Unscripted TV

Lighting director

Also known as: Lighting designer, Lighting supervisor, Lighting technician

Lighting director

What does a lighting director do?

Lighting directors create the colour, texture and mood of a TV show, turning two-dimensional sets into 3D theatrical spaces.  They use a variety of lighting and effects to focus attention on the action and enhance or reduce colour, sharpness, softness and form.  In studio shows, lighting is integral to set design. On outside broadcast, they need to be able to adapt to constantly changing natural light, or they could be lighting a cathedral, a theatre or a rock concert, where they may decide to use an existing lighting rig or build a completely new one.

Lighting directors tend to work on multi-camera productions. They liaise with the producer and director to understand the mood and style they want to achieve. They also collaborate with the production designer to ensure the set is built to incorporate their designs and technical requirements.

Then they create a plan (plot) detailing how the set or shots will be lit to create the right effect. This includes selecting the type of lights required, as well as their positioning, from spotlights and lasers to smoke effects and gobos (a gobo is a stencil placed in a light source, shaping the light to create a pattern, such as leaves on the floor or stars on the wall). They might also oversee the programming and design of other lighting elements such as LED screens and moving lights.

As the head of the lighting department, they decide how many lighting staff are required for a production.  During recording they work with the gaffers and sparks, as well as lighting console operators, to set up the lighting and make sure everything works.  They are responsible for overseeing health and safety guidelines and staying within budget.

They are usually freelance but can be employed in-house by studios.

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What’s a lighting director good at?

  • Creativity: have a good eye for colour, texture and shape, be able to design visually stimulating lighting
  • Knowledge of lighting equipment and effects: have thorough knowledge of all equipment and the latest developments in lighting design
  • Organisation: plan the staff and resources, work with precision and have a keen eye for detail
  • Communication: be able to understand the director and producer’s creative vision and use strong leadership skills to communicate this to other staff
  • Health and safety: have a strong understanding of how to work safely, including knowledge of health and safety laws, be able to work at heights

Who does a lighting director work with?

As well as communicating with the producer, director and production designer, lighting directors work closely with the camera department and directly with lighting console operators, senior electricians and sparks.

How do I become a lighting director?

Lighting director is a senior role, so you’ll need experience working with lights on a set first. You might start off as a kit room assistant before progressing to a role as a lighting console operator or a spark, or in the camera department. You might also transfer into the industry after working with lighting in theatre, events or photography.

At school or college: 
You can take A-levels or Highers in photography, art, film studies or IT. 

If you want to go straight into a job or apprenticeship, the following Level 3 vocational qualifications will equip you: 

  • BTEC Diploma/Extended Diploma in Electrical and Electronic Engineering
  • City & Guilds Advanced Technical Diploma in Electrical Installation
  • EAL Diploma/Advanced Diploma in Electrical Installation

Get an apprenticeship:
An apprenticeship is a job with training, so it’s a great opportunity to earn while you learn. In the past, it has been challenging to find jobs as an apprentice within production companies, although there is now a creative venue technician apprenticeship standard, with a specific pathway designed for people working as trainee lighting technicians. It might also be worth looking for a job as an apprentice that will give you a qualification as a domestic or commercial electrician.  This will make you handy on film sets at a later point.

Go to ScreenSkills information on apprenticeships for the main apprenticeship schemes in television. Check out What’s an apprenticeship? to learn more about apprenticeships and Find an apprenticeship to learn how to find one in your region, or approach companies directly.

Volunteer to help with the lighting at any events or local amateur theatrical productions.

Get a degree: 
You don’t have to have a degree to get into this role. If you want one, have a look at ScreenSkills’ list of recommended courses and select one in unscripted TV or search for ‘film and television production’. We recognise courses with our ScreenSkills Select award where they offer training in the relevant software, dedicated time to building a portfolio and have strong links with the unscripted TV industry. 

Get work experience: 
Try to get work experience by writing to local production companies and asking if they offer any. Keep an eye out for work experience opportunities at the BBCITVChannel 4Sky and the PACT Indie Diversity Training Scheme. 

Look outside the industry: 
Look for jobs in lighting in other industries, such as theatre, photography, events or advertising. This will help you gain experience lighting scenes professionally, which you can later transfer to a career in unscripted TV.

You might consider seeking entry-level work in the film and TV drama industries in order to gain useful experience, such as being a camera trainee, and then turn to the unscripted TV industry to become a lighting director.

Take a short course:
one your skills in lighting by taking a specialist course. Go to the list of training courses recommended by ScreenSkills to see if there is one in lighting. 

Get to know people in the unscripted TV industry by attending events. Meet professionals and ask them questions about their work, while demonstrating interest in and knowledge of the industry. Offer to provide them with your professional contact details and try to stay in touch with them. Go to Network well to learn how to do this. 

Network online: 
Create a LinkedIn profile. See if there are Facebook pages or other social media groups for people making unscripted TV in your area. There might even be groups for runners and trainees. Join them. Create a ScreenSkills profile. There are a lot of crewing agencies that will charge you to be on their books. Sign up to the free ones initially. Wales Screen, Northern Ireland Screen and other areas offer free crew databases. Find a film office near you and get connected. If you do sign up to paid sites, make sure they specialise in the areas in which youre interested. 

Search for jobs: 
Research unscripted TV production companies that you’d like to work for and watch the programmes that they make. Regularly check their websites and job listings websites to see if they are advertising for roles. You can also send in a short speculative letter with your CV to the production manager. Register your CV on websites like The Talent Manager, which is used by most broadcasters and independent production companies when looking for staff. StartinTV offers tips on creating your CV and attending interviews, as well as some advice for your first day working in TV. 

You might also be interested in...

Being a senior electrician in the unscripted TV industry. You might also be interested in being a gaffer in the film and TV drama industry. Alternatively, you might want to be a camera operator in the unscripted TV industry or the film and TV drama industry.

Further Resources