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Lighting Design: What Does a Lighting Designer Do?
On The Road Series
By John Schlick Lighting Design
(more articles from this author)
2004-06-11
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It becomes obvious at a certain point that a band needs a “full crew” – for example, if you suddenly start selling out coliseums worldwide… But, when and how should bands at the club and small theatre level invest their money? And since this article is geared at those musicians reading it, this means how do YOU invest your money in crew when you do shows?

This series of articles is geared specifically at evaluating the position of lighting designer or LD. In this piece I’m answering the question: What does a lighting designer do?

We all know what this lighting person does, right? They walk into the club and push buttons on the lightboard during the show to make it all flashy-like! Well, if you have hired your friend “Bob” to do this job, then it’s likely that’s all that’s going to happen. But if you have hired a professional lighting designer who thinks of lighting as an art form, then that’s only a small part of the job they do.

When a band hires an lighting designer, ideally, the band has a conversation about their vision of what they do onstage. Often this part never happens because the band doesn’t really have a vision. They have invested so much time and energy in the making of the music, they haven’t developed a visual statement to go along with it. It then becomes the lighting designer’s job to work with the band and develop that vision.

Sometimes, creating this visual statement can be as simple as selecting specific intense colors for specific songs (like for singer songwriters). Other times it can involve programming moving lights with complex patterns so they move the way the song FEELS like it’s moving, and sometimes it involves working with an entire creative team of stage and set and costume designers to get a coherent look for the production. This vision is an important part of a band’s “personality” onstage, and audiences do react to it.

In a conversation I had recently with The Presidents Of The United States of America (I’m hoping they hire me for an upcoming tour), they told me they are a “turn the lights on and play” kind of band. The problem they’ve had in the past is they’ve hired lighting designers who want every moment of their show to be a big production, and that’s NOT what they want.

My philosophy is this: This artist is my CLIENT, and while it’s my job to visually enhance what they do onstage, it’s also my job to make the band feel comfortable in the onstage environment because if they are not, they can’t give their best performance. Lastly, since they are my client, it’s my job to give them what they want because if I don’t, I won’t be working for them for long. The trick is to balance these three (often conflicting) goals. For the Presidents, this means selecting what colors are up when you “turn the lights on,” and helping select - with them - what part of the set to “run the big production looks” in. This is really like any relationship in that it requires good communication. It’s an ongoing and evolving process to understand where the band is artistically and keep in synch with them.

After some of the vision is established, hopefully the lighting designer can walk into the space, evaluate the lighting system in place, and add any additional production that’s needed or warranted by the show at hand (strobes, moving lights, special projected patterns, the list of possibilities is huge). After this, a lighting designer needs (potentially) to regel (change the colors in the lighting instruments) to match what the band needs according to the vision they have for that show. He or she must do a focus. This involves climbing around on ladders and stuff to make sure the lights aim at where the band is going to stand, as well as getting other lights aimed into patterns (beams that fan or cross, or are parallel to each other make these patterns). Hopefully these patterns are both “cool,” and useful to the lighting designer in terms of creating the effect of motion as he or she switches from one to another, and in terms of drawing the audiences eye to specific place onstage. In shows where there are moving lights, there should be some time spent in programming those instruments in order to make sure they generate the looks needed onstage when they are needed. (With up to 25 parameters per moving light to set, this can take some time, and doing it “on the fly” won’t give you the best results.)

Then finally, there comes the running of the lighting console during the show. This is the part of the job most people traditionally think of AS the job, and it’s important enough that I’ve done an article JUST on that. So, a lighting designer shouldn’t JUST push the buttons on the lightboard. Ideally, there is a lot more to the job.


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