An assistant lighting designer is responsible for effectively communicating the lighting designer’s artistic vision for a production and helping to usher it into physical reality. It takes a special blend of skills—both technical and interpersonal—to succeed in this challenging career.
In the past, working as an assistant lighting designer was viewed simply as a stepping-stone to becoming a designer. Within the past few decades, things have begun to change. Many young designers still use it as a means to climb the professional ladder, but some are now choosing assisting as a life-long career. Perhaps they find they are particularly good at the unique mix of skills required; perhaps they are not interested in dealing with the enormous pressures of heavy-handed producers, as designers must; or perhaps they find that they prefer the daily interactions with the crew better than with the management types. Whatever the reason, those individuals who choose assisting as a career can become some of the most sought-after artisans in the business. After all, having great assistants on a show can make the difference between a smooth process and one that is not.
Qualities Of A Good Assistant
The first guidelines to being a good assistant are to one, be qualified, and two, be likable. Chances are if you exude an amiable personality (on top of being qualified) you are more likely to get hired quickly and rehired frequently. After all, assistants and designers spend many hours together working side-by-side at the tech table. Many designers believe that the essential skills of assisting can be taught, but personality is the first key that they look for in an assistant.
Some other qualities that make up a successful assistant are:
Meticulousness: Lighting design is a profession of numbers. The assistant must keep track of channel numbers, cue numbers, dimmer/address numbers, and instrument numbers—just to name a few. Never let even one of them get lost in the shuffle.
Working Under Pressure: The job of a lighting designer—and the assistant—is incredibly stressful. Often called “the hot seat,” the designer needs to work extremely fast in order to keep the tech process moving. The assistant has to be every bit as quick (or quicker) than the designer regarding anything she may need, such as channel and/or cue numbers. The designer may be the one in the hot seat, but it is the assistant who will get burned if the process gets held up.
Knowing When To Stay Silent: Learn when to speak up and when to stay silent. Every designer is different.
A good rule of thumb is to start off by saying less rather than more. Do not begin your working relationship together by saying things like, “what if it was blue?” or “did you try the gobos?” Keep those opinions to yourself. It is not your place as an assistant—especially a new one—to discuss design decisions with your designer. If he asks for your opinion, answer him honestly but do not overdo it with a long discussion on the merits and pitfalls of his decisions. A designer asking for opinions may be feeling insecure and is probably seeking your support and validation more than anything. Delving too deeply and registering (even slightly) negative reactions to any of his design choices may erode your budding designer-assistant relationship in its early stages. Additionally, do not assume after being asked your opinion one time that it gives you free rein to comment on additional moments. Your best bet is to keep your opinions to yourself unless you are asked again.
Sense Of Humor: A good-natured assistant is usually a well-employed assistant. Try to take life as it comes and enjoy the work even during difficult moments. Chances are your designer will appreciate someone with a kind heart and easy-going attitude sitting beside him.
Good Eye For Design: Dismiss the myth that assistant designers are “those who cannot do.” On the contrary, assistants are incredibly good designers in their own right—partially because they spend countless hours studying the craft of our modern masters at work.
The Assistant Lighting Designer’s Toolkit is published by Focal Press, 2014.
Anne E. McMills’ career extends across the many facets of the lighting world, from theatre (including Broadway and the West End) to television and theme parks to architecture, industrials, concerts, awards shows, dance, and opera. In addition to designing her own work, she has assisted many award-winning Broadway lighting designers such as Ken Billington, Brian MacDevitt, Howell Binkley, Peter Kaczorowski, Jason Lyons, David Lander, and Brian Monahan. McMills is a member of United Scenic Artists, Local 829, and the faculty of the MFA in Lighting Design program at San Diego State University.