What is a Lighting Director?



Photo credit: Mirjaleed Biteng

In the film industry, the lighting director is responsible for the look and feel of the images that make up a movie. Lighting directors need to be knowledgeable about a wide range of lighting equipment to achieve the desired mood, atmosphere, and effects required in each scene. They also are charged with helping actors look right for their parts.

While we primarily think that the lighting director is only used for interiors or nighttime shoots, in actuality they also are responsible for achieving the look and feel of scenes shot outdoors in the daytime. In fact, this can be as difficult, if not more so than locations that depend entirely on artificial light. In the nighttime or interior shots where all lighting must be supplied, it is possible to “paint the scene” with the proper placement of lights. In daytime exterior shots, the lighting director may be faced with shooting into the sun (massive backlighting) yet finding ways to light the actors through the use of reflectors or HMI lights.

Often, the director of photography (cinematographer) acts as the lighting director, in which case he works closely with the director to achieve the look, feel, and mood of each shot. In other productions, there may be a designated lighting director who works closely with the director of photography. In these situations, the lighting director reports to the Director of Photography, who in turn works with, and reports to, the Director.

In addition, to understand the different types of lighting equipment and accessories and how to use them, a lighting director needs to be comfortable working at heights, be willing to work long hours, enjoy traveling and in some cases, have a valid commercial driving license.

The lighting director must also understand electricity. In addition to determining how much electricity will be required to light a scene, the lighting director must be able to figure out where to get the required electrical power. Most film productions use multiple lights, each of which may be 4000-Watts or more. Considering even a small 1500-Watt lamp is enough to max out a normal household electric circuit, this means power requirements on a film set are quite large. For that reason, film lighting very often requires special power sources—whether tapping a 220 circuit or using high powered generators. In addition, the lighting director must get the electricity from the power source to the lights. This involves the use of plug-in boxes, ballasts, batten strips, pigtails, breakouts, buses and more.

The most basic method of lighting is three-point lighting, commonly used in filming on screen talent. It uses a key light, a fill light and a backlight. The key light and fill light illuminate the face of the actor in a way that gives it contours (as opposed to flat lighting) and the backlight helps separate the actor from the background. While this is a tried and true method of lighting, it is not very dramatic and works best in a controlled environment like a studio.
Most scenes require lighting than is infinitely more complex that the traditional three-point lighting system. Lighting directors are experts at shaping and defining light in many ways. These include the color temperature of the light, devices such as scrims, barn doors, flags, accent lights, cone lights, dimmers, follow spots, reflectors, shiny boards, and more to determine the intensity of the light, the direction of the light, the color of the light, the softness or hardness of the light, and what gets lit and what doesn’t.

In short, the lighting director must be one-part artist who paints with light (or absence of light) through a thorough understanding of light and shadow and one-part electrical contractor who understands amps, volts, wiring and single and three phase electric power.

Related: Learn about being a Gaffer.

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