With the doldrums of January and February well behind us, most industry pros can get back to a pretty hectic schedule. During the first two months of the year, bookings are not always so plentiful. Many a freelance artist has cried poverty during such periods of slowdown.
The lack of production work at the beginning of the year occurs for various reasons. Network television studios are usually done shooting for the season and are moving on to the planning stages of the spring season and new pilots. Most concert tours are not hiring in the beginning of the year because they're either already in progress or merely in the planning stages. Corporations have curbed spending after a slew of holiday industrials. Add to that a general slump in the economy, and you might as well settle back and get reacquainted with your PlayStation controller.
If producing well-defined thumb muscles isn't your idea of two months well spent, however, there is an alternative. Perhaps the best way to combat this annual sense of impending doom is to diversify your business.
Many people in production tend to specialize in a certain area and stick with it throughout their careers. There's certainly nothing wrong with this concept, and it tends to be the norm. However, every distinguishable area of the industry has its own seasonal slowdown period. Specializing in one specific area can sometimes back you into a corner. In contrast, diversifying your talents can produce bookings throughout the entire year, leaving you to decide when you're going to take vacation rather than having it decided for you.
Just before New Year's, I was lighting a show at Madison Square Garden, and one of my peers asked about my next gig. I started telling him about several church installations that I was designing and would be working on from January through March. With an intensely curious look, he asked, “But I thought you were a rock-and-roll LD. What are you doing designing churches?”
I've been lucky enough to broaden my client base in a variety of areas that include not only concerts and houses of worship but also television, corporate industrials, sporting events, and architectural installations. It has afforded me the opportunity to fill my schedule to the brim without having to worry too much about slowdowns. Additionally, I have the attention span of a six-year-old hopped up on M&Ms so having challenges from varying project types keeps things interesting.
Never in my wildest dreams did I envision myself designing houses of worship. It just never occurred to me that getting involved with that area of the industry would be interesting. The fact of the matter is that I've grown to find that its challenges are extremely entertaining. There are so many different aspects of lighting design that are called upon in this area of the industry. The subtleties of televised lighting, the enthusiasm of live music programming, the architectural tone of the rooms, the physical properties of the lighting fixtures; all these aspects come into equal play when designing a church.
Churches large and small are realizing the advantages of using automated lighting in fixed installations and are therefore demanding the most reliable equipment specifications. With these automated fixtures comes the ability to do more with the lighting and thus their worship services are being conducted in a more lively fashion in order to incorporate their equipment. On top of all of this you can't lose sight of the fact that there are obviously points in the service that call for extreme silence, and thus the lighting rig must also be silent. Taking all of these things into account is a daunting task that calls upon design talents from just about every area of the lighting industry. As a result, it can be a whole lot of fun to tackle.
Tapping into areas of the entertainment industry you're not familiar with can prove challenging, however. One of the best ways to break into other areas is to start sharpening your peripheral skills (besides beating your high score on Pac Man). Designers that rose from the ranks of programmers can use console programming to lead them to other avenues. My programming skills have definitely helped to increase my clientele. Not only has programming diversified my work and kept my schedule full, but it has also given me the opportunity to work for and learn from designers with more experience in particular areas.
It's no secret that today's productions tend to be very much a hybrid of styles. Take your average corporate industrial. They are incorporating more television and rock-style lighting into their presentations. There's usually a gratuitous use of I-Mag video screens, which calls for the discerning eye of the TV designer. There will often be a live musical act at one point or another, requiring the moving light trickery of the rock-and-roll LD. Even more common these days is the corporate product launch that is hailed with fanfare not unlike the arrival of the Beatles at JFK airport back in 1964. With the convergence of so many lighting styles on a single production it's no wonder why having a programmer who is well versed in the design aspects of some other styles is advantageous. These situations quickly become collaborative and, in my experience, yield fantastic results.
Designers who lack the desire or patience for programming may consider taking on the more involved role of being a “Visualist” instead of just being the lighting designer. The visualist has more responsibility for the overall look of a show, overseeing lighting, projection, video and electronic media, laser images, and just about any other visual presentation you can dream up. The demand for visualists has been growing over the past few years and filling that demand is a great way to branch out into other types of projects and increase your exposure and network of clients.
“Jack of all trades, master of none” — you don't have to worry about being pegged with this negative connotation if you commit yourself to mastering all of them. With the right combination of effort and shameless self-promotion, you'll have more control over your schedule. Then, you can practice PlayStation because you want to, not because you have nothing else to do.
Just watch out for thumb blisters.