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Mary Poppins or Lisa Simpson?

Brad Schiller • December 2019Feeding the Machines • December 13, 2019

Many productions utilize a console operator to run the lighting for a show. People in these positions are generally referred to as a Lighting Director. This person may or may not also be the lighting designer or lighting programmer. In most cases, they are not the designer or programmer and are simply in a position to run the show and maintain palettes/presets and other critical elements. Lighting director jobs usually fall into two levels. The first basically watches the show operate autonomously and the other has greater responsibilities to represent the lighting designer.

‡‡         Nanny or Babysitter?

I was recently talking with lighting designer Johnny Goode, and he equated the two styles of lighting direction as being either a nanny or a babysitter. He often designs touring shows that he is not able to take out on the road himself. In these cases, he will hire a person to run or maintain the show. He explained that a babysitter is someone who parents hire to watch their kids and put them to bed. The babysitter will generally perform minimal duties and be paid an accordingly low rate. On the other hand, a nanny will feed, teach, entertain and generally take care of the children. The cost of a nanny is much higher due to the required expertise and responsibilities.

Much in the same way, he chooses lighting directors based upon the needs and budget of the show. Many shows are timecoded and simply need a babysitter to ensure all is operating as expected. Other shows (whether timecoded or not) require a nanny that can program in new songs, edit the existing programming, talk with the artists and management and generally represent Johnny when he is not on site.

‡‡         The Babysitter

Lighting directors that operate in a babysitter role will update palettes/presets and ensure the FOH area is setup and operating correctly. This person should have basic troubleshooting abilities to get the show working, but will not do much during the actual production. Instead, the show runs automatically via timecode or other show control. There may be some manually triggered accents or updates that happen during the show, but otherwise the show plays on its own. Some lighting directors are also responsible for calling followspot cues.

This type of position is great for someone early in their career that wants to get exposure to running shows, calling spots and a bit of console usage. It also provides access to designers, programmers, management and more, as the lighting director will have to interact with more of the design team than an average technician.

If changes to the design or programming are requested, the babysitter lighting director will need to reach out to the designer so a decision can be made. This type of lighting director does not have the authority to make changes or design decisions on behalf of the designer. Often the babysitter lighting director is not present during preproduction and programming sessions. They come to the show during the rehearsal period.

‡‡         The Nanny

In addition to running the show, a nanny level lighting director is actually the proxy for the lighting designer. This type of person understands what the lighting designer intends for the show and the overall design concepts. They have the authority to speak for the designer and make changes to the lighting design in a manner that the designer would approve. They will be present throughout the entire preproduction and programming phases and may often interact with artists and management.

While they can act autonomously on the road, they are actually in communication with the designer quite often. The nanny lighting director truly becomes an extension of the designer. Of course, the designer must also trust that the lighting director is not going to try to steal their gig. (With the nanny acting in place of the absent designer, it does happen from time to time.)

The nanny lighting director must possess the skills to design and implement new looks or changes into the show. They need to understand lighting design and programming and be proficient enough to handle these updates quickly and efficiently.

‡‡         “LD” vs. “LD”

The title “lighting director” is often shortened to just “LD.” This, of course, is also a common moniker for “lighting designer.” Confusion can easily occur when lighting directors identify themselves as the show’s LD. It is very important that anyone in a lighting director role clearly refers to him/herself as a “lighting director.” Too often, lighting directors are using this general “LD” term, and it is analogous to a babysitter or nanny claiming to be a guardian of a parent’s child. Artists, management, producers, directors and other production staff may not understand the different lighting positions. Claiming the “LD” title should only be reserved for the lighting designer.

Furthermore, in the television world, a lighting director title often refers to the person in charge of the lighting (a.k.a. lighting designer). It also could be used for a lighting programmer or a console operator. When working in television, it is very important to be clear about position responsibilities and not just use the term “lighting director” loosely.

‡‡         Babysitters vs. Nannies

Many productions are turning to the use of timecode to automate the production elements. This is a very powerful tool as coordination between departments becomes seamless as lightings, lasers, audio, scenic, and more are all following the same source. Producers are requesting perfectly repeatable shows and lower costs. The need for babysitting lighting directors is continuing to grow in all types of productions. Nanny type lighting directors are also extremely valuable to productions and the need is growing here too.

Not all shows are using timecode and some lighting directors are required to actually push buttons and be skilled at running the show. Even these types can be split between babysitters and nannies in terms of their responsibilities. There will always be a desire for a human who can hit the GO button at just the right moment.

‡‡         Do It Now

If you are interested in running shows, the time is right for you to step in and become a lighting director. Ask designers, lighting shops and crew chiefs for the opportunity to sit in the operator’s seat. Once you get the gig, have respect for your position and title and do not promote yourself as the designer. Become skilled at operating a desk (not just programming), practice your timing and always be a team player. Run every production the very best you can and continue to learn and improve.

If you are hired as a babysitter, start studying to be a nanny. If you are a nanny, learn new skills and move up in production size and responsibilities. Many lighting directors have grown into very successful lighting designers and attribute much of their design ability to all they learned as lighting directors.

Even lighting designer Johnny Goode spent time in his career as a both a babysitter and nanny lighting director before taking on lighting design. Don’t be in a hurry to move into the designer’s seat, and instead have fun running shows.


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