“Those Who Can’t Do, Teach.” A Commentary on Lighting Design Education

I’ve been having a discussion with some friends of mine about the future of lighting education in the world, but preferably in the United States.  One of those friends asked what education programs for lighting design in the world are doing to improve the industry, and then said “well hey – you know what they say, ‘those who can’t do, teach!’

I just kinda sat there, still dazed from such a comment from such an intelligent individual.  I’m still kinda in that realm of belief that this kind of thought is still pervading the thought processes of people who are out there working in the world.  Something I have been holding onto for quite some time now is the fact that I have recently taken a lead faculty job in the Midwest at a private college, leading the Lighting Design program and developing curriculum that will give back to our beloved industries.  I’m not going to say which school quite yet, but that’ll come soon.

I’m a working individual – I have a company that is known for design work, I have a company that is known for light art, and Light Associated Media, LLC – which includes and  I feel that it is my responsibility as a person who wants to educate the world on lighting to be as connected to that industry as humanly possible, and then some.  This is not a view expressed by the majority of people in the world of education across the thousands of degree programs that exist today.  I feel that this is a shame, mostly because it is our responsibility as lighting designers, production specialists, electricians, and general light lovers to make sure that the next generation of lighting professionals holds the industry up in as high of a standard as I do.  I mean, what other alternatives are there?  If you’re going to do something, do it to the full range of your abilities.  Otherwise, pick something else, because the industries of light are not for people who don’t want to do the work.

Another comment was made during this conversation that I feel needs addressing:
“The world of academia and education, even in the college level, is different from the ‘real world’ in most instances.”

I have to call BS on this comment.  It’s true about the world being different in academia, but it’s mostly because of the way that professors and other faculty-level positions are governed.  It’s true that a large percentage of tenured faculty take advantage of their status as a tenured professor in many fields of study, and I feel it’s fair to say that once a person reaches a tenure-level position, they have reached a pinnacle of their career.  I feel that the opposite is true; I want to become tenured at some point in my career because the bennies of such a title are nice, including a small bump up in salary.  But if you’ve ever been a teacher, you know that you don’t do it for the cash.  A tenured faculty member has a responsibility to continue to provide the highest level of education that is possible by a human being because you’ve reached that special rank.  The lighting industries are changing, and drastically.  It takes a lot of work to be a professor in this field, because you not only have to push your students hard to learn new, updated materials, but you as an educator have to push yourself hard to know the new material and to keep yourself abreast of the sweeping changes that the lighting industry is constantly undergoing.  LEDs are changing.  Light sources are changing.  Optics are changing – I mean, look at the trend right now with the big moving heads out there, and the 8″ aperture.  Things change.  Educators in lighting have no choice but to keep up, it is your educational responsibility.

What is different, however, about academia is on the professor side, with having several different people to which you must report.  In the real world, if you’re slacking off or you just suck, you get fired.  We should implement this on the educator side of the world.  Academia can be no different than the real world for students, with the slight variance that, if you’re screwing off or not getting the material, you get counseled on what you’re doing wrong, and what you need to do to fix it.  The same rules should apply to students in the University setting as do in the professional world – things like “on time is late, early is on time.”  We must educate our lighting students to be the professionals of tomorrow that the industry depends on having in order to make that industry better.  Having a half-assed lighting program with a professor who hasn’t done anything since the days of Century base-ups is over.  Times are changing.  Professors must change with the times.  This goes pretty much for all aspects of the entertainment business side of education, from Costume Design to Sound Design, Scenic Design to Technical Direction.

What professors in the lighting world need to realize is that if you’re not up-to-date on the industry, you’re doing your students a disservice because they will be at a disadvantage when they go out and try to get a job in the world.  That reflects poorly upon you, the student, and your institution.

It is true that there are a lot of programs out there today handing out degrees, even some graduate degrees, that are far below sub-par.  As a student, it is partially your responsibility to make sure that you’re choosing a program with some reputability, and looking for your professor/mentor to be active in the lighting industries.  One thing must be said though regarding the student side of lighting education:

We cannot do it for you.  You have to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life.

A Note about the 2010 Midterm Elections

Well, as you all probably know by now, the Republican Party has taken control of the United States House of Representatives.  Headlines across America are displaying titles like “GRIDLOCK IN AMERICA” and “THE PEOPLE HAVE SPOKEN” and all kinds of other stuff like that.  Here’s the situation America finds herself in as of today:

Republican leaders like John Boehner are making statements like “This is not a time for compromise, and I can tell you that we will not compromise on our principles.”  Republican Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, the #3 House Republican, is making statements like “Look – the time to go along and get along is over.”

Yeah.  Great effing attitude, especially when one in ten of our fellow men and women are out of work.

Democrats are not off the hook here, either – I am an equal opportunity caller of the bull, and Democrats are doing their fair share of stupid crap.  There is a reason that Harry Reid of Nevada SQUEAKED by Tea Party favorite Sharon Angle.  I mean, come on, America – did you see NONE of Angle’s back-and-forth gaffs in this ridiculance we called a midterm race?!  Why was this even an issue?  Democrats are doing nothing that can be considered groundbreaking either.  No one is doing anything.  This is why we are in this situation.

I have a message for the Congress, and specifically the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives.  I want you to listen closely, because the people who read are a strong majority of people who love light, lighting, light engineering, power distribution, and technology, to name a few issues we care about here.

This is a short list of things you need to accomplish in my world, you newly found controlling Republicans.  Let’s see if you can “get along” enough to fix these things:

  • Our ever-aging and ridiculously Keystone Cops-esque national power grid
  • Stop being patsies to the money from big lighting monopolies.  Just stop that now.
  • Stop legislating things like INCANDESCENT LAMPS and do something productive to SOLVE the problem, or get someone in who CAN solve the problem.  Legislation is a lazy fix to a technological issue.
  • Get out of the pocket of Big Oil and Big Coal and start getting solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal power running in our country on more than the pathetically small scale it’s in now.  If the military were to say “well, we need this new weapon to protect ourselves from whatever it is we’re protecting ourselves from,” you’d hop on that like flies on poo.  WE NEED SUSTAINABLE POWER GENERATION TO PROTECT OURSELVES.  GET ON IT.
  • Stop encouraging America’s ridiculously intelligent people to go work on Wall Street and in Big Government and start giving incentive to get the next generation of Optical Engineers, Laser Scientists, Lighting Designers, and Electrical Engineers, as well as Researchers, Teachers, and general technology leaders working and fixing our problems.  Perhaps then we won’t be ranked so embarrassingly low in the world’s rankings of education and technology.

I’m sure my readership and I can come up with about another thousand list items.  Just give me a call, you know my number.  America is a place full of opportunity and really smart people.  Give us some credit, we’re not all stupid like you think we are in the political campaign ads you pay millions of dollars to run.

Controllable Properties of Light, Part 1: Intensity, Distribution

I love to think that at this moment in time in America, there could be tens of thousands of students learning how to characterize the controllable properties of light.  No matter what industry of light a student goes into, the fundamental properties of light are the same.  As lighting designers, we have so many things to know about light – and right when you think you have it figured out, light will do something completely unexpected and remind you that you don’t know everything!

So, what are some controllable properties of light in a design sense?

We can control the brightness of light, or the intensity, in many different ways – a dimmer, a douser, by using filters, louvers, you name it.  Put your hand in front of the beam of light and see what happens – the brightness goes down.  The sun is certainly less bright in the dawn than it is at noon – we know the property of intensity from a very young age.  Our bedrooms as children were certainly less freaky during the day than they were at night.  The reasoning behind why they were less scary during the day is a common theme between these first two properties of light – telling a story, or giving information.  When it’s bright, we see more detail.

Here’s a comparative study of intensity, comparing 20%, 50%, and full beam brightness:


The intensity of light is perhaps the most important controllable property – without it we could not see, and what’s the point then, right?  It affects every usage of light – every one.  Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it – well, it really is!  I challenge you to find one use of light where intensity isn’t a factor.

The reference to the sun brings up another property of light that we all become familiar with very early in life, whether we realize it or not.  The placement and spread of the light, or distribution, is a controllable property of light that gives the thing being illuminated its dimension.  Distribution refers to direction and quality of the light.  Keep in mind that when I say “light,” I am not referring to lighting fixture – I am referring to the light itself.

I’m sure if you’re studying lighting design (at least on a theatrical scale), you’ve seen this sketch:


Essentially this is a representation of a variety of ways you can light someone on the stage, conceived in plan view – straight on front light, angled front light (or McCandless style frontlight), top light (down light), straight back light or angled back light (key and fill), and side light.  Now obviously these arrows do not represent the only directions acceptable for lighting something or someone on stage – quite the opposite, actually.  My mentality as a designer is that there are very, very few places I can’t put a light.  When it really comes down to it, you can affix a lighting fixture pretty much any place that is legally safe to do so.  This is, of course, my mentality – I try to be true to the design when figuring out where to place lights and not to what is easiest and most convenient.

One thing you might have asked yourself with that first sketch is “what about the height of the light in relation to the thing being lit?”  You have probably also seen this sketch:


Again – a very basic and rudimentary representation of some commonly used directions (in theatre and dance, for example) for side light on a subject or thing.  The lowest arrow represents a close-to-the-floor, grazing the ankles of the dancers kind of direction.  Lighting fixtures placed in this orientation are lovingly referred to as “shin busters,” derived from the incident of a dancer running full speed offstage and slamming their shins into the fixture.  The second arrow up is the direction called “mid high” or just “mid” – aimed at the waist essentially.  The next arrow is a “head high” or “head,” and is pointed at – you guessed it.  The last arrow represents a “high side light,” which is a direction that can be pretty much at any angle.  Combinations of these ideas can create wonderful dimension.

Besides giving sculptural detail and accentuation of the subject or thing being lit, the direction of the light also gives information and can help tell a story.  When the sun is low in the sky, you obviously know that it’s either rising or setting (depending on how late you stayed at the tavern), and this is a glaring difference than the sun in its noon position.  We can, with the direction of the light, reveal or hide architectural detail – brick facades for example, when lit well, can accentuate the brick texture to create a beautiful surface.  If the direction isn’t appropriate, those bricks become a flat wall.

When considering direction, there are some relatively rare (comparatively, of course) directions that should not be overlooked.  What about light coming from underneath something, from directly behind it?  Like this:


Light from low and behind a subject can really speak volumes – the evil character in a drama, someone down on their luck, you name it.  Light from underneath and you add depth in places that can be surprising and unexpected.

One of the properties of light in the distribution category is the light’s quality.  This modifier pertains to the general “feel” of the light itself.  Is the light soft-edged or soft focused?  Is it crisp with a sharp edge around its pool?  Does the light have texture?  Is it diffuse?  Is it “punchy” like an ACL PAR at a concert?  One of my favorite qualifiers of light comes from my graduate mentor, Mary Tarantino at The Ohio State University – Mary always said that light can be “lumpy,” like the pool of an older Altman beam projector from back in the day.  Those fixtures were great – the lumpiness that Mary spoke of came from the reflection of the lamp off of the reflector that would project on whatever surface the light was lighting.

Here are some visual examples of light qualities.  Please note that these are obviously digital renderings from my visualization program, WYSIWYG:


This is not the be-all-end-all of qualities of light, mind you.  These are some very broad generalizations to help the inexperienced gain a little insight.

No matter what field you’re in as far as lighting design goes – corporate, product, theatre, concert production, dance, opera, musical theatre, film, architectural, or industrial lighting – never stop experimenting with basic properties of light.  You might discover something you have never seen before!

Hey, Seeing Any Concerts This Summer?


There’s lots of really great stuff that’s happened this summer so far – everything from a new year of the summer orchestra series in Columbus, OH to Phish’s run this June.  Lots of great design has taken place, and the rigs have been huge.  U2’s new gig in Europe has been getting so much press it’s ridiculous – it is ginormous, after all.

When you’re out this summer at whatever show you’re seeing, keep an eye out for what the lighting designer is doing with the music.  There are so many different design styles out there, it’s great to go to a show that I love and get visuals from a designer I respect.  Some lighting designers deliver a really sharp punch with colorful flavor, some designers light with such a deep sense of mindfulness to the lyrics and themes, and some designers just have so much experience and tricks up their sleeve that you just get your face torn off.  Those nights are always awesome.  I remember seeing Coldplay back in the days where they used to play two-thousand seat soft-seaters – and even though Brian Leitch brought up a whole bunch of moving heads in yellow when they played “Yellow,” it was absolutely perfect and rocked my face off.

When you’re at the show, pay particular attention to how the color of the light affects your eyes.  Color shifts from blue to green, from yellow to lavender, and red directly to blue or green are interesting combinations for the eye to decipher quickly.  I love seeing the ShowPix running a really fast red, blue, and green chase – the faster it goes, the crazier my primary color aftereffects get in my vision.  If you’re not familiar with the equipment used in concert production, watch how smoothly the fixtures change color, and how the beam gets altered by the use of a template in the fixture.  One of my favorite effects is a bunch of moving heads with circle gobos running a large bally.  Staring up at a circle gobo is one of the coolest things – you don’t see the source because it’s blocked by the inside of the circle, and it’s like looking up a tunnel of light.

Watch the structure of the show – between songs, you’ll probably see a consistently used color for the band while they’re not playing.  A majority of folks use a blue – what’s your favorite band’s in between song color?  Also try to observe color combinations – I’ve learned so much as a designer by watching the color combinations of people doing rock and roll.  You’ll notice lots of really grand aerial shapes made with the fixtures – I don’t think I’ve ever seen two that were the same.  Take a moment to appreciate the interconnected three dimensional pictures that the designers are creating for you to go along with the music – most of the time they’re outstanding!

One thing about after the shows – the lighting guys really appreciate your thanks after the show, and they are all really glad that you had a great time.  If you say hi and thanks and they don’t have a lot of time to chat with you, notice how quickly they’re moving to get their consoles packed up and get outta there.  Never take it personally if they can’t or won’t stop and chat – you’d be at exactly the same amount of get-up-and-go if you were in their positions, believe me.  Just remember that they appreciate your kind words, they work their butts off for you.

Enjoy yourself this summer!  I hope your summer show plans are excellent!