On a Movie Set, the Best Boy is in Charge of Carrying Heavy Loads and Working Long Days

Richard Rees-Jones, who lives in Adelaide and got his start in television as a “best boy” on The Sullivans (1976-1983), recalls a time when lighting departments were made up of only two people. From 1976 to 1983, he worked on the show. There were two gaffer and best boy teams at Crawford Productions. These groups would either work in the studio, shooting videotape, or on location, shooting film.

Rees-Jones, whose son grew up in the family business and is now a sought-after gaffer with vast experience (Snowtown in 2011, Hotel Mumbai in 2018), explains the term’s origins:

The gaffer got his name from the long pole with a hook at the end that he carried, which resembled a gaff used by fishermen. Gaffs were used in the early days of theatre to adjust the lights that were hung from rigs above the stage.

Rees-Jones continues the maritime analogy by comparing the best lad to “the gaffer’s first mate.”

Quick and Nimble

Rees-Jones adds that whenever a gaffer needed help, he would say something like, “bring me your best lad.” A young man who wanted to fill such a role would have to be strong, nimble, and quick, as well as fearless of heights and used to carrying a lot of weight. He would have to work in confined spaces with potentially hazardous machinery, manage rudimentary lamps, and so on, in addition to being attentive to instructions.

With the introduction of film and rapidly advancing technology, the function and responsibilities associated with it expanded. Best boys should have a thorough understanding of electricity and be able to call in qualified electricians when necessary. Best boys aren’t always electricians. Color theory, the use of natural light, and determining the passage of clouds through divination can all be added to the list of abilities.

It’s possible that a best boy understands color theory and can forecast the path of clouds.

By the time I, as a young actor, had a grasp on the character, the best lads had a variety of skills, and they were an essential component. They effortlessly maneuvered large cars, lifted coils of cables weighing 30 kilograms, and guided other men in the hefty lifting of lamps weighing twice as much as those they were lifting themselves. They could supervise or operate generator trucks, as well as trim ferociously burning arc lamps that turned night into day. They communicated in a coded language that was broadcast over the radios. They used terms like “brute-arcs,” “HMIs,” and “Molebeams” in it.

They were able to load four tons of equipment into trucks in less than half an hour at the end of a 12-hour day. These men were frequently rewarded with slabs of beer, also known as wrap cocktails, prior to their long drive to motel mattresses devoid of springs, the alarm that went off before dawn, and the chance to do it all again.

Best boys, and occasionally ladies

Best boys can have long careers in the film and television industries, and many go on to become gaffers or key grips.

Alan Dunstan began his career in the film industry as an electrician on the 1976 film Storm Boy. As best boy, he continued to contribute to The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003). Peter Moloney’s career began with the film The Getting of Wisdom in 1977 and lasted until 1997 with Muriel’s Wedding and The Secret Life of Us. In Melbourne, he was born (2001). Grant Wilson, who is based in Sydney, began his career in the film industry as a technician on Moulin Rouge’s miniatures unit (2001). He was the best boy on Ladies in Black the previous year (2018).

The best boys prefer to work in environments with distinct social orders. This does not preclude women from participating. Although some sources refer to the “best females,” the term “best guy” can refer to cast members of either gender on set. Some women get their start in the film industry by working in concert lighting. Women are currently better represented in camera and other fields than in electrics, but in more recent and specialized technical roles, their numbers may increase.

Not Just Muscle

Effectively managing large lighting crews is especially important for films with large production budgets. When the gaffer appoints a best boy, it is possible that it is not because he is the most skilled practitioner of a particular ability, but because he is an efficient manager.

The result of meticulous planning and execution of lighting design on the set of the Australian television series Hunters (2015), which was shot in Melbourne. The author contributed the photograph by Richard Rees-Jones (no reuse)

It is even possible that the managerial position will be split, with two top lads hired. The phrase “best boy grip” is also popular, but it refers to a completely different department.

The best young men understand the delicate balance of personalities, the difficulties of traveling life, and the strains placed on their bodies by strenuous labor. Members of the lighting department may be delegated or spelled for an hour so that the best boy can ensure that the heavy lifting is distributed evenly across the film crew. This may go unnoticed by the rest of the crew.

A Sweaty Dance Routine

During the film’s production, the best boy’s role, as well as his individual characteristics, are presented in the clearest light possible. The rehearsal process for film and television is compressed and highly regimented. It’s time to be quiet. After an initial “line-run” between each actor, the performers’ movement within the set or location is determined by a “block-through.”

The first assistant director will declare that “a lighting set” has been achieved after discussing, agreeing on, and announcing the camera angles. Performers are given permission to kick their feet up and relax at this point (a coded message that means “get off the set, you’re in the way”). The best boy in the group is now in charge of overseeing the lighting build, which must be completed quickly but cannot be rushed. It is a period of high activity in which difficult objects must be maneuvered through confined spaces. It has a slightly balletic quality to me, assuming the metrics of perspiration, balance, and lifts are applicable.

When the best lad yells “coming up!” switches are thrown, lights glow, and that window immediately warms up like Vermeer’s, Hopper’s, or our childhood windows. This is due to the lighting set providing a small window into the intersection of filmmaking and art.

It is sometimes the best boy’s responsibility to mediate or resolve conflicts.

Because LED lighting has replaced lamps with more traditional designs, film sets are now significantly more comfortable than they were previously. The best boys, on the other hand, have always had a cool vibe.

In my experience, the most frequently heard response to the question “why are you named the best boy?” has always been the same. While shrugging off the burden of an absurdly heavy object, the most popular boy smiles in a way that belies his cultivated air of nonchalance.

“Because I’m so incredible,” she explained. And he is no exception.

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