On Set With... Andy Lowe, experienced gaffer

This is part of a new series of KFTV interviews with film, TV and commercial production figures about their filming experiences

By Alix Song 2 Feb 2021

On Set With... Andy Lowe, experienced gaffer
Andy Lowe

On Set With… Andy Lowe

KFTV talks to Andy Lowe about his experiences as a gaffer on major films and TV shows, including The Crown and a Star Wars spin-off, and how he’s had to adapt in Covid times

Andy Lowe, gaffer, is a veteran of dozens of TV and film productions over his 20-year career. Since starting out in Sheffield while at university, on low-budget short films and music videos, he has since worked on diverse projects, including, most recently The Crown, both Paddington films, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance and Annihilation. And he is currently working on a Star Wars spin-off.

Andy’s big break came when Warp Films started up in Sheffield and shot indie film This is England, which Andy worked on. “I started getting a lot of work as a gaffer through them. Eventually it made sense for me to move to London where a lot of the industry is based.”

Andy has seen a shift in the last five years towards high-end TV and streaming, which has overtaken film. “There are less huge budget films now. It’s mainly been longer TV jobs, which gives us much opportunity to develop things, although they are a much bigger commitment of 7 - 9 months’ work so require a different mentality.

“I’ve been involved in every series of The Crown, for instance. Because the story moves through decades from the fifties to the eighties, the prop and film lights must evolve – you need to keep an eye on things and change them accordingly. For instance, when the Queen became Queen, there were no fluorescent or even sodium lights but only traditional filament lightbulbs. These give a warm look, especially for night shoots. Whereas in the 1960s and beyond, more fluorescent bulbs were used in hospitals, offices and those type of places.

Lighting tells its own story, explains Andy, which you can play with. Despite the increased use of fluorescent lighting, the royal residences would still have their traditional bulbs “but in a way it shows they are out of touch and stuck in the old world and you can play with it,” he says.

The Crown. Credit: Netflix

The Crown has a big research department and archive so we could always refer to what had actually happened and been documented.” Preparation for Andy on this type of project begins 8-10 weeks before shooting although as gaffer he would join much later than the art department and cinematographer. “As gaffer you’re trying to get on board or catch up with what’s already been decided. Andy spends the first couple of weeks of preparation going through the scripts and off on some recces, seeing some locations and talking to the art department, assistant director and locations department about what we plan to do..or not do.”

The arrival of Covid-19 meant that The Crown’s story in series four about Prince Charles being caught in an avalanche couldn’t be shot in the Pyrenees as planned. “We were meant to film a whole sequence there with an emergency helicopter,” explains Andy. “Amazingly they managed to edit round it and the story is told through the Queen learning about the event rather than literally, which in a way, is just as dramatic.” The lockdown restrictions also meant the series had to be edited remotely with the final colour grading done at home on a livestream rather than post-production houses.

“What’s tricky is being able to go to other countries to film. I’ve heard that more projects may come here to the UK as our stringent Covid protocols seem to be working,” says Andy. He points to the fact that the crew on the set of the Star Wars spin-off, shooting at Pinewood Studios, are being tested three times a week, with those like him not on set being tested twice a week, which is catching asymptomatic Covid carriers. 

Andy believes the industry has managed the pandemic well, with regular testing and the usual Covid measures. After all, a lot of shooting is about compromise and adapting to a new situation. “We are used to working with strict protocols,” he explains. “When we were filming Paddington, for safety reasons we could only film on platforms that weren’t electrified for the scenes at Paddington station and there was a limit on how high equipment could be and brakes were needed on rolling equipment. Plus, when filming at Paddington station and any station you can’t have electrical cables trailing across the concourse but so need to have only battery-powered lights.”

While in series four of The Crown, a scene at Victoria station required the erection of barriers to both keep the public at a distance and enable the station to run normally. “There are new rules due to Covid and you just have to learn how to film under them,” concludes Andy.

The pandemic has meant the industry’s green initiatives have suffered, such as Greenshoot and Albert, admits Andy, with single-use cutlery now being used plus disposable face masks and tests.

He also concedes that Covid’s impact overall on the industry is undeniable with months of production lost globally and a big effort underway to both catch up on projects plus shoot new projects, meaning the biggest difficulty for 2021 is the shortage of crew available.  It all points to a busy year ahead, with plenty of work for people like Andy.

Andy’s top tips for those interested in being gaffers…

  • When starting out and working on low-budget films, order and try out equipment you haven't used before. Companies often give out or subsidize this for low-budget productions and you can use it to experiment.
  • It took me 20 years to work on Star Wars but gaining experience on smaller stuff first is vital as it allows you to make mistakes in a way you can't once you work on bigger-budget projects. Low-budget stuff also challenges your creativity as you have to do the best you can with less resources. 
  • Nurture the relationships you develop when you start out as it's important to work with people you trust and you will grow with them in the industry and work with them and will likely end up being employed by them. 

Main image: Andy Lowe on set. Credit: British Cinematographer.co.uk.

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