Read as Patrick Woodroffe talks about his career as a Lighting Designer. Find him at www.patrickwoodroffe.com.
What do you do for a living?
I am a Lighting Designer. Broadly speaking the job involves creating lighting scenes and painting light pictures that provide mood and dynamics to work with a performance of some kind. But we are not simply reinforcing an existing aesthetic. With the technology that exists nowadays lighting is often used as a piece of scenery in its own right, particularly in large scale events such as stadium rock shows, for example, where the lighting is a show in itself – a light show if you like. Lighting is an important tool in shaping a performance and the role of the lighting designer is key to the success of a live event.
How would you describe what you do?
I create the lighting for a variety of different events, but mostly ones involving actors or performers. These include live concerts by everyone from rock and-roll bands to classical artists, television broadcasts, classical and contemporary operas, ballet and various forms of dance, musical theater and arena spectacles and various special events. I also light more esoteric odd things like fashion shows, special parties – the Vanity Fair Oscar party for example – and currently the Olympic Games in London. I also create architectural schemes where the lighting is deliberately theatrical – a son et lumiere for a Las Vegas hotel or nightclub, or a lighting design for a public space where the drama of the lighting enhances the experience at night.
What does your work entail?
The job involves working with a creative team that has been put together just for that project, and to conceive a lighting scheme or treatment for that show. What I actually do very much depends on what sort of project it is, but in the case of a rock concert or a theatrical production the job involves meeting the client or director and coming up with a lighting concept or approach; planning how the lighting will be integrated into the stage set or scenery; specifying the lights to be rented for the duration of a theatrical run or a rock and roll tour; choosing a crew of technicians and programmers; working through rehearsals with the company and director during which time we create the lighting plot; watching the first couple of performances and on a long run, returning to check on the production from time to time.
What’s a typical work week like?
There is no typical week because the projects I do are are so varied. It very much depends on whether I am in rehearsal for a show, involved in its planning stages, or am out on the road actually putting the show on. I spend a lot of time traveling, working on different productions all over the world – perhaps twenty projects each year – so I could literally be having breakfast at my kitchen table at home in England, eating lunch in a diner on the East Coast of America, or having a drink in a bar in Singapore. This is one of the great attractions of the job and what makes it so unusually rewarding.
How did you get started?
I started when I was 18 years old when the industry that is in place today just didn’t exist. Lighting rental companies would send out some gear in a van with a couple of guys and one of them would “do the lights” during the show. Now it’s a very sophisticated and grown up business with hugely specialized fields within it. I started at the bottom of the ladder and got my big break when Rod Stewart fired his lighting designer a week before his tour began. I happened to be at the right place at the right time and was given the job right away, going on to design the lighting for many well known rock bands and performers over the next 40 years.
What do you like about what you do?
Most of all I like immersing myself in a different world every time I take on a project. The world of opera is very different from that of a rock concert. Making an installation for an architectural project has a different set of rules and vernacular than those of a ballet. The traveling is also fascinating and has provided me with all sorts of opportunities and adventures over the years. And of course, being part of a team of creative and collaborative people can be incredibly rewarding in itself as you work together to bring an idea to life and turn it into a theatrical experience for the audience.
What do you dislike?
Very little really. Being away from home can be frustrating and lonely at times, but for my family it has always been like that and we are used to it. Difficult pop stars and directors can sometimes create unnecessary stress during the rehearsal period, but that’s all part of the job and I’ve had to learn the skill of diplomacy as much as I have about the technicalities of lighting!
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
I receive a single design fee for a job, split into two or three payments over the course of the project and weekly a royalty on theatrical shows where the run continues for some time.
How much money do Lighting Designer’s make?
I often work on smaller projects for very little or no money but this is balanced by the larger projects where the fees can be considerable. Some theater lighting designers on multiple royalties might make a million dollars in a year but this is really the very top end of the market. I imagine that a busy lighting designer in some demand could expect to earn $250,000 or more in a year.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
The first time I made a hundred pounds in a week I thought I was on the way to becoming a millionaire!
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
When I began there was little formal education in lighting design, but now there are colleges and university courses where one can learn lighting design, lighting programming and of course all manner of theater crafts. I would very much recommend doing a course to learn the basics – both technical and creative – and there are courses that exist in England and in the USA. A lighting designer clearly needs to be artistic, of course, but he or she should also be organized, collaborative, practical and creative in equal measure.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Coming up with new ideas for shows is always challenging. I am often led by either an original concept from the producer or the director, or by an early idea from the set designer, although sometimes I start with a pure lighting idea – a way of using existing technology in an interesting arrangement, or building a show around a particular effect. Working under pressure is a constant in most shows I do, and so a calm temperament under fire is essential!
What is most rewarding?
The moment that the houselights go out for the first night of a production and the moment at the end of the show when you know you’ve got it right.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Don’t just get hung up on working with famous rock groups. Diversify. Lighting is such an all encompassing medium that within the industry there are literally hundreds of niche markets where you can earn a living. I have a friend who only lights evangelical churches in the South West of the States and does very well! Light everything you can at school or college, offer to light amateur dramatics, try out ideas in your bedroom even, and start to learn about Lighting. How light reacts, what color is about, what light and shade mean and so on. And keep a journal of anything visual that you see – a piece of architecture, a film, a natural cloud formation at sunset – to start to shape your own personal aesthetic. Love Light and Love Life.
How much time off do you get/take?
I think probably quite a lot. If I am not actually doing a show then I am at home in the UK planning for one. The main thing is that I never get up and “go to work”. I do take my career very seriously and have had some success in the line that I’ve chosen, but after forty years I have to say that in has never felt like a job!
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
That a light show is “all done on a computer, right?”. It ends up on a computer in the end but it starts in your head.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
To continue to always create good work, to stay in touch with the friends I’ve made around the world and to retire happy and contented.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
It’s the best job in the world!