The Moving Light Programmer
Updated: May 1, 2018
“What does a moving light programmer do, and what skills or qualifications do I need do I become one?”
When discussing the role of a moving light programmer, (sometimes called a moving light operator), I tend to think first about the various sections of the lighting industry where moving lights are used, as the job description can be somewhat varied within each discipline. It should be acknowledged that there are many corners of the industry utilising moving light technology. Those I have some experience of personally, and therefore consider worthy of mentioning here are: Theatre, Concert Touring, Television and Film.
Essentially the duty of a moving light programmer is to record the required data into the memory lighting console. The Lighting designer and or assistant designer will specify which lights they wish to perform which tasks, and the relevant cue information such as fade times and paths to be used. In some circumstances, the lighting designer will dictate the precise button pushes to be performed word by word. In others, more general descriptive instructions will be made with the programmer determining the methods of data entry to be used. Additionally the moving light programmer will typically be responsible for setting up and maintaining the console layout and console soft patch, along with any programming aids, with the view of speeding up the workflow for the lighting designer. They will be responsible for performing any technical programming of elements such as macros, chases, effects and mark cues the designer may require to achieve their desired looks onstage, but don’t necessarily understand the process for creating, or have time to worry about. The moving light programmer will familiarise the lighting designer with any features available, or limitations with the automated lights in use, that they may be unaware of. They will often manage and or design the control network and infrastructure, and will likely be required to record all programming notes alongside the assistant or production electrician. Where performances will continue beyond the employment of the programmer, they will have the responsibility of teaching the show to the operators who will remain or tour with the production. As the relationship between the programmer and the lighting designer establishes, he or she will typically offer suggestions and start adding creative input into the design process, however ultimately it’s the call of the designer as to which they accept or decline. A good programmer will be able to second-guess the designer and already have the lights selected and ready to use before they ask for them. They will also know what effects are liked or disliked and use or avoid them accordingly.
Here the programmer could fall into 2 or more categories. For the purposes of this article I’ll explore the roles of the moving light programmer and the designer/programmer.
1: In the first scenario, the moving light programmer is there, similarly to the theatre setup, to assist the lighting designer in realising the design. However, there will often be far more input from the programmer creatively, and the designer would typically manage the overall direction of the programming in terms of styles, moods and effects used, rather than specifically dictating button presses. Getting a good programmer onboard is critical as they can really add tremendously to the overall look and success of the design. The programmer in many cases will be the person to tour with the show once the rehearsals are over. In this instance, the additional responsibilities become stepping up to the role of touring lighting designer. This responsability includes overseeing the installation of the show, focusing the lighting rig and reprogramming any cues or changes. In some cases this can mean reproducing the show with entirely different fixtures and or consoles, if the equipment is not being shipped around the world with the tour. They will work alongside the crew chief to manage all touring, venue and local lighting crews and equipment. 2: The role as lighting designer/programmer includes everything above, however they may or may not tour with the production. As the description suggests, they are specifically responsible for the overall original lighting and in some cases also stage and video designs. They will have attended rehearsals, overseen the lighting budget, often chosen the hire company, and arranged other logistics, whilst following the original concept and show design briefs to deliver the resulting show.
The moving light programmer typically has a larger creative input on television shows. They are once again there to assist the lighting designer, (often referred to as the lighting director), however due to time and other pressures are frequently left to their own devices to create looks following the designer’s original brief. The designer is responsible for the overall look of the show, including generic television lighting, camera exposures and settings. Designers rely heavily on good programmers to assist them by looking after the moving light side of things, allowing them to concentrate on other areas. Again, once relationships establish, the programmer will often be the one to choose looks for individual cues with a completely free hand, while the designer will only request changes to things they dislike. They keep an eye on the bigger picture if you like. Additional responsibilities vary tremendously, but can include the drawing the lighting plan, designing the control network and infrastructure, managing the integration with both graphics houses and effects companies, who may trigger sequences via midi or other show control protocols. It is now common place for the programmer to operate digital media servers, and in some instances design the content used on these systems. They will often produce the patch sheets, technical rigging and or health and safety documentation. The programmer can be tasked with overseeing the installation of the moving lights, screens and anything else to be controlled by them, and will often be present at planning and production meetings. Once installed, the programmer can be responsible for maintaining the installation and carrying out fixture repairs during the production period. Sometimes the only person on-site in the department is the programmer, so they will need the required repair knowledge to do this.
With film the programmer is once again under the strict instruction of the lighting designer, in this world called the director of photography. They are hired as an expert and will be expected to advise accordingly. Unbelievably, the entire crew may have never worked with moving lights before. The role involves creating the looks as required, and documenting them shot by shot for purposes of retakes and continuity, keeping in mind sequential shots may be filmed weeks, even months apart.
Other areas of the industry
Corporate and live events, theme parks, architectural installations and cruise ships are a mixture of all of the above scenarios, varying tremendously on the people and locations involved.
It is not necessary to have any formal qualifications to make a successful career programming moving lights. There are however skills an aspiring moving light programmer should have, or look to gain. The discipline is split between technical and creative requirements. From experience it’s not essential to know precisely how everything works in extreme detail, simply what it takes to make it work, and what to look for when it doesn’t work. Today’s programmers should have, not in any particular order of importance, an understanding of the following:
1: Electricity, including mains supplies, safe working practices and regulations. 2: Automated lighting fixtures and controllers in the rental market, including the beneficial features and drawbacks of each, and their equivalent competing products and suitable substitutes. 3: The various control protocols used in entertainment lighting, such as DMX and ArtNet, extending knowledge further to incorporate specific manufacturers protocols and methods. 4: Computers with both Mac and PC based operating systems and networking. 5: Visualisers such as Wysiwyg, ESP Vision and others. 6: CAD programs such as AutoCAD, Vectorworks and others.
Extending this understanding to include media server responsibility, should add knowledge of: 7: Video signals, distribution, formats, compression and codecs. 8: Video editing, with content management and creating tools, such as Final Cut, QuickTime, After Effects, Motion, and Photoshop.
Other skills I would say also beneficial are: 9: An understanding of music. Experience playing an instrument is a definite plus. Failing that, a grasp of music structure, with an intuition for what’s coming next, such as the key change, chorus and so forth, as well as a feel for tempos will help. Even the ability to read music can be an asset. 10: Photography. This teaches composition, exposure and colour space as well as the use of light and shade. 11: Competence in overall organisation, documentation, project management and team leadership, and the ability to work well within a team goes without saying. 12: Confidence in mathematics also helps.
Probably worth mentioning as “tools of the job” are the various consoles or media servers in the marketplace. There are now so many available, each with their own merits and drawbacks, and some more suited to one or other disciplines than others. I believe it’s important to try a few and work out what you feel comfortable with. I think specialising in more than a handful is a mistake. Every console and media server is an ongoing evolution, something permanently in development. Every few months new features and bug fixes are released. It’s really important to stay abreast of these. For this reason alone, it’s unwise to spread yourself too thinly across different platforms. It’s also important to develop good relationships with the manufacturers, distributors and resellers, particularly their support teams who will be invaluable should you run into difficulties. On the negative side, you will at times be passed over for work if you are not experienced with a particular console. You will however, more than make up for this by getting well known for being an expert in another console. What’s the difference between good working knowledge and good practical experience? All too often I meet people who have read the manual and decided they “know” this product or that. In short, there is no substitute for hands on experience. It’s vital that you know intuitively every aspect of the console’s software that you may need. Granted, some features you will never need in a lifetime. It’s good to know they exist however. You are being employed as an expert. That’s why you are there. An expectation as a programmer you need to live up to. There is typically only one of you as well, limiting the opportunities to pool collective knowledge on a production.
With a further look at programming moving lights in television, which is where I spend a large amount of my own time, I note how things have changed over the past few years. The cost of moving light rental has fallen tremendously meaning that almost every production can afford them, lots of them. Over the same period the rehearsal and setup times have reduced dramatically also. What does all this mean? Well for a start the moving light programmer has to be quick. Very quick. They have to be extremely organised and confident. There’s little room for mistakes. When I started working on TV shows a typical rig would have maybe 6, or if we were really lucky 12 moving lights. These would be treated as luxury items for the most part, and would be adding the finishing touches to a design. If there was a problem, it was not the end of the world as they were a very small part of the overall production lighting. They were also relatively simple fixtures, with few functions and control channels. Fast forward to today, and it’s a different story in many cases. It’s not uncommon to find the moving light operator has well over a hundred of the most complex moving lights, all screen content from multiple media servers, and sometimes even the generic lighting under their control as well. Not only is this a lot of work, but it equates to a lot of stress as well. What helps here is to have absolute confidence in the control system you are using, and the data you have programmed. You need to know with total certainty what will happen when you press the “go” button. Preparation is everything. Even though the studio time is limited, you can still plan a large amount off-site. Anything to speed things up on the day is a bonus. Once rehearsals start the lighting programmer is typically locked away in a control room out of sight of the lighting rig. They have to rely on the camera pictures which for the most part do not include the fixtures themselves, only the light output from them, to perform all required tasks. This can be quite disorientating, especially as the cameras may move physical positions and can point anywhere. Organisation both on and off the console plays a large part. It’s common in the television world to rehearse the show completely out of sequence. At some stage (typically a meal break) the programmer needs to reassemble all the rehearsed items back into a show order for the live transmission or recording.
There are almost too many players in the industry today to list here. These include manufacturers, sales and rental houses. Most offer free or low cost training and all offer worldwide technical support and canvas opinions from the industry for future developments. Some of my own ideas have made it from my wish list into the software seen in products today. It’s such a small industry, you really can help shape the way the products are developed and make a difference. The relationship with all the above is very important. They can be both employer and client at different times, and depending on the circumstances. It’s a relationship well worth developing.
The moving light programmer finds his or her employment from a variety of places:
1: Primarily from the lighting designer in the first instance I guess. They usually hand pick their programmers, and have reputations which depend to an extent on the skills and ability to deliver the programming successfully, to help realise the design. 2: Sometimes from the rental houses who are awarded the contract to supply equipment and services on a turnkey basis. 3: From other programmers. There is a great community spirit amongst programmers. It’s commonplace to share and pass work on to others when you are busy. This is a 2 way street, and work will come your way as often as you give it away. Loyalty is very important. Most programmers work with the same design and technical teams over and over again. The saying “you are only as good as your last job” really is true, and affects the whole team you are on. Furthermore I’d go as far as to say that you are “only as good as the worst person on your team”. All the hard work in the world, and all the hours in the day can be put into a production, but it’s the mistakes, sometimes the obvious ones, which are most remembered. Work is cyclical, and will come and go, but delivering consistently high standards as a team really does pay dividends in the long run. Preparation for the programmer as already mentioned, is everything. I see people turning up to work without knowing anything about what they are controlling. Almost all information is available online now, so there really is no excuse for being ill prepared. Do your homework offsite and in your own time.
There are plenty of resources available both on and offline for those interested. This article really isn’t as comprehensive as it could be. Some words by Rob Halliday which I would regard highly worth reading, can be found at his personal website. His work and views and are well respected.
The Automated Lighting Programmer’s Handbook by Brad Schiller, to which I have contributed, and now in its 2nd Revised edition, is very comprehensive and an excellent resource for novice programmers.
Rock Solid Ethernet by Wayne Howell covers Ethernet use for the entertainment industry for beginners and more experienced programmers alike. Wayne and his company developed the ArtNet protocol so he knows what he is talking about!
AutoCAD 2010 – A Handbook for Theatre Users by David Ripley is a good guide for those starting out with computer drawings, or intermediate users seeking further learning. David helped me get to grips with AutoCAD some time ago, so I can personally vouch for his expertise in this area.
Two very informative articles What’s a Lighting Director and Rough Guide to being an LD by the highly respected lighting Director Martin Kempton are also well worth reading as they provide a valuable insite into this craft.
All views expressed here are my own and are based on my own personal experience. They may not broadly represent the topics covered, and as such should be taken as one of the many views available only, and not as expressly definitive.