If you’re the kind of person who waits through the credits of movies (and if you are, thank you for acknowledging the crew), you’ve probably asked yourself, “What is a Key Grip”? Well, in this post we’re going to tell you exactly what the Key Grip on a film crew is. We’ll explain what they do, what the job requirements are, and how you can get to be a one yourself.
Key Grip Definition
First, let’s define Key Grip in film
The Key Grip on a film set is the person in charge of the Grip department. Grips handle all the equipment on set that doesn’t require power. Whether it’s building dolly tracks for the Camera department or creating a garment rack out of C-stands for Wardrobe, the Grip department is your go-to for whatever needs to be built, rigged, or moved.
KEY GRIP DEFINITION
What is a key grip?
A Key Grip is responsible for, and in charge of, all the non-electrical gear on set as well as supervising the Grips working in the department. They are also responsible for on set safety.
What does a Key Grip do:
- Works alongside the Gaffer to execute the Director of Photography’s plan for camera and lighting.
- Inventories and keeps track of all grip equipment before, during, and after the shoot.
- Supervises and assigns grips to needed tasks.
- Oversees builds and rigs — requires good math and physics knowledge.
A good way to remember this is “the Grip department doesn’t have any power.” Electrical power, that is. They do have plenty of muscle and brain power when it comes to building things or moving them around.
Key Grip Job Description
What does a Key Grip do?
The only difference between their roles is that the Gaffer deals with all the lighting gear (and anything else that requires electrical power) while the Key Grip deals with all the other, non-electrical equipment (i.e. butterflies, dolly tracks, jibs).
Another way to look at it is that the Gaffer is in charge of focusing the light, while the Key Grip shapes it. This position also sends help out to other departments. For example, they make sure dolly tracks are laid out correctly for the camera dolly and oversee the building of “video village.”
Similarly, the Key Grip might also have her grips build a temporary “dressing room” for the wardrobe department if the location is too far from base camp. Grips build various rigs for any department and the Key Grip oversees it all.
The Key Grip’s main responsibility is to shape the light. For that Grips use all kinds of non-electrical gear including:
- Flags — duvetine-covered metal frames that block specific areas of light. These come in multiple sizes all the way up to four feet.
- Screens — a metal frame covered in mesh that cuts the intensity of the light. Comes in single (green) or double (red).
- Diffusion — flattens out the light to spread it more evenly over the subject.
- C-Stands — the workhorse of the Grip department.
The Key Grip’s other primary function is to move the camera. Anytime you see camera movement in a shot, the grip department is responsible. Dolly tracks, tow rigs for cars, even Steadicam shots all rely on the Grip department to make it happen.
Working Key Grips
How to become a Key Grip
There really is only one path to becoming a Key Grip and that’s through years of experience. Many working in this position started out as Production Assistants and simply worked their way up the film crew ladder.
However, if you concentrate on cinematography in any of the best film schools, that’s another way to learn what a Key Grip needs to know to be good at the job. You’ll learn all the different kinds of grip gear and you’ll get a sense of how each of those pieces of equipment shapes the light.
You will still need practical, on set experience, but film school is a very good foundation. With that foundation, you can easily get hired on as a Grip, where you’ll learn how the department functions and how best to manage it.
It’s just a matter of paying attention, doing your best work, and asking questions. It will still take a lot of experience before you’re ready to run the department yourself, though.
But once you have enough experience you’ll be ready to join IATSE, the union that represents Grip/Electric. Of course, you don’t have to join the union, but doing so keeps your salary competitive and lets you work on bigger budget shows. Let’s talk about that now.
Let's Talk Money
Key Grip salary
Working Key Grips can potentially earn six figure salaries. The average annual salary (these days) is around $130K if you’re working on big budget features, and between $40K and $60K for television work and/or indie films.
Current IATSE rates put Key Grips at about $50 per hour depending on the kind of production you’re on. Most productions, unless they are ultra-low budget, will at least try to be comparable with those rates.
Of course, if you have your own grip truck, you can rent that to the production for even more income. But again, unless you have the funds to purchase a fully equipped grip truck outright, it usually takes years to accumulate the amount of gear you would need to make that worth your while.
Key Grip on Film Set
Finding Key Grip jobs
You can find work as a Key Grip a few different ways. There are websites (most require subscriptions) for film crew looking for work. Staff Me Up, Media-Match, or Mandy.com are great examples.
IMDb also has a “jobs” page; and there are Facebook groups where freelancers keep each other in the loop about productions that are crewing up.
Another way to get on in this position is to invest in your own grip truck so you can hire yourself out as the Key Grip that comes with the grip package. Low-budget and indie shows are always on the lookout for this sort of arrangement.
It’s also a very good way for you to learn to be in charge of the department since the crew will likely be much smaller than a bigger budget show.
The best way, however, is probably word of mouth. Key Grips get a lot of work by reputation. So if you’re on a show and you do a good job and you’re easy to get along with, the Production Coordinator will be more inclined to ask you to work another show (or another episode) they’re crewing up for.
Discover more filmmaking roles
As with all film crew positions, consistent work as a Key Grip requires you to build up a solid network of industry colleagues. To continue through our series of the various filmmaking roles and positions, you can explore similar jobs like Gaffer, Grip, or Cinematographer. Or you can jump over to our Film Crew Index to browse the entire range of filmmaking roles. Understanding what everyone’s role on a film set is will help make you a better overall filmmaker and a more efficient crew member.