The Art of Assembling an Effective Lighting Crew

Over the years I've felt the need to brush up on military history and combat tactics, especially smaller, special warfare units. They have the ability to perform seemingly impossible feats in small numbers; against adversaries, weather, logistics, budget, and time they consistently pull off what the average person would dismiss as simply being too difficult to even bother planning for. The individual members are cut from extraordinary cloth. They have perseverance, tenacity, ingenuity, and a gung-ho attitude. The word “impossible” isn't in their vocabulary and, as cliché as it may sound, failure is simply not an option.

There have been numerous studies about the psychological profiling of special warfare personnel. Although the individual military branches have their own methods of profiling potential candidates for such programs, there is no sure-fire method for determining who will and will not make it through the training process of these units. However, there are some basic traits they've found through the years that nearly all these individuals possess. While most members have some sort of eccentric quality about them, they are far from flaky. They rarely make hasty decisions and are likely to think things through well in advance of taking an action. They usually have slightly higher IQs than most people and also possess a great ability to visualize the outcome of potential actions. They have usually made extraordinary achievements as individuals but work well in groups and all of them are perfectly capable of keeping their cool under the most adverse situations. The individual members of such units take extreme pride in their personal accomplishments and even more pride in the accomplishments of their team.

Training special warfare personnel is a very serious business. At the core of that training is what the military calls “unit cohesion,” a group of people working together to form a singularly powerful force. It is the essence of teamwork and a tactic that is enforced in every branch of the military. Traditionally, the loss of unit cohesion has lead to mission failures and, in many cases, loss of human lives.

Heavy stuff for a lighting column, you say? Probably, but there is a direct correlation. There's been many a gig where I've found myself comparing the basic attitude of these military teams and the ethics of their training to the majority of lighting crews I've worked with. These two groups are at completely different ends of the career spectrum, but the fundamentals are strikingly similar. Both possess specialists within their groups and neither one is as effective when working as individuals. They must maintain an extreme level of teamwork to perform tasks that would be considered by many too difficult to attempt. Therefore, the concept of unit cohesion is very much the core of their working environment.

For the lighting designer, putting together the proper crew for a project is the most integral part of any successful production. Not only do the individuals need to be extremely talented, but they also need to play well with others to keep the teamwork flowing.

Great attitude plays a heavy factor in crew placement decisions. Most crews I've worked with over the years throw around jibes so cutting that you had better come with a tough skin if you're going to work with them. The wiseacre comments that these people yell at each other will make sailors blush and most newcomers cry from intimidation. Humorous attitudes will usually pull a team of people through the most grueling of situations, but it's far from being the only thing that's required.

The first thing you need is a good leader, and leadership is arguably the most important trait that lies within a successful gaffer or head electrician. These people need to be at the top of their craft as well as willing and able to step into anyone else's position to get the job done. The production leader also needs to possess the value of accountability not only for himself but also for the members of the crew under him, which he has probably placed into those positions directly and for very specific reasons.

Each production will bring with it unique challenges to overcome, and the choice of crewmembers will usually reflect that. Aside from having a complement of well-rounded electricians who can hang, rig, wire, and work around just about anything you can think of, there will also be some specialists.

First in the specialist lineup is the lighting programmer. A programmer needs to know a lot more than how to push buttons on a lighting desk. They will often be taking the role of lighting director in many cases and will be helping to make artistic decisions when the designer is being pulled in too many directions. On top of all that, the programmer is usually the one looked to for advice on handling special moving-light placement, addressing, orientation, and repair troubleshooting. Although rarely seen touching any piece of equipment other than the buttons on the console, these unsung heroes keep one of the other specialists performing at the extreme top of their game. That specialist would be the moving-light technician.

Sometimes called the “V*L Techs,” these people constantly back up (and I do mean back up) the lighting programmers who snap robotic lights to pieces all in the name of art. A good moving-light technician can jump into any manufacturer's fixture and put all its pieces back together again at an extremely rapid pace. He or she will often possess enough lighting console knowledge to not only be dangerous but also know how to call up and troubleshoot fixtures. When there either aren't too many automated fixtures in the rig or the programmer just isn't working to his or her full potential, the moniker V*L Tech often takes on the newer meaning of “Venti Latte Tech.” At that point this still vital crewmember's primary focus will often turn to the logistics of and procurement from the nearest Starbucks.

Other crewmembers will specialize in areas such as rigging, dimmers, truck packs, etc. Each of them must be willing and able to pick up the slack of their other teammates when called upon, and none of them lacks creativity. I've never seen a job not get completed no matter how ridiculous the request might seem.

These teams perform very specific tasks under extremely adverse conditions. Budget, time, logistics, etc., are only a few of the challenges that are thrown at them every day. Very often they take on the jobs that nobody else wants to do because it seems almost impossible, and their unit cohesion is not only impeccable but ultimately wins the day for them every time. Being a testament to ingenuity, they live and breathe the motto “the show must go on,” and they consistently make it happen production after production.

Listen up, maggots: Patrick Dierson can be contacted at patrick@diersondesign.com.