In the U.S. and Canada, grips are lighting and rigging technicians. They make up their own department on a film set and are led by a key grip. Grips have two main functions. The first is to work closely with the camera department, especially if the camera is mounted to a dolly, crane or other unusual position. The second is to work closely with the electrical department to put in the lighting set-ups necessary for a shot. Some grips may specialize in operating camera dollies or camera cranes.
In the U.K. and Australia, grips do not get involved at all in lighting. In the so-called "British System,” adopted throughout Europe and the British Commonwealth, a grip is solely responsible for camera mounting and support.
The term 'grip' dates back to the early era of the circus. It carried on from there to vaudeville and on to today's film sound stages and sets. Some have suggested the name comes from the 1930s-40s slang term for a tool bag or "grip" that these technicians use to carry their tools to work.
On all union jobs, grips do not touch the lights themselves. The placement of lighting instruments and the power distribution to deliver electricity is handled by the electricians who work under a gaffer. Grips do, however, handle all of the equipment not directly attached to the lights that diffuse and shape the light. This work is done by setting stands that hold flags, nets, diffusion frames or other gobos in place in front of a lighting instrument to shape the beam of light. This is called "cutting light" and is where much of the art of lighting is achieved.
Grips may also be called on to set "negative fill,” which is the cutting of ambient or non-directional light to raise contrast on the subject. When shooting day exteriors, grips perform similar functions with the only difference being that the sun is the light source. Because the sun is very large, grips use overhead frames up to 20'x20' or larger for the shaping or filtering of sunlight. The lighting set-ups for these exterior shots can become quite extensive, with the use of boom lifts not uncommon. Especially at night when lifts are rigged to raise lights high in the air to create moon effect lighting.
U.S. grips may belong to the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, which is their trade union.
Grips are also called on to solve rigging needs on set. Simple rigs can be menace arms that offset lighting instruments to reach over set walls or goalposts that span the set to rig over actors and crew. More advanced rigs can include working with pulleys, steel cable or truss. Grips are also called on to rig picture cars on process trailers and placing camera and lights all around the vehicle to achieve driving shots. This often includes the use of hood mounts, side mounts, suction cup mounts and other proprietary clamps to attach film equipment to vehicles.
The job of a grip is a craft, which is somewhat of a cross between a mechanic and a construction worker. As in those vocations, grips need hand tools at the ready and most carry the following items: a walkie-talkie with external mic, a razor knife, 8" adjustable wrench, 25' tape measure, a 3/16th hex speed-wrench, a multitool, a small flashlight, a permanent ink marker and work gloves. Additionally, they might also carry a torpedo level and a roll of 2" black paper tape on their belts.
Types of Grips
Key grip or grip boss—the foreman of the grip department
Best boy grip or second company grip—assists the key grip in logistical issues (scheduling crew and equipment rental)
3rd grip, company grip or gang grip—the grips who work the set and take direction from the key
Construction grip—Constructs and dismantles the set. On the sound stage, construction grips are responsible for building, moving and adjusting major set pieces (e.g. walls, ceiling flats, etc.) when something needs to be moved to get a camera or lights into position.
Dolly grip—operates the dollies
Crane operator—operates the camera crane