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Happy 50th Birthday to Gaffer’s Tape!

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When I was a young pup working in the film/tv production industry, I was flipping through the Lowel lighting equipment catalog during a break and read that the company invented Gaffer’s Tape in 1959.

No, way!! — I thought — How could GONE WITH THE WIND have been made without Gaffer’s Tape?!?!?   How could they create CITIZEN KANE without Gaffer’s Tape???”

However, it’s true:   the most indispensable tool (after lenses and film) in the production of moving images has only been around for half a century.   In the late 1950s Ross Lowell developed a series of quality motion picture lights that were portable and could be used in tight locations.   In tandem with these revolutionary lights, his company developed and released a tape you could slap on any surface; one that wouldn’t leave a gummy residue (or take the paint off the wall) when it’s peeled off.   Since then it’s been used to hide microphones, secure cables, make an actor’s mark, and adjust lighting.   I remember one evening in film school, Welsh cinematographer Ernest Nukanen (who worked on Kubrick’s early feature KILLER’S KISS and Maya Deren’s last film THE VERY EYE OF NIGHT) showed the class a cool trick.   A key light was just a little too bright:   moving the light back or adding more scrims or filters would have destroyed the effect.   Nukanen showed us that taking a small strip of gaffer’s tape, and placing the strip so it would hang down over the source of the light, would cut the light’s brilliance just enough that the lighting would be balanced for the effect you’re going after.

Lowell’s roll-out of new products in 1959 said a lot about how moving image production was changing and how his gear was meeting new needs.   Equally important, his products also impacted how movies have been produced and shot in the last fifty years.   Gaffer’s tape and Lowel lights helped take film production onto the streets, into cramped spaces, brought the art of capturing moving images to a new level of immediacy.
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Ross Lowell also wrote a book about lighting called Matters of Light & Depth.   I’ve never read it, but I’m sure it kicks serious butt.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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