Elena Armellini is a Gaffer currently living in the UK, who has recently completed work on a feature film called 'Footprints on Water'. In this interview for Miss En Scene, Elena tells us what a gaffer does, how art forms beyond film influence her creative vision and how the German Expressionist movement continues to inform her practice.
Clare - Miss En Scene: First of all, can you tell us about what you do as a gaffer?
Elena: For me, being a gaffer is to do my best so that the DP (Director of Photography) and the director's dreams come true - as far as lighting is concerned. To do so I work with the DP in pre-production and together we establish the look we need to achieve - through references and examples - and how to get there. I personally find it useful having the knowledge and experience of analysing many, many films. That gives me a wider “visual understanding” but it can also include other arts than film like painting and photography. I find it just fascinating how past and present artists use the combination of light and shadow precisely to arouse emotions and attract attention.
Of course knowing the basics of electricity and safety laws at work is necessary but I feel a big portion of my job is about the aesthetic of different types and textures of light and their meaning once on the screen. A really big part of my work is also about dexterity and craft or DIY that can be acquired with training and experience, through time spent on the set and analysis of other people's works. In general it's real team work, starting from the DP-Gaffer relationship and carried out by the Gaffer and the Lighting team later.
C: How did you get into film production? Did you try out any other crew positions or were you always drawn to lighting?
E: At the end of my film course at university in France I did internships and worked for a kit rental company and in local TV. I moved to London as I saw that as a better opportunity for my career where available. I started finding work as a video editor which I recognised at that stage was the most “sellable” part of my CV on the job market - and is also a part of filmmaking that I like. I worked as a PA afterwards in a small production company and I had the opportunity to express my interest in the lighting department to the producer who gave me the chance to start as a Lighting Trainee on set whenever possible. From that small door opening to me I just tried to make the best out of it by investing most of my time in networking and working on lighting techniques.
C: Reading your bio, it seems you have worked and studied in a range of different countries (Italy, Iceland, France, UK). How do you think this shaped the direction you took in filmmaking?
E: Each of these places shaped me, the way I look at things, the way I work and also gave me the references I get inspired by. I was born in Italy and lived there until I was 23. I think that my roots shaped mainly the love and passion that I nourish for arts, and that may not be directly related to cinema - painting, sculpture, architecture and literature are the pillars that mostly influence my vision.
As a graduation gift - for my psychology BSc - I asked for a trip to Iceland where I learned photography by participating in an intensive course. That point of sudden personal enlightenment was not easy to process and luckily my family has always supported me. Iceland has been pivotal in bringing me closer to filmmaking. It has been a sort of “magical” experience to have lived a month in Reykjavik studying photography, meeting artists and being surrounded by breathtaking landscapes.
I spent a year working and thinking about the future, and finally I started my film studies in France which concluded in December 2018. France made me discover the world of filmmaking from learning the history of it to giving me the expertise and tools to practice it.
The UK is the place where I am based now and is basically where all those small achievements materialise in my job so it’s shaping my direction by giving me opportunities to grow and get better as a gaffer.
C: Tell me about a typical day on set for a gaffer...
E: The typical day as a gaffer is like the typical day for a pizza chef who on a Friday night is asked to make five different pizzas for three hours ago! Jokes apart, let’s imagine if I had to work just for one day on set after a successful job scouting and a bit of self promotion, a producer or a DP contacted me for a project and we start to conceive the light. Personally I prefer to draw on paper to make my lighting plans. And from there I begin to make the list of the necessary kit to rent.
On set I always bring a number of basic kits - gloves, gelatines, small LEDs…- depending on the type of work. Once at the location I unload the truck with my lighting colleagues and put the kit in a corner to be stored as tidy as possible but also as easy to access as I can. Sometimes this is the moment when I meet my assistants - if that day I have any - and the rest of my colleagues.
Click to enlarge and scroll through the images in the gallery below:
Secondly I start as soon as possible with the lighting setup because, as you might know, lighting takes time! It takes patience and energy because we are concretising in practice what was discussed, agreed, designed and planned the days before the shoot with the DP.
If I have different lighting setups, of course I follow the schedule on the call sheet, and specifically I start on the widest shot of the scene and so on... as the camera moves, the lighting team will only adjust details on closer shots. Once lighting is validated I usually quickly have my coffee and think about the rest of the setups. The days go on until the awaited WRAP is called and at that point we break down all the lighting rigged - it's better to have started (whenever possible) to pack down lights not used along the day - and get them back in the truck bit by bit.
Basically the gaffer deals with problems like a non-waterproof lighting truck, they fight against the weather (particularly with the sun) and most importantly, they stress about things but don't show it!
C: How can lighting be used in storytelling? What are some of your favourite examples of lighting in film?
E: I am re-reading right now 'Des lumières et des ombres' by Alekan Henri, a master of cinematography - and I apologise to the readers because I know how unobtainable this book is - but there are many other books out there I can give other examples: 'Film Lighting' just to name one. However all these books exalt the role of the light and the shadows as those two elements enhance storytelling and accompany it. Light and shadow are never left to chance in a film!
I have a soft spot for noir films like Chinatown, The Lady from Shanghai, but even before these films I discovered during my university years the German Expressionism cinema movement, where lights and shadows and optical illusions weren’t separated from the plot but were part of the set itself, they were drawn and painted on walls, ceilings and floors almost as they were characters or character’s parts themselves. I admit that watching Metropolis or Doctor Caligari's Cabinet may not sound that “attractive” today but knowing those films helps me find their references when recalled in films I watch now and of course I can only try to imitate moods and settings at work.
Other references could be: The Neon Demon, Enter the Void, Holy Motors, Joker, The Easy Life, Dogman, Lazzaro Felice, Midsommar and Kajillionaire.
C: How much of a creative license do you have when working with a director or producer?
E: I need to say that I have been lucky to have mainly worked with DPs who have left a lot of space for my creativity and suggestions. I always make sure to make myself clear by giving references, examples of work that can be mine or others and even including paintings and photos when needed. When I have doubts or I genuinely like having a second opinion I usually call the DP and together we try to figure out solutions or alternatives - it's best if this happens before the shoot.
C: Are there any notable gaffers (or directors/DoP) whose work you particularly admire or use as a benchmark when working on your own projects?
E: I have my heroes of course with notable gaffers and DOPs that I admire - I even had the luck to have a quick chat on social media with some of them. The cinematographer Natasha Braier is at the top of this list for many reasons. Not only she is a woman doing the job which I aspire to do in my future but also she is the creator of one of my favourite aesthetic looks as she was Director of Photography on The Neon Demon.
Hery Alekan for a classic example with his masterpiece La Belle et la Bête directed by Jean Cocteau is the result of the work of someone who studied, understood and mastered lights, shadow and visual effects being a true pioneer.
C: Looking at your showreel, you've worked on a range of projects to date including music videos, adverts, shorts and feature films. What have some of your highlights been from these experiences?
E: I would say there has been - and will be - many challenges. In general there is no set the same as the other and that is the good and bad thing itself. I have filmed an indoor swimming pool, at night, with the snow outside and obviously according to the script we were filming a summer scene. I love the teamwork and the “social” component of my role. To share experience, thoughts and ask for opinions whether it is the DP or a Spark in my department. Achieving what is planned in pre-production or handling a series of problems that are just inevitable is what makes me the proudest for myself and for my team as well. To see the film some time later knowing how much we all invested on set really amazes me and also makes me conscious of other movies and sets.
C: For anyone - particularly women and girls - wanting to get into film or lighting specifically, what advice would you give them?
E: At the very beginning of my journey I worked for free with the students over the weekends on their university projects and from there I started to grow a portfolio of work, but also to create contacts with people who would have soon access the professional world and that has been super useful for me as I studied in another country. I would say that the dedication, the passion, the motivation and a bit of courage have paid off and this is my general recipe. I think that identifying people you work with that you share aesthetic or values or work well with and cultivating those relationships. Be good and kind to the people you work with. We are one industry and the people you work with today will also be part of your future.
C: Finally, what does 2021 hold for you? Can you tell us about any upcoming projects that you're excited about?
E: 2021 does not have a specific goal for me. I believe I have learned from 2020 that as much as I like to plan and have ambitious goals EVERYTHING can change and therefore I adopt perhaps a little more the new motto of go with the flow in general life handling. BUT! I am doing my best to find the right opportunity to continue my work on feature films and I know that in the future I will want to try working as a DP. After the amazing 30 days of shoot that we did for Footprints on Water, the next project I am excited about is the one that will further challenge me to develop my Gaffer skills and make great films.