Career advice

The first thing I'd like to make perfectly clear is that any advice given here should be balanced and supported by as much information as possible from a range of other sources.  I would hate to think that anyone had set about choosing the direction their career will take purely on anything they might have read on this website!  I am not involved in training and any experience I might have had will be different from many other LD's.

 

Every television lighting director currently working will have arrived in his or her current position via a different route from each other.  The differences are often reflected by the company for whom they may have originally worked.  Many of us have varying backgrounds, experience and qualifications. 

There are very few staff LDs left now, so broadly speaking most current TV lighting directors can be divided into four groups: ex-BBC freelancers, ex-ITV freelancers, those who used to work for one of the independent studios like MTV, or those who have made their way into TV lighting from the world of concert or event lighting.  Sky do have a handful of staff LDs who light their in-house programmes, mostly sport or interviews.  Some companies or departments (eg BBC News) also employ 'technical directors' who carry out the role of LD along with some other duties.

 

The BBC and ITV sections below are frankly only of historical interest, since these routes into the profession no longer apply - but it might be worth recording just for old time's sake...

 

The BBC route

The BBC career path used to be that to get into the lighting department you first had to work as a trainee camera assistant or vision engineer, usually in studios but sometimes in OBs or another department.  For instance, one of the busiest and best-known LDs began as a telecine engineer. 

An interesting development came in the early nineties when a few young electricians were given the chance to move into the lighting gallery as trainees.  Almost all are now console ops, moving light operators and/or LDs.  Bizarrely, this opportunity for electricians in the BBC only happened once and despite its success was never repeated.

The normal pattern was that after several years as an engineer or cameraman you might have been given an attachment to join the lighting section as a trainee vision operator.  (More info on the 'VO' role on the 'Rough Guide to being an LD' page).  This job was the first step on the ladder to becoming an LD.  Having successfully been appointed as a vision operator, the next step - usually after several more years - was to become a 'lighting and vision control supervisor'.  This is the position that elsewhere in the industry is known as a 'console operator.'  After several years as an LVCS (sometimes called 'LVS' or more commonly - 'VS') you might be promoted to become an LD - depending on retirement of older LDs and how many others were going for the job.  Thus, it was always pretty rare to find a BBC LD younger than mid-thirties and most were always quite a bit older than that.

Before 'Producer Choice', introduced in the early nineties, LDs were scheduled onto programmes by their departmental managers and to an extent a production had little choice over who they had.  (In practice, producers had always been able to request certain individuals.)  Thus, a newly-promoted LD would be chucked in at the deep end and find himself lighting a broad range of shows. 

In my first couple of years I lit several weeks of Top of the Pops, a Rory Bremner series, several Wogan shows, some live Tomorrow's World, a few months of EastEnders and many children's programmes including of course Blue Peter.  Looking back I realise just how lucky I was. 

Sadly, this kind of experience is no longer possible as most producers are now simply not willing to risk their valuable productions in the hands of an inexperienced LD.  How any individual is currently able to make that leap to becoming a television lighting director is very difficult to say, but some still do and I shall return to this sticky problem later.

For a number of years from the early nineties the BBC ceased to offer any new jobs in operational areas.  The 'golden age' of regularly taking on trainees who were guided and assisted in their career by various opportunities for attachments and courses was over. 

However, a very limited pattern of taking on trainees did return.  In the late '90s Television Centre offered  a handful of young people jobs to go into the lighting department to be trained as assistant operators.  At the end of two years three were given contracts as VOs and the others left.  Then a further three were taken on on similar terms and in May 2004 they advertised for a further two trainees.  However, that was finally it and there is no longer any prospect of any more staff being taken on at TV Centre.  Sorry, but there it is.

 

The ITV route

In the old ITV companies (eg. Thames, LWT, Central etc.) the console op was a member of the electricians crew.  He was thus expected to help with the rig and de-rig as well as operate the console during the show.  This practice continues at Teddington although that studio centre does allow freelance console ops to work there.  However, they are either expected to assist with rigs and derigs or an additional spark has to be booked to replace them.  This can therefore be expensive for the production as they have to pay for an extra person.  Teddington, incidentally, does not employ staff electricians but has a list of 'approved' regular freelancers.

The BBC, The London Studios (TLS) and Fountain have some staff console ops but do allow freelancers in.  Riverside and Pinewood TV rely entirely on freelancers.

Like the BBC, in the old ITV companies it was normal for lighting directors to be promoted from previously being a console operator.   Thus, most ex-ITV LDs were originally electricians.  This is different from the BBC as most BBC LDs have never been electricians.  (However, I understand that in fact there are one or two examples of ex-ITV LDs who did come to the job via a different route.)

Occasionally, electricians are promoted to the job of console operator at TLS.  This therefore remains a possible (though by no means guaranteed) route to eventually becoming an LD.  Those staff LDs work on relatively simple shows such as This Morning, Loose Women and sport.  After gaining experience on programmes like that it would theoretically be possible to go freelance and take your chance on finding more varied work.

 

The post of vision controller (VC) is similar to the BBC vision operator job but has additional engineering responsibilities.  It is therefore seen as a relatively senior position in non-BBC studios.  Normally in the old ITV studios a vision controller would never move across to become a console op.  This is because one had engineering training and the other had electrical training.  In fact, in the early years of television these two operators sat in different rooms which must have made the LD's job very difficult at times.

A few years ago, The London Studios took on a couple of trainees in the VC job.  However, the likelihood of more staff being taken on is slim, as TLS are, like BBC Studios, constantly looking to reduce their overheads, which includes staff.  However, you never know your luck and in the past these have often been trained at Ravensbourne, a college that specialises in such courses and still has a good reputation in the industry.  It is worth checking what Ravensbourne are currently offering but I understand that there are also other colleges offering technical courses in broadcast TV. 

The other area in which vision engineers are used all the time is outside broadcasts, which seems to be expanding year on year.

However, if one is interested in eventually becoming an LD this may not be a good route to take.  It is hard to see how a vision controller/vision engineer could take on lighting responsibilities with the way that most studios and OB companies work.  I'm not saying it's impossible - just that I haven't heard of an example of it occurring in recent years so I can't recommend it as a route to lighting.  In my opinion this is a great shame as several vision controllers I have worked with have a very good eye for lighting and I am sure would make very competent LDs.

 

The concert/event route

The world of concerts, conferences and other big events has produced a large number of companies and individuals working in this field.  Some began as qualified electricians but many simply started working on rock tours as lampies and riggers and developed their experience on the road. 

There are many individuals in this part of the industry who are very skilled at operating consoles - both conventional and moving light - and again a fair number who have consequently acquired skills in designing.  Sometimes these events and concerts are televised and thus for that day the 'lighting designer' for the event becomes a 'television lighting director'.  If these events are seen and his or her work admired by producers and directors then the LD may be booked direct for other TV shows.

I believe that for certain types of TV this is likely to be a route that more new LDs will take.  There are now one or two very successful LDs lighting music shows, award ceremonies and sometimes more general TV programmes who originally came from this background.

Working on concert and event lighting inevitably involves the use of automated lights, LED fixtures and often video projection with images controlled by a digital media server such as Catalyst or Hippotiser.  These pieces of kit need quite a bit of knowledge to rig and maintain - which brings us to our next route to becoming an LD...

 

The moving light route

Almost every conference, rock concert, fashion show, awards ceremony etc now involves the use of automated lights.  Thus, the crews that put in the rigs for these events will always include one or more technicians who will concentrate on these fixtures.  Big events will have several techs involved. 

Some of these people have been doing this kind of work for years and are happy to continue to do so.  Others are keen to operate, so in a quiet moment they learn from the moving light op the various ins and outs of the console.  The way the desks from various manufacturers are operated is very different and it can take a long time to master even one, let alone two or three.

However, once a technician is known to be competent he or she will possibly eventually be given an opportunity to operate.  If they are good then they will begin to get more work.  As in TV - operating is a good route to designing and sooner or later they might have an opportunity to take on the lighting of a small event.

As mentioned above, this can be a way in to television lighting if you are lucky and have some of your events televised.

 

However - technicians are also required in television studios.  These are usually booked by the company providing the hired kit.  It is possible to make the move over a number of years to becoming a television moving light operator.  This is very different from the skills needed to operate moving lights in the concert world.  The ability to work incredibly fast with very little rehearsal under huge pressure is a rare talent.  As an LD, I am often asking my moving light op to make instant changes, like fading down a backlight, during the running of a music number whilst he is trying to follow music cues on a number he has never seen properly rehearsed.

In television, getting the exposure right is crucial and therefore lighting levels are much more demanding than on a live event.  Thus, it is vital that a TV moving light op understands the demands and limitations of the TV system and how a TV picture is created.  It is essential that he or she has a good eye for a picture - which might be quite different from how something looks to the eye.

I work with two or three moving light ops regularly and about half a dozen more from time to time but I am often written to by people asking for work.  Sadly, I am not able to help because I simply can't risk taking on someone who is an unknown quantity.  I know this is not much help to someone looking for experience but that is the way the industry works and it would be dishonest of me to pretend otherwise.

However - it does happen that new people do break in to TV moving light operating and once they gain a reputation they will be booked by a number of LDs.  Some are happy to remain operating but there is no reason why they could not eventually become an LD.  I know of at least one very successful LD who took this route.

One small note.  Lighting a big set and making it look pretty is only half an LD's job.  Most of us would say less than half.  Making faces look at their best is arguably more important and actually much more difficult.  This is the area that some people with a moving light background might struggle with if they have not truly been looking closely at the pictures they have been helping to create.

 

The cameraman route

First - become a cameraman!  That's a whole different subject so look elsewhere for that information.  However - if you operate a single camera on location you will inevitably have to learn the basics of how to light.  This experience has led some to acquire sufficient skill to enable them to move into lighting for several cameras - in other words becoming an LD.  One or two LDs who regularly light soaps have come up via this route.

Lighting for multicamera is very different from single camera, with many compromises having to be made - but in a way that doesn't ruin the look of the pictures.  A few DoP's have occasionally been booked to light multicamera productions like sitcoms or sketch shows in recent years but I can only think of one or two who truly seem to understand how to cope with the extra demands of lighting for 4 or 5 camera angles whilst two or three booms swing overhead casting shadows over everything.

The BBC Academy occasionally runs courses for cameramen (and others) to learn the basics of lighting at their training centre at Evesham.  More information on courses and costs etc. are available at their website - www.bbctraining.com

 

The electrician's route

I have touched on this above but here's a bit more info.  Each studio has its own arrangement with regard to electricians. 

The BBC have staff 'electrical supervisors' (gaffers) and all the rest of the sparks are provided by an agency.  There is no opportunity in the way the BBC currently operates for electricians to move into the lighting gallery and become a console operator.  Having said that - one of the gaffers on EastEnders became one of that show's regular LDs a few years ago so this is a rare example of an electrician moving direct to LD without being console op first.

Other studios have freelance electricians and usually it's the same group who work there regularly.  At Teddington, for example, there are one or two sparks who are sometimes on the crew and at other times operate the console.

OBs and other programmes that are shot on film stages use one of the big lighting hire companies to provide equipment and crew.  (e.g. ELP, Film and TV Services, Panalux etc.)  As I understand it, some companies have electricians on a long-term contract whilst others are employed on a daily basis.  They will sometimes provide a console operator but many LDs like to book a freelance console op with whom they are used to working.  Therefore, a console op with one of the hire companies might not get to work with many TV LDs, although there is a great deal of other interesting work they will do.

There are probably fewer than 20 freelance TV console ops working in the London area.  Several of them are ex-BBC and were never previously electricians.  A few began at Teddington, one is ex-Fountain, one or two came from other studios like Maidstone or MTV and two or three joined the freelance ranks from The London Studios.  They work in all the main TV studios where freelancers are welcome.  OBs such as gameshows on film stages, televised theatre shows and concerts, awards ceremonies and other big events also often use these freelancers. 

To become a TV electrician normally requires the possession of recognised electrical qualifications.  These are obtained at colleges all over the country and can take several years of study.  Most have also asked their electricians to take the exams for the latest 17th Edition regs.  As I understand it, all the agencies and hire companies require their sparks to be properly qualified, on safety grounds.  However, it might be worth checking with them as I believe one or two may offer training schemes or apprenticeships.

 

The theatre

You may have noticed that I have not mentioned the theatre as a route to becoming a television LD.  There are many superb theatre lighting designers working in the UK but the way both industries operate means that there is little cross-fertilisation between us.  Having said that - several current TV LDs including myself have acquired theatre experience, gained many years before moving up the ranks of TV lighting.

Just to confuse things - a handful of TV lighting directors do occasionally light theatre productions.  These often have a link with the television world - for instance they may be directed by a TV director or a particular star may request his regular TV LD to light the production.

However - the reverse is seldom true.  To my knowledge, theatre LDs very rarely get the experience to light TV productions.  I can only think of one LD who currently lights comedy standup shows in theatres for TV, whose previous background was in the theatre but even he to my knowledge has not lit a studio show despite his obvious talent.  In other words - if you want to become a TV LD then experience so far suggests that you should leave the theatre and move into TV early in your career.  You could, of course, continue to work in the theatre occasionally but combining the two might become rather complicated!

However - the industry does not stand still and there is no logical reason why a theatre LD could not move into TV.  The techniques and equipment are different and a knowledge of photography and the principles of how television works are essential but these could relatively easily be gained by attending a suitable course and getting some experience on small-scale television productions.

 

How does someone become an LD now?

I know from the number of emails I receive that this is the burning question that many talented young people are desperate to know.  One thing is clear - no matter how good you are, or think you are, you can't simply declare yourself to be a television lighting director and expect to start picking up work.  People will only employ you if they have either worked with you before or if they have seen some of your work and admired it.  An impressive CV is a very useful, some would say vital, marketing tool for any successful LD.

Sometimes, an LD will be booked by a producer on the strength of a recommendation by a director, a set designer or production manager.  However, anyone who recommends someone else is going to have to be sure that you will do a good job or their own reputation will suffer.

Realistically, it takes many years to gain the necessary experience and pick up sufficient industry contacts to be able to sustain a career.  I can't think of any busy LDs who are under thirty and most are in their 40s and 50s.

 

Whatever route you take, the end process tends to be similar.  You work as a console operator (or moving-light operator, or both) on several shows with an LD.  If you work on a series together there may be one or two days that the LD can't do.  Either another LD has to be brought in or sometimes the production are happy for the console op to 'act up' to become LD for that day.  Assuming they are happy with the work you do it could be that you end up lighting the whole of the next series if the regular LD is busy.  Then comes the big step - the producer or director books you for a new show.

There are several young LDs who are going through this process now.  On some shows they are still console op but others they light in their own right.  As the years go by they will hopefully get more and more bookings as LD and lo and behold - they can call themselves an LD!

 

Conclusion

I have no idea if any of the above will be any use to anyone making a career choice.  I hope so but there are a few important things to bear in mind. 

Firstly - there are relatively few television lighting directors in regular employment in the UK.  There is thus only a certain amount of work to go round.  However - every year one or two call it a day and either partly or fully retire.  There is therefore always some room at the bottom for new people.

Secondly - it can be a very stressful and time-consuming occupation.  Don't be taken in by the apparent glamour of working in television.  That disappears very quickly!  If you are busy you will have little or no time for any regular leisure activities and arranging a social life can be a nightmare.  On the other hand - if your diary is empty it could be a deeply anxious time for you and your family.

Finally - it is on the whole a very enjoyable occupation and can produce a great deal of job satisfaction.  You have to be prepared to work as part of a team but always remembering that when everything starts to go wrong - the buck stops with you.

Good luck!

 

One final note...

I am understandably often written to by people requesting work experience, asking if they can come along and simply lend a hand, unpaid.  These are sometimes people with a lot of previous theatre, concert or non-broadcast TV experience.  All of these requests are very difficult for me and invariably I have to say sorry but no.  Unfortunately, despite any previous experience and undoubted talent and keenness to work, I can't let someone I don't know get involved in even the simplest of rigging jobs, partly because of the insurance issue but also because any work you do is work that a paid electrician, technician or operator ought to be doing.  And they need employment too.  This seems terribly harsh but it is a fact of life so it's only fair to point this out.

 

updated December 2010

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