STLD
The Society of Television Lighting and Design

Beginner's guide to being a lighting director (LD)

The lighting director's job

Getting booked for the job

This is in some ways the most difficult part of the profession! LDs don't call around asking for work, we simply wait for the phone to ring. We don't advertise as such but these days many of us have a website - such as this one - and there are several databases on the Internet listing people working in various area of film and TV. I have my name on most of them. When I first went freelance a few years ago it seemed the sensible thing to do. After all, if a producer is looking for an LD and they don't know how to contact you, you won't get the booking.

Normally, we are booked for a show by a producer or director who has worked with us before and liked what we did. It's as simple as that. There's an old expression that goes 'You're only as good as your last job.' It's certainly true of what we do. If we disappoint in some way then we are unlikely to be booked by that production team again. The other way of losing work is simply being unavailable because of clashing bookings. If the first choice LD is unavailable then the second choice may be someone new to most if not all of the production team. If that job goes well then that LD has won a new regular client.

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Planning

Depending on the type of production, the LD might receive a script a few weeks before the recording. This is pretty normal with sitcoms and dramas and is very useful to get some idea of what one has got oneself involved in. Many programmes, however, don't have a written script as such. They have a planning meeting a week or two before the studio day to which the heads of the various technical departments are invited. The producer describes what the show is all about, the director sums up how the show will be shot and the designer has a set plan and model which he or she uses to explain to everybody how it will all look. At this point one is usually contracted to light the show so it is too late to pull out!

A sitcom will usually have a rehearsal called the 'tech run' which is held in a church hall, usually the day before the set and lighting rig go into the studio. This is an opportunity for the heads of department to see a run and get a bit ahead of the game. The LD can make notes so he or she knows where the cameras are likely to be and where the actors will be standing. This information is vital if a good lighting plot is to be designed. Unfortunately, a new pattern has been emerging in the last few years. This involves the tech run either happening after the lighting rig has gone into the studio or the tech run happening on the set, after the finelight. Obviously, this is of little use to the LD who will therefore have had to draw the plot having somehow guessed where the actors and cameras will be just from reading the script.

Anything on location or perhaps in an unusual studio will involve a recce. I try to make sure that my gaffer (electrical supervisor or chargehand) is with me for this. If not, then I will return with him well before the production date. A good gaffer will notice things that I have missed and will suggest ways of making the rig work better. At the recce the LD will try to establish from the director which way the cameras will be looking - or more importantly, what the camera will not see. Then you know where cables might be routed and how lamps might be rigged. There is a huge amount involved in the planning of a major OB or location shoot - far more than can be gone into here - but my experience is that things on the day itself are seldom quite what you expected from what was initially told to you at the recce. Also - the weather is never the same either. A recce in dull overcast conditions guarantees that the sun will shine brilliantly on the record day. You had better be sure which way is south!

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Plotting

For a 'normal' studio show, the LD takes the set plan away from the planning meeting or tech run and draws the lighting plot. Of course, every studio is different and comes with different lamps, different ways of hanging them and different problems.

To perhaps understand the job of an LD a bit better it might help to bear in mind that a studio is fundamentally a black box. Every lamp is only there because the LD wants it to be. Each one is selected for a particular use and drawn on the plot. He or she will have to consider the power of the lamp, its distance from the subject and its height. Its weight might also be a limiting factor. As well as choosing the type of lamp for any particular job there is also the choice of any colour or diffusion to be made.

There are many different kinds of lamp (more correctly referred to as a 'lantern', a 'fixture' or even 'luminaire' if you want to be really posh.) They break down into fresnels, softlights, profile spots, PARs and all the various kinds of automated and LED lights. The LD has to choose the correct lamp for each application based upon its individual qualities and abilities. Light might not always be pointed directly at the set. There are many types of reflector that alter the quality of the light which are sometimes used for particular applications.

The choice of fixtures will be determined partly by what is available in that particular studio but also on the budget for additional gear the LD has been given. This can range from the very generous (very rare) to the laughably small (sadly not so rare). Thus, the rig drawn on the plot will be as much about making the best of what is available as actually choosing the best lamp for each job.

As a very experienced LD once said to me - 'the most difficult lamp to draw on any plot is the first one'. From then on it simply becomes a matter of one compromise after another.

Basically - what an LD has to do is to guess beforehand how the show will be shot and make sure that there are lights in all the right places that will enable that to happen. He or she has to imagine in his or her head what the final result will look like, based on the wishes of the producer and the information given by the director and the designer and then draw a plot that will hopefully produce a professional-looking result on screen. It's as simple as that.

There are two main requirements with any form of television lighting. One is make the artists (presenters/actors/turns) look as good as possible and the other is to make the set look as good as possible. Quite often these requirements come into conflict and part of an LD's job is to get that balance right.

Ninety-five percent of television consists of close-ups of people's faces. Sometimes, set designers don't always appreciate that to make the performers' faces look good their set might not be looking quite how they imagined it. That can call for diplomacy or good old-fashioned bulls**t.

An important aspect of drawing a plot is correctly second-guessing what reaction the production team will have when they see on screen what you have done. Unfortunately, having heard several anecdotes from my colleagues, it would seem that one or two production personnel appear to have some difficulty in explaining what they do or don't like in language that makes much sense to a lighting director! For example, they may describe a picture as looking too 'hard'. This might mean that it is too bright, too dark, too colourful or perhaps that it needs more colour. One occasionally has to become an interpreter to discover that what they actually didn't like was the colour the floor is painted.

A favourite expressions is 'I don't want it to look daytime.' This can be translated as 'please make it look dark and moody.' On the other hand it probably just means 'please make it look glossy, expensive and as though it cost ten times as much as it actually did.' In point of fact, most daytime studio programmes these days look anything but daytime.

The LD may be told by the producer that he or she wants the show to be lit in any colour other than blue. Within five minutes of rehearsals beginning they will ask to see what it looks like in blue. (Naturally one will have anticipated this and rigged blue gels accordingly.) Or perhaps they will say that they never ever want to see the colour green. One might, therefore, take a chance and light a music number in green and they will come into the lighting gallery and tell you that they think it looks fantastic. (Or of course - you may have completely got it wrong and they really do hate green with a vengeance!)

I once lit a famous American singer on a peak-time chat show using a mix of deep oranges and reds. I knew that the producer hated these colours but I was so bored with blue. He came into the gallery and said he loved it. Within minutes, the management of the singer said they hated it as it made their star look like 'the devil in hell.' Actually, they had a point but the show's producer stuck by me and insisted that the red stayed. There's no guaranteeing anything in this business.

In other words, drawing a plot for a show is a minefield of guessing what the production team will or won't like when they see the pictures you are creating. All this and always keeping an eye on the 'talent' and making sure that they are looking as good as possible. (And preferably not like the devil in hell.) After all, a badly set keylight or poor lighting balance can add ten years to even the most beautifully made up or surgically modified face.

One thing I have learned is never to ask a producer if they are happy with what they are seeing. Most will be worried about everything but the lighting and if you draw their attention to it they are bound to find something. Or at least feel they ought to find something. Directors are so busy organizing the cameras that they seldom notice the lighting anyway till they get to the edit and hopefully they will then like what they see.

I once had the pleasure of meeting an American LD who was travelling round the world lighting the concerts for a very famous rock star. I was LD on Top of the Pops and this gentleman informed me that he had fallen out with the star a few weeks earlier and his job was on the line. Unless I lit the star exactly as he told me he would be fired and his wife and kids back in the US would be kicked out of their home. I pretended to do what he asked whilst actually doing what I was planning to do anyway and at the end of the show he shook my hand and we left the best of friends. I sincerely hope that he had a home to go to when he returned to the US.

Perhaps the trickiest situation is when the LD is being asked for one look by the director and another by the producer or executive producer. I have heard several stories about one particular music show where this used to be the normal way of working. On one series I lit it was the channel's commissioning editor who each week inexplicably got involved in changing all kinds of things at the last minute. The issue of balancing conflicting creative demands can sometimes involve skills in negotiation more suited to the UN.

To be honest, most of the time I just do what I think looks good and hope everybody likes it. Naturally, I will modify it on the day if asked and frankly I don't get upset by this in the way I perhaps might have when I first began lighting many years ago. After all - it's their show and let's face it, they will probably have a better understanding of what is required than I will. I think the most important thing is to have ideas of one's own but not to be upset if they have to be changed.

I do work regularly with a director who as well as worrying about the cameras does notice the lighting and always has sensible and constructive things to say about it. He also knows a huge amount about sound and for that matter how every other department works. Despite this constant pressure on everyone, he creates a really positive working atmosphere rather than the negative one that one or two other directors surround themselves with. Making people work with you rather than in spite of you is sadly a rare gift.

Also, I often work with an executive producer who has very strong views on what he does and doesn't want for each show. He also has the unusual ability to explain things pretty clearly. I happen to find this most refreshing because he is invariably right about what is appropriate for each programme we make together. I will sometimes suggest 'looks' for a show or offer them on the day. He will let me know exactly what he thinks and usually when he points out something he is not happy with, it's something I've noticed too but perhaps didn't think was too important. Of course, it always turns out that it was! He also arranges design meetings at a very early stage between myself, the designer and him so we can all chat about ideas for how the set and lighting can work together to make the show look at its best. The end result is that we all know what we are likely to see on screen before we get to the studio and major changes to the look of the show are pretty rare. Sadly, all this is fairly uncommon.

Clearly, anything the LD does to create a particular impression on screen is going to be governed by the set he or she is lighting. I believe that an LD and a set designer work in equal partnership to create the look of any show. Neither is more important than the other in my view. Some designers have strong views about the way their sets are lit but frankly most are happy to pass that responsibility over to the LD and let them bring their experience and creative input to making it all work.

Back to drawing the plot! - as I have said, this is the essence of what we do. Without a good plot everything on the day is a battle which might never be won. You have to imagine in your head how it will look on the day and try to foresee all the pitfalls and anticipate all the changes of mind the director will make in the studio. If it's a sitcom you also have to hold a 3D image of the set in your head and predict where the sound booms will be in order that they can pick up the dialogue without casting boom shadows.

After all this effort, the finished plot is then printed and passed to the electricians who will, hopefully, rig in the studio what you have drawn. In most studios this is usually pretty accurate but one particular studio centre employs a large crew of multi-skilled operatives who work under the supervision of a single electrician through the night, often working in several studios. Perhaps not surprisingly, the rigs that have been undertaken in the small hours by these enthusiastic workers occasionally contain one or two minor errors. The crew of real electricians who arrive the following morning to work on the show itself then occasionally have the pleasure of putting these errors right whilst the lighting director is wondering why everything is taking so long.

There is one studio centre - a long, long way away - that works rather differently. Each lamp is brought to the studio on a trolley, one by one, and set on the floor beneath its position in the rig. It is then lifted, attached to the scope, plugged and raised to its appointed height. When everyone is happy with it, the next lamp is brought into the studio. As you can imagine, a process that might take a few hours anywhere else can take days here - or certainly seem to.

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The finelight

The day before the recording, or sometimes early on the same day, the LD joins the electricians in the studio along with the console operator(s). The LD and an electrician, often the gaffer, work from one lamp to the next setting it accurately so the light falls where the LD needs it to be. The set will have been erected before this, although detailed work will usually continue on the set at the same time as the finelight. The LD normally stands where the light is pointing and instructs the electrician in all the adjustments of height, pan, tilt, focus and the setting of any barndoors, shutters or flags.

At the same time as the LD is setting the hanging lamps, any lights on the floor will be rigged and set, again under the supervision of the LD.

If moving lights are involved they are usually lowered to floor level and 'addressed.' This means that each is given a unique DMX data number, enabling it to be controlled from the moving light console. Automated lights are incredibly complex and it is quite common for several to have faults following the bashing about they will have received during the rig. A finelight involving many moving lights can take several hours before work can begin on the conventional lights.

There is no such thing as a 'normal' finelight but most take somewhere between three and six hours depending on their complexity. However, I once lit a gameshow pilot in a studio not in London and the finelight was due to begin at 13.00. I expected to be away by teatime. Unfortunately, I was unaware that finelights in that studio also include actually rigging the lamps which is pretty unusual. You can imagine my concern when entering the studio that lunchtime and looking up to discover that not a single lamp was hanging from the grid.

In fact, we finished at 01.30 in the morning and I continued with another crew for two more hours at 07.00 the following day. I think that was a record for me and one I would not care to repeat!

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Rehearsal

The moment of truth comes for the LD when the cameras first start to look at the set. TV cameras see some colours and levels of contrast in a completely different way from the human eye. For example, a rather garish pink on the set can appear to be a deep purple with some cameras. Other cameras might only detect a rich blue. These colour variations between different studios and various camera manufacturers and model numbers only add to the frisson of excitement when you see a set lit on screen and realize that it looks absolutely nothing like you imagined it would. If you are lucky, it will look a great deal better than you dared hope. If not, you are in for a busy day.

It is at this point that you come to rely on the support of your console operator (and moving light operator if you are using one.) The console op - or 'lighting vision supervisor' (LVS), as the BBC call them - will try to make your rig look as good as possible. They will select lamps and set dimmer levels to give the most pleasing lighting balance on screen. Some LDs instruct the console op in every small detail but this is pretty rare these days. The old ITV system used to work like this whilst the old BBC system gave much more responsibility to the LVS. This latter way of working seems to have spread since a number of BBC LDs went freelance and I think it's a change for the better.

Every LD works differently, but I like the console op to play their part as much as possible. It gives them a more interesting day and helps them to make a genuine contribution to the look of the show. More often than not they have better ideas than me anyway - for example, using lamps I had rigged for one job in a way I hadn't thought of for another.

This is not to say that during rehearsals the LD's job is over. Far from it. I like to take an over-view; trying to see the set and artists in the way that the viewer will and constantly looking all round the screen at the details the console op might have missed. They will also need some basic guidance such as 'make it brighter, darker, more contrasty' - or in desperation - 'please make it look better!'

Music numbers will need more specific guidance such as choice of colour, when to change cues, and choice of patterns or gobos etc. Any show with moving lights will need a lot of input from the LD as the choice of colours and gobos available is so huge. However - any LD would admit that a good moving light operator can make even a modest rig of automated lights look fantastic. A good moving light op is essential to any show involving music or a complex set of cues in a gameshow, for example.

There are many moving light ops working in the UK but a relatively small number work in TV. The main demands here are speed and flexibility. The amount of rehearsal time is often very small indeed and an operator has to be able to respond immediately to an LD asking for tiny adjustments to light levels or colours whilst cues are being run - even on a live show. This is far from the world of concert lighting.

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Recording/Transmission

In some ways you could argue that by the time of recording or transmitting a show, most of an LD's work is done. However, we can't completely relax.

During a sitcom one is constantly scanning the frame for boom shadows that might otherwise be missed. In fact, on any show one is staring intently at the transmission monitor, looking for anything that might be slightly too bright or too dark or perhaps a faulty or blown lamp. Often the console op will be more concerned at 'riding' various lamps as performers move around the set or getting cues right so it is up to the LD to look for details that might only be noticed by the director later when the show is being edited. Artists will now be in make-up and costume which will affect the way they look and key levels might have to be adjusted accordingly.

Perhaps equally important - the LD has to cope with equipment failures or with mistakes made by operators and make the appropriate decision. Occasionally, it is best to let a minor error pass but sometimes the LD has to let the director know that there is a problem and advise accordingly. This can be quite stressful as the last thing a director wants is to be held up because a bulb has blown or a follow spot operator chopped off the star's feet (or worse, head!)

The LD will be observing closely what the console op is doing. However, equally important is what is happening to the cameras with regard to vision control. The arrangements for vision control, or 'racking' as it is sometimes called, differ from studio to studio - with outside broadcasts having yet more ways of working.

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The role of vision control

It's worth explaining the importance of vision control at this point. All the cameras in the studio have their exposure (iris setting) and black level (similar to a TV's brightness control) adjusted remotely in the lighting gallery. The colour balance on each camera is also frequently tweaked in order to cope with any flares or because of shot changes. The aim is that every camera should look the same with regard to colour and exposure so that nothing distracts when the cameras are cut live or edited.

In the BBC the exposure is adjusted by a 'vision operator' (VO) and the colour usually by a studio engineer. The VO is part of the lighting team and VOs are at the bottom of the ladder that leads next to LVS (console operator) and then to LD. Having said that, some VOs choose to remain in that post and many of them do a superb job for the whole of their career.

In the old ITV studios the system is different. Here one finds a single 'vision controller' who adjusts exposure and colour. He or she is a senior engineer rather than part of the lighting team so their approach might be expected to be somewhat different to a BBC VO. In the BBC, VOs are encouraged to adjust exposure dynamically, riding black levels and pushing wide shots, for example. BBC VOs constantly preview cameras and make tiny adjustments all the time. The ITV technique is often much more 'hands-off', making a few adjustments only when considered necessary.

The old ITV philosophy was that the vision controller was the last link in the chain and only there to correct the occasional shot that needed tweaking for a specific technical reason - an obvious example being a close-up of a piece of white paper. It was assumed that during rehearsals the console op would have balanced the lighting to give a perfectly even exposure wherever the artistes went. Not surprisingly, this sometimes led to rather flat and uninteresting pictures. Fortunately, things are changing and in recent years many ITV vision controllers have begun to take a much more active role in the same way that their BBC counterparts do. In fact, some of the best vision controllers I have worked with are to be found at Teddington and The London Studios.

At BBC Television Centre they have a long tradition of excellent vision control . There are some very talented staff there now who are some of the best in the business, and encouragingly the BBC have taken on a few lighting trainees in the past few years. They started training in the VO role and in my opinion two or three of those are now as good as any you will find anywhere. I'm glad to report that most of these new recruits happen to be women.

It might seem odd to some ITV staff that a BBC vision operator is seemingly so low in the studio pecking order when an ITV vision controller, doing almost the same job, is so senior. However, both systems work and neither is in my view better overall than the other. The essential thing is that whoever is racking the cameras has a good eye for a picture and makes subjective judgements based on what they see on the monitor, rather than what an oscilloscope might be telling them.

Well operated vision control can make good lighting look great whilst poor vision control can wreck the best work of the whole lighting team. Sadly, there are still some examples of poor vision control but these are becoming less common. They can be found in one or two of the smaller studios where people simply haven't had the training and experience. I have also had problems occasionally on outside broadcasts, where one or two operators don't seem to understand the difference between racking cameras for a stage that is lit and a football match that isn't. Don't misunderstand me - most OB vision control supervisors are excellent and would be horrified to see the work of the few that aren't.

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Post-production

Finally - one of the most enjoyable aspects to an LD's job is grading. This happens with most sitcoms, sketch shows and dramas these days. Grading can be done on several different types of machine, some more sophisticated than others. Sometimes it is done by the VT editor but the best grades are done by a specialist called a 'colourist' on a dedicated grading machine such as the Pogle, Baselight or Finaliser.

The Pogle (or similar device) takes the edited programme and, having logged where all the cuts happen, the whole 'look' of the show can be altered. It can be made to look warmer, cooler, more or less contrasty or more or less saturated with colour. Every shot is adjusted and matched and sometimes a whole scene or even the entire show is treated to give a different mood.

One of the best tools in this process is that a frame can be frozen and a soft-edged wipe inserted to shade off a bright wall or ceiling. In fact several wipes or windows can be used at the same time. If a red shirt is drawing the eye its colour can be adjusted without affecting the rest of the picture. On exterior sequences dull overcast scenes can be made to look warm and sunny and grey skies can become blue. I have worked with several superb colourists in recent years and I owe a great deal to them for making very ordinary studio pictures look far more glossy and professional than they deserve!

The LD's role in all this is simply to offer guidance to the colourist and to ensure that nothing is done to spoil the 'look' of the show one was hoping to achieve. There is so much that can be done to affect the look of any programme that it is essential that the LD is present at the grade. Otherwise, a well-meaning but ill-informed colourist can destroy the mood and atmosphere the LD and director might have worked hard to achieve in the studio. Often scenes are warmed or cooled by the LD and the colourist will correct out these tints if he does not know that they were deliberate.

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In conclusion...

That's just about it. Of course, I have left out huge amounts of what we do and summarized whole complex areas in a couple of sentences. However - I hope the above might be of use to somebody who might be considering making their way into the industry with a view to eventually becoming a lighting director. At least you might have a bit of an idea now what you are letting yourself in for.


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