The document below is very much my personal perspective of what comprises an LD's job. Every other LD will tell you that I've got it wrong in some way or other. However, if a little information is better than no information then it might be of some use to somebody.
Back in the early nineties I spent many days in meetings spanning a couple of years working with a group of lighting directors, gaffers and cinematographers trying to define the work of an LD in order to create the NVQ qualifications for Skillset. Despite all our efforts, to be frank I don't think that any of us felt we had done a particularly good job. Therefore I doubt that I stand much of a chance of summarising what my job involves here in a few paragraphs.
Anyway, here goes...
Getting booked for the job:
This is in some ways the most anxious part of the process. 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 areas 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 probably won a new regular client.
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 is very useful to get some idea of what one has got oneself involved in. Many programmes however don't have a printed script until the studio day. They have a planning meeting a week or two before the recording 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 the LD is usually already contracted to light the show so it is too late to pull out, even if you might be wondering what you have got yourself involved in.
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 on the set the actors will be positioned, the direction they will be looking and all their moves. This information is vital if a good lighting plot is to be designed. Unfortunately, a new pattern has emerged in recent 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 (i.e. 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 for a location shoot 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 recording day. You had better be sure which way is south!
designing the plot:
Just to clarify - a 'plot' is a diagram of the studio with all the lights drawn onto it, along with various instructions to the electricians who will rig it. This is either done the old fashioned way with pencil and stencil or by using one of the computer aided design systems like Wysiwyg or Vectorworks. Each method has its advantages - but, perhaps surprisingly, electricians tell me that pencil drawings are sometimes easier to decypher (as long as the LD's handwriting is legible!).
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 (brightness) of the lamp, its range of beam angles, 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 'fixture', a 'lantern' 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 lights 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.
All studios have a grid system that limits where lights can be hung to a greater or lesser extent. Some have monopoles (also called 'telescopes', 'scopes' or, confusingly, 'teles') that run in tracks (this system gives the greatest flexibility) but many have motorised bars or hoists (sometimes called 'boats') that can be very restrictive, depending on their length and how widely spaced they are. Bars also have a limited number of available circuits. All this can impose many compromises on what the LD would like to do in his or her positioning of individual lamps. Film stages have no lighting grid at all, so this has to be included in the LD's design and usually involves a system of trussing, which must be designed to be as economical as possible as it is very expensive.
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.
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 expression 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, many 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 warned your moving light op that he'd better program in a blue look.) 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 misjudged things and they really do hate green with a vengeance!)
I once lit a famous American singer performing on a peak-time chat show using a mix of deep oranges and reds. I had heard that the producer hated these colours but I was so bored with lighting everything in blue each week that I thought I'd go for it. He came into the lighting 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.
I should point out that the above examples are exceptions to the rule. If I went against the wishes of the producer on every show I lit - well frankly I would be doing something else by now since nobody would employ me.
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.
Don't expect to get too many useful clues before the recording either. At one planning meeting for a comedy pilot I was asked to give a distinctive look that was... er... 'Street?' I suggested. 'No, definitely not street!' came the response. 'But quite edgy' I ventured. 'Well, it needs to look sharp' came the final reply. We all nodded as though the matter was now resolved but clearly I was none the wiser. Well - at least I knew it needed to look different from a cosy afternoon chat show. Anyway, I did what I thought best and afterwards the execs couldn't thank me enough. Basically, they had no words to describe what they wanted (which is perfectly understandable), possibly didn't know quite what they wanted beforehand anyway but knew it when they saw it.
One thing I have learned is never to ask a producer or exec producer on the studio day if they are happy with what they are seeing. Most will (hopefully) 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 organising 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. Nice. 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 do hope that he had a home (and family) 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 seems to be the normal way of working.
Not long ago I lit a show where the star wanted a particular look but the producers had asked for something rather different. When I thought I'd found a happy compromise, the exec producer turned up half an hour before the supper break and demanded to know why I had not done what he asked for, having seen the pilot show the week before. I told him (truthfully) that I hadn't been informed of his wishes. He was very cross and insisted that the whole show was relit. I said that wasn't possible and he said that I had no choice - it had to be done. I went onto the studio floor and had a chat with the star (whose opinion was actually the only one that really mattered.) The exec joined in the conversation and the star made it clear to him that he was very happy with the way it looked and nothing should change. Whew.
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 will be right for that particular programme and hope everybody likes it. Naturally, I will modify it on the day if asked and frankly I don't get upset or offended by the implied criticism 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 have worked often with a director who as well as concentrating on 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.
I have worked, too, with an executive producer who had very strong views on what he did and didn't want for each show. He also had the unusual ability to explain things pretty clearly. I found this most refreshing because he was invariably right about what was appropriate for each programme we made together. I sometimes suggested 'looks' for a show or offered them on the day. He let me know exactly what he thought and usually when he pointed out something he was not happy with, it was something I'd noticed too but perhaps didn't think was too important. Of course, it always turned out that it was.
He also arranged design meetings at a very early stage between myself, the designer and him so we could all chat about ideas for how the set and lighting would work together to make the show look at its best. The end result was that we all knew what we were likely to see on screen before we got to the studio and major changes to the look of the show were pretty rare. Sadly, all this is fairly uncommon.
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 screen 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 exactly what you have drawn.
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, usually the gaffer, work from one lamp to the next setting it accurately so the light shines precisely where the LD needs it to be, and is cut off the areas it must not be seen. This is achieved using barndoors, shutters or flags.
The set will have been erected before this, although painting and dressing 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. Most LDs can look into the lens of a lamp and know from experience whether it is at the right height and whether it has the correct amount of 'spot or flood'.
At the same time as the LD is setting the hanging lamps, any lights on the floor will be rigged and set by other electricians, again under the supervision of the LD, via the gaffer. Yes, we sometimes do have to be in two places at once.
If moving lights are involved they will hopefully have been 'addressed' during the rig. This means that each is given a unique DMX data number, enabling it to be controlled from the console. However, in some studios the lamps are lowered at this stage to be addressed, which can hold up the work the LD is trying to do. 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 a large number of moving lights can take several hours before work can begin setting 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. The shortest finelight I regularly used to do was on Harry Hill's TV Burp, which was only two hours. This was to set around 70 lights on the main set plus the audience and a number of lights on sketch sets that varied from week to week. That was going some and relied upon having an excellent sparks crew!
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 realise 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 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 - even going through each dimmer number and giving the precise level - but I believe 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 console op. This latter way of working seemed to spread once a number of BBC LDs and console ops went freelance and I'm sure it was 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 at home will and constantly looking all round the screen at the details the console op might have missed. They will of course need some basic guidance such as 'try using a bit more of the upstage left softlight; let's have slightly more key level on the presenter; let's have a bit less backlight on the bald bloke in the chair; what's lighting that flat? - it's too bright!; more from the left, more from upstage, less fill, make it all brighter, make it all darker' - or in desperation - 'this is looking crap. Help!!'
Music numbers will need 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 range of things you can do with them 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. I certainly rely heavily on the expertise and creativity of the moving light ops I regularly work with.
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, positions or colours whilst cues are being run - even on a live show. This is far from the world of concert lighting.
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 at the transmission monitor, looking for anything that might be slightly too bright or too dark. There is so little rehearsal time on most shows that the lighting balance is never 'perfect' by the time we come to record - and minor adjustments are often carried out, hopefully without the viewer (or director!) being aware. Artists will now be in make-up and costume which will affect the way they look and keylight levels might have to be adjusted accordingly.
Often the console op will be concentrating on getting cues right or will be 'riding' various lamps as performers move around the set. Thus 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. 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. He or she usually sits on one side of the LD with the vision controller on the other. Equally important to the lighting balance 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.
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 occasional examples of poor studio vision control but these are becoming less common.
I have also had problems once or twice on outside broadcasts, where one operator didn'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 controllers are excellent and would be horrified to see the work of the few that aren't. However, part of the problem is that OB units divide the camera racking between two or even three operators. You may have one who is very good but another who may be an excellent engineer but frankly has little idea what a good picture looks like. Thus cutting between cameras can reveal some alarming variations! Fortunately, this is now very rare.
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. Occasionally a very basic grade is done by the VT editor but proper grading is carried out by a specialist called a colourist on a sophisticated, very expensive machine in a grading suite.
The edited programme is run through and all the cuts are logged in the machine. Then each scene is gone through, shot by shot. An overall look for the scene is established - indeed, the whole show may be given a specific visual mood. It can be made to look warmer, cooler, more or less contrasty or more or less saturated with colour. An overall tint might be established. Individual shots are matched as they may be from different takes - or whoever was racking the cameras might even (this obviously never happens) have missed a shot.
Most of you will be thinking 'this sounds like Photoshop' and in essence it is. It's just that one is making adjustments on moving pictures and the options are possibly even more sophisticated.
One of the most useful tools in the process is that a shot can have a soft-edged wipe inserted to shade a bright wall, floor or foreground object like a table top. The purpose is to reduce the brightness of objects that might distract the viewer from the person speaking. In fact several wipes or 'shapes' can be used at the same time and these can even track moving shots.
Effects can be made to come and go dynamically during a shot - for example, an actor might start a shot standing in front of a bright window and then move across the room and sit in a chair. This might involve two or more different grades during the shot, which come and go in a way that is imperceptible to the viewer.
Very often a vignette is used that shades down the corners of the frame, drawing the viewer's eyes to the subject. This effect is used frequently and is almost invisible when done carefully - it can also be used as a deliberate effect - often seen on shows like Top Gear.
If a red shirt is drawing the eye, its colour can be muted without affecting the rest of the picture. The same can be done with an actor with a particularly ruddy face. If an actor stands close to another and shadows him or herself then a line can be drawn round the face and that part of the picture made brighter, thus reducing the effect of the shadowing. Oh yes - there is lots of cheating that is possible. That's why I love it! Whole shots - or just part of the frame - can also be softened or sharpened, although this has to be done with great care or it can look very weird and artificial, distracting the viewer.
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 my very ordinary studio pictures look far more glossy and professional than they deserve!
The LD's role in all this is simply to offer suggestions and 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 pictures 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 deliberately warmed or cooled by the LD in the studio and the colourist might 'correct out' these tints if he does not know that they were deliberate. Unfortunately this has happened to me on more than one occasion when I was unable to be at the grade.
That's just about it. Of course, I have left out huge amounts of what we do and summarised whole complex areas in a couple of sentences. For example, much of our job is influenced by the other departments - design, cameras, sound, make-up and costume. Each will affect our work in various ways. Working closely and in friendly cooperation with all these people is absolutely essential.
I hope the above might be of interest to those studying how TV works. Maybe even to somebody who is considering making their way into the industry with a view to eventually becoming a lighting director. At least you now have a bit of an idea what you are letting yourself in for.
this page was updated in July 2020