MGM in the mid-1940s was a reporter’s paradise. The mammoth sound stages were abuzz with at least eight features at once, with such names as Gable, Astaire, Stewart, Garland, Rooney, Kelly, Garson, Barrymore and Ball. All were available for interviews, or at least a brief chat between scenes.
It was on sets such as these that I began hearing a different sort of chat, as well — an odd-sounding language spoken only by film crews that originated in the silent era and continues today.
MGM’s Stage 30 contained the most impressive set: the pool of MGM’s amphibious star, Esther Williams. Typically, she and a couple dozen other bathing beauties would be splashing about. When the director approved a particular setup, an assistant would announce over a loudspeaker: “Hit the kliegs.”
Hit the what?
On catwalks high above the stage, a dozen or more huge spots called klieg lights — named after their 1920s inventors, the Kliegl brothers — began to flash on, creating the illusion of sunlight on the cobalt water below.
As the shooting day continued, grips, gaffers and best boys would scurry around making references to “singles,” “blondes,” “babies” and “obies” without as much as a smirk.
I had no idea what any of it meant. Thank goodness at least the stars spoke English.
But as I later discovered, the stars themselves inspired some of this strange set slang.
What’s a ‘cowboy shot’?Emmy-winning director of photography George Spiro Dibie explains an “obie,” for instance, is a light placed atop the camera to shine in the actor’s eyes and create a pleasant highlight. It was named for Merle Oberon, who favored the device.
When a cameraman wants a 50mm lens, he calls for a “Jack Lord,” the actor who played the detective hero of TV’s “Hawaii Five-O.” Get the connection — Five-O, 50mm?
A “John Ford,” Dibie says, is a shot favored by the legendary director in which an actor is seen from a distance, then walks toward the camera and into his own close-up. It’s not only dramatic, it also eliminates time-wasting setups.
If a “D.P.” — that’s director of photography — calls for “a cowboy shot,” he may not necessarily be working on a Western, noted Dibie.
“When cowboys duel on a Western street, where do they go for their guns? Their holsters. So you have to photograph down almost to their knees. That’s why we call it a cowboy shot,” he says.
Even for a Hollywood veteran like Dibie, it took awhile to get it all down. He recalls working on the set of 1970’s “On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever” and being told that a close-up of Barbra Streisand needed to be a “3-shot.”
“For me, a 3-shot would be three actors in the scene,” says Dibie. “I was wrong. A 3-shot meant eyes and bosom.”
Wally Pfister rose through crew ranks to become a director of photography for such features as “Batman Begins” and “The Italian Job.” He, too, admits having been baffled by set-speak in the beginning, but “you learn by experience ... It’s a kind of shorthand to get things done.”
There are even foreign versions of the argot.
Pfister remembers that when he went to England to work on “Batman Begins,” the British crew “combined cockney rhyming with film terminology. They call a ‘single’ (a metal mesh used to dim a spot) a ‘Christmas jingle.”’
No version of this lingo has ever made much sense to me, despite a lifetime on movie sets. The term best boy may be familiar to anyone who’s ever stuck around for a credit crawl, but what does he do? Is he really a boy? Who decides if he’s the best? Are there best girls?
Best boys, gaffers, grips and moreA new paperback by New York-based camera operator Dave Knox offers some answers: A gaffer is the chief lighting technician; the best boy is the second electrician, working under the gaffer, and a grip is the jack of all trades, building sets, moving cameras and cables, and whatever else needs doing.
Knox says gaffer may have originated in 19th century theaters where candles were used for lighting and stagehands extinguished them with long-handled gaffs. Grip is self-explanatory, he notes, referring to a worker who uses his hands a lot.
But the origin of best boy was a mystery to Knox, so we put the question to the motion picture academy library, which offered two possibilities: It may have come from the name given sailors who climbed the rigging on whaling ships. Or it may have started before studio hiring became unionized and a gaffer would say to the employment office, “Give me your best boy.”
The title of Knox’s book sounds more like pulp fiction: “Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde.” He explains that “strike the baby” means remove a small spotlight, and “kill the blonde” means turn off the 2,000-watt spotlight.
The origin of terms such as these is largely unknown, Knox says, but he hints they may have been “some kind of secret code” to help keep outsiders from the business.
Director of photography John Flinn started in movies in 1964 as a bit player and was startled to hear camera people give commands like, “Hang the baby on the wall.” But two years later he moved to camera work himself and was soon speaking their language.
“It’s really a time saver,” remarks Flinn. “I can tell my gaffer, ‘Put a stick in the corner over there,’ and he’ll install a fluorescent tube that illuminates a small area.”
Flinn specializes in TV production, where tight budgets demand speed and long shooting days, and he says that’s where set-speak really pays off.
“For a setup, I can say, ‘Gimme a 2K, a 6K, gimme a 250 and a 260, put a quarter GPL with the 250, put a half-double on the bottom,”’ recites Flinn.
Some set jargon enters the general lexicon, such as the phrase that signals the end of shooting — and the end of this story:
“That’s a wrap.”