In Bob We Trust: Remembering Robert J. Petrie, 1946-2016

“I was born in Bishop’s Falls, Newfoundland, and in high school did some theatre lighting by using 12 volt car headlights and toy train transformers as dimmers. I soon discovered that the wrong wire size can create spectacular backstage fires.”

On August 10, 2016, the provincial film community lost a man whose knowledge, wit, and love of storytelling made any film set a unique experience. Robert J. Petrie, better known as Bob, was a gaffer for more than 38 years and a mentor to many. In later years, he managed the Atlantic Studios Co-operative (ASCO), the equipment rental house in St. John’s that plays a vital role in our film industry’s self-reliance.

Back in November 2014, The Overcast published an article about what gaffers, grips, and electrics do on film sets. Bob, being his ever-generous self, offered much more than we could publish. So here are some more selections of Bob’s words as we mourn his loss and, thanks to him, celebrate our industry’s invaluable gains.

“I was born in Bishop’s Falls, Newfoundland, and in high school did some theatre lighting by using 12 volt car headlights and toy train transformers as dimmers. I soon discovered that the wrong wire size can create spectacular backstage fires.”

“In early 1967, I was engaged by the Department of Public Works to supervise the finishing of the theatre lighting and rigging system at the new Arts & Culture Centre. The building opened in the fall of 1967 and I was hired as Technical Director. I spent 14 years there, trained with The Canadian Opera Company, The National Ballet, spent a few months at the Stratford Festival, and then back at the Arts & Culture Centre I designed lighting and sets for hundreds of professional and amateur productions.”

“The change that I dislike the most is the shift from film to a digital medium. I find that film is an organic, warm medium. You see the light from an image that passes through glass lenses, excites your eye, and also excites chemicals on celluloid. There is a chemical reaction and, voila, you have an image. Your skill at photography is not proven until the film is processed and printed. It’s a mystery. How does the cinematographer know?”

“Anyway, there are fewer and fewer dinosaurs like me left. Thank God the good film DPs are adapting and being extremely creative with digital.”

“Every facet of a movie creates the domino effect. In the simplest form, here’s what happens: If you rent a light, you need a stand, you need a sandbag to keep the stand safe, you need a cable to bring power to the light, you need a source of power, you need to transport the light to and from location, you need some diffusion or colour and you need an electric and a grip to fuss with that bunch of gear. Multiply that by ten lights and you start to fill a truck, so then you need a driver for the truck, which you have to rent and supply gas.”

“The last film I gaffed was a Tom Selleck film in 2012 and I have now concentrated on growing Atlantic Studios Co-operative as part of the motion picture infrastructure in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

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6 Comments

  • I worked on so many shows with Bob over the years, I can no longer remember them all. But his wit, his calm demeanour & as Bob used to say , “the circle of confusion boy’s ,has become a sphere” when the pace on set went from controlled chaos to frantic … I will always remember him smiling unfazed when he would say it.

    • Hey Ricky! J-9 here. Long time no see. I started laughing and crying at the same time when I read your quite about Bob. Man I loved that guy! I also remember him often saying, “The shit may be rolling down hill boys, but the smell always lingers at the top”, referring to movie-making politics. He made everything fun and interesting. I will miss him.

  • I’ll fondly remember our (my) long winded chats with Bob, in particular when I would stop by the Co-op and interrupt his work. I worked with Bob occasionally on set, but our best chats were, by far, at the Co-op.
    We would often talk about the most recent shoot, swimming, equipment rentals, and an awesome number of Bobs work experiences.
    For weeks now, as I drive by, unconsciously, still look to see if Bobs van is there, and if I’d drop in. It isn’t, and will never be again. What a terrible loss.

  • I worked with Bob at CBC television and loved his professionalism but most of all his wit and good humour. The Earth has lost a.good citizen. Regrets to his family and friends.

  • I had the honor of working with Bob on several productions , he was a wealth of information in which he shared with us , we will miss you Bob , but will always be reminded of you .??

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