Working With Light

Brandon Stirling Baker tells a brief history of lighting design and creative process

Some say the earliest form of lighting design can be traced back to the early 19th century and the Swiss visionary/writer Adolphia Appia, who had visual concepts on the quality, relationship and presence of lighting in a theatrical setting. In the late 1920's Robert Edmond Jones was a production designer working within the design areas of scenery, costumes and lighting. Many designers today think of Robert Edmond Jones as the American grandfather of lighting design.

The term 'lighting designer' however, was created by a designer named Abe Feder, a New York based lighting artist and designer. In addition Jean Rosenthal and Peggy Clarke are also among the first generation of lighting designers that helped pioneer the art form we know today. Thomas Skelton and Tharon Musser were also important figures in the early beginnings of lighting design. Some of the assistants to the 'first generation' have gone on to become major contemporary designers. Ken Billington, Jennifer Tipton and Jules Fisher are among several very influential designers that continue to inspire me as a designer.

Here are a couple of links that show lighting design drawings and paperwork dating back to 1937:
The Lighting Archive:
NY Public Library Lighting Design Database

Growing up in Los Angeles, my parents always took my brother and I to see live theater, dance, music and museums all over town. After seeing performances of all genres, I started to fall in love with live theater and all forms of live performance. Something that always remained a passion is my love for music. When I was very young in middle school, I joined the local theater team and eventually became the school's lighting designer. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing (technically) but my love for music became a huge inspiration for the work I was creating. The lighting changes were completely based on rhythm, tempo and instrument type.

Just like any artist, each and every lighting designer around the world will have a his/her own manner by which they approach a work. All of the work I do is greatly inspired by music. For me, growing up as a musician (playing guitar & bass) has become a major influence on me as an artist and designer.

While I was in college I started focusing more and more on my career as a lighting designer. Many people who knew me as a musician would ask me Why did you give up music to become a lighting designer? I always give them the same answer – I didn't give up music at all – I work with music in a new medium. Today, the medium I use is light.

When I'm designing for ballet – the music becomes a sort of ground plan and guideline. After I hear the music I watch a rehearsal (and if I'm lucky) I have a discussion with the choreographer to discuss his/her vision and structure of a piece. After I speak with the choreographer, I watch a rehearsal and listen to the music to see. The relationship to the music and the dancers movement – this helps me understand how a piece breathes.

The tempo and type of musical instruments can tell you a great deal about the energy of a piece of music. Is the music score graceful? Is it aggressive? Is it ambient? These are all small – yet important characteristics that help me understand the energy of a ballet or piece of work. These musical characteristics can help a designer decide on the color, shape, angle and direction that the lighting is coming from. Once these visual choices are made, the lighting designer creates light cues that change the lighting conditions on the stage. Another quality that is truly important is the presence of darkness. In the same way a painter may choose where the canvas/surface is being treated, a lighting designer can work with the director and/or choreographer to decide how much of the space we actually reveal. Darkness can equally as powerful as the space we reveal with light.

Another very important element is the surrounding, the environment and the performance space. In the same way that I listen to music, I like to find out how a space lives and breathes. For example if a stage space or scenic element is designed within the shape of a circle, I use the shape of the space as a guideline to the design. Perhaps a number of the lighting fixtures from above will hang within a circular formation and focus within the stage space.

If I'm designing a play or a project involving text, I like to design 'from the inside out,' searching to find out who the characters are as people and where they come from. For me as a designer this helps me understand a character's environment and the overall condition of the world in which they live. As a lighting designer, one of my many jobs is to provide a point of view for the audience.

Early in my career as a young designer, I remember listening to a director speak with his actors about the motivation behind a scene. After overhearing the director speak with a particular actor, an endless source of inspiration came to mind. The director described to the actor, not only emotional characteristics, but visual, physical characteristics that told me a lot about the quality of the actor's environment.

All of the work I do as a lighting designer becomes a 'visual voice' that echos and supports the musical, visual and dramaturgical qualities of a piece. Lighting can be extremely hard to understand for many people outside of the 'design world.' However, every single person in an audience is deeply affected by the substance of light (or lack of). It might be a subconscious affect on the individual but it will always make a profound difference in the way we experience live performance.

See one Brandon's lighting schematics for a Satellite Ballet performance. (1.4MB .pdf)