How to be a lighting designer
Design Week: What does it mean to be a lighting designer?
Tim Routledge: My role as a lighting designer in the broadcast and entertainment industries is to ensure the show’s visual appearance. I do this by following a brief given me by an artistic or creative director. It could be anything, from rock music shows to theatre to television. The lighting designer plays a major role in creating the show’s overall aesthetic. He or she works alongside the set designer, video graphic designer, and sound designer.
DW: What is your educational background?
TR: As a child and teenager I was involved in youth theatre. I also helped backstage at amateur shows. In 1993 I completed a bachelor’s degree in technical theatre at The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. It covered everything from show calling (essentially, being technical director), cueing actors and other team members, lighting, setting design, prop-making, and even set design.
Since I was a child, I knew that I wanted to be a lighting specialist. I then specialized in it in my second and third year. All of the skills that I learned during my degree helped me in my job: communication with people, cueing set changes and managing stage lighting.
From a young age, I was interested in art and design. My dad used to take me to galleries. As a child, I was able to see the beauty in design and would make posters. This interest grew into a combination of technical and design skills that led me to the work I do today.
DW: How has your career path been so far?
TR: It’s been very varied and not the norm. After graduating from university, I became a TV lighting operator and then worked for a rental company that provided equipment and sets for stage shows. I was the company’s lighting designer. I mostly did corporate gigs such as company events. After 10 years, I realized I could no longer do this and decided to get into TV and music. I decided to go it alone and source my own clients. In the beginning, I was the lighting programmer on BBC One and Channel Four’s Let’s Dance and Big Brother shows.
DW: When did you first become interested in lighting design?
TR: I wanted to be an actor until I was 14. At the age of 14, a friend, who is now Fatboy Slim’s lighting design, introduced me to lighting. I realized that I did not want to be on stage. After working as a technician at a music festival, I realized that I loved it. I was encouraged by my university to try new lighting techniques, including rigging lights onto the roofs of buildings and into theatre windows from the outside.
DW: In what ways does lighting design intersect with other design disciplines?
TR: It’s a combination of product design and engineering. A lot of lighting design takes place in rehearsal spaces. However, you must communicate your creative ideas on paper. I create visuals for clients and create technical drawings in 2D. You will eventually be designing your concept in 3D air, basically painting with light. However, you must produce it on paper. You also have to consider architecture because you must think about both interior and exterior spaces. Additionally, you need to create shapes using lighting beams.
DW: How does your typical work day look for you?
TR: I split my time between my studio in my backyard and on-site.
Six months before a tour begins, I begin work on a project. I meet with other designers to review a brief set by a creative directors and sometimes the musicians. After discussing feasibility, the set designer will create a rough sketch of the set. The engineer will then design it. Then I will think about how to integrate light.
My studio is where I work most of the day, from 9am to 5pm. To design and test my concepts, I use a lighting desk as well as a virtual reality simulator. I also use WYSIWYG (What you See is What You Get) to create and test them. The headset allows me to work in 3D, add smoke effects, and add other special effects such video content.
The first half of my day is spent creating the set design, placing lights, and calculating angles. The second half is spent analyzing the music. I will put on my headphones and begin to break down the music into cues. This includes the song’s beats per minute (BPM), solos, verses and chorus, breaks, and any emphatic moments such as drum snares. Because I am often on tour, I make sure to finish my work on time so I can see my family and assist with school runs. Because I have many US clients I push conference calls back to 8pm or 9pm so that I can spend time with my family first.
After rehearsals start, on-site days are held. This is where I finalize the show I originally programmed in my studio. I usually finish the show in the early morning, but start later in the afternoon. I go to the gym most mornings. Then we will start work on the site at lunchtime. We’ll assess the space and do technical work. After performing, we’ll go to the gym and then watch rehearsals. My day begins at 9pm. After the performers leave, we get down to program the show. We work until 2am or 3. We must wait until it is dark before we can work on outdoor shows, such as the Spice Girls’ stadium tour.
DW: What are your primary day-to-day tasks and responsibilities?
TR: All my designs follow the same workflow. I am terrible at drawing so I don’t draw by hand. I use WYSIWYG to digitally sketch, program and visualize. Apart from that, I also help with the installation, including collaborating with set designers, and analysing and breaking down musical pieces.
DW: Is the job creatively challenging?
TR: In the old days, a band would perform an arena tour and have a few lights around them. There is a lot of competition to make shows that are different and new. It’s not just about the new technology. But it also concerns how the stages are set up. No show is exactly alike. Sam Smith’s recent tour required me to conceal all equipment. It’s more than just hanging lights and flashing them. It’s about being challenged to think of new things.
DW: How closely do other designers work with you?
You often work with a team of creative people. It all depends on how big the concert is, but if it’s Beyonce or Spice Girls, a producer will usually employ at least a set designer as well as a video graphic designer and lighting designer.
I’ve worked quite closely with big set designers, such as Brit Awards designer Misty Buckley, who I just collaborated with on Stormzy’s Glastonbury set, as well as creative directors. They have the ideas. I am there to help them and make their concepts work visually and technically.
Kate Moross, a graphic designer for the Spice Girls reunion tour created the graphics that were used on the screens. We tried to match colours with lighting, as well as changes in music such snares or bass lines with changes in lighting and screen graphics.
DW: What are your strengths as a lighting designer?
TR: You must be patient and a politician. Lighting design is 95% politics, and 5% design. It is necessary to handle a variety of requests from musicians to producers and directors. It’s also important to have a great sense of humor and people skills. I often tell lighting design students that it’s not about the latest technology or kit. It’s about finding compromises and new ways to do things, without having to rush an idea. Remember to be humble and appreciate the contributions of everyone in a show. There are some points where lighting shines but they are few and far between. It must be there to light up the artist on stage and take a backseat.
DW: What are your favorite parts about your job?
TR: It’s a great feeling to be able just to watch a show. Stormzy’s Glastonbury set is the only show I will ever do. It was worth it to be able hear the people in the crowd praise the lighting.
DW: What is the worst part of your job?
TR: The long hours and the need to find food for my family at 4am.
DW: What would you look for in a junior lighting designer?
TR: I am always looking for enthusiasm and a willingness to learn. Students often believe they know everything once they graduate college, but they really need to go back to learn it all over again. I want someone who is willing to learn and eager to help.
DW: What advice would your offer to people who are considering a career in lighting design?
TR: Make the most of every opportunity and don’t worry about the money. I know it’s hard. Be optimistic that you won’t work with Beyonce from day one. Learn from even the smallest of shows. I have been doing this 22 years.
If you are looking for ways to get into technical theatre, I would recommend university courses in technical theatre, such as those at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. However, if your design skills are strong or you want to be a designer, I would suggest working for a rental company that rents equipment. They provide excellent work experience in technical skills, such as rigging. A specialist degree is not required. However, you will need to have relevant experience on the job or backstage.
We are looking for talented people to join our industry. Not only do we need creative people, but also programmers and technicians. This role is vital and allows the lighting designer to make everything work by pushing all of the buttons.
Starting out as a technician can be a great place to begin. This will lead to more creative lighting design. You might consider a career in video production, even if you are a graphic designer by trade.