Lighting Designer FAQ

  1. You, the lighting designer, have just been signed onto a show. Where do you start?
  2. If your play is applying for theatre space, what do you contribute to the application? What is your role in the application interview?
  3. What resources do you consult? Are there any books you use? Do you look at pictures from past versions of the same show?
  4. What inspiration for you design do you draw from the script? How much of it is the director's input, and how much of it is your own ideas?
  5. What is your basic schedule, from being signed onto a show through opening night? What needs to get done at which points?
  6. When is your schedule the busiest?
  7. What do you do in production meetings and/or design meetings? How do you prepare for meetings? What do you bring to the meetings?
  8. How do you make your budget? What are the things you should consider when making your budget? What items are available to you and not considered in the budget, and how do you obtain them?
  9. How do I format an order?
  10. Where can I rent equipment from?
  11. What is VectorWorks?
  12. Where can I use VectorWorks?
  13. How do I use VectorWorks?
  14. How useful is VectorWorks?

You've been signed onto a play. Where do you start?

In the HRDC, this process usually starts with a talk with the director who is applying to do a show, during which he or she explains their concepts for the show and in which the designer throws out potential ideas as to how the lighting could possibly contribute to or support those concepts. You may read the play or do research to further your understanding of the show and solidify your design plans.

If your play is applying to get theatre space, what do you contribute to the application? What is your job to bring to the application interview?

For the application, you will be asked to write a short statement in which you outline the basic ideas you have for the show and how you will be able to accomplish them on stage. You should probably think about the director’s vision for the show, as well as interesting looks you may want to try. Be interesting and imaginative, but don’t worry about knowing exactly how you will be lighting a show. After the show gets selected, you will have to decide on a more exacting design strategy.
As for the interview, go for the moral support! You’ll likely be asked about your design, and you should be prepared to talk about things not on the application (people can read, they already know what you’ve written down).

What resources do you consult? Are there any books you use? Do you look at pictures from past versions of the same show?

You can look at industry magazines, such as Light & Sound America, for new ideas and for photos of various effects. You can often search for photos on the internet to be able to use in order to ask the director whether they like the lighting in a particular effect. You can look at pictures from past versions of the show you are designing, but often the dirctor’s (and your) vision will be different. These types of resources are primarily a vehicle for enabling better communication with the director rather than being something to try to emulate or copy directly. Be original!

What inspiration for your design do you draw from the script? How much of it is the director's input, and how much of it is your own ideas?

This varies widely from show to show. Sometimes you will find yourself quite inspired by a script and come to the director with ideas from the outset. Other times you will have trouble thinking of lighting concepts for the show, until after you’ve seen the seen the designer run and gotten an idea of the story the director is trying to tell. You should try to at least think about mood and colors, using clues from the script or director and set designer input, before this point.

What is your basic schedule, from being signed onto a show through opening night? What needs to get done at which points?

After the application process and your show’s selection, some time might go by in which you don't think about the show very much; however, it is a good idea to keep the show in the back of your mind so that you can unconsciously come up with brilliant ideas to be used when the time is right. You may find yourself noticing a particular "effect" in real life that might be interesting to see on stage for an upcoming show, and ask myself how that could be accomplished. If you are stuck for ideas- DON’T WORRY!
// The best designs often seem to come out of nowhere and at the last minute. At some point in the process, there will be production meetings, as well as design meetings. The design meetings are more important to you as a designer, but both are important for the show. These will be discussed later. At these meetings, you will learn about the set design, which needs to be done before you can do much of anything as a lighting designer.
// Once the set design is done and you agree with the director on a direction to take the lighting design, it is usually easiest to next start to make a list of the various looks that you would like to see for different scenes in the show. At this point this starts to be related to where people will be on stage, so hopefully the director has been able to provide you with some sort of rough blocking -- or perhaps it is so late in the process that you have already seen a designer run (sometimes it comes to that).
// With a list of desired looks and some reasonable idea of where the actors will be on stage in each scene, it is now possible to start to work out where to place the lighting instruments in order to achieve the desired effects. Usually you’ll go through the desired looks one by one and scene by scene, taking note of what systems or specials would be necessary to achieve what you want. This can result in a rather long list, which if expanded into a list of instruments necessary to implement would far exceed the capacity of the space.

The next step is actually planning where to put the instruments. During this phase, it helps to have a good feeling for how the various lighting instruments available to you behave in the space you will be in, especially in terms of how wide an area is covered and how much light is available from them. When working in a new space or with unfamiliar instruments, the process takes a while longer as you may end up performing the actual calculations for beam angle and throw (either by hand or with the aid of a CAD program such as Vectorworks Spotlight) in order to determine how best to position the instruments for your desired systems. In most spaces, a lot of compromise is necessary to get your systems to fit. Sometimes, too much compromise is necessary and it is necessary to go back to the system planning phase and change the assumptions you had made there (such as the number of areas that are required to cover a particular stage area).

Now that you know how many instruments each system takes, you can pull color for the show. Often for small Ex shows, this is possible to do just before or even during load-in by pulling everything from the gel file. Other times, you may need a lot of a particular color and have to order it. In any case, it would be a good idea to have some idea of what color you want before load-in, at least some familiarity with whether it might actually be present in the gel file (so that you can order it in time if necessary).
Next comes load-in and focus. If you have an ME, perhaps they can run the hanging of the actual instruments while you work on finalizing the gel and preparing for focus. Most likely this will not happen and the lighting designer will be in charge of hanging the instruments as well. Either way, the lighting designer will almost certainly be responsible for focus, when the instruments are pointed at the desired location on the stage, focused, and gelled. Focus usually happens after the major portions of the set are in place and can take between 1 and 10 minutes per instrument (so, ~1 to 10 hours in the Ex and up to 40 hours if things are slow on the Mainstage). It helps to have plenty of competent help during focus, as well as having dedicated use of the space.

Finally, once all the instruments are focused and patched, you can write the cues for the show. It is always a good idea to write many if not all of the cues before the tech rehearsal. It may be helpful to write them with the director around so that you don't diverge too much from the director's vision (which may or may not have been communicated well enough ahead of time). If you find that you can't give the director what they wants, try to explain to them that compromises needed to be made in order to implement the design in this space, and that you wish you could give them what they want, but it just isn't possible…unless, of course, it is possible (in terms of time and resources) to change something to make them happier, in which case that should be done as soon as possible.

When is your schedule the busiest?

The busiest time is usually tech week and the week of the designer run, which is when you should try to nail down the conceptual design and start designing the light plot.

What do you do in production meetings and/or design meetings? How do you prepare for meetings? What do you bring to the meetings?

For the most part production meetings do not affect the lighting designer very much. It would be a good idea to go to them, but it may feel unnecessary. Production meetings usually require nothing other than attendance and patience. There should also be design meetings, which are very important. This is when you meet with the director and/or the other designers, initially talking much about the broader design concepts and then specifically talking about the designs. You can bring jotted-down ideas, script annotations, and/or photos to discuss at design meetings, although the thoughts that you have on the show will probably suffice. The closer you get to the show, the more specific your plans and ideas should be. As mentioned above, as soon as the set design is done you can start thinking about your light plot, and once you have an idea of the blocking, you can finalize your plot and design.

How do you make your budget? What are things you should consider when making your budget? What items are available to you and NOT considered in the budget, and how do you obtain them?

The HRDC has a stock of gel and of gobos. Generally you only need to spend money on gel or on special gobos, and possibly also on rental instruments if you need some sort of special effect, though it really depends on the show's overall budget as to whether renting is an option.

How do I format an order?

First of all, you should obtain your show code from your producer. Before you send your rental request, clear it through your faculty TD. Normally, this will be the TD for Harvard Theatre - however, Loeb shows have a different procedure, and all rental requests should go through Michael Griggs (the ART may have the equipment you are planning to rent). Once your order has been cleared, you should email High Output (your TD can provide you with the current liaison for Harvard). You should ask for confirmation. A similar procedure occurs for sales.

Where can I rent equipment from?

High Output supplies most Harvard events. Sometimes shows choose to use other suppliers that they may have a history with, such as Galley Rental. High Output delivers free to Harvard at certain times (normally Mondays and Fridays - be sure to check).

What is VectorWorks?

VectorWorks is a software package used to design lighting plots and sets. It is first and foremost a ‘CAD’ program, and the light design functions have been effectively bolted on. It is therefore not ideal for creating plots, but does the job. Its main advantage is plots can be quickly created and edited (previously you had to draw plots out using stencils), and it can produce tables showing how many gels to cut, what instruments you’ll need, etc.

Where can I use VectorWorks?

A copy of VectorWorks is available on the shop computer in the Agassiz. A free viewer can be downloaded to view plots somebody else has made. VectorWorks requires a USB ‘dongle’ to run. Heavy users of VectorWorks may be able to borrow a dongle from the OFA. Despite this, many people prefer to work on the shop computer, since the program is not best suited to the small screens on many laptops.

How do I use VectorWorks?

VectorWorks has an extremely steep learning curve. There is a training DVD available, as well as several online tutorials specifically for lighting design (do a google).

How useful is VectorWorks?

VectorWorks cannot do ‘pre-vis’ - programming lighting cues and moving lights on a computer, and seeing how your designs might look using a 3D simulation. The standard software for doing this is called WYSIWYG, and is made by Cast Software. It is not available at Harvard - although this may change in the future*.