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

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On a film set, there are so many different roles. You can read about most of them and what they do in this quick rundown.

Today I want to dive deeper into the role of the key grip on movie sets. So what is the definition of a key grip, and what exactly do they do?

In short, a key grip is in charge of the entire grip department and acts as the supervisor on lighting and rigging in close collaboration with the cinematographer (a.k.a. the Director of Photography) and the gaffer.

You find grips working in both commercials, indie film, and big budget features.

So strap on your tool belt, and let’s take a closer look at the grip department in general and how the key grip fits in.

What is the Grip Department?

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 also behind the camera operators when they shoot handheld or with a Steadicam to make sure they don’t fall.

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

Though grips often work closely with the departments mentioned above, in essence, grips work for any department that needs rigging on a film set.

What types of grips are there?

Rigging platforms for cameras are just one of the many task 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 – serves as a foreman and direct assistant of the key grip. Their duties include hiring and managing crew, inventory management, workplace safety (checking stands, overhead rigs, ladders, the weather, etc.), administration, and making sure the rest of the team receives the necessary instructions.
  • Dolly Grip – operates the camera cranes and pushing dollies. 
  • Rigging Grip – in charge of rigging equipment, including hanging lights, cameras, and light modification 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 work 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 on a film set. A grip has to be knowledgeable of a lot of different types of expensive and heavy-duty equipment.

The job of a grip is physically demanding and often consists of 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.

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

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 is in charge of the entire grip department and often assembles the necessary team.

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

Often, the key grip is brought on early to help find the best solutions for camera set-ups, rigging, and lighting and determine the necessary equipment.

It’s also the responsibility of the key grip to say no when something is not safe to pull off. They oversee that the cameras can be mounted properly to a helicopter or a crane without being in 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.

As such, the key grip acts as a supervisor and problem solver.

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

The key grip is a senior position.

So you have to be knowledgeable about a lot of technical equipment and have the experience to solve many different problems.

Great communication skills and the ability to develop creative and safe solutions to a problem are also a must.

How Do You Become a Key Grip?

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

However, the way to the movie business varies.

Some grips might start their early career as a runner or intern 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 lots of different positions in a safe environment under the supervision of experienced professionals and build a network that can make the entrance to making film easier. You also get a good sense of the different steps in film production.

In both cases, though, 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

Keep in mind, that there’s a huge difference in working on a small indie film set and working on 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 on a totally different level.

In other words, if want to transition from smaller movies to bigger productions, it’s probably best to start over as a gang grip until you’ve got a sense of the skills required.

Key Grip Salary

So how much does the key grip make?

According to The Hollywood Reporter (2017 rates), a key grip working bigger features for a movie studio can expect to earn at least $131,068 per year (2017).

Key grips working on TV shows can expect at least $59,000 per year (for a 40-week year). Key grips working on low-budget movies can expect a salary of approximately $41,000 per year.

What equipment does a (key) grip need?

Different film sets require different tools. For example, some might require more heavy equipment than others. And 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:

  • 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

Conclusion

If you want to become a key grip, you need to want to put in the hours and hard work. You need to be well-versed in a lot of different areas from rigging, carpentry, to camera and lighting equipment.

A key grip also needs to have great communication and problem-solving skills, and patience.

And last – but not least – they need to be a great leader, be able to handle the responsibilities that comes with the job, and not be afraid to say no when director get’s too attached to a crazy and unsafe idea.


About the author:

Jan Sørup is a videographer and photographer from Denmark. He’s the owner of filmdaft.com and of 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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