When editor David Johnson asked me if I'd be interested in writing a column for ED, I suspiciously asked, “Why me?”
After a brief litany of abuse, he admitted to wanting a monthly “rant” from someone who isn't exactly known for his tact — a column to impart “wisdom” from the inside of the lighting industry. Well, I've never been accused of being wise, but I think I won the Lack of Tact Award when I jokingly told David I would never write for this rag.
[Editor's note: Mr. Dierson did not say “rag”; he used a very unpleasant epithet which cannot be printed in a family publication. Besides, we're not sure how to spell it.]
Having paid my dues as a roadie for a DJ company, a board op in nightclubs, an installer for a retailer, a staff LD for a moving light manufacturer/distributor, and a freelance programmer and designer, I still feel about as qualified to write this as Ozzy Osbourne is to carry a tray of fine china.
But, believe it or not, students have actually asked me for advice on starting their careers in this exciting industry. I thought, therefore, that this subject would provide appropriate material for this column.
It's a flattering gesture, but I'm always afraid to give someone the wrong idea of how to go about it all. After all, who the heck am I to be doling out pearls of wisdom, when 50% of the game is being in the right place at the right time, 40% is having a good attitude, 20% is being talented, and the other 15% is remembering how people like their lattés?
But, after really thinking about it, there was something at the start that set the tone for a good career path. I graciously bestow that secret upon you now: Don't listen to your college professors…grades mean nothing!
This is something that I mastered, as I'm sure you can tell from my mathematics example above. Now that I've got the entire academic world properly upset, I guess I should tell the story that goes along with the advice.
When I was in college I was “fortunate” enough to be working on the weekends lugging gear around for small productions. In my free time, I would study every bit of lighting that I possibly could, and I eventually decided to take a course in lighting design to learn the fundamentals.
It wasn't long before I realized that fundamentals was all that I would get out of the class, but in that regard, it was excellent. The professor was extremely talented in his own right, held an interesting curriculum, and made us really think about our design choices. So where did it all go wrong, you may ask? It was when we were chastised for thinking outside the conventional lighting road case.
The first knockdown came when we were given the assignment of coming up with a way to recreate the aurora borealis. The majority of the class came in with the usual: fish tanks, aluminum pans, Mylar paper, etc. Having access to some higher-tech gear, I arrived with a small laser and fog machine. After dropping the jaws of my fellow students for creating a full 3D aurora borealis on the stage, I was quickly called the “Satan of technology” by my professor for supposedly corrupting the class with such “technological cheating.” An “F” soon followed.
Various other knockdowns came throughout the course whenever I asked about the use of automated lighting to solve design problems. I was at least savvy enough to preface my questions with “If the budget allowed…” to avoid the obvious retorts. Unfortunately, this guy didn't want to hear anything about it and I was constantly told that real designers didn't need to use such technology.
I began to realize that many of my professor's statements didn't hold up. I subscribed to an enlightening magazine called TCI (now called Entertainment Design; sound familiar?) in which I read about people using Intellabeams and Vari*Lites to solve their design dilemmas, the very thing I was taught not to do. Soon after, other trade publications reinforced my suspicions. I immediately started using such independent research in my class projects. Various “Ds” soon followed.
The course culminated with a final design to be submitted by each student. “You may use any lighting instrument that you desire for this project's design, so long as you can back up your choices with proper purpose descriptions,” the professor said.
This was to be my finest hour. I was going to prove to my professor that I really knew how to apply all the fundamental techniques that he taught us. I painstakingly mapped out every stage position and provided ample coverage. I positioned fixtures at the exact angles that I was taught to achieve. I allowed for the potential unexpected changes from the director. I drafted the plot with razor accuracy. My documentation was flawless.
And just to be a smart-ass…I placed four Intellabeams on the plot with ample documentation as to their use as specials and to provide specific effects at various points of the show. It was perfect. It cut my quantities of lekos by half, reduced my power requirements, and provided a better quality of light for those intricate cues.
An “F” soon followed, with a “D-” for my final grade.
It only made me feel better about the whole experience. I came away from that class with knowledge far greater than what the curriculum intended, because instead of concentrating on a grade, I focused all my energy on learning the fundamentals of design technique and applied that to the research I did outside the classroom.
So, I guess my real advice is to not get caught up in the academic scoring that college brings. Listen to your professors with wide-open ears, for they possess knowledge that can be invaluable to you if you apply it practically. For me, this has led to working on projects for Shakira, Goo Goo Dolls, Reba McEntire, O-Town, MTV, the New York Rangers, and at the Grammys, just to name a few.
In short, getting good grades will make your parents feel all warm and fuzzy about shelling out all that dough for your tuition, but nobody in this industry is going to care if you passed third grade as long as you can make a show look fabulous.
On a side note, make sure you pay attention to your algebra teacher. Just when you think it's safe to forget math because you got your dream job in the entertainment business, all of that sine, cosine, and tangent garbage comes back to bite you on the Wholehogs.
ATTENTION All Designers, Technicians, Manufacturers, Distributors, Groupies, Hangers-On, & Entertainment Technology Geeks:
Got an idea you want to share with your peers? An important industry issue you want to address? Or something you just want to get off your chest? Entertainment Design is always looking for more contributors to its monthly On Lighting, On Audio, and On Projection columns. If you can write and want to share your views with ED readers, please send your ideas to David Johnson at email@example.com.