How to Become an LD

A few years back, I started what is now the largest stage lighting group on Facebook – Everything Stage Lighting. One of the best parts of running a group that is some 36,000 strong  is that you get asked many great questions. One question I see often is how to break in to the industry as an LD.

The best way to approach this inquiry is by first exploring the meaning of “LD”. This term can be used for various positions within a show, but on each event there can only be one true LD. That so called top dog position is referring to as the shows Lighting Designer.
A lighting designer’s job is more than just a person who draws funny symbols on drafting paper. This is, of course, typically part of the designer’s duties, but there is much more that happens behind the scenes.

The person responsible for lighting the event will usually be at some of the earliest production meetings. There are often occasions where they may be be requested to be part of the team that sells the event. In other words, the LD may be asked to create and present various renderings, along with other materials, to help a client visualize what their event will look like if they hire the company’s services.

I have always found that some of the best LDs have a knack for interpreting situations in regard to its lighting needs and the best ways to illuminate the stage. An example would be a request from a client to provide an Academy Awards look for a dinner event. As you must know, there have been decades of these awards shows, seeing producers doing their best year after year to achieve even better than the previous year’s show designs. As an LD you will meet with clients, producers and directors, as well as departments such as scenic, audio and video. Your goal as an LD is to gather as much information about the event as possible. You will even be looking at their earliest proposed schedules (something which is often referred to as “the book of lies”) so that you can help properly manage the upcoming load in, setup, show and even the strike.

Any and all department heads can be requested to do a site survey, where they go to the actual venue for the show and ensure that what they are proposing for the event will work. You’re looking at the room, the stage, the ceiling height and even looking for obstructions that will affect your overall results.

The lighting department will consider rigging, power, ceiling layout and at floor space for setting up the lighting equipment. This is the place where recording pictures and videos is a great idea.

A spotlight theatre stage with coloured spotlights and red stage curtain drapes

Armed with all of these important details (that will more than likely change!) you can now begin the planning and design phase. This is also a time when many LDs will seek out solitude, because imagination can play a big role in helping to visualise an event, making the least distractions possible ideal. For anyone just starting out on the path of LD work, there’s no shame in simply drawing your ideas on plain old notebook paper. You can just estimate scale and draw Xs for spot lights and Os for wash lights, or whatever suites you. At this stage of the game you are only looking to perfect your ability to create lighting plots that are effective at lighting the various elements of your event.

From there, you might want to get some lighting templates and a ruler so that you can begin to create accurate drawings to scale.

Of course you could always just jump right in to any of the various drafting or visualizer software packages that have been created specifically for this industry. These will allow you to draw and learn in scale. You will quickly become versed in 2D and 3D realms, which becomes very useful as you find yourself designing bigger and more complex events.

After your show is designed, you will want to develop equipment lists and other materials that make it possible for the production company to check your cost next to the proposed budget. When ready, they may assign an L1 (sometimes referred to as a master electrician) for pulling gear and getting the show setup on site. In some instances, you may find that the LD may also be the person who does these shop duties.

The assistant from the production company will be the LDs #1 interface for getting the show setup and working properly. This person may run the show once it’s setup, but this can go in many different directions, for example the LD running or just calling the event. Alternatively, the LD might even leave the show’s site once the event is setup

Some may approach this differently, which is particularly dependant on where you are working. The differences that exist between how the workflow moves forward in a theatre, as opposed to concert tours, or even corporate events, can be huge.

It is also worth noting that another LD abbreviation exists, for the Lighting Director. A directors role is often what it says on the badge – directing the setup as well as running the actual console. This again is not an absolute rule but it is normally how things are delegated.

LDs can also have programmers and board operators that do the button pressing and fader riding for the event. As you can see, the term LD and the question of how to become one evokes varied answers. But I am sure you will be hard pressed to find a career that will challenge you more than that of being a successful LD.

Steve Irwin
LightSoundJournal Contributor
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