Gaffer Andrew Cook celebrates his 25th anniversary

Andrew Cook, Chicago’s only non-union gaffer who comes equipped with his own trucks and gear, is celebrating his 25th business anniversary.

To help mark the occasion, The Reel talked with the LaGrange Park-based gaffer about his lengthy and singular career in an ever-evolving industry.

REEL: Let’s start with your non-union status.  How did that come about in a big union town like ours?

ANDY COOK:  It wasn’t much of a choice, back in the early 1990s.  Even when I was working on all of the features shooting here – Backdraft, Home Alone, Groundhog Day – the union at that time was very restrictive, so I decided to go out on my own.  

I was finding plenty of corporate work, so there was no reason to join the union. 

Over the years, I’ve been offered a Local 476 card, but I prefer to run my own business and have the opportunity to be more creative on jobs where my opinions count.

REEL: What kind of trucks and gear do you offer?

COOK: When I was able to capture a corner of the market in corporate and commercials in the 1990s, I was able to buy a couple of lighting kits and worked out of a hatchback car.

I moved up to a mini-cargo van package.  Outgrew that, but kept the van and added a 3 ton/5 ton all grip/electric truck, with all-inclusive HMIs, Kino Flos and state-of-the-art LED lights.

My equipment investment is about $150,000.  That’s a lot for me since I did it all myself. 

REEL: What are some of the more radical changes you’ve seen in your end of the business over the years?

COOK:  I did a lot of work with the leading tabletop directors of the ‘90s.  It wasn’t uncommon at that time to use more than 20,000 watts of light for high-speed tabletop productions.

Lights had to be turned on right before the camera rolled and then cut immediately to prevent the products from catching on fire.

Film stocks and video cameras were extremely slow which meant everything had to be lit with tons of light just to get a usable stop.

Footage created using tube video cameras looked terrible by today’s standards and required constant tweaking by an engineer. These cameras, now antiques of video production, could never, ever be pointed at a light because it could cause permanent damage to the tubes. 

REEL: What kind of styles or looks do you like to use?

COOK: I’ve got a thousand styles.  I use whatever look or technique is best suited to tell the story or get the point across.  Someone shows me a picture and I can duplicate any new look for a film.

A good lighting director has to be flexible to serve the director and offer creative solutions all the time.

REEL: What are some of the jobs you’re currently working on?

COOK: I’ve been working with DP Bob Long, who’s associated with Luminair, for as long as I’ve been gaffing.  We shot a iPhone app for Rick Bayless (Mexico: One Dish at a Time) and work on his TV shows.  And we’re currently shooting some interesting TV pilots and a lot of commercials for Luminair.

REEL: You have an artistic background.  Is that what influences your work?

COOK:  Lighting satisfies my artistic nature. I have a fine arts degree from Carnegie-Mellon.  A landscape can tell a story but lighting can change the tenor of a scene.  Put an egg on a tabletop, for example.  Good lighting can make it seem sinister, glamorous or dramatic.

REEL:  And you are still an artist.

COOK: I have a nice studio in my home where I continue to have an active career painting and drawing, mostly abstractions. 

I knew from the time I was in high school I wanted to go into the film industry.  That’s how I persuaded my parents, both artists, to let me study fine art in college.  I wasn’t going to end up a starving artist.