Skip to Main Content

Lighting Technicians


For centuries before the arrival of electric lights, theaters used candles and oil lamps to make the action on an indoor stage visible. The effects produced were necessarily limited by the lack of technology. In 1879, Thomas A. Edison developed a practical electric light bulb by removing most of the oxygen from a glass bulb and then sending current through a carbon filament inside—producing a light that would not burn out. With the arrival of electric lights, it was only a short time before theater lighting became more sophisticated; spotlights and various lighting filters were put to use, and specialists in lighting emerged.

The manipulation of light and shadow is one of the basic principles of filmmaking. This was particularly the case during the era of the silent film; without sound, filmmakers relied upon images to tell their stories. Lighting professionals learned how to make the illusion complete; through expert lighting, cardboard backdrops could substitute for the outdoors, actors could change appearance, and cheaply constructed costumes could look extravagant. Lighting technicians were the first visual effects masters, using tricks with light to achieve realism. As film techniques and equipment evolved, lighting technicians worked with cinematographers and directors to create the dark recesses and gritty streets of the film noir, the lavish spectacle of the movie musical, and the sweeping plains of the American western, often within the confines of a studio. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, a new movie realism called for lighting technicians to expose, with uneven lighting and weak light sources, all the imperfections they'd been covering up before. Today, in the era of the special effects blockbuster, lighting technicians have gone back to their roots, using light and advanced equipment to make model cities, planets, and monsters look real.