Lighter Side of Lighting


Movie ‘Lingo’

‘Higher Myer’, ‘Bring in the Obie light’, ‘Give me a baby on a Becky’. We use these terms everyday, but do you know that these are named after actual people? In fact, many of the terms and words we use are unique to our industry. Gaffer, Best Boy; these are terms that have been around since the early days. How about if we make up a glossary of ‘Movie Lingo’? Maybe some of our ‘old timers’ can help shed light on the origin of these terms. If you know who ‘Myer’ was, or who ‘Becky’ was, or if you know who's name ‘Obie’ is short for or where the terms ‘Gaffer’ or ‘Best Boy’ come from, pass it on to our newer members. If you have some other definitions to add to the list, send them in. If there are terms you have heard and you have wondered where they come from, Ask and maybe someone can fill in the blanks. Just click on feedback and help us make a list of ‘movie lingo’.

Your responses:

"Hi, I know what an Obie light is, and what the word is short for. Obie is short for Merle Oberon the actress. In 1937 she was in an automobile accident in England which left her face scarred. After the accident she resumed her career. A camera man invented a light that would detract from the scarring of her face - thus Obie, short for Oberon."

One member wrote: "The oldest name I remember for a Becky was a Beckett. I don't know who Beckett was. I just know that it got the diminutive name Becky sometime in the 25 years I been in the business. I know this much: Charlie Beckett was an oldtimer in Hollywood when I started in the 1970s. The furniture clamp with spud was known as a B & L bar, after Beckett and Leonetti."

"I began in the industry in 1970 working for a company called Beckett Equipment Company, an independent rental house in Hollywood. The owner was named Charlie Beckett and he and his son Jack were my early mentors. Beckett was in business in the late 60's with the Leonetti family and they started a company called Masterlite Cine Rental, which is where the step-up transformers for a version of a par light called the masterlite was started. After powering up the transformer, you could plug in up to six separate fixtures and step them up one click at a time which represented 10 volts and 100 degrees kelvin. It was at that time that the "B & L bar" (Beckett and Leonetti) and the Becky were introduced. I am still friends with Jack Beckett after 41 years."
Scott Fieldsteel

"I'm a retired ‘old member’ of 728 and thought I'd add my knowledge about the meaning and origin of the word ‘gaffer’! To the best of my understanding, the word is from old English meaning, ‘the old man as in the boss or straw boss or foreman’. I learned of this many years ago. Hope that this helps and passes on some of the history of our industry and 728 in particular."
Respectfully, Howard S. Ex

"The historical story that I remember concerning the origin of GAFFER goes back to the early days of silent film when the film stocks were so slow that stages had open sections of the roof and used sunlight. These sections of roof had rigging to slide canvas or whatever material was being used. As a shot needed more or less light, a technician would use a long pole with a gaff hook on the end of it, that fishermen used to gaff fish and haul them into the boat. So this technician would use this gaffing pole to hook onto the canvas and slide it across the opening in the roof to let more or less light in. Thus the controller of light for the shot was the one that used the gaffing pole, THE GAFFER." Tim McGinnis

"This is for the younger members, us ‘old timers’ all know this story. Where did the name ‘C-47’ come from? On Dec. 17, 1935, Douglas Aircraft made the DC-3. It was such a successful design that many versions of the basic aircraft were produced. One of the most widely used and sturdy models was a military version. During WWII, this became such a work horse it was modified for everything under the sun and became the most widely used, most versatile ‘air’ tool of the war. This military model was the C-47. The clothes pin has been adapted to take on a similar role in our world." Tim McGinnis

"I just returned from Ireland where I saw an article in the Irish Times entitled ‘Because the Gaffer says so’, referring to the boss of a soccer club. The word gaffer refers to the ‘old man, the man in charge, the boss’. Popular misconceptions notwithstanding, a gaff hook or a gaffing pole have absolutely nothing to do with the chief lighting electrician being affectionately referred to as ‘gaffer’. (If the title of our job description has another origin it is perhaps that one who makes a gaff, which is: 1. A clumsy social error; a faux pas: ‘The excursion had in his eyes been a monstrous gaff, a breach of sensibility and good taste’ (Mary McCarthy). 2. A blatant mistake or misjudgment.)"
Michael Katz (December 2006)

"The term ‘Gaffer’ is Old English for Grandfather. Gammer and Gaffer = Grandmother and Grandfather. In the earliest days of film making, the guy in charge, was the guy with the most experience/time in the business. By the time a worker had enough experience, to be the boss, he was getting on in years (In my father's day you had to be at least 45 to be a Gaffer). Hence the affectionate term ‘Grandfather’ or simply ‘Gaffer’. The most able of his crew, had the extra time to keep up with the paper work. This gives us the term ‘Best Boy’ or ACLT. While working on the feature ‘Charley Chaplin’ we worked on reproductions of the earliest film stages. Indeed these early stages used the sun and movable muslin panels to light the set. The set it self was built on a turn-table, to follow the sun through out the day. While a gaff pole might have been employed, just like today's crews, a ‘Grip’ was in charge of cutting and diffusing the light, which included the movable muslin curtain panels. ‘Beckets (or Beckies)’ were first used to hang lights on the high castle walls for the movie ‘Becket’. ‘Rosemarys’ were created to solve lighting problems on ‘Rose Mary's Baby’. Merle Oberon's husband was a famous cinematographer, who used his flat fill light to mask the age of his wife and thus extend her career, giving us the ‘Obie’ light. D.C. cable connector blocks must have reminded early riggers of spiders. I guess the brothers were too busy working, to notice that all ‘Spiders’ have 8 legs, not the 6 of D.C. runs. That should clear a few things up for our members. I know that there are several "Business" families with more than 3 generations in 728. They should remember the origins for all the other light names.
Thanks, Adam Glick (March 2007)"

Paul Jacobsen wrote:
"While working in the hanger at Warners in the 70-80's, I often came across the word Mazda on relics from the past, I uncovered there and I wondered, why mazda? Well I found my answer on the net today. Take a minute to read thru this info and pass it on to any Bros & Sis, that may have more than their fair share of Nostalgia about the old days, like myself."

MAZDA after AhuraMazda, the Zoroastrian/Persian "god of enlightenment" or "bringer of light" GE co-opted the name in the 20's-30's and used it as a trademark for their light bulbs. You can still occasionally find the boxes or wrappers with the name in the dank recesses of many globe rooms. An old expression from the pulp fiction days was "Under the Mazdas" and meant an interrogation at police HQ under the bright lights. The car company thought it was too good a name to waste - or a way to say "I see the light..." or better yet, "bringer of light." (Jim Franz, 2011)

The Obie Light is named after the actress Merle Oberon (known to friends as "Obie"). It was first used by her husband, cinematographer Lucien Ballard, in the 1940s to make lines and shadows disappear from her face which were due to scarring following a car accident. The Obie Light is normally heavily diffused. It usually mounts just above the lens of the camera. It also has a tendency to bring out the pupils of the eye on closeups, so an "alive" or bright look is a by-product. (Jim Franz, 2011)

Why do we call the color/diffusion media we jam in the lights "gels"? Simple - in the days before plastics they used to take beef gelatine (like Jell-o) and lay it out in very thin sheets and color it. Needless to say, it didn't last long in the front of the hot lamps and you practically had to change it from shot to shot, but it was cheap and more importantly, it worked. It melted, crinkled, faded, dissolved when wet and was unpleasant and often smelly to fool with (but it tasted good - just kidding). Plastics and Acetates changed all that and we started getting more and more colors and a variety of various materials that can be used over and over and for long periods without having to change them shot to shot. The name lives on. (Jim Franz, 2011)

Keep them coming!


No One Knows Where the Key Light Goes

By Bickford Carroll

Out here in Burbank on the Warner lot
We use a “ Key” Light in nearly every shot.
It’s very necessary, they agree,
To get good results in photography.
You must have a “Key”, in the proper place,
To get the right light on the actor’s face.

They have no trouble in getting it to burn,
But just where to put it is their chief concern.
Every thing else is like ABC,
But they can’t decide where it’s going to be.
You’d think that they would shoot it right down the middle,
But, instead they turn it into a big riddle.

Some want it dim, some want it bright;
Some on the left, and some on the right.
Some want it far away, some want it near;
Some toward the front, and some to the rear.
Some want it high, some want it low,
So they can’t decide where it’s going to go.

Frank Flanigan searched, with much concern,
To find the best spot from which to make it burn.
He held a conference with Ray Fernstrom
To decide the proper place to make it burn from
But to get it in the place that was the best for all,
They would have to knock a hole in the sound stage wall.

They finally sent for Buddy Boes;
They figured he could tell them where the key light goes.
He walked in, and said, ”I have been sent
To tell you people where the Key Light went”.
But the spot he picked was the sheerest folly;
It was right in the way of the Grip’s crab dolly.

Then they put out a call for Charlie “O”;
They thought he could tell them where it ought to go.
When he arrived, he said, “I suppose
That I’ll have to tell you where the Key Light goes”.
But when they put where he picked a place,
It threw a camera shadow on the actor’s face.

Everett Miller walked over, and said, “I can fix er”,
But he tripped on the lamp, and it fell on the mixer.
He put it back in place, as near as he was able,
But he fouled it all up, when he stumbled on the cable.
He fell on the script clerk; we thought that he would kill ‘er
And Bob Farmer said we’d call him “Tanglefoot Miller”.

So, they sent a man out to get Ralph Owen;
They knew he could tell them where the Key Light’s goin’
He Said, “just tell me if it’s day or night,
And I’ll show you the spot for your darn Key Light”
But where he put it made the soundman groan;
There was a big black ‘Duck’ from the microphone.

Now, if the whole thing was left to me,
I’d go ahead and shoot it, without any ‘Key’.
I’d shoot it like they do at some other places,
And forget about the light on the actor’s faces.

That’s why it takes so long to make these shows;


By Paul Caven

This poem was an industry legend for many years. It was written in the 1950’s by Bickford Carroll an uncle of Brother Andy Carroll. The brothers mentioned were all “Warner Bros. men”. Frank Flanigan and Ralph Owens were Warners Gaffers for many years. Buddy Boes was a Best Boy who worked for one of Warners top Gaffers, Lee Wilson, for many years. Together they did many of Warners biggest movies. I had the extraordinary furtune of working with them in 1967 on the Warner Bros. huge budget movie “Camelot”. They were a class act. Charlie 'O' is Charlie O’Bannon. Another long time Warners man, he gaffed many movies and eventually TV’s. I worked with Charlie 'O' a few times and I remember him telling me stories about when he worked as an operator on the first talking movie, the Warner Bros. landmark film “The Jazz Singer” with Al Jolson. Bob Farmer was a long time TV Gaffer. I worked with him on the TV series “The FBI” with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. In the 1970’s he became the Chief of the Set Lighting Dept. at Warner Bros.



What does 728 stand for?

7 lights, 2 electricians, 8 hours

How many grips does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Two: One to hold it, one to hammer it in.


International Photographer
"February 1929 Issue"
"Peter Mole" - Oct. 1929
"1930 Convention I.A.T.S.E. & M.P.M.O."
"American Film Exports Increasing" - Dec. 1930
"Foreign Competition for American Pictures Grows Keener with Sound" - Dec. 1930
"A Heap of 'Has-Beens'" - Jan. 1931
"Mole-Richardson Integral Inkie" - Feb. 1931
"When Hours are Reduced to Thirty, Will Film Business Lead or Lag?" - Feb. 1933
"100% Arc Lamps" - Oct. 1934
"Applying Wide-Range Principles to High-Power Lights" - Feb. 1936
"Light Intensity Meter"
"Lighting Equipment Modernization" - April 1937
"Wrap 'Em Up!" - June 1937
"20 Years Starlighting" - 1947
"What and Why is a Gaffer"
"Production Use Tested the 'Ultra H.I. Arc'"
"The Big House"



IATSE, Local 728

Studio Electrical Lighting Technicians

1001 W. Magnolia Blvd.

Burbank, CA 91506

(818) 954-0728


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