How to be Successful in Lighting Design with Jeff Atkisson
Written by: Jeff Atkisson
I went to George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon and it was there that I really started to find my love for lighting design. It was a small school and the resources, were at times, limited. I saw this as a good thing though. I’m not sure we, as students, learn well when we are handed all the bells and whistles. Sometimes having a lack of gear forces you to think outside of the box. I don’t think that this means that larger programs and colleges are bad though, I believe that a small school was helpful in my journey.
For the past 20 years I have worked with some of the most amazing groups ranging from Disney, Hollywood Lights, LMG and First Baptist Church Orlando, to name a few.
Without sharing my entire resume, I can say that I was encouraged by many people throughout my college and professional career to continue to grow and push the boundaries of what was possible. Also during these times, I poured into others and helped when I could – because I am always reminded that its hard to get anywhere amazing on your own.
#1. It’s OK to dream big.
My mentor in college was Derrick Johnson, an arranger for some of the biggest choir groups in the world. He worked for Disney for over 20 years, and has had an absolutely amazing career. The biggest thing that Derrick taught me was that it was alright to dream. You won’t always be able to do huge and massive things when working on lighting design or in the event industry. BUT it is okay to dream first. Pack these dreams away in your memory and try and use them later on down the line.
“It is OK to think big and dream big, because someday you will be in a space that will allow it.”
When working in lighting design or the event industry, you might be in a space that can’t afford a ton of technology, or simply doesn’t want a ton of technology – and that’s alright. Take your big ideas and write draw them down and draw them out. Keep these in a journal or on your computer remember that you can take pieces of those particular ideas and implement them in any size big or small.
#2 Ego is a career killer.
In my time inside and outside of the church you come across a ton of people with different personalities.
Lighting design and the event industry is full of creative types. We are all creative, which in general makes us all “princesses”. I believe that the creative types with the biggest egos limit themselves the most because they aren’t open to continual learning. Having an open mind and a willingness to learn is one of the keys to being successful in lighting design and what you can truly accomplish in the event industry.
People that think they know everything or that they are above others, tend to struggle pushing to the next level because they don’t allow others to pour into their lives. It’s difficult to accept sometimes but there are so many things to learn from others.
When I started in my career I had that strong drive and equally strong ego. Always wanting to push myself beyond the boundaries that were around me. I didn’t care who I stepped on and it didn’t matter who got in my way. My goals were set and I was ready to do whatever it took to reach the lofty and ambitious career I had set in my mind.
What I didn’t realize was that my ambition and ego was actually limiting myself in what I could achieve.
It took me a tenure at First Baptist Church of Orlando to learn to drop my ego. Personally I got WAY more satisfaction by serving and learning from others than, rather than focusing on myself.
I can’t tell you how many people I have told that they need to tone back their ego. Everyone is creative and talented, but few are as talented as they think; I say this in love because I was there, and I have seen what can be achieved when someone can drop the attitude and the ego.
#3 Multi Year Budgeting Plans are Key
Lets face it audio, lighting and video is not cheap! Our area can be some of the most expensive costs to a company. To help mitigate these pressures, I have found that it is best to make a solid plan that allows you to grow into the system you want to eventually have.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s easier to drop a huge amount of money and get everything all at once. But if you don’t have that option or the company is hesitant, you can split this up. I think it’s easier for many companies and managers to swallow.
I remember when I first started at First Orlando, we did a fairly large annual show that involved a singing Christmas tree. One year before this show, I went to the leadership group and asked them to allow me to scale the lighting back for the next 3 years so that I could make some purchases out of the ticket s
ales that we receive. I spent $50,000 each year with money that the congregation didn’t have to pay for, and we got a TON of rigging that allowed us to do events when there is zero funding source. This was the best purchase I have made to date and a lot of the gear is still in use.
#4 Change doesn’t happen immediately
When you get hired you are probably going to hear a lot of phrases like, “We are ready to goto the next level”. While this may be true, the pace in which you’re moving may be different than you’re expecting. Not all companies or facilities might be prepared for a fast transition. Sometimes to create change you need to have a slow changeover. Try being persistent with pushing and pulling the boundaries in different directions and at different paces.
Sometimes when working with a producer that isn’t aware of what a particular piece of gear can do, you can slowly show them what capabilities are through formal and informal instructions. Other times, these producers might be set in their ways.
For example, I was on a show last year where the producers made audio, lighting and video all stay on a single communication channel. The producers were concerned people would speak behind their backs if there were multiple channels. The audio, lighting and visual teams tried to explain that this decision would make it very hard to execute cleanly, but the producers declined to listen. To say that this gig was rough is an understatement. Imagine camera calls being made to 3 cameras while audio and lighting cues were being given all at the same time and on the same channel. At the end of the gig, I believe that the lesson was learned, but we had to allow the leadership for the event to make the final decision. This rough experience gave us more of a voice for the next event on what would work and wouldn’t work.
Like I said earlier, when I first started in this career I was like a bull in a china shop. Trying to break down every wall that was in my way. What I learned in experiences like the one above and others was that slow pressure on those walls got MUCH better results over a slightly longer amount of time.
#5 Serve First
Those that serve first are the ones that will succeed the most. I can not tell you how many times this has helped me in my career! If there is nothing you learn in this article try and remember this: if you serve and are generally pleasant to be around, you WILL get more work.
One of the best lessons I was taught early in my career was from my buddy “Punch”. He looked at me and he said “Hey…you see those guys moving chairs, go make friends with them right now”. When I questioned why, he stated very clearly to me: “You want to know who can screw you the worst in a gig? It’s those chair people, so go be nice to them”. What Punch taught me in that moment was that the guys that have the chairs under your rigging have a lot of power. So if you go and show true appreciation and treat them well, they will treat you well when you need it. It was a fantastic lesson about the power of everyone working on a gig and I have never forgotten about it.
“I guarantee you that if you serve and respect your stagehands they will work harder for you.”
Don’t overlook the people that might not be held in high regard, they want to do their job to the best of their ability too. If you treat everyone with respect from top to bottom and serve them well, you will be seen as different. I believe this will bring more opportunity your way.
In conclusion I would say that these aren’t the only 5 items that are important in being successful in lighting design and event production. But if there is any parting remarks that I would want to emphasize it would be this: don’t allow yourself to walk down the dangerous path of being an unhappy and angry tech. If you can control your attitude, emotions, and your ego you will be known as someone who is enjoyable on show site and you will find more work than someone who isn’t pleasant to be around.