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Lighting Designer for the 21st Century

A look at lighting design in the new millennium and how the lighting designer’s job has been changed by
market forces and a growing entertainment industry.

A big bunch of profile spotlights

As stage lighting has moved from the theatre and into the commercial world, the title “Lighting Designer” moved with it. Theatre job titles and the “system” that grew throughout the 20th century still remains largely intact (unlike many of the theatres). Richard Pilbrow’s excellent book Lighting Design – The Art, The Craft, The Life describes the world of a 20th century lighting designer in detail.

Newer parts of our industry, awards shows or industrials, the lighting design workflow that started in the theatre tradition has mutated under the pressures of commerce. In an industry that now largely competes on price, I have witnessed big changes first hand in the last 15 years.

In the Disney version of Lighting Design, you work as you were trained to: Consider the show, go to meetings, carefully design and plan every detail, choose every gel. The long winter evenings fly by as you sit with your Lee swatch book, trying to find the three best colours to simulate fire light. Along with the art comes the planning – Producing plans, spreadsheets, schedules and even pre programming your show using a simulator like WYSIWYG. While thumbing through the Vari*lite catalogue, you carefully compare lumens and beam angles while wondering if it would be ok to ask the lighting company to swap out every gobo in 50 WaggleSpots ™.

For every West End production or meticulously planned tour, there are 50 award ceremonies such as the “UK Sausage Growers Quarterly Awards 2009” or another weekend rock festival with an improbable name like “N20”. For every .wyg file there are 100 fag packet sketches scrawled on the back of production emails. For every carefully scheduled gel call, there must be at least 10 phone calls that go “just make sure there’s some blue and some frost in there, Dave”.

Are you a Lighting Designer?

Surely LD’s design stuff, choose things and plan in the traditional manner? They pick angles, colours and once in the venue lead the team in focussing and plotting while painting with light, right?

I am often introduced as the Lighting Designer on gigs where I have neither chosen the kit, the colour or even had any say in the rigging positions. In the 21stC world, being tagged as the Lighting Designer can mean a number of things:

  • You are the head of the lighting crew and will be programming the desk.
  • You are the only one here who knows which end the light comes out of a Source 4.
  • You are responsible for the stage not looking crap and we will be asking some pretty serious questions if it does.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that you spent hours of pre production on “designing”. Some will say that you are not a Lighting Designer but a Lighting Do-er – turn up, do it and FOH (industry acronym for going home). The Lighting Designer can still bring their own brand of art to this brave new world of Bish Bash Bosh eventing. Just make sure that you bring it with you on the day.

Where does the Lighting Designers art fit into this?

Let’s take a typical commercial lighting scenario. Every week, I take at least one phone call like this:

PM “Hi Rob, we’re doing the [insert something you’ve never heard of] Awards at the [insert ghastly London hotel] next week. I have provisionally booked a load of Pixelline, 6 Spots, 6 Washes and a few Source Fours, few Fresnels. Oh, and some cheap LED PARs for uplighters. Do you need anything else?”

Me: “Well, given that the niceties of pre production and all those other luxuries I learned about at drama school don’t seem to be on the table, just make sure there is a couple of irises and some frost. Don’t suppose you can describe the set to me? No? Ok, what desk have we got. No, I definitely don’t want one of those!….”

And so we establish that there’s no rigging and only 3 hours from truck unloading until rehearsals. We have also circumvented the need for a lighting design fee(!) or any time faffing about in the office trying to import a DWG with seemingly random scaling. This is not a specifically shocking example or a complaint about how the business works, it just gives us a typical scenario that we can pick the design bones out of.

Where’s the design?

Fixture Positioning – In common with traditional theatre design, many fixture position decisions are largely a double Hobson’s Choice. Either it goes here or there or it doesn’t go anywhere and in our case of limited rigging we don’t have a lot to play with. But there are small decisions related to placement that can make your lighting better or worse .. where the lighting designer skills are required.

The Focus – In our example we don’t have hundreds of conventional fixtures. This makes the focus of the few we have even more important. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the next generation of lighting designers is learning how to do a good focus without the distractions of complex fixtures and controllers. Making design decisions to produce a good focus makes a decent lighting designer invaluable. I have seen perfectly good rigs ruined by bad focussing.

– OK, so we didn’t get to flick through our swatch books hunting down exactly the right gel. The rig we have has two different kinds of RGB LED fixtures (more than that if the Pixelline is a bit older ;-[ ), some CMY, some fixed colour wheels, tungsten. The colour choices may not have been made beforehand but you better make them now that the client is breathing down your neck. Good lighting designers know which colours to use and how to get them using the array of colour mixing kit available these days. (Top Tip – the colour you require is usually the one in 16 million that those LED’s can’t do).

The Looks – Using the range of very flexible kit in this kitlist, this is the opportunity to really create. No different to traditional theatre plotting. While good fixture positioning and focus make life easier, the balancing of light and use of intensities are what creates the final result. The 21st century Lighting Designer also gets to choose angles, movement and the interaction of dynamic lighting. OK, so today we only have 20 minutes to do that but still…..

The Cues – Looks are important but transitions between them are no less integral to a good show. Having our Pixelline not crash through some horrible pink while going from blue to red is part of the modern lighting designers remit.

The Design

While the mechanics of lighting design in the new century can use different work patterns and processes, the hallmarks of good lighting hasn’t really changed. And while some people might insist that drawing a plan is prerequisite to be given the title “Lighting Designer”, we have seen that design decisions are integral to good lighting whenever they are taken. If you have to take those decisions (and if you’re in charge of the lighting not being crap), you are the Lighting Designer. Simple as.

Why should I bother to learn how to do lighting designs the “traditional” way?

Educational establishments teaching lighting design still work on traditional theatre lighting design and workflow for good reason. This method teaches you essential skills such as:

  • The basics of light, angles and it’s interaction with subjects.
  • Good methods of lighting a stage
  • To use the pre production process wisely and communicate with other departments
  • To clearly communicate your intentions using recognised drafting techniques
  • How to organise equipment inventories, budgetting and other paperwork
  • Working in an organised team structure and mastering time management
  • Tried and trusted methods of focusing and producing a useful rig to plot with
  • Plotting lighting in a favourable enviroment (ie, not with the working lights still on, rehearsals in progress, sun blasting in the front of the stage etc)
  • Keep visually evaluating your work during the final process of rehearsals.

I’m sure there’s a load more. Learning how to do things “properly” is a fundamental of good education in any business. I love hearing stories of college students lighting their shows, using Lightwright, getting their hands on Vectorworks and going through the process guided by experienced tutors. It reassures me that these guys are getting the education they deserve.

Back in the real world The UK Sausage Growers still need someone who understands how to make the host visible on stage, how to make the environment look good and how to use lighting to add to the sausage based excitement of winning Banger of the Year (!?). All the crew, equipment and CAD in the world don’t necessarily guarantee that. This time you didn’t get to choose the kit, the rigging, the colour or do many of the things that a “real” lighting designer might do – avoiding a lighting suckfest is still in your hands for the next few hours.

In a fast paced, cost driven lighting business, the stuff hidden inside the head of a good LD is still where the real value is.

Image based on a photo by Deapeajay on Flickr

  1. Nick Thompson

    Hi rob i am a college student trying to learn satge lighting. I dont have a teacher the drama teacher knows a bit but not heaps. I have learnt as much as i can hands on. But i want to know how make good looking thereter lighting sceans. Also when to use what colors we have a small but flexable set of lights at school with what seems a truck load of gels but no gobos 🙁 . CAN YOU HELP!!??

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