The Gaffer: Working behind the scenes

From sound to lighting, the people that work behind the scenes of film and television are often not given the recognition they deserve.

Duncan MacGregor worked lighting on the set of various projects throughout the ’80s and ’90s, including the films Alive (1993) and The Sixth Man (1997). Starting from the bottom as an electrician and then as best boy, he eventually worked his way up to become a gaffer, the chief electrician on films and television.

Growing up, MacGregor gained first-hand electrical experience: He would test different electrical equipment in the family garage and worked part-time at his father’s electrical company. While working, he was only given an allowance by his father for his work, while the rest of his pay went into a bank account. During his senior year in high school, he did what any teen who needed money would do on the last day before Christmas vacation. He and a friend set up a bar in his van.

“Things were going pretty good until the police arrived,” says his father, Harvey. “And that ended his career in school. They sort of told him to never come back again.”

When he should’ve been graduating from high school, MacGregor got a job at CBC in Vancouver, working on the lighting. Following this was a stint on the long-running Canadian series The Beachcombers. He was innovative when it came to his work. According to his father, MacGregor figured out a way not to use a generator at Molly’s Reach, the restaurant on The Beachcombers, so there were no fuel costs, operator costs or noise. MacGregor also liked to experiment with lighting. “He was involved in using fibre optics long before was anybody else around here was using it,” Harvey said. He worked on The Beachcombers for two summers.

As he improved and honed his skilled, he had more responsibility handed to him. He became very good at his job and never had to look for look.

“Without writing anything down, he could balance a load and a generator. He had a fantastic memory,” Harvey said.

This eventually led to him becoming a gaffer, in charge of all electrics on site.

While MacGregor’s interests were behind the scenes, he had his first and only acting role, playing a gardener in the TV movie Assault and Matrimony. He got to yell at a dog. It was the end of his acting career.

MacGregor travelled a lot for his work, to different parts of B.C., such as Victoria and the east Kootenays, as well as to the States, including Florida, San Francisco and Washington. Harvey recalls a time when MacGregor requested smoked fish be sent to him where he was filming, just north of the Arctic Circle. “I said it’s $40 a pound, are you sure you want it?” MacGregor also spent eight weeks in the Serengeti in Africa for his work.

Soon after returning home from South Africa, MacGregor was diagnosed with cancer. He continued working until he was hospitalized in February 1997. On that same project, five other people were diagnosed with cancer, the oldest being 42.

Duncan MacGregor passed away from cancer at the age of 39 on March 22, 1997. His final project, The Sixth Man was released one week later on March 28, and dedicated to his memory.

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