Interview with Nick Moran
Respected English lighting designer Nick Moran is dedicated to lighting of live performances for over twenty years from studio theaters across large productions in the West End to rock concerts in stadiums, his works have been included in many exhibitions (e.g. World Stage Design in Seoul). In addition to articles on lighting design and contributions to expert conferences, he is the author of Performance Lighting Design (How to Light for the Stage, Concerts, Exhibitions and Live Events), which Czech translation he christened in October. During his visit to Prague, he also led a three-day workshop on lighting design (he teaches this subject at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London), gave several interviews and delivered a lecture about points of departure of his work with light. In his busy schedule, he found the time for an informal meeting with Czech colleagues and went to see the current Czech dance. All the three days doing all this, he was giving the impression of a fresh “pro” in a good mood and ready to do anything.
I have heard that you originally studied physics, but you were not good at mathematics. How was it with your studies?
This is a nice introduction. Yes, after the high school, I went to study physics at university and I found out very soon that my mathematical knowledge would never be at a level that I could become a good physicist. And so I spent most of my study time working in a theatre at the university, also in Edinburgh, France and other places.
I finished the university, as the saying goes, “by the skin of my teeth.” Today, I probably wouldn’t get away like that so easily.
What attracted you to the theatre, specifically to lighting?
My mother and her community theatre, sometime in my fourteens. They needed someone to help them with lighting. The man who was their lighting electrician
worked as a professor of mathematics at a local institute, smoked cigars and it was such a relaxed guy and it was amazing for me to work with him. In this theatre, the lights were controlled using manual resistance dimmers and he always came with his cup of coffee, chose the lever of dimmers, which was pulled halfway down, put the cup of coffee on it, laid down on the couch smoking a cigar and just slightly before he had to make a change, he got up, drank coffee and moved the lever. That was amazing.
So it looked like a light and relaxed work in the beginning?
No, I didn’t think about it first as a job, I took it as an activity that is great. I started thinking about the possibility that I could do it for a living in the middle of my studies. When I was about twenty, I began to meet people who were dedicated to it professionally. The technologies began to develop more at that time, and that facilitated my choice.
My family would have probably not objected, but still I graduated the university, so I should have made my living at least by some kind of an office work: but I was thankful that I found a way to make a living, even if included climbing the ladder, dirtying my hands, playing with devices and their fixing. At that time, I focused more on technology and later I became interested in lighting design as such. At first, it was really more about how to make all things work, technology and the people with whom I worked. I perceived the community of people around the theatre as a family, and it was a great feeling. We all had the same problems, we all worked non-standard working hours, we drank in the same bars and so on, and only later I started asking the question “why am I actually doing this job?”.
And your first “lighting design”?
I once worked in a warehouse of lights, I borrowed some and removed a chandelier in a pub in Hampstead, and instead of it, I hung up a part of a skyfolder (a mobile scaffold for hanging lights – Ed.) on chains, hung lights on it, attached two wires and homemade dimmers and I said to myself that it actually looked pretty good. But what really brought me to the lighting design was a revolution in the form of smart (remotely controlled functions of sharpening, angular extent, colors etc. – Ed.) lights. It was a great thing for someone who was interested in the technology. I remember that when I first saw the use of these lights, when the scene illuminated by white light suddenly changed to purple, I thought that something similar must have been experienced by the people of the early Renaissance, when they first saw the picture painted in a perspective: a completely different way of working.
Then you began to dedicate yourself to it deliberately?
I didn’t know at that time that to do this job doesn’t just mean to control the lights, but also the ability to communicate with the director and set designer, the ability to make contacts, to be able to think about the script and so on. I learned all this during the work with lighting designers – I had the opportunity to sit next to the best designers in the UK, Spain, Germany as the operator and to observe them as they learnt to use smart lights in their work, that was the best school for me. I had a chance to learn, not only the work with the visual aspect. Also it helped me to understand the internal politics of origins of a performance: the importance of understanding the text, intentions of a director and set designer, understanding the actors and their work, realizing that directors are often afraid of technology, just as they want to use it in their performances. Does that make sense?
Of course. So the profession of a lighting designer is a combination of art and technical knowledge?
Yes, it’s both. If you are a sculptor, you need to know how to cut stone and what technology to use for it. You have to have great ideas and visions, but to make it happen, you have to master the craft. I think that the same can be said of the lighting design. I’ll give you an example: the play Danton’s death by Georg Büchner is performed in the London’s National Theatre with the stage design by Christopher Orama. Lighting design was made by Paul Constable. The scene consists of doors arranged in a semicircle with a gallery above them and windows with shutters above it. The windows are approximately six meters high and when they are open in the daytime scene, only one beam goes through them that creates a perfect shade of the windows on the scene. To achieve that, you need to know which source to use, where to place it exactly. That’s the side of the craft. But you also need to have an idea and it must be very good, because actors can work with those perfectly placed beams. You have to be aware of this by the construction of a scene, you have to explain this to the director – how, where and when the shadow will be used.
I guess it’s a lot about diplomacy, isn’t it?
I absolutely agree, it’s especially the art of communication, co-operation, to which also the craftsmanship is indispensable. A theatre performance comes into existence in a dependent cooperation of a director, set designer, lighting designer and his team, costume designer, choreographer, actors and many others. Each lighting designer should keep in mind that light is a part of the performance, and should be consistent with other components, with their creators. A lighting design that is not able to respect this fact can never be functional.
As we spoke about the craft – what skills must be mastered by a lighting designer?
A friend told me years ago that a lighting design is fifty percent about lighting. Of course, it depends on what kind of performance you do and whether you have a team of people you can trust. I personally know many lighting designers, who don’t have to be too much concerned about the technical side of lighting, because they have a lighting team around them, to whom they trust. On the other hand, I know designers who are dedicated to the technological aspect of lighting to the details, they exactly know why to choose a certain type of equipment and how to use it.
Another important component of the work of a lighting designer should be the interest in what is happening in the outside world, about what is happening in culture or politics. When somebody makes Shakespeare in the present day, he might want to use a parallel to the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the performance. A lighting designer also has to read the script and imagine according to the text what is going to happen on the stage. And that is an art as well. He should be able to work under pressure and know how to communicate in stressful situations with members of the creative team, yet in a slightly different way with each, must keep in mind a lot of information so he would be able to fix the problem most efficiently if it occurs.
There are many other things that should a lighting designer know, but when I sum it up, so the prizes for lighting design are constantly won in the UK by people who are well-read, educated and who are interested in what is happening around them, and this is what makes them masters of their field among other things.
Let‘s move now to the stage: How to recognize bad lights? Is it even possible to discern what is a concept and what a mistake?
For instance when the light attracts too much attention, or if you don’t see the actor’s face for most of the time, too much light reaching the eyes of spectators and so on – you perceive it negatively. But it often happens that the mistakes, which viewers notice and could be attributed to the lighting, have nothing in common with the work of the lighting team – an actor simply steps in the wrong place. We can blame him for that, but maybe we should blame ourselves for not being able to cope with the actor standing elsewhere. If we decide that we will be the servants of a performance, we should be able to respond in situations where the actor doesn’t do what he did the previous evening.
On the other hand, will spectators notice that the light coming through the window throws a shadow in one direction and the light coming through the window from the other side of the scene in another direction? That would have been possible only if there were two suns. When you look at the example of paintings from the period of classical painting, will you notice that the falling shadows are from multiple sources and that the spatial layout of shadows corresponds rather to the artist’s intent than reality? Personally, I genuinely don’t care whether someone will notice it in my work. But I remember that when I was an assessor at exams at the university, some students were criticized for “two suns” … So is it a problem for someone.
But if you look at it from an artistic point of view, it will depend on a opinion. It’s the same as asking whether a painting is good or bad.
You have many years of experience teaching lighting design today and Czech students. How you worked on people who attended a workshop in the Czech Republic?
I am glad that you asked me this question, because I thought about it. For example, I met with Thomas, who says of himself, that he is not good only a technician. He shouldn’t be saying it about himself, because he is capable and qualified. You say it about yourselves as well and the same thing happens in the UK. A light technician should appreciate his skills. It often happens that when we get our knowledge not in a training course, informally, so we don’t respect it. One example from practice: a guy has long been working in the British National Opera who is definitely one of the best behind the lighting control desk. Glen is fast, accurate, and understands very soon what you want, almost as if he reads your mind, he isn’t nervous … No one taught him the job, he has learnt all by himself. But he doesn’t realize that he has specific skills, which he should appreciate, and expects that others can do at least the same as he does.
Otherwise, the group of people at the workshop made a very positive impression on me. People came here who, though they perhaps didn’t have extensive knowledge of lighting design and technology, were very interested in learning something new. It was also positive that a lot of women participated – I think that if there is a balanced proportion of men and women in the team, the work is more comfortable and is done in better quality.
The reason for your visit in Prague is the Czech translation of the book – mostly there are enough expert publications abroad. Why have you written your own, in what is this one better?
When I became a teacher at the university in my forties, I asked my colleagues what the profession of a university professor involves, and they replied “Well, teaching, writing books and research”. I said, “Well, first I will teach and write books and then you show me how to do research.” I wrote the book in the first place for students. My goal was to give them as much information as they need for the profession of a lighting designer. It was also the opportunity for me to clarify what all the light design means, to evaluate my existing practice and
experience, and so I said to myself “let’s have a look back and see if Nick has a something to pass on.”
I should not evaluate in what the book is better than the other ones. But the best books on lighting design that were published in the UK are already a little outdated. For example, Richard Pilbrow’s book is great, but there are interviews with people from the field in it that are already twenty-five years old. My book should replace the textbook on lighting design by Reid Francis, which is not bad at all, but is already outdated and not comprehensive enough.
The book also mentions Joseph Svoboda…
Yes, Josef Svoboda was a major phenomenon at that time, a visionary. He was able to create three-dimensional structures with light and mist, architecture of space directly above the stage. Concert shows profit from this vertical effect still up to present days. He was a pioneer of new technologies, very inspirational magic of lights. It is perhaps the most famous stage designer, who perfectly complemented the scene and its atmosphere with light. Also, his “invention” – light Svoboda – is manufactured with certain modifications even today.
Today, we are beginning to discuss the relationship of the entertainment industry and ecology, the environment. Do you think that any successful large performance may be “ecological”?
The main idea of the project “Greening the Theatre Round Table”, in which I participated, was to create an environmental performance that would maintain a high artistic value at the same time. It wasn’t about to create the most ecological performance, but thinking about the possibilities of environmental considerations in our profession. Currently, there is a large debate about the tungsten filament bulbs that aren’t environmentally friendly and that should be replaced with LED bulbs or discharge lamps.
On the other hand, I think that it would be more environmentally friendly if theaters stopped using bottled water than the ban of tungsten bulbs. I don’t mean that they should continue to use tungsten bulbs for lighting in the corridors and in the dressing rooms or for lighting of buildings. Let’s compensate them fluorescent lamps, but let’s be aware that they contain mercury and must be properly disposed of.
We cannot see the issues of sustainable development and ecology only in black or white. In this discussion, there is no single correct solution – tungsten bulbs are bad, everything else well – it doesn’t work that way.
If you could choose from aesthetic point of view between a tungsten lamp, LED, fluorescent and other sources, which would you choose?
Of course, the best of all resources is a tungsten lamp! But if I do a show somewhere, where only 230V is available then I use LED. It depends on the purpose – the quality of tungsten lights is not very important for me when lighting musical productions, I use tungsten diffuse light and conventional lights for theatrical performances and if I had a big stage and a lot of money, so I would use LED lights.
The question that must be asked at the end: What is the beautiful light for you?
I was thinking about it during a holiday in Spain. We went one day for a walk in the morning. It was a few hours after the sunrise, azure blue sky… I thought, “What makes such fantastic light”? No artificial lighting, but only one brightly shining source – the sun and azure pall cover of the atmosphere around created a fantastic and precise ratio of key light and fill light. Such a harmony that was raved about by painters, photographers, filmmakers, and this is what we try so many times to transfer onto the stage.
For instance, it’s amazing to watch fire, a group of people around a fire, all the different shades of colors … I think of fire that shines brightly and simultaneously produces orange, red and yellow shades, and the fact that it moves it to life light source casts shadows. If you’re somewhere in the countryside in the middle of the night, so you have one source of light from one direction and everything else is plunged into darkness, and the contrast is wonderful.
Thank you for the interview, I originally promised only a few questions …
OK, time for a beer.
(Interview of 10.5 of 2010, interviewer F. Fabian, Institute of Lighting Design)