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Lighting Technician Job Description, Career as a Lighting Technician, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: High school plus training

Salary: Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook: Varies—see profile

Definition and Nature of the Work

Lighting in film, television, and theater is a subtle art, generally not meant to be noticed. Lighting technicians use lights to create different effects and moods from scene to scene.

To make a major feature film, many lighting technicians are needed. In film, lighting technicians are called gaffers. They work under the supervision of the lighting director or the director of cinematography. Lighting technicians set up and place the lights for each scene of the movie. They must know what effect the director wants in each scene and be able to create it. For instance, if a scene is to be mysterious, the technician might use filters over the lights to indicate darkness, while allowing just enough light to come through so that the audience can see the action. Even scenes that are shot outdoors require additional lighting to create the right daylight effects.

Lighting technicians must also know how to set up lights so that they are out of the camera's range and do not interfere with the scenery. To do this, technicians must be able to use various kinds of equipment to "rig" lights securely while getting the best possible effects. If the scene is shot in a studio, technicians can plan the rigging. However, location work—scenes shot outside the studio—can present many problems. High winds can knock down the equipment, and uneven ground can make setup difficult.

To make low-budget or short films, only a small crew of workers is needed. In such cases, there is only one lighting technician on the set and sometimes the camera operator also does the lighting.

Television lighting technicians perform similar duties. They are members of crews of broadcast technicians. Those who work in the theater have a somewhat different job. Theater lighting technicians work under the direction of lighting designers. There is one lighting designer for every play. The lighting designer decides where the lights should be placed so that they fall on exactly the right spot on the stage. The lighting technicians hang the lights according to the wishes of the lighting designer—over the stage, under the balcony, or at the side of the theater. Because every theater performance is presented live, lighting technicians continue to work as long as the play runs. The lighting designer decides when in the course of the play the lights should be changed. Then the designer marks the changes down on copies of the play's script so the lighting technicians can follow their cues. Lighting technicians control the lights through switchboards. A few technicians run the heavy spotlights, which are controlled by hand.

Before a scene is shot, a lighting technician sets up the lights. Even outdoor scenes require additional lighting to get the effect the director wants. (© Martha Tabor/Working Images Photographs. Reproduced by permission.)

Education and Training Requirements

While in high school, prospective lighting technicians should take courses in electronics and shop. Vocational training is also helpful, as is learning how to use the lighting equipment for school plays. Courses in motion picture, television, and theater production are offered at many colleges and universities. In this field, experience is the best teacher. Lighting technicians learn most of what they need to know through on-the-job training.

Lighting technicians must have an extensive knowledge of electrical systems—most are qualified electricians—and they must be prepared to keep up with the latest advancements in lighting and electrical systems.

Getting the Job

Most of the lighting technicians who work on feature movies and in the large film and theater centers of New York and Los Angeles are union members. Only union members can work on union productions. The unions offer information on membership and job openings.

It is possible to find work in nonunion productions by contacting local film production companies about job openings. Small theatrical productions outside of the big cities and community theaters are seldom unionized. Candidates typically get a job as an assistant first, whether they belong to a union or not. Then with more experience they advance into the role of lighting technician.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Lighting technicians can become lighting designers or lighting directors. Technicians who do film work can learn other skills in addition to lighting, such as how to operate a camera or record sound. They may also decide to enter other fields such as architectural lighting, industrial lighting, or new lighting product design.

In film and theater, workers with the most experience get the most work. Lighting technicians try to work on as many different kinds of films as possible. Varied experience can mean getting more jobs and more interesting kinds of work. Beginning lighting technicians employed at small television stations work steadily; however, experience can help them get jobs on larger stations where the work is more challenging.

The competition for jobs in the field is intense. There are always more beginners looking for jobs than there are starting positions. It is difficult to predict the outlook for jobs in film production. The amount of film work done usually depends on the economy. For instance, businesses usually cut back on making industrial films when the economy takes a downturn. On the other hand, feature films seem to attract larger audiences in bad times. A few more jobs will open up in television work because cable television stations are broadcasting their own programs.

Working Conditions

People who make motion pictures usually have to travel and work long hours. Since lighting may be required even for outdoor scenes, lighting technicians can work anywhere—from a desert to a city street. For most films and for many television shows, both studio and location work is needed, so lighting technicians must be prepared to work under a variety of conditions. Lighting technicians who work in filmmaking or in theater must find another job after each production is finished. Job offers may come in bunches or may not come at all, so a technician may go for months without work. Lack of job security is the norm in show business.

Lighting technicians in television broadcasting work steadily and may be employed by the same station for many years. Most lighting technicians in broadcasting work forty hours a week. They receive overtime pay when they put in additional hours.

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings of lighting technicians depend on the location of the work and the experience of the worker. Unionized beginning lighting technicians earn about $200 per day. Chief technicians earn about $250 a day. Minimum union rates for lighting crew members working on stage productions range from about $21 to $30 per hour. These rates apply to the major theatrical centers in New York and Los Angeles. Experienced union workers typically earn more than nonunion workers.

Where to Go for More Information

International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada
1430 Broadway, 20th Fl.
New York, NY 10018
(212) 730-1770

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
900 Seventh St. NW
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 833-7000

National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians
501 Third St. NW, Ste. 880
Washington, D.C. 20001-2797
(202) 434-1254

Earnings for lighting technicians in television are slightly more than those in stage production. Lighting technicians employed in large stations in big cities make much more money than those who work at small stations with few viewers. Also, lighting technicians who work at stations that carry advertising earn more than those at educational and public broadcasting stations. Most technicians receive paid vacations and overtime.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCommunication and the Arts