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Odd Hollywood Jobs: Gaffer

Gaffer James Plannette.
Gaffer James Plannette.
James Plannette

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Time for another installment of our series on Odd Hollywood jobs, which looks at the gigs behind the scenes that help make movie magic.  

Chances are you've seen the word "gaffer" scrolling by on movie credits, but what exactly does a gaffer do?

In the film and TV industry, a gaffer is an electrician in charge of lighting for a production. In addition to working closely with the director of photography on achieving the desired lighting set up, they often contribute as lighting designers, planning the look of the whole film. 

Jim Plannette has worked as a gaffer for more the three decades, on films such as "Young Frankenstein," "Legends of the Fall," and "The Fisher King," to name a few. Though we once planned on becoming a lawyer, he was bitten by the Hollywood bug while on a break from college. 

"My father was a gaffer. He started in the business in 1919," Plannette said on Take Two. "I left school during the semester to earn some money, and the quickest way was in the movie business, and I never looked back."

Plannette talked about what he loves about his job, what the biggest challenges are and which of the scenes he's worked on was the most memorable. 

Interview Highlights:

On the most difficult part of being a gaffer:
"Outside the biggest challenge is to balance to the background. If you have a very bright sky and you don't want the actors to be silhouette, and you don't want the sky to be blazing white, you need to light them so that the balance is correct. You need to do that and make it invisible. We do that a lot with big white bounces that bounce the sun back into the face, and its very soft and invisible, so then you can see the faces, but it doesn't look like it's on a movie set."

On working on "Young Frankenstein," which is in black and white:
"It's an unbelievably memorable experience. That was the first black and white that I'd done, and it was great fun. My father did a lot of black and white movies, so it was great fun. You have to be sure that the grays aren't the same. You can have things blend into the background so you can't see them, so you have to make sure you can separate it from the background."

On where he's at in his career:
"I'm at a point that I only do the movies that I want to do, so I don't work as much as I used to, which is fine. My wife and I see three movies a week, and then sometimes I get interrupted by doing a movie. I just did one called 'Million-Dollar Arm,' where we shot for six weeks in India and then in Atlanta, Ga."

On the most memorable scene he's worked on:
"I worked on a movie called 'The Fisher King,' directed by Terry Gilliam. My favorite scene of all time was in Grand Central Station, where they're waiting for this woman that Robin Williams is in love with, Amanda Plummer. She came in, and as she entered the main floor of Grand Central Station, all of a sudden everyone started to waltz around the information booth. There was a mirror ball on top, and the light hitting it and spinning around, and it's just an unbelievable scene."


On his contribution to that scene in "The Fisher King":
"While we were prepping, I kept going to Grand Central Station and being amazed at how huge it was. We'd had kind of a plan that was designed by a previous gaffer, and the DP and I decided didn't think was going to work, so I came up with a lot more lights, which turned out to be important, because it is such a huge place."

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