Piotr Jagninski, 38, born Montreal, Canada. Grew up in Canada and France. Have lived in NYC since 1991. Divorced. Work as a film lighting technician.
So, you're a film gaffer and best boy, mostly on music videos and commercials. One of those questions many of our readers have thought to themselves as the credits roll but have never dared to ask is this: What the hell is a gaffer or best boy?
Imagine someone hires you off the street to shoot the next cover of some big fashion magazine… and is willing to pay you a lot of money to do it. In this particular case you don't get to choose who the supermodel is, nor what she is wearing, nor where you are going to shoot, nor what kind of hairdo she will have, nor what time of day or night you will shoot, though you are allowed to make suggestions. Regardless, you need to make her look fabulous. This fictitious situation is pretty much the job description of a Director of Photography (cinematographer) in the film business.
To make this supermodel look fabulous you'd probably need some help. Enter the Gaffer and his Best Boy. These two are the top two tiers of a team of electricians who can set up lights and run the wires to power them in any location on the planet. When the twin towers went down and rubble blocked all access to what remained, it was not the police or the army who turned the lights on for the rescue effort during the first few nights… it was film lighting technicians.
The Gaffer could also be named "chief lighting technician" and a Best Boy is his next in command. If need be, a good gaffer can completely take over the job of lighting our supermodel. All you need to tell him is what time of day it is supposed to be. He will coordinate the whole thing… generators, lights, cable, manpower. He can tell you what color of plastic sheeting to put on the light to transform midday into a beautiful sunset. He can re-create the flicker of lights in a subway car or the way light from the sun moves around inside an airplane when it makes a turn. He can turn night into day, literally. But it will take an awful lot of lights to do it. Have you ever plugged in too many things into a wall outlet and "pop" suddenly everything went out? You blew a fuse. On a film set there are some pretty big fuses and when they blow a lot of lights go out. To make sure this doesn't happen, one man is designated to the job… the Best Boy. He oversees that all the wiring is correct, that the generators are all kept within operating limits and helps the Gaffer co-ordinate the rest of the electricians.
Do you see any artistic component to what you do? What is your relationship with light?
The world of commercials is pretty rote when it comes to the "look". One word describes it, slick. So there are rarely any artistic moments as a lighting guy. Everybody knows what the "client" wants and we give it to them. You're not going to make the supermodel look truly ugly, are you? Music videos were interesting in the beginning because there was considerable experimentation. We'd do things with light which was "not done" just for an effect. After ten years of music videos…sure, there will always be some new "effect" but it starts to become repetitive. To me truly artistic lighting is when you are not conscious anything is lit. It just looks completely natural.
Do you have any lighting heroes?
Sven Nikvist, among others. He can do that natural lighting thing really well. Jan Vermeer. Slawomir Idziak. Peter Andrews (aka Steven Soderbergh). Tony Pierce-Roberts.
How did you become a film lighting technician? Any aspirations to become a cinematographer?
I dropped out of high school and at my step father's suggestion started working in film… he saw that I took plenty of photographs and went to the movies a lot. My first couple of jobs were as a "gofer". Go for this, "go fer" that type of position. I inherited a bit of money when my grandfather died and went half way around the world with it. When the money ran out, I back tracked a bit and ended up in Paris… mostly because I spoke French and had gone to school in France as a child.
I learned and practiced the work of a camera technician in Paris for a couple of years. Friends told me the film business was booming back in Toronto, so I quickly moved back to Canada. Of course, boom times went bust as soon as I stepped off the plane. On a film set I met a very funny film lighting technician and we ended up sharing an apartment. He wanted to learn camera stuff and I wanted to learn lighting. So, we went down to an equipment rental company which had both lighting and camera equipment. Towards the end of showing me the lighting stuff we opened a case that contained a big light bulb. Maybe 12,000 watts big. As he handed it to me he very seriously said "Be very careful, this bulb costs about a thousand dollars." A little later I started showing him the camera stuff… as I handed him the film camera I said "Be careful, this costs about half a million dollars."
Working as a camera technician is very interesting at first, as there's lots to learn. But once you've learned the bulk of it, you end up doing the same thing over and over… and I mean the exact same thing. You do not deviate at all, because to deviate is to invite disaster. When loading the film into the camera if you miss one tiny detail you could screw up hours worth of work for the entire job. Hours on a film set can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The kicker is you won“t know you made a mistake until the next day, when the film is developed. Then it's too late. Camera work wasn't for me.
Yes, I have aspirations to become a cinematographer.
Describe a typical day for you on a film set.
Not quite typical but this happens often…get to work at, say, 11am. Eat a catered breakfast. Open the trucks and pull, push, lug or fly a few tons of equipment up or down stairs, elevators, hallways and tunnels, across railways, hillsides and mountains to any given location while freezing, getting sunburned and rained on. Set up the equipment as per previous discussions about what we are shooting. Find out stuff has changed. Move equipment around some more. Once set up, run power for other departments, such as catering, hair, wardrobe and makeup. If single at the time, flirt with the pretty hair or makeup ladies. During lulls on set, discuss film tech stuff… get bored with that and move on to heated discussion of politics. Leave politics behind when last shot for that particular scene is finished. Dream up lighting setup for unscheduled shot. Move equipment around some more. Shoot.
Pack up equipment in trucks and move to next location. Now six hours into our day, we eat a catered lunch. If this is a music video, we find out that talent is late… or maybe not coming. Stand around while upper echelon types figure out what to do. Set up nighttime shot… this may actually require some hard work on our part, as nighttime scenes usually must have everything lit that you want to see. Pedestrians walking by, watching us set up, have the impression of watching paint dry--nothing seems to happen. They get bored and walk away. After three to four hours of setting up we turn on the first light, ten minutes later the entire street is ablaze with lights. Still no talent. Where is he? Still in his hotel room… he doesn't like the bus (all decked out with black leather, chrome and wood interior) that was sent to pick him up. An hour goes by… we break for dinner. Shortly after dinner ends, talent shows up. We shoot. Some members of the crew who worked very long hours the previous day on a different job and only got one hour of sleep before having to report to this job take a nap. Others, who are only slightly less sleep deprived and must remain on set, start stuffing themselves full of sugared sweets from the Craft Services table to stay alert.
Dawn is fast approaching, but we still have a nighttime, interior diner scene to shoot. This bodes badly, shooting interiors last means we could end up having black out the entire diner… and keep shooting forever. They decide to go ahead with it… an hour and a half later, now into our 18th hour of the day, we finish lighting the diner. We shoot for another hour and then wrap. 20 and a half hours into our day, 22 since we woke up we drive home… some of us have to go to work soon.
From a behind the camera point of view, how different is it to work on commercials as opposed to music videos?
Music videos are completely disorganized with everything being left to the last minute to suit the timetable of such and such "talent". The Director is often the least experienced person on the set— being buddies with the band may have got him the job. You feel like you need to teach the management and support people who work in Production how to do their jobs… it's likely they don't have a clue what your job entails and they question you about the most basic things. You can work extremely long hours, often in dangerous conditions… the smaller job's budget the more abused you are. You might need earplugs. Some crew members prefer music videos to commercials because of the variety of interesting locations as well as the fast pace.
Commercials are more civilized yet more corporate. You spend hours watching some pretty good actor say the same stupid tag line over and over with minor variations. You listen to the ten clients speak to the five advertising agency people who say to the Director "Can she say that without the smile this time." Everybody but you seems to have forgotten that they did that version an hour and 50 takes ago. The Director mumbles from behind his monitor to his Assistant Director "Tell her to do it again, this time without the smile." If the Director is actor friendly he speaks to the actor directly. Meanwhile, the Production Manager comes up to you to tell you that the clients are complaining that one of your electricians is asleep on set. Commercials pay more, but not that much more.
What are the stupidest questions people come up and ask you while you're working?
Bar none: "Are you working on a film?" Gee, what gave it away, the big film lights in the middle of the street? My favorite query was from the homeless guy who wanted a job but was to lazy to walk 150 yards down the street to talk to the person who could actually give him one.
You're not in the film union. Given the firm grip the unions have over the film industry in New York City, isn't that pretty rare for someone who has worked as long as you have in the industry? How come you've never joined?
The union is basically exclusionary. If work is slow for them, they don't let anyone join. You have to know someone in the union to get in the union. The attitude of some of the union members is too pedestrian for my tastes. You find that sort of thing throughout the entire industry, but more so in the union. I remember in the beginning of my lighting career, I worked on a tiny, low-budget, non-union feature film… next door was shooting this huge union feature, with multi-million dollar actors and trailers and trucks that could have circled the block twice. Some guy working on that job, came over to our job and started busting my balls about how I was taking work away from him. That he had kids to feed and a mortgage to pay. I found his argument so dense I didn't know how to reply.
If you could change just one thing about New York City, what would it be?
Change the police motto printed on their cars back to "To Serve and Protect" and replace 95% of the police force.
You've got $5.00 in your pocket, an unlimited metro card and a day to kill. What do you do?
Go to Central Park. From just outside the zoo watch the seals being fed, walk up to 84th street inside the park stopping to see the miniature boats in the boat basin, the statue of Alice in Wonderland. Lay down 1 penny to wander around inside the Metropolitan Museum. Enviously watch people have a glass of wine on the rooftop while overlooking the park. Walk down fifth avenue, stopping to peak in a church…. in summer it's very cool inside, plus with walls that tall you can almost feel the presence of God. Wander into the main reference library and look at a couple of books, then it's off to Grand Central Station for a gander at the vaulted ceiling and a $5 bite in the food court in the basement, surrounded by people form all over the world. Go to Prospect Park for an evening concert in the park.
What advice would you give Bush as he embarks on his second term?
Trust me, he wouldn't listen to me.
What source(s) do you turn to for news?
Anything but CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, or Fox. If you keep away from those five there's at least some hope for you.
For you, what's the best part about working in film? The worst part?
Of all the jobs I've had, film is the only one where I have never woken up in the morning and wished I didn't have to go to work that day. I also love the variety of locations and that you often work with different people every day. You make your own schedule… if you want to take a two month vacation starting next week you can.
Interview by Raphie Frank