STLD
The Society of Television Lighting and Design

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

Background

Introduction

Simply put - a lighting director designs the lighting for multi-camera television productions. He or she instructs the electricians' crew in their work in addition to guiding the team of operators who usually sit with the LD in the lighting gallery. All this whilst working closely with the director and the rest of the production team to deliver the pictures they are hoping to see.

However, there's rather more to it than that, and on this page on the website I explain what kinds of shows LDs work on and give some of the background to what we do.

It's important to point out right away that simple 'illumination' is actually a relatively unimportant part of our work. Current TV cameras are capable of operating in very low light levels so it would be quite possible to see what was going on in most studios simply by switching on the houselights. Fortunately, producers and directors realise that the result would look pretty awful. There are, however, a surprising number of people who should know better who have been led to believe that some cameras, for example small DV cameras, somehow don't need any lighting.

There has been much written about the 'digital revolution' in recent years including the rather optimistic suggestion that for many kinds of programmes expensive lighting will soon be a thing of the past. Perhaps accountants can't tell when a picture looks good or indeed when an artist is looking at his or her best. Sadly for them, many viewers can. (So can the artist when they see themselves on their TV at home!) With the advent of pictures in HD - making the star look good has become even more important.

The information below is mostly aimed at those interested in the broadcast media who are hoping to find out something about the role of the lighting director in the making of television programmes. I have on occasions been contacted and asked for this kind of information so hopefully the following might be of interest to some people.

It may also be of some help to those who might be considering working in the industry, with a view to eventually becoming an LD.

Everything below is very much a personal view. Talk to another LD and he will probably tell you a completely different story. One thing is certainly true about LDs - we are all very different from each other!

One important note - in the document below I refer throughout to the LD as 'he'. Sadly, this is because almost every programme on British TV is still lit by a man. Several women are moving up through the ranks and have lit the occasional show but unfortunately, this area of the industry has remained a male preserve for far too long. Just for the record - I often choose to work with female console ops and vision operators and all of them are extremely talented. I am sure that we will see female names regularly credited as LDs very soon.

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A little bit of history...

The way crews are booked in the TV industry has changed radically in the past ten or more years. When I became a lighting director (LD) in 1990 I was one of 30 BBC staff LDs based at Television Centre (TVC). Thames TV at Teddington had several staff LDs, as did LWT on the south bank - and that was just in London. All the regions had BBC and ITV studio centres, each with its own staff. To be a freelance LD was very much the rarity.

Then came the revolution. During the early nineties the BBC changed completely in the way it was structured. The studios at TVC and Elstree came under a new department called BBC Resources and they were told they had to generate their own income. In other words - the studios and their staff were now to receive no licence-payers' money at all but would have to survive commercially by hiring their facilities on the open market. Thus, today you might find in the studios at Television Centre that several programmes are being made not only for the BBC channels but also for ITV or Channel4.

Due to the subsequent commercial pressures, during the nineties the number of BBC staff LDs reduced from 30 to about 20, then later to about a dozen. For a number of reasons, most of the remaining LDs resigned and went freelance around the turn of the decade. (I was the last to resign in 2002.) There are now only six staff LDs remaining. These work mostly on EastEnders, children's programmes and sport. Occasionally they do get to light more general entertainment programmes but this is not common - almost all are now lit by freelancers.

In the early '90s, big changes also happened in ITV. At the beginning of 1993 Thames TV lost its franchise to broadcast to London on the ITV network (Carlton took over) so Teddington Studios became independent and most of the staff lost their jobs. These studios have since been used to make many popular programmes which have been shown on all the main channels. Similarly, the other ITV companies began to make many of their staff redundant up and down the country, relying on freelancers instead.

This combination of ITV lighting directors being made redundant and the BBC's studios becoming 'commercial' has led to the industry norm that the overwhelming majority of LDs are now freelance.

During the last fifteen years many studios up and down the country have closed, concentrating the industry on London. A few network programmes are still made in the regions but most regional studios have little work compared with the busy London studios. There are plans to open a new BBC studio centre in Manchester but that is several years off. Therefore, realistically, unless you have a regular job lighting a series from one of the regional studios you have to be based in the London area to have a chance of picking up a wide range of work.

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Where do LDs work?

The main studio centres in and around London where lighting directors regularly work are BBC TV Centre (White City), BBC Elstree (Borehamwood), Cactus Studios (Kennington), Capital Studios (Wandsworth), Elstree Film and TV Studios (Borehamwood), Fountain Studios (Wembley), The Hospital (Covent Garden), Stephen Street studios (Tottenham Court Rd), Maidstone Studios, Molinare (Soho), MTV (Camden), Pinewood TV Studios, Riverside Studios (Hammersmith), Teddington Studios and The London Studios (south bank). All of the above have fully equipped or partly equipped studios regularly used for broadcast TV. Some, like Fountain, have very large studios whilst others such as Stephen Street or Molinare have far more modest facilities.

In addition, there are several film studios in the London area which are sometimes used for TV production using outside broadcast units such as Black Island (Acton), Bray, Dukes Island (Acton), Ealing, Hanlon (Acton), Millennium (Borehamwood), Pinewood, Shepperton, Three Mills (Bromley-by-Bow) and Twickenham. All over the region there are also to be found several other relatively small, sometimes very basic, sometimes surprisingly sophisticated studio facilities.

Lighting directors also work on the soaps and regular dramas that are made in their own dedicated studios around England. These include EastEnders (BBC Elstree), Coronation Street (Manchester), The Bill (Merton), Casualty (Bristol), Holby City (BBC Elstree), Hollyoaks (Merseyside), Doctors (Birmingham) and Emmerdale (Yorkshire.) Some of these are occasionally lit by cameramen but all have been lit by LDs too.

There are also a number of small TV studios permanently producing material for the dozens of digital channels (eg. shopping, quiz, poker, soft porn etc). These usually have their own permanent or contracted staff but may occasionally bring in an LD to relight a studio.

Outside the London area in England and Wales the only studio centres regularly making programmes for the main network channels are the Leeds Studios and 3sixtymedia - the current name for the old Granada studios in Manchester. Just outside Cardiff there is an independent studio now called 'Omni Studio' which used to be the main HTV Wales production studio. BBC Cardiff also has a medium sized studio. Both of these mostly make programmes to be shown in Wales. The old Anglia studios in Norwich have recently reopened as an independent media centre called 'Epic' and hope to attract work from London. It remains to be seen whether the planned move of BBC Sport and Children's departments to Manchester in 2011 will significantly increase the work in that city.

Remember that almost all the above studios simply offer the facilities for production companies to make their programmes. They don't actually employ lighting directors themselves so there is no point in contacting them and asking for work. The only studios with a few staff LDs are the BBC in London - mentioned above, TLS who have staff LDs lighting GMTV, This Morning and sport - and Sky with its studios in Isleworth, mostly making news and sport programmes.

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What kind of TV show does an LD work on?

There are about 50 LDs based in or around London who regularly or occasionally work on a broad range of entertainment shows made for the five main broadcast channels. (Some are naturally much busier than others.) In addition, there are perhaps a dozen or so in London who have regular employment lighting soaps - and a similar number, mostly staffers, who are working in news and/or sport.

This relatively small group of LDs is responsible for lighting programmes that range from drama through comedy to gameshows, music shows and all kinds of studio-based and outside broadcast entertainment programmes and one-off events. Wherever more than one camera is used you need an LD.

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So what doesn't an LD do?

A vast amount of everyday television is shot using a single camera, mostly on location. This is lit - if any lighting is involved - by the cameraman. (NB - 'cameraman' is a generic term in the industry and applies to both men and women.) There are hundreds of people working in this field on interviews, make-over programmes, cookery series, documentaries and so on. If any lighting is necessary they do it themselves. This sort of work seldom involves more than a few small lights and often the camera operator will set those up him or herself, or perhaps have one electrician to help.

Some cameramen working in this field produce beautifully lit pictures, particularly with interviews - when faces need to be lit sensitively and backgrounds can be treated in various creative ways. Occasionally a second camera might be involved in an interview and one of the cameramen will take the lighting responsibility. If he or she does not operate as well then it could be said that they become a 'lighting director' for that shoot.

Single-camera TV drama productions are lit by a director of photography (DoP) - sometimes called a 'lighting cameraman' or 'cinematographer'. Many of these people will have received training at film school or simply made their way up via someone they know working in the film industry. Most drama DoPs come from a background working with film, although much TV drama these days is shot on digital video and given a 'film mode' treatment in post production. (High-definition video cameras are making the use of film on television drama less common.)

The UK has many superb DoPs who have been responsible for lighting a great number of high-quality drama series. Often they also work on commercials and pop promos and of course some move into the movie industry and become major international cinematographers.

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Programme types and who lights them

Drama on TV these days is usually either single-camera, lit by a DoP or multi-camera and lit by an LD. There are exceptions to this rule but to try and explain them is more likely to lead to confusion!

Multi-camera drama is the most popular form of TV we currently have in the UK and it tops the ratings of both BBC1 and ITV1. Of course, many people call it 'soap' but the lighting standards achieved on series like EastEnders, Holby City, Doctors, Casualty and The Bill are often very high indeed. The care and dedication shown by these LDs is remarkable, particularly considering the constraints of time and budget. (NB - 'Multi-camera' can include four or five cameras cut by a vision-mixer or, say, two cameras each recorded separately. One or two soaps actually use only one camera for some or all of the time but are lit by an LD, rather than the cameraman.)

The number of LDs lighting the UK's main continuing dramas (as 'soap' is officially called) is probably less than twenty. Each show usually has a team of LDs - perhaps three or four regulars - who are often employed on a contractual basis to light a number of episodes. (I understand that the daily rate these people are paid is often less than the normal rate an LD receives but of course this is compensated for by the long periods of guaranteed work.) Only a few years ago some of these shows were lit by LDs who would also work on other kinds of productions. I was one of these - often lighting EastEnders for a few months each year and comedies, gameshows and Top of the Pops for the rest of the time. Nowadays, however, it is much more of a specialised field and a soap LD is unlikely to get the chance to work on much else any more.

Some soaps, like EastEnders, are mostly shot in traditional multicamera studios and require the use of a console operator to balance the lighting. This is a possible route that an aspiring LD could take. On the other hand, some of today's soap LDs were previously cameramen or gaffers (electrical chargehands).

Comedy is another genre which calls for particular skills from the LD. Studio-based sitcoms are in some ways a cross between television and theatre.

A sitcom is usually shot in one day with a possible pre-record day and/or some material shot previously on location. The recording takes about two and a half hours in front of a studio audience following several hours of rehearsal throughout the day. Due to the nature of comedy, it simply isn't possible to do another take because the lighting 'wasn't quite right'. The audience reaction or timing of the actors will never be quite the same on later takes. This is not to say that scenes are not recorded more than once. They usually are! However, this is because the production team hope for a better performance from the actors. Re-takes caused by technical problems are always unpopular.

There are about half a dozen LDs specialising in sitcom lighting in the UK. Each has a very personal approach but the problems are the same. Each of us (for I am one of them) is trying to create a similar look on screen as a single-camera drama shoot whilst coping with five or more cameras looking in every direction and two or more booms swinging over the set. All that and the knowledge that it has to be right first time. Having worked on most kinds of TV production at some time or other I happen to think that this is the most difficult and demanding work there is from the LD's point of view. Perhaps that's just because I'm not very good at it!

Often, a sitcom will have the location scenes lit by a DoP (who will usually operate the camera) whilst the studio scenes are lit by an LD.

The LDs who light most UK comedy shows are often very experienced in a wide range of TV lighting. Most of us have experience of lighting drama at some time or other, including on location.

Sketch shows are similar to sitcoms in many ways. Often a few sketches will be performed in front of an audience but many will be pre-recorded. These may be in the studio or on location. Without the pressure of an audience and sometimes fewer cameras in use it is possible for the LD to achieve high quality drama-like lighting that can enhance the production values of the show.

However, this does depend on the time available and on some shows sketches are recorded in a rush with late changes to the script and little time to plan or rehearse. Thus, other skills come into play from the LD! The same half-dozen or so LDs that light most sitcoms are often those booked for sketch shows.

Gameshows are the bread and butter of both daytime and peaktime schedules. Every producer seems to want his or her show to look different from every other gameshow on TV so this usually means that they hope that the lighting can provide that individuality. Naturally, the set design is crucial to achieving a particular look but this form of TV can provide an opportunity to be very creative from the lighting point of view. Gameshow producers are sometimes prepared to spend quite large amounts on lighting so it is common for us to use rigs involving dozens of moving lights and LED fixtures.

NB: - Moving lights are often called 'Varilites' by some people. In fact Vari*lite is just one of several manufacturers making automated lights and the range of fixtures now available is very wide indeed. Each can cost many thousands of pounds to buy and so usually they are hired for each show from a hire company. A typical price for a single fixture might range from �40 to �125 per day, depending on how sophisticated it is. Thus a typical rig of fifty or more lights runs into a hire cost of several thousand pounds per studio day.

The latest form of lights using light-emitting diodes (LEDs) - e.g. Chromabanks, Chromapanels, Pixellines etc. - have recently come into their own on gameshows, as has 'Catalyst' and similar systems which take video images and manipulate them via a lighting desk. These images are then displayed on projection or LED screens to form an integral part of the set that can change colour and pattern along with the rest of the lighting.

There are probably about a dozen or so LDs who light most of the big peak-time gameshows. Most of us also work on a range of other shows too including music and general entertainment. Gameshow LDs come from various backgrounds. Most of us were staff LDs with one of the big companies in previous years although I know of at least one whose background was in event lighting. Some of us were originally cameramen or perhaps vision engineers or electricians. Almost all of us have had some experience of console operation.

Music shows range from outside broadcast events such as orchestral concerts or rock concerts to studio-based pop shows. Similarly, these almost always involve the use of moving lights. Once again, the list of LDs regularly involved in this form of TV is relatively small. One or two have come into the industry via the rock concert route, whilst others also work on a range of other TV shows.

Moving light operators are particularly important to the success of any show involving a big automated rig. These people make a significant creative contribution to the final look of the programme. Consequently, one or two operators have recently moved into lighting design for productions themselves. They may have stood in for the regular LD on a series or simply become known by the production team over a long period and one day given a chance to light a show in their own right. This may therefore be seen as a possible way into the industry for some people.

Outside Broadcasts such as awards ceremonies and concerts are sometimes lit by the same group of LDs as those who light big studio-based music and entertainment shows. There are, however, a small number of LDs who specialise in outside broadcasts (OBs), lighting music and entertainment productions in theatres, arenas or similar locations. Most have come up via the BBC OB route and are seldom seen in a studio. One or two of these are now freelance but some are still BBC staff working for the OB department. These LDs (bizarrely called 'engineering managers' by the BBC) usually light the big events in churches and so on.

General entertainment productions cover pretty well everything else that many LDs are involved in. These range from chat shows and panel game shows through magazine programmes, studio cookery shows, discussion programmes and of course all the different forms of children's TV. In recent years we have also seen the rise of the reality show. From Big Brother to Hell's Kitchen and all things in between, these productions involve very close liaison with the set designer and huge amounts of plannning from the LD. Clearly, nothing can be done to stop the flow of the live action once it begins so the LD has to take into account all possible angles from which the cameras might shoot the participants. This involves much more than simple illumination as many of these shows also have high production values and wish to create a distinct look for the series.

There must be 50 or so LDs lighting this broad range of shows. LDs who light some of the most demanding productions will also fill their schedules with a range of general and perhaps less complicated work. At the same time, some LDs ease themselves into their retirement by carrying on lighting a regular panel game or cookery series and good luck to them! Nobody minds this as long as they charge a normal daily rate for their services. The retired LD who tops up his pension by doing a show here or there at a reduced fee is very much frowned upon by the rest of us!

News, sport etc. There is a broad range of news, current affairs and sport programmes that tend to be lit mostly by staff lighting directors. For example, Sky TV at Osterley has a number of staff LDs who work in the studios there relighting the various sets that come and go all the time - mostly for sport programmes. They operate the console themselves and also look after the lighting balance on Sky News and Sky Sport News.

In some operations the lighting director is a console-operator who 'acts up'. Each company has a different policy. Often, these people get no credit at the end of programmes but their work is no less important. Some are genuine LDs but as I understand it others are not called 'lighting director' by the company employing them but given some invented term that avoids paying them an LD's rate. Others may be called 'technical director' and they will often have additional responsibilities such as operating the console, racking the cameras and perhaps even remotely operating them.

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Summary

There is a huge range of television that fills the peaktime schedules that has been lit by an LD. Sometimes working with plenty of time and a large budget but more often than not creating inventive and professional results with neither.

Many LDs work on a range of different kinds of work whilst others specialise. Circumstances often dictate what kind of work an LD will become known for. Luck and availability combine to influence how any LD will be booked to light a show and thus his or her career may well end up moving in a direction they might not have originally chosen!


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