Designer On Design: Oscar Dominguez

Oscar Dominguez, founder and Emmy Award-winning head designer at Darkfire, creates the exciting visuals for NBC's The Voice and The Bachelor, among others, and brings the look of concert lighting and texture to these hit TV shows. He also won a Knight of Illumination Award at LDI2019 (see video below) and chats with Live Design about his impressive career in television lighting, the pandemic, and offers advice to the next generation.

Live Design: Your impressive resume speaks for itself, but how did you get into lighting design? 

Oscar Dominguez: I was a 10th grade high school dropout and was sort of bumming around. My father ran a little Mexican restaurant in Van Nuys, California. It was frequented by a lot of folks who worked at Valley Production Center, which was a small studio facility in Van Nuys where they would shoot real estate  training and small Television productions. As TV people like to do, they would often frequent my father’s restaurant and enjoy a few cocktails. One night, my father approached them and said, “Hey, my son might like what it is you guys do, could you give him a chance?” They agreed to have me come in the following day. When I went in, I met their resident lighting director and overall boss, Dennis Weiler. I didn’t really have to interview, I was hired to clean floors and lights, things like that. Dennis said I did a nice job and asked me to come in again the next day. A few months in, one of the electricians didn’t show up for a show, so they handed me a wrench and said, “Here you go. Get up the ladder and hang this light.” I said OK why not, and that's where it all started. Dennis was my first mentor in the lighting and camera side of the industry, and is still a life long friend, and now the consigliere at Darkfire. I dabbled in photography in junior high school, and I was always interested in that, so I understood lighting. It wasn’t a foreign concept for me. F-stops, exposure, and things of that nature weren’t that alien either, so as I would watch, and learn the fundamentals from Dennis, it all came to me very quickly. I realized that I liked lighting a lot. I never had great dexterity with my hands so I was never great with musical instruments, at that time I couldn’t write my way out of a paper bag, so literary work wasn’t for me either. I realized lighting was the best way for me to express my creativity. Electrician to lighting designer is not a typical path, so I took the long, hard road. 

LD: How has television lighting changed over the past few decades, in terms of cameras, lighting fixtures, color temperatures, etc.? 

OD: I wish I had the right words to describe the cataclysmic changes. Early on, cameras had an extremely limited contrast range. You were lucky to get a 3, 4, to 1 in some of these scenarios in the late 80’s, early 90’s. It started with more sensitive chip cameras, giving us the ability to increase contrast range. Then concert style moving lights and LED technology completely changed what lighting a television program looked like. We went from the white light era of tungsten and dimmers to a completely digital world  where you can mix vintage fixtures with high tech lighting fixtures. 

The changes have been incredible. If you took a lighting designer from 30 years ago and dropped them onto a set today, I don’t think they would be able to wrap their head around it. Some people may say things aren’t necessarily for the better; that there’s a lack of quality because of velocity and budgets, but it really changes the creative palette. I like to think of technology as a tool: you go from having only screwdrivers to having a cordless drill. Sometimes you still need to use a regular screwdriver, but now you have all these options. 

The biggest change is color. The velocity of color change is a massive shift in the way we can conduct business. Something that was extremely complicated to do before, using multiple fixtures with gels or scrollers, can now be changed with a single button press. The options available to us and what you can do are almost overwhelming. Before, we were trapped in this little box (the scope) of limited contrast and color. But as the contrast range grew, the ability to have light and dark grew too. So the world expanded  a lot. When I started, we were at the end of the tube camera era. With those cameras, you couldn’t point light into the cameras because it would burn the tube, so you would have a dark spot in the image. If you have ever seen vintage concert footage, you can see those weird streaks because it literally burned the tube, so we had to be so careful. Now, as these things have gotten faster and the contrast range has gotten broader, the ability for these cameras to perceive colors has gotten better and better. It's staggering to watch. 

LD: What is your design process... and how do you keep a show like The Voice looking fresh every season? 

OD: It would probably be my incredibly short attention span that keeps it fresh! I get bored quickly, so I try to challenge myself and my crew to create more innovative designs. 

For me, the process begins when I get a plan. Typically, those plans will be 3D plans generated in  Vectorworks , so I get the renderings and what the vision is overall, and I’ll digest it over a few days, then I'll take the drawing and study it carefully so I can familiarize myself with the shapes and the vibe of it. I start with the rigging or the hanging points where these lights are going to go, and I try to place them in a way that works symbiotically with the set and not against it. You must look at it architecturally and to try to get it to feel right. There is nothing worse than a rig that doesn’t match the set and then all that has been created is a lack of harmony. The lighting shouldn’t supersede anything - you’re there to enhance the set, create moments, and looks. 

Oscar Dominguez on stage at LDI2019 with LD Jeff Ravitz

LD: What is the most challenging project you have designed and why? 

OD: I’ve been designing for over 20 years, so that’s a great deal of shows. They all have their own special and wonderful challenges. Overall, I would take all The Voice live rounds and combine them into one thing that’s hard to figure out. Why? We must stay within a budget, which is not quite as easy as it sounds when you have to create a lighting rig that can be outrageous, bright, and powerful, but then quiet down to a single light emanating from the dark for a ballad. You must be able to make it crazy, but also calm and quiet. It has to be purpose built to do everything. 

LD:. On stage one designs for the audience; for television one designs for the camera. Please explain what that means for you. 

OD: It goes back to the limitations of cameras to the human eye. The human eye is a remarkable camera—it’s the best camera! It has an amazing contrast range. You can go in and deal with a lot of subtleties. When designing lighting for an audience, there are a lot of subtleties that can bring the audience into the story. Alternatively, with a camera, we must create the same “feel” but relay it to a screen. There are greater limitations placed upon you and you need to pay closer attention to the details, that unfortunately can take away from the artistic subtlety because the camera simply can’t pick up what you are trying to do. When it gets too light, the information is just gone. On camera, you might not be able to achieve a huge blow out of light, but for an audience, you can let it slam out. The eyes can take more than a camera can. Even though the box has gotten bigger in television, we are still in a box and must follow certain rules. 

LD: What did you do during the pandemic? What happened with shows like The Voice

OD: Regarding The Voice, I believe that we were obligated to carry on because it's a contest and we were in the middle of battle rounds. “The show must go on” as they say. We put our heads together and ended up sending out kits, which was incredibly difficult. At one point, I had five zooms going simultaneously on five different machines. It was madness. I had two teams of lighting directors led by Johnny Bradley and Craig Housenick, that would prep and send gear to artists and then explain to them how to set it up and talk them into properly lighting themselves, and their environments over zoom. It was a highly creative time - we just had to figure it out. Finding ways to explain directions to non-lighting people, usually contestants, and their family members was quite challenging, since we could not send a team of people to put the lighting up for them. We often would start as early as 4am Pacific and were doing 16–18-hour days. 

It was painful, but it was an exciting challenge because it was different. We did the best we could. I never get to work with the talent that much, but this time I got to see them every day. The process was challenging and frustrating, but also invigorating. As we are getting back to work, I’m in a separate trailer now. That’s hard because for me, it's about the beat and the cadence of the room. I miss the human interaction, mostly because I need to be in that space to light someone. It’s weird, it’s such a clinical separation. That part makes me a little sad. 

LD: What advice do you have for young designers hoping to get into television lighting? 

OD: You need to stay humble and hungry. I have seen talented people come into the industry who have an attitude and it never works out in the long run. You may achieve some short-term victories, but it will not last long. Be humble and thankful to your crew because your crew makes you. Also, respect your craft. Learn as much about it from every discipline possible: theater, circus, dance, motion picture, television, architectural, everything. Lighting is all about the visual medium.