Lighting Technician Filmmaking Careers
Find out about a filmmaking career as a lighting technician from an industry professional.
Filmmaking career professional, Michael F., is a lighting technician/dimmer board operator who works in film and television.
Read on for a description of this exciting filmmaking career in his own words.
What was your most recent filmmaking project?
I was the dimmer board operator on a movie in Shreveport, Louisiana. The dimmer board operator is part of a team that handles the lighting and electrical work on set. In this role, I'm in charge of turning on, off and dimming the lights for scenes that we're filming.
How did you become a dimmer board operator?
I worked on theater, concert and event lighting in high school and college. I went to Brooks Institute of Photography, where I got a BA in Photography with an emphasis in motion pictures. After I graduated, I worked on independent films. I learned how to use the lighting board on the job.
I got into the union (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 728) two years ago. I was lucky. I worked on a non-union independent film that turned into a union film and got the 30 days experience on a union project required to get into the union. Everyone wants to get into the union because major studios only use union employees. Another benefit of union membership is that they set my rates, hours, overtime, etc. They also negotiate my pension and health insurance benefits.
What skills does someone need for a filmmaking career?
A lighting technician's job is very hands-on. Understanding how to focus a light and the direction of the light is very important. Running the dimmer board is very technical.
Eventually, I want to advance to be a chief lighting technician, also known as the gaffer. The gaffer works with the director of photography (DP) and creates the plan for lighting the set. The gaffer is also in charge of the lighting crew.
The best boy (assistant chief lighting technician) does the hiring and the administrative part of the job. This includes paperwork and coordinating for the whole department.
What's a typical workday like?
Twelve- to fourteen-hour days are standard. Some days are 16 hours. A typical work day starts at 5:00 a.m., and I get home around 8:00 p.m. The set provides the food service. I get on the set, turn off house lights and turn on the safety lights. When the chief lighting tech says to turn on light 115, I turn it on. I sit at the board all day.
I also take lots of notes. When the scene happens, I document everything. I watch on my own video monitor. I'm a second set of eyes, and I listen to what's happening on the set. I anticipate what we need to do next and listen to what the DP and the gaffer are saying over the headphones.
What's the best part of this filmmaking career?
Making it happen. The camaraderie. It's a team effort. Even just one shot takes all of us together to make it work. There are so many people involved. You'll never be with the exact same crew again. Also, the satisfaction of seeing the end result, watching the show on TV or in a theater.
I like working on movies because I work for three months, take a few months off, and then go work on another movie. TV is 10 months. TV shows have the same long hours, but you don't have to travel usually.
What's the most challenging part of a lighting technician job?
Long hours are the hardest. It's hard to be away from family. Most films shoot on location, so I go away for three months at a time—out of state or out of the country.
As far as the actual work goes, the lighting technician job is physically demanding. As a dimmer board operator, the job is a little isolating. The chief lighting officer has to know where his crew is at all times. We're his extended hands.
Any advice for people who want to get into filmmaking?
It's definitely helpful to have a degree in the field. Then, it's all hands-on experience. Get really good at networking. It's a tough business. Market yourself. Keep connections. Be a good communicator. It's who you know. Be a nice guy—friendly, easy to be around. Keep a good attitude. You need to be a people person to succeed in this business. Always have lots of business cards to give out. Always return calls.