Editor's Note: Craig Burns, who many of you know as Burnie, owns Burnie's Grip and Lighting, the largest grip and lighting company south of Los Angeles.He is universally acknowledged as being among the best in the business and is extremely well liked by customers and colleagues alike. As you'll see, he got started in the business in a most unusal way.
Burnie was born in Los Angeles in the 50s and lived in the L.A. area, Lancaster, Lakewood, and Van Nuys until 1961 when his family moved to Tacoma, WA where he spent the next 28 years. He worked in a company that dealt with car importing and got transferred back to Los Angeles when he was almost 39 years old. He says it took him “about six hours” to realize that he’d never leave southern California again. He is one of the most respected gaffers in the industry but his journey was as unique as he is. I have used him on several commercials I produced and he is my go to guy when I need something lit. He's also one of the nicest and most fun people I know.
OCS When did you first get into the business?
Burnie: I had done a few things in the Northwest with a little cable show, no real production work but did help a little with creative stuff. My real job was in automobile imports with Mitsubishi, Hyundai, and Volkswagen. We would accessorize them in the United States and send them out to dealerships. That was my job, to make sure the right cars got to the right dealerships. That’s what I did for most of my adult life until I was probably 41-42. As happenstance would have it, one day I became a $50 a day P.A. (production assistant). I realized that I liked what I saw. About this time the economy in L.A. was going south and the company that I worked for was going to transfer me to Lafayette, Indiana where they had a company that produced Rodeo cars for Isuzu. Like a good soldier I said I would go but after a while realized that I wasn't making any plans to move. So it dawned on me that I would never leave Southern California again. I gave notice and became the industry’s oldest P.A and thus started my career in this industry.
OCS: OK, so you’re in L.A., don’t have a job, and are the oldest P.A. in the industry. What then?
Burnie: I’m in my 40s and the bottom line is I needed to make money so I did a number of things. I wanted to get on set as often as I could, I reiterate that to everybody who wants to get into the business, of getting on set. So one of the things I did was become an extra up in Hollywood. Use the experience for what you can glean out of it. It’s probably the best university you can go to. Pay attention to how the big sets are organized, how they’re lit, how the production operates. It’s invaluable as you can extrapolate it down in scale. A little operation needs to have all these facets in it but it needs to operate on a smaller scale.
Because I was an operations manager for the company I had worked for, I had anywhere from six to one hundred people under me at any given time, I knew who the customer was. So when I was on set, I looked at my customer as the guy who hired me. If the key grip hired me or the production company hired me, or the DP hired me, I was there to make that person look good. In a larger sense, the production company was my customer. So I was there to make the guy who hired me look good and since the director and producer paid the bills I was there to make them look good. I learned as quickly as possible the many terms in the grip and lighting business. I learned an apple box is a box, and a quarter apple box is one-fourth that size and a C47 is really a clothespin, and so on.
OCS: When did you make the decision to set up your own company?
Burnie: So I was a PA and in no real hurry, I wanted time on set to learn what a set was about and how it worked. I was a PA, I would do light grip work, I would do swing, best boy on a truck, I would do anything just to keep myself on set. It soon became apparent that grip and lighting had the biggest crews so I was more likely to be on set if I knew my grip and lighting which I had tried. Also, people liked me and that helped as well. That’s one thing I always tell people, it is common knowledge on set that you don't have to know everything, you just need to know how to work.
Slowly I got more and more phone calls from a wider and wider group of people yet I was never anybody's first call. I would be the second call, the third call which is fine. I worked all the time because I had a broad footprint of people I knew but I realized I needed to have control over my own employment. What that took was to have a small package of grip and lighting to be able to light very small interviews or sets. I would make myself more employable. And people who did hire me knew I came with some back up. So every check I got for about three years, I would take half of the check and buy whatever I could afford. A sandbag, C-stand, or a light, or a flag, slowly, very slowly I built up my package. At first it just fit in the corner of my room. It was finally so much that I had to put it out in the car port.
OCS: Did you mostly work in Hollywood?
Burnie: No. Mostly Orange County. The thing about me is that my work has been mostly outside of Hollywood. And, very little entertainment. One of things that I'm most excited about right now is that the largest amount of production is outside of entertainment. The biggest amount of production is for corporate, industrial, and informational video
OCS: Tell us about your crew.
Burnie: Essentially I’m a gaffer. I work under the director of photography. I’m the one who’s in charge of making the light happen. I get power to it, put the lights up, I know where they're going to go. I tell the key grip, who is directly underneath me, what flags and silks I want in front of that light and how I want the light cut. I have a best boy electric who is preparing the lights for me and making sure they are tubed in the way I want them. And a best boy grip, who’s helping the key grip get all of the things he needs to get up.
We’re all freelance. We all come into each job as called, myself as well as the guys. I have a group of guys who are on my first call list. I have five guys I’ll call first every time. It doens’nt denote the quality of the people. My second calls are just as qualified as my first calls, sometimes even more so. It’s just we work in slightly different groups, so people art always changing on my crew. Mostly it has to do with availability.
OCS: What do you look for in new people you hire.
Burnie: As for new people, if I have a recent graduate from a film school or a kid who’s been working for a drive thru for three years, I am probably going to hire the kid from the drive thru. Not that the film school graduate doesn’t know a lot but I know the kid from the drive thru can handle multiple orders, he can handle stress, and he can be given tasks he doesn’t know how to accomplish and accomplish them. That’s what I’m looking for, someone who can-do. There’s plenty of knowledge on set, I’m looking for people who will work hard, well, and efficiently.
OCS: Have you done much event lighting?
Burnie: No. The reason is, in production you have a fairly specific amount of tools that are designed to achieve a picture on set. With event lighting you need a whole different set of tools. (Burnie went on to discuss the wide variety of differences, but needless to say, he’d be great if he did event lighting but he is already great at lighting sets and is happy to stay right there).
Burnie: My lighting packages right now consists of five vehicles. I have two, one-ton vans which are meant to light interviews or smaller sets. I have a two-ton, which is an intermediary between my one ton and three ton. The three-ton is there to light a medium-size set, and when I say set, that can be in a studio or on location. And I have a five ton which is meant to light a larger outdoor set or interior.
OCS: Things are constantly changing in this business. What are the types of things that you need to pay most attention to?
Burnie: For one, cameras always change. When I first started everyone had Betacams. You could put a black piece of tape on something in the background and never see it. .Now we’re 4K, and 5K on the Epic Red, and you can see the fine grain on the tape. You need to change with the times and keep up with what the cameras have the ability to see. I’ve never stopped buying and upgrading my lighting gear. LED lighting is going to be the future. The incandescent bulb will give way to the LED. The main issue with LEDs at this time is the cost. You will see the change over the next few years, including fresnels.
OCS: Tell us about of some of the problems you run into.
Burnie: Video and production happen so quickly. With the advent of the cell phone you don't get two weeks notice you used to get. You don't get a scout day, you get a call saying “can you shoot two days from now?” You take your best guess at what's going to happen and what you’ll need. One time I had this show down in San Diego and called me and said we’re just doing an interview so I bring a package that can light indoors or out. They bring me into a big arena surrounded by glass panels with five people and a hostess that he wants to get lit immediately and start shooting. He said he guesses he should have called me and told me about the extra people and that we’d need some HMIs! Well yeah! We needed about six of them. So we spent the next 2 hours calling around, sending out the truck and picking up the lights we needed. Oh, and they were going live via satellite so there was no re-scheduling. This is the kind of thing that happens more often than you would imagine. We pulled it off, not how I would've liked to, but the proliferation of work and less experienced corporate types makes for more decisions made with less time to plan.
OCS: Can you relate some of the greatest experiences you’ve had?
Burnie: It's a no-brainer. They have nothing to do with lighting. It’s beemn the experiences of the people we were interviewing. I have heard the most fascinating and inspirational stories from people on and off camera. I spent three hours with Billie Jean King. She walked us through the entire Bobby Riggs match, man versus woman in tennis. It was a very inspiring message which gave me a whole new respect for Bobby Riggs and what a proponent of woman's tennis he was, that was what that whole match was about. He played the buffoon to raise the profile of woman's tennis. What a selfless act that guy performed. Some talk about disabilities they overcame. One golfer who I won’t name, cured himself of stuttering at an early age and was learning how to play golf but because he could not communicate with other people well so he became a golf pro and eventually won the US Open a week later he found out he wouldn't be play golf anymore because of a degenerative disease in his hands so because he had cured his stuttering, he became one of the biggest announcers back in the 60s. I heard this story from his very lips. One time we were with an astrophysicist talking about the universe. But at age 23 he was an advisor to Dean Rusk and he was in the White House for 15 hours in the Oval Office in the situation room with John F Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis and off camera he told us the whole back story. It’s the people I’ve met that have been my greatest experiences.
OCS: What would you like people to know about you?
Burnie: The older I get the more I realize what is possible. The future is brighter and brighter. The diversity of technology right now is very exciting and where that's taking our industry. We used to have a very tight pipeline when I was growing up, we had three channels on TV. Now the standard number is 500 and that’s not including what’s happening with Internet, which is in its infancy in distributing video. We can’t even imagine where it’s going. A favorite saying of mine is that in ten years there’s going to be one hundred times as much work, work in the media business, but I’m afraid 75% of the current people and will not make the transition. I’m trying to keep my head wide open. I’m not just a gaffer or a grip or just in lighting. I will do whatever comes along and ride it to the top.
OCS: Tells us about OC Gaffer. It’s one of the funniest bits I have seen in a long time.
Burnie: I always thought our business would make the best reality show. Every day you are going to a new product, a new person. And every day you are given a new set of circumstances to overcome. I had talked about it so long I was obsessive about it, so one day I decided I just needed to make a pilot.
I wanted to show people what production is really like. People sit at home, even people in the industry, and they become lost in it. Television, video, is the best emotion manufacturing machine ever devised by man. Better than radio, books, or anything like that. There’s a group of blue collar guys that need food, need water, that are lugging equipment around, that are making things happen on an unbelievable time schedule and they’re making it look beautiful at the same time. I want to show the juxtaposition of what appears on screen and the pandemonium that happens behind the scenes to make it happen on time. I wanted to show the people who work between the takes so that the next time a director turns around he’s ready to shoot.
OCS: How is the nature of your business changing?
Burnie: Because of the wide flood plain of a pipeline that we have with video on the web, radio stations and small companies have been constructing small green screens or regular shooting studios at their corporate offices so that they can build content and keep their websites updated with fresh material. So one of the things I’ve been contracted to do, that’s come out of the blue, is to light radio stations for their daily webcasts Also, for companies like DirecTV, I’ve build televisions studios for them because now they have a much greater need to produce in house video not even broadcast video. The lighting, once the box is build is essentially what I give them. It’s fairly easy to get a grid built or soundproofing, stuff like that. I’ve always called what we do as the voodoo black magic of production because lighting is not cookie-cutter. It depends on what you're going to do, the size of your facility, how much ambient lighting is there or not there. I usually consult on the acquisition of lighting as there is such a wide variety of instruments that can do any job, and cost is always a factor.
OCS: Are there leaders in the grip and lighting industry, big guys, like the studios?
Burnie: No. We’re a bunch of blue collar, working class guys who work on tens of thousands of small projects as well as big ones. I believe that non-entertainment projects outnumber the entertainment projects by 10 or 20 to 1. The non-entertainment product may only be seen by 10,000 people, not a million, but they are the corporate videos, product descriptions for the Internet, training videos and so on. And most of the good people are working all the time. I haven’t had a day off in years. Maybe 20% of it is lighting, the rest is paperwork, equipment maintenance, and so on.
View the pilot of OC Gaffer