Lighting technicians are often called ‘sparks’. These guys work in the film, TV and video production industries and are specially trained to operate technical lighting equipment. They’re responsible for setting up and operating equipment under the supervision of a lighting director or a ‘gaffer’.
TV shows and films cannot be shot in the dark, and therefore lighting technicians are an absolutely vital part of the production process. These guys’ expert use of different lights can give a film its distinctive style. Indeed, different lights give scenes different moods and stylistic flourishes.
If you pursue a career as a lighting technician, you might be responsible for rigging up lighting equipment, carrying out lighting tests, positioning lights during shoots, and managing the inventory of bulbs and filters. Furthermore, you might be required to test new technologies and operate lighting boards from time to time.
As you progress in your career, you might become an assistant chief lighting technician (often called the ‘best boy’). In this position, you’ll be responsible for coordinating the activities of all the different technicians, liaising with the rest of the production team and providing direct assistance to the ‘gaffer’. The gaffer is in charge of all the practical lighting tasks. They oversee the work of the technicians and best boys, and work closely with the lighting director to make the big, creative lighting decisions. They might even offer recommendations about specific equipment.
The lighting director is the big dog of the lighting team. These guys use their expert technical knowledge and creative flair to decide how the lighting setup will meet the director’s overall creative vision for a scene. They oversee all the lighting activity and create detailed plans that determine where certain rigs and coloured lights are used.
Salary & benefits
The annual starting salary for a lighting technician can range between £15,000 and £20,000, while more experienced technicians can earn around £25,000 to £27,000 per annum.
Many lighting technicians eventually become freelancers, where they can expect to earn between £1,000 and £1,500 per week. However, freelance work lacks the job security of a full-time, salaried position.
If you become a lighting technician, you should expect to find yourself working long, irregular and unsociable hours. The nature of film production means that your lighting expertise could be needed at any time of the day. You may even be required to work the occasional weekend.
You will also usually find yourself working in a variety of different places, i.e. in studios and on-set in remote locations.
A degree is by no means necessary for entry into this line of work. However, a degree in a subject such as lighting design, electrical engineering or lighting technology may be a valuable asset for you to have.
Doing a relevant vocational qualification and training course, such as an NVQ in film and television lighting, can be another great way to develop your technical skills.
However, it’s most important that you gain relevant work experience. You could start off by getting involved with film and theatre productions at school, college or university, before doing work experience with a professional lighting team. You can also enter the industry as an apprentice.
Training & progression
Once you’ve secured a job as a lighting technician, the majority of your training will be done ‘on the job’ under the supervision of a best boy and a gaffer. You may even start off by shadowing a more senior member of staff.
As you progress, you will usually become a best boy, a gaffer and then a lighting director. However, lighting technicians can often move into other areas of production too. As discussed, many lighting technicians eventually go freelance, working on a variety of different productions with a range of different film and television companies.