What Is A Key Grip, And What Do They Do?

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A key grip is in charge of the entire grip department and works as the supervisor on lighting and rigging, working closely with the cinematographer (a.k.a. the Director of Photography) and the gaffer.

Key Takeaways

  • Key Grips lead the grip department and ensure the safety of camera and lighting setups.
  • The job requires technical equipment knowledge, strong problem-solving abilities, and excellent communication skills.
  • Progressing to a Key Grip involves starting from entry-level positions and gaining years of experience.

Grip work is found in commercials, indie films, and big-budget features. So strap on your tool belt, and let’s examine the grip department in general and how the key grip fits in.

What is the Grip Department?

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Grips are technicians who work closely with camera operators to ensure smooth and safe camera movements. Essentially, every time a camera moves, there’s a grip behind it.

Grips help when the camera is mounted to a crane, dolly, or difficult position. They are behind the camera operators when they shoot handheld or with a Steadicam to ensure they don’t fall.

Grips also works closely with the electrical department to help create lighting setups, though setting up the lights themselves is left to the lighting department.

Though grips often work closely with the departments mentioned above, they can also be used by any department that needs rigging on a film set.

What types of grips are there?

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Rigging platforms for cameras is just one of the many tasks of grips

The grip department usually consists of the…

  • Key Grip: works as the grips’ supervisor in close collaboration with the cinematographer (DoP) and gaffer.
  • Best Boy Grip: a foreman and direct assistant to the key grip. Their duties include hiring and managing crew, inventory management, workplace safety (checking stands, overhead rigs, ladders, the weather, etc.), administration, and ensuring the rest of the team receives the necessary instructions.
  • Dolly Grip: operates the camera and cranes and pushes dollies. 
  • Rigging Grip: Controls rigging equipment, including hanging lights, cameras, and light modifications such as flags, bounce cards, cookies, and diffusers.
  • Gang grip (aka 3rd grip/company grip): the most common type of grip and a jack-of-all-trades who works under the direction of the key grip
  • Construction grip: builds film sets on sound stages, i.e., builds and moves walls, ceilings, and platforms.

Grips are essential to the flow and safety of a film set. A grip must know many types of expensive and heavy-duty equipment.

The grip job is physically demanding and often requires long hours on set. – They are there to set up, they are there while shooting, and they are there to make sure everything gets stashed back into the grip truck and inventoried again.

The word grip comes from the theater world, meaning stagehand since the late 1900s.

You might also like The FilmDaft Quick Guide To Film Set Roles.

Key Grip Job Description: What Does a Key Grip Do?

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We control anything over people’s heads […] We’re mini-engineers on the fly.

Key Grip Tana Dubbe (Iron Man, Straight Outta Compton, A Star Is Born, and more). Source: The New York Times.

The key grip oversees the entire grip department and often assembles the necessary team.

The key grip works closely with and takes notes from the Director of Photography (DoP) and helps find ways to make the DoP’s vision possible.

The key grip is often brought on early to help determine the necessary equipment and find the best camera setup, rigging, and lighting solutions.

The key grip role is also responsible for saying no when pulling off something unsafe. They ensure that the cameras can be mounted properly to a helicopter or a crane without danger to the crew and cast.

The same goes for lights—you don’t want a big ARRI fresnel falling on someone. So, the key grip also works in close collaboration with the gaffer, acting as a supervisor and problem solver.

Here’s an interview with key grip Jake Reeder by Cinema 5D that can provide even more insight into the role of a key grip.

What Skills Do You Need to Work as a Key Grip?

Key grip dolly Custom

The key grip is a senior position. So you must be knowledgeable about a lot of technical equipment and have the experience to solve many problems.

Great communication skills and the ability to develop creative and safe solutions to problems are also necessary.

How Do You Become a Key Grip?

Most key grips work their way up from a company or construction grip. From there, some become the Best Boy or Dolly Grip. And from there, some transition to becoming the Key grip.

Some grips might start their early career as runners or interns and eventually get involved with the grip department. Or they may start as production assistants directly in the grip department.

Another path is to go to film school. Here, you can test out many different positions in a safe environment under the supervision of experienced professionals and build a network that can make the entrance to making films easier. You also get a good sense of the different steps in film production.

In both cases, you don’t just walk onto a film set and demand to be the key grip. Instead, it takes years of hard work to accumulate the technical knowledge and creative know-how to become the key grip.

Small sets vs. big sets

There’s a huge difference between working on a small indie film set and a major blockbuster.

Even though you might have acted as the key grip on your friend’s Indie feature, it doesn’t prepare you for the responsibility of a key grip on big movie sets, where the level of advanced equipment and safety is different.

In other words, if you want to transition from smaller movies to bigger productions, starting over as a gang grip is probably best until you understand the required skills.

Key Grip Salary

So, how much does the key grip make?

According to Careers in Film, a key grip working bigger features for a movie studio can expect to earn $41,000 to $131,000 annually.

For more insight (fx hourly rates), I recommend contacting IATSE, the grips trade union.

What equipment does a (key) grip need?

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Different film sets require different tools. Some might require more heavy equipment than others. For example, a dolly grip might need specialized tools that the grip gang doesn’t, and vice versa.

That being said, here are some essentials that a lot of grips use:

Check out gripsupport.com to see the vast amount of technical equipment grips use.

  • A tool belt
  • Work gloves
  • A tape measure
  • 3/16 Allen Speed Wrench
  • Ratchet Wrenches (for Grid Clamps, car rigs, and more)
  • Allen Set
  • C-Wrench
  • Razor knife (for thin materials)
  • Serrated Knife
  • Pliers Multi-tool
  • 2″ paper tape
  • 1″ and 0.5″ spring clips/clamps

I recommend you check out the Grip Tips YouTube channel if you want to become a grip. It gives you a nice insight into the equipment and trade in general.

Conclusion

Putting in the hours and hard work to become a key grip. You should also be well-versed in many areas, from rigging and carpentry to camera and lighting equipment.

A key grip must also have great communication and problem-solving skills and patience.

Last but not least, they need to be great leaders, able to handle the responsibilities that come with the job, and not afraid to say no when the director gets too attached to a crazy and unsafe idea.

Up Next: What Does a Movie Producer Do?

Author

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  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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