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What Do "Best Boy," "Dolly Grip," and Other Film Terms Mean?

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Bill is an ex-psychiatric nurse living in North Wales. In his spare time, Bill loves writing about his interests.

What the Hell Is a "Best Boy"?

Have you ever watched the latest blockbuster film, and then whilst perusing the closing credits rolling up the screen at the end of the show, been amazed not only at the sheer numbers of personnel required to get the production onto the screen but also by the sheer strangeness of some of the job titles?;

  • Key Grip
  • Dolly Grip
  • Gaffer
  • Best Boy
  • Clapper Loader
  • Focus Puller

Best Boy? Key Grip? What the hell does that mean? - Well be puzzled no longer; Read on and all will be explained.

Key Grip and Dolly Grip

A "Key Grip" is the guy who is in charge of the Grips - The Numero Uno of the Grip world. WHOA! I can hear you scream - What the hell are these "Grips" that this guy is in charge of. Well, they are (sort of) the film world's equivalent of the theatre's "Stage Hands".

In America and Canada, they will consist of both Lighting and Rigging technicians, but in the UK and Europe, they will not be involved in the Lighting aspect of the shoot and will concentrate on Camera mountings and support.

The variety of camera mountings used in the motion picture industry is staggering; from simple tripods, through cranes and jibs, vehicle mounts on cars or aircraft, body mounts, cable systems - you name it - they use it!.

Some grips even specialize in only one particular aspect of their trade. A "Dolly Grip" for example will specialize in Camera Dollies. A "camera dolly" is a sort of low truck usually with four wheels on which is mounted the camera (and often a cameraman plus 1st AC). Sometimes, if the ground is uneven, the dolly is mounted on a small track system (like a railway track), which will allow the camera to smoothly follow actors whilst they move (Hence "Tracking shot")

It is said that the term "Grip" dates from the days of silent movies when cameras were Hand-cranked. The cranking action would make the camera wobble, and so the camera operator would call for anyone with a "good grip" to grab the camera tripod legs and physically steady the camera - They were eventually nicknamed the "good grips" which later became just "Grips"

Grips moving a camera dolly onto a track.

Grips moving a camera dolly onto a track.

Best Boy and Gaffer

"Best Boy" is probably one of the most puzzling job titles for anyone not in the film industry. So, what does "Best Boy" actually mean? Well, Best boys come in two flavors: "Best Boy Electric(Lighting)" and "Best Boy Grips". They are chief assistants to their respective bosses and are largely responsible for the efficient running of their departments and are answerable to their respective bosses. In the case of the Best Boy (Electric), this will be the "Gaffer" (who is the chief Lighting Electrician), whilst the Best Boy (Grips) answers to the Key Grip.

The term "Best Boy" is actually older than the film industry and hails from the days of the old British Apprentice system. When, in the old days, one Craft Master asked another if he could borrow his "Best Boy" for some task or other, he was asking for his oldest most experienced, and skillful apprentice - His most senior assistant in other words.

The clapperboard.

The clapperboard.

Clapper Loader

The Clapper Loader (sometimes called "Second Assistant Camera" or "2nd AC") has responsibility for the loading of the raw film into the camera and operating the Clapperboard (slate) at the beginning of each take.

His responsibilities are actually far greater than this as he has responsibility for all aspects of camera care, maintenance, and operation. He is responsible for receiving the film from the manufacturers, its transportation on the set, its loading into the cameras - The documentation and marking of each take, and sending the exposed film safely to the processors. As you can imagine the loss or damage of days filming work could cost many tens of thousands of dollars.

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The "Clapperboard" or "Slate" is used to track each shot taken. The Clapper Loader will record the information about each shot (production title, director, scene number, take number etc.) and display it to the camera before each take. This allows the editor to identify each piece of film for compilation.

If the sound is being recorded (not always the case), the Clapper Loader will also loudly recite the information on the board and also "Clap" the clapper on the top of the clapperboard. The recited information again, makes it possible for the Editor to identify each sound clip for compilation.

The "Clap" of the clapperboard having been recorded visually on film, and audibly on the sound recorder, allows the editor to marry the sound clip accurately with the film clip, ensuring perfect synchronization of sound and picture.

A Follow-focus device. Note the white wheel on which the Focus puller will mark his distances.

A Follow-focus device. Note the white wheel on which the Focus puller will mark his distances.

Focus Puller

A Focus Puller may also be referred to as "1st AC" or "First Assistant Cameraperson". The term "Pulling Focus" refers to the act of physically changing the camera lens's focus distance during a take.

A scene will typically begin by establishing positioning for cameras and performers. The actors may then "walk through" the scene and the various points of focus will be established which will then be marked by the 2nd AC by tape or special markers on the floor.

The actors (or a stand-in) will now stand on the marks whilst the Focus Puller measures the distance between the camera and the actor - this will give him his focus distance which he will physically mark by tape, chinagraph pencil, or some other means either on the lens barrel or on the "follow-focus device" which has a large disc designed to accept such markings.

During the take, the actors will arrive at their marks at set points during their performance (hence the actors' reference to "hitting their marks") The Focus puller will then use the marks as cues to pull focus to the pre-marked points he has set on the camera or follow-focus device thus ensuring perfect focus

However, a good focus puller will be expected to use his reflexes and experience to compensate, on the fly, for gaffes such as an Actor missing his mark, etc. Often, when filming chaotic or unpredictable scenes, a focus puller will work with nothing but his reflexes and experience and work the whole scene on the fly, focusing purely on his monitor.

In some situations, the focus puller will not be able to manipulate the lens directly (i.e. Steadicam, crane, jib, and vehicle mounts) and will use a remote-control follow-focus device. Indeed some focus pullers prefer to work the remote control method at all times.

Silly Names for Serious Jobs

So I hope this little insight into the world of filmmaking will reduce the puzzlement induced when you are scanning the credits on the latest Blockbuster, and you are confronted by the vast army of "behind camera" personnel with strange-sounding job titles.

It may also bring the realization of the professionalism and teamwork required to bring a story to the big screen. Each job carries huge responsibilities, as a bungled scene can cost the studio many tens of thousands of dollars, so the pressure to "get it right" is enormous.

Who knows, now that you know a bit more about the industry, it might encourage you to become a Movie Maker yourself one day.


jm12012 on June 17, 2013:

You're right about strange job titles, and ruffridyer's remark reminded me of another one. Years ago, before they became "hot" collectibles, animation cells (celluloids) were often washed off and re-used. One guy, applying for a job outside the movie biz, listed his previous application on his application as "cell washer." His prospective employer asked "Cell washer? Where were you, San Quentin?" He replied, "No, Walter Lantz Cartoons!"

Gaizy (author) from Denbigh, North Wales, UK on August 02, 2011:

@ ruffryder - You're welcome. Yes the film industry does have some strange job titles.

ruffridyer from Dayton, ohio on August 02, 2011:

While watching the credits roll by after a movie I asked my family what a Key grip was. Since the movie was about a prison they thought it had something to do with a guard. I knew better since I had seen the term on nonprison movies.

Thank you for clearing that up.

Gaizy (author) from Denbigh, North Wales, UK on July 21, 2011:

@Paradise7 - You're welcome. Thanks for the comment.

Paradise7 from Upstate New York on July 21, 2011:

Best boy and Key Grip were the ones that always piqued my curiosity. Thanks for the info.

Gaizy (author) from Denbigh, North Wales, UK on June 26, 2011:

@ FloraBreenRobison - Thanks for your comment. I just love strange job titles.

FloraBreenRobison on June 26, 2011:

I was familiar witth the first four jobs, but the Clapper loader and Focus Puller I never knew before.

Gaizy (author) from Denbigh, North Wales, UK on June 26, 2011:

Thanks for your comment Scarytaff - Cheers!

Derek James from South Wales on June 25, 2011:

Thanks for this, gaizy. I often wondered about these names.

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