Anyone who’s ever worked on a set will tell you that a film is held together by gaffer tape. Gaffer tape is essentially a combination of the adhesive from duct tape on a cotton backing, and it’s indispensable to film production. Created by cinematographer Ross Lowell in 1959 to complement his patented lighting system, ‘Lowel-Light,’ the tape quickly took on a life of its own.
Roll with it
This versatile material is used by gaffers (hence the name), best boys (gaffers’ assistants), and just about everybody else on set for its strength, resistance to heat, variety of colours, and the lack of residue when it’s removed. On many sets, you’ll even see technicians carrying around strands of a dozen different-coloured rolls.
One of the fundamental rules of film sets is that every cable, wire, and line has to be taped down with the correct colour of gaffer tape - most commonly black - before any filming can begin. Equipment that has been taped is said to be gaffed. Not only does it prevent the cast and crew tripping up and destroying equipment, but it keeps those same wires out of the shot, out of the lighting, out of the sound equipment, and out of actors’ faces.
Because it comes in so many colours, it can also blend into just about any set, and unlike duct tape, won’t tear off paint or delicate materials when removed. It can also be used to mark actors’ positions on set, since the unreflective material is either invisible on camera or can easily be edited out, or to make minor adjustments and fixes to costumes and props.
While it can easily be confused with duct tape because they look a bit alike, and they’re often called ‘duct tape’ or ‘gaffer tape’ interchangeably, it’s likely that any person caught using duct tape instead of its more specialised cousin on set would be strung out to dry. Because of its value on set and the worth of its components, it can be expensive (running anywhere from £4 to £100 per roll, depending on quality and amount), but no production would be without it. It’s common wisdom among film techs that any problem can be solved with enough gaffer tape, and shooting has been known to stop altogether if none is on hand.
Colour coded gaffer labelling system in use at NextShoot HQ. That must be camera B then.