMDb suggests that the term may have originated in the pre-union days. Back then, the electric and the grip departments were less defined and the gaffer or the key grip would often ask the other to borrow the “best boy” from one department to help out in the other. Another theory is that it comes from the nautical world where a ship captain’s right-hand man was often referred to as the “best boy” (and might have been a young man who was more appropriate to refer to as a boy). Regardless of the origin story, best boy is definitely the title that gets the most laughs and raised eyebrows during the closing credits.
Photo credits from top to bottom: Lia Koltyrina/Shutterstock.com; Scott Rothstein; Natalia Khalaman; Creatista; LaineN; a katz/Shutterstock.com.