The Real Poop
"You Light Up My Life." Well, okay—maybe not our entire lives. It would be pretty cool if we had back-lighting on every trip to the grocery store, but that's not really the way it works. Rather, a lighting designer draws up and implements schemes to artistically or aesthetically light a variety of performance venues and fancy shmancy homes. The guy who lit up that concert hall? Lighting designer. The gal who made that dark, shadowy scene in that movie look so foreboding? Lighting designer. The fella who shone a light in your eyes and asked to see your driver's license? Police officer. Not that we want to take sides, but you really shouldn’t have been driving that fast.
This job is not just figuring out where to point a bunch of lights and then physically pointing them there. Just as being a photographer isn't just pointing and clicking a camera (it isn't). The ability to create a specific mood or atmosphere is a learned skill, and there are always a hundred different variables that come into play when you're trying to determine the best way to produce a desired effect. What color gel should you use, how can you best mimic natural light, how should you light a particular scene so that it is consistent with the look of the rest of the project? It's just as much about "design" as it is about "light."
You may be a lone wolf, or you may be a permanent employee of a lighting design or production company. In the former case, you're relying on good word of mouth and past experience to continue to get you work; in the latter, you are salaried and you just go where the boss sends you.
There is also a ton of overlap between lighting design and such other elements as set design, stage direction, and the work done by a camera technician. In fact, many lighting designers work double or triple duty, and so it helps to be knowledgeable about all aspects of production design. Of course, if you're working on a major motion picture, they'll have people specifically designated to handle lighting, others designated to handle camerawork, and still others designated to shine the director's shoes.
The important thing to remember is that you are a designer, not a technician, meaning you had better have a clear, artistic vision every time you take on a project. It isn't enough to be a wiz with lights and electronics. You need to have a deep understanding of a script, the characters within, and the director's own vision, and create a world of lighting that is not at odds with—and in fact enhances—those elements of the project. If you are the type of person who is forever checking in with others to get their artistic ideas rather than generating your own, you'll burn out quickly in this biz. Yes—exactly like a light bulb.
If, however, you grasp both the scientific and artistic aspects of light, then this could be a great career path for you. You have the potential to work on some incredible, big budget films that could stretch and challenge you (that's a good thing), or you could end up getting hired on to light a regular television series, which may not be quite as glamorous or exciting but could mean a steadier paycheck.
It helps if you feel you can be passionate not only about your lighting duties, but about each project you work on as a whole. You are, after all, a member of a team, and the ultimate goal is to come away with a win, not just to pump up your own stats. Are you attracted to filmmaking in general? If so, it could help you out in the long run. It's a special thing to be a part of that environment, part of that energy. There is no reason you have to be the sullen, anti-social lighting designer who communicates with your lighting team and no one else. If you let yourself be enveloped in the magic of the filming process, it will only make your job that much more enjoyable. And then you don't have to worry about people making all of those "sullen, anti-social lighting designer" cracks behind your back.
All in all, not a bad gig. (There are a handful of lighting designers in L.A. who do very well, but all you have to do is look down to get an idea of how big a handful is.) You get to be creative and work in an interesting atmosphere, and at least you'll be making generally more money than most other "creative" types (which isn't saying much). And when the audience applauds, you can close your eyes and pretend they're admiring your spot rigging.