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What is a Lighting Technician?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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A lighting technician is the person in charge of setting up the lights and lighting effects used in theatre, film and television. Their work covers a wide range of effects, from standard lighting of a stage, to special effects such as strobes, laser shows, searchlights, and more.

Lighting technicians work closely with directors and art directors to determine the appropriate effects and looks for every shot of a movie or scene in a play. Their role requires a great deal of technical knowledge and understanding of complex systems, as they spend much of their time setting up, repairing, and dismantling lighting arrays and the computer and electronic systems used to control them.

At the basic level, lighting technicians are responsible for things such as aiding in setting up and dismantling the systems, making sure everything continues to be in working order, and taking direct orders from a stage or floor manager.

With experience and certification, technicians begin coordinating larger shows, programming complex lighting effects with computers, and generally tackling larger and more ornate jobs with a crew of technicians working underneath them.

Lighting technicians keep some of the least social hours in the entertainment industry, as their work involves arriving at a set long before others have arrived to set up the lighting systems, and leaving long after everyone else has gone home while dismantling those same systems.

Extensive training is necessary to become a lighting technician, as they are responsible for knowing the operation of more equipment than any other member of a film or television crew. Myriad cable types, extension lugs, various adapters and connectors, a dizzying array of lighting systems, and complex, programmable computers for handling difficult transitions are just a few of the tools a lighting technician must be proficient with.

Dangers in the field include a relatively high-risk of electrocution (particularly on outdoor sets in unfavorable weather conditions), injuries from falling equipment or accidents on ladders, and extensive burns from scalding hot lamps.

Despite these dangers and the relative obscurity of a lighting technician in the final mix of a film or television show, the market is quite competitive. In the United States in 2000 there were approximately 1,700 lighting technicians registered with unions in California (the highest employing state of lighting technicians), with a much greater number vying for jobs. Union scale in California ranges from $21 to $30 an hour, with workweeks often exceeding 75 hours.

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Discussion Comments
By popcorn — On May 15, 2011

Does anyone know if most of these jobs are unionized or is there a market for independent work?

Also, in the case of work hours, do they get paid a set overtime wage? Or is some of their work done on their own time, more as part of a set salary for a project?

I can imagine putting together and setting up light displays without anyone else around is very difficult. I hope they are getting paid for this work as well, and not just the core work they do on lighting actual events or projects.

By wander — On May 13, 2011

I think lighting technicians really help set the mood when it comes to creating a beautiful set for a film. I never really thought much about this aspect of film making, but even just doing photography as a hobby, I have learned how important lighting is to the feeling invoked by an image.

It is interesting to learn how many people are competing to be successful in the niche market. Though, 75 hours plus of work a week is pretty intense.

Does anyone know if lighting technicians take time off between films? Perhaps work very hard for 3 months, then one month off?

It seems like it would be very difficult to keep up insanely long workweeks year round.

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