Arts 101: Film and Video Lingo

“People always ask, ‘What’s a gaffer? What is a best boy? What is a grip?'” says writer/producer/director Wade Barry. “Those are questions that come up all the time.”

Today we’ll answer those questions and more as we continue our series explaining unusual words and phrases in the arts by looking at the language of film and video.

Barry, of Minneapolis, has worked as a producer on Hometime, a home-improvement series for PBS. Currently, Barry is working as a writer on the Food Network series Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and he’s also in development on a film he’ll write and direct for PBS that’s based on the life and work of Charles Dickens.

writer/producer/director Wade Barry

Wade Barry of Minneapolis has worked in nearly every facet of film and video production.

Italian director Marco Amenta — recently in Minnesota for the Italian Film Festival of Minneapolis/St Paul — was also interviewed for this post.

Producer Simonetta Amenta and director Marco Amenta

Director Marco Amenta (R) was in Minneapolis to introduce and discuss his film, La Siciliana Ribelle (The Sicilian Girl). He was accompanied by his sister, Simonetta Amenta (L), a producer on the film.


This term is not quite as perplexing to British film audiences as it is to American ones; in the U.K., a gaffer is common slang for any kind of boss or manager. On a film set, however, the gaffer is the head electrician; i.e. the person in charge of all the lighting on a set.

best boy

Best boy is the gaffer’s right-hand person,” Barry says. “It’s an assistant, basically. But you don’t always have a best boy when it’s a small crew. You’ll just have a gaffer and electricians.”


A grip on a film set is analogous to a stagehand in live theater. In various productions, Barry has worked as a grip, a key grip and a dolly grip. “A grip is somebody on set who sets up equipment,” he says. “A dolly grip is specifically in charge of operating the camera dolly if there is one. The key grip is the head grip that all the other grips answer to.”

Wade Barry on set

Wade Barry (L) working on a production for the Food Network. (Photo by Julie L. Swanson-Andersen; courtesy Wade Barry)


On a film or video set, a stinger is an extension cord.


Everyone knows that Hollywood is the film-production hotbed in California or the metaphorical place that is shorthand for the world of major-release motion pictures, but did you know that Hollywood can also be a verb? “If somebody tells you to ‘Hollywood’ something on a set,” Barry explains, “it means don’t take the time to put it on a stand, just hold it and hold it where it needs to be.”

Barry says the reasons for Hollywooding a light or other piece of equipment range from being in a hurry to working in a space where there isn’t room to set up a lot of stands and other gear.

Dutch angle

“A Dutch angle is basically just the camera tilted at a weird angle,” Barry chuckles. “The old Batman TV series was famous for that!”

jib arm

A jib arm is a counterweighted beam onto which a camera can be mounted. “They’re sort of like a mini-crane,” Barry says. “It can swing around through space and give you really interesting moving shots.”

Wade Barry operating camera on jib arm

Wade Barry operates a camera mounted to a jib arm. (Photo by Jamie Vincent; courtesy Wade Barry)


A foot-candle is a unit of measurement that describes light output. As a director, Barry doesn’t get too concerned about foot-candles. “But a directory of photography might be,” he says, “because they’re dealing with the minutiae of the image, and they want to know how many foot-candles a certain light is putting off.”

rack focus

Barry says this technique is used extensively in television and film. A rack focus involves setting up a camera with a limited depth of field, then shifting the focus somewhere else in the scene. “It directs your attention from one object to another,” Barry says. “It’s very dramatic and visually interesting.”

Wade Barry behind the camera

Barry (behind camera, at left) says that rack focuses are more difficult to do on digital cameras because they lack the limited depth-of-field found on film cameras — although he says the technology is changing to be more like film. (photo by Jamie Vincent; courtesy Wade Barry)

Marco Amenta adds that the construction of images — through techniques such as rack focus — speak volumes. “These things express meaning without words or facts,” he says. “They talk not to your brain but to your gut.”


This term refers to an effect often seen in old black-and-white films. “In the old days, the way light would bounce around in the emulsion of the film created almost a halo around a brightly lit object,” Barry explains. “They used to like to do that in black-and-white films because the actors sometimes, with that lighting, would kind of bloom a little bit and it makes them looks almost angelic.”


A word the English language borrowed from Italian, chiaroscuro (key-AHR-oh-SKOO-roh) refers to the light and dark within a shot. “As soon as you put light on something,” Marco Amenta says, “there is a light zone and there is a dark zone. It’s also like life; in life, you have a dark side and a light side.”

In Amenta’s film, La Siciliana Ribelle (The Sicilian Girl), a young woman finds herself standing up to the Mafia. As the Mafia’s pernicious influence intensifies during the course of the film, the scenes get darker. “The audience may not see it directly, but you feel it,” Amenta says. “You have to feel this darkness that is all around the protagonist.”

Trailer for the U.S. release of The Sicilian Girl. Even in this trailier, note Amenta’s use of light and dark — aka chiaroscuro. (Music Box Films, via YouTube)


A honeywagon is often seen parked near a film set. “That’s the RV that the actor stays in,” says Wade Barry. “When you’re working with celebrities, the star gets his or her own RV, and it’s called the honeywagon.”

Next Tuesday, we wrap up our series on arts lingo with a look back and a fun quiz.

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