Martin Smith, Gaffer and Chief Lighting Technician

October 6, 2023

Lighting is everywhere. But our industry focuses a lot on the real world and lighting environments we can all experience, from residential to commercial venues. However, lighting also plays a massive role in our entertainment.

The idea to do a feature called Lights on Screen was sparked during lockdown when I found myself with more time to binge-watch Netflix series’ during the winter months. I kept seeing lots of beautiful decorative pieces featured in new dramas and Hollywood blockbusters.

Alongside some of our manufacturer case studies that highlight their products on set, I sat down with a couple of industry lighting experts, or as they’re known, Gaffers, to find out more about the complexities of lighting on location or on set, and the teams behind creating that on-screen magic.

Martin Smith is a freelance Gaffer and Chief Lighting Technician based in the UK. However, as we all know, films take us all around the world, and Smith is part of the crew that follows the global productions.

Smith’s interest in all things electrical began when he left high school. Initially, he wanted to work as an airline engineer and had sourced an apprenticeship with British Airways, but unfortunately this fell through last minute. “I was only 15 when I left school,” he explains. “My uncle had an electrical firm and asked me whether I should do an electrical apprenticeship. So, I did. I completed a three-and-a-half-year electrical apprenticeship where you do a day release at college and the other four days you’re on the tools working for a supervisor or electrician’s mate. I spent about eight years in the electrical industry where I’d mainly work on fire and security system programmes.

“From this, I developed a passion for working in the electrical industry. My career direction started to shift when I was running quite a large job and I had a lot of guys working for me. It was here I learned a lot of management skills, how to budget, how to service, and the logistics of running a job. My girlfriend at the time’s dad was what’s known as a gaffer, and I thought that sounded interesting. He was going to work on location and going abroad, which all seemed like an exciting lifestyle. And so, I asked him, ‘Why am I going to work the same place every day for the last year, and you are flying off to Australia and Kenya?’

“Back in 1995, when I was 20 years old, he took me onto a film called Twelfth Night, directed by Trevor Nunn, that was shot in Cornwall. I went for one week’s work experience. As an already qualified electrician, I was allowed to work on set, but only as a trainee. But, I really, really enjoyed it. We worked on a week’s worth of shooting on location where we were in interiors and exteriors. It was the first time I’d seen film lights and practical lights [decorative lighting fixtures] being used together. Because they were shooting on film at this time, they needed to enhance the practical lights [prop lights such as table lamps] by changing the bulbs to gain more light output than a regular 40W lamp. They would upgrade them all to 275W or 500W light sources. Then they’d use other film lights to enhance what that practical fixture was doing.

“I got really interested in lighting there and the excitement of working on a movie at that young age that, but it fizzled out for a while, and I went back to my normal day job. “Unfortunately, I then split up with that girlfriend. I think her dad was keeping me at arm’s reach during the relationship because the whole time he knew what a volatile career working in film can be. I think he was being protective, but once the relationship ended, he said ‘Look, if you want to get into it, you need to go and work in a lighting rental house. You’re an electrician but go and learn the equipment’.”

In 1999, Smith got a job at AFM Lighting, which provided an in-house trainee scheme for electricians. Here, Smith worked for two years in the warehouse, learning the equipment, servicing, and maintaining it, and learning about the power systems, distributions, and generators, and earned his HGV license. Essentially, gaining as much knowledge about the film industry and the practical skills to safely run its lighting equipment.

“After the two years, they started sending me and a colleague that was also training out on jobs. We’d get up at 4:30am to take the equipment truck down to a location. You’d meet the gaffer and the electricians, and you’d rig for the day on a commercial set or on a small movie, setting all the lights and generators up.”

Smith continued in this role for another four to five years, building relationships with gaffers and understanding the set etiquettes and processes of a film productions. He worked on commercials and small features until his big break on the first Harry Potter movie being filmed in London.

“That’s where I really started to learn about lighting practicals,” he says. “The flambeaux, the big fire lights on the staircases and wall sconces, didn’t produce enough light because again we were shooting on film. So, we had to add practical lights to the base of each flame. They were safe from the fire, but they enhanced the light with 10KW and 5KW light sources in each. I just found it fascinating that there was a department dedicated to doing these practical elements of lighting. We were responsible for rigging huge lighting elements for the windows in the Great Hall as well as there being a department of six people building bespoke lights for the sets, whether it was the light on the end of a wand or a handheld lamp that would glow.”

Smith’s career began to develop from this point onwards, working on feature films and commercials, establishing his name in the field, working hard as an electrician, and progressing onto the role of a best boy, which is second in command of the lighting and electrical department.

“I worked on a Bollywood film called London Dreams as a gaffer, and that had the most amazing practical lighting elements on it. It was a big, colourful film that we rigged coloured festoon lights around London for big dance scenes and created environments for the bar and club scenes; it was a big job, but I had a great practicals crew working for me.

“The practical lights on films started off, for example on Harry Potter, as quite raw and ready but nowadays it’s turned into roughly 50% of the set, which fill with practical fixtures that develop into these beautiful production designs. Much like you would now if you were doing any building design, we design our sets with architectural lighting to the same high standards, and we want them to look fantastically beautiful and detailed.”

Smith then went on to meet Fraser Taggert, a cameraman, or as they’re known in the film industry a cinematographer or director of photography, and who are essentially the boss of the gaffer. “We did our first film together, a second unit, which does all the action sequences, called Your Highness in Ireland about 10 years ago, and it really took off from there. I’ve since worked with Fraser on other features including XXX.

“It’s taken me about 25 years to work on these huge Hollywood features. I’ve got a hell of a lot of experience and knowledge over the longevity of my career, which puts me in a good position to now run these huge features where we have up to 100 electricians working at any one time.”

What became evident when talking with Smith is that a lot of the “practical” lighting fixtures are created from scratch for set. The gaffer has a close working relationship with the set decorators, cinematographers, and directors of film productions, and together they work on bringing the story’s vision to life. As Smith describes it, it’s like “painting a picture with light”. Gaffers play a huge role in the creative interpretations, bringing physical solutions to the visions for the story. And with that, they design and build lighting fixtures in workshops to fit the story’s brief alongside purchased or rented decorative fixtures.

Smith has Practicals Head of Department Joe Took on his team, or as they are known in the US, a Fixtures Supervisor. Took looks after all the practical lighting fixtures and prop fixtures and set decoration pieces that are seen on screen in a movie. Depending on what has been discussed between Smith and the production’s set decorator, production designer, cinematographer and director will depend on the look, style, and concept for how the lighting fixtures are going to look on set or on location. Took will utilise the production sketches or discussion notes and gather all the lights that have been brought in by the set teams and convert them all to LED with wireless controls. These will then be installed on set ready for the lighting team to go in and organise the pre-lighting for filming.

“It’s all discussed early on, and they’re designed fully conceptual. Then we can measure up and see how many LEDs or type of practicals are going in. Sometimes we still use some of the older tungsten lighting fixtures, it all depends on the period of the film,” he explains. There’s a huge variety of creations Smith and his teams work on using LEDs, but sometimes the old options are still best. “We can create any look with LEDs, but sometimes you want that old tungsten filament lamp or candle flicker. It could also be a huge pendant over a table, or a thousand lights in a submarine that all need to come to life with gauges and dials. Or it could be the most beautiful architectural lighting in a building.

“It’s a very wide range but the practicals cover all lights that are seen in shot as opposed to our bigger lights that are out the shot, which we use for added filler light.

“The practicals department has grown over the years from two or three people, whereas now I’ve got 10 guys working for me full-time.”

A recent example that Smith and his team worked on was the decorative lamps for Mission Impossible VII: Dead Reckoning Part 1. “We had over 100 hanging lanterns arrive as just glass boxes that we had to fit with LEDs and wireless controls. Our practicals team also recreated 30 exact copies of Venetian streetlights, with the help of the props team, that we had moulded. This allowed us to move them anywhere around the Venetian alleyways that were a bit dark or create our own alleys.”

The lighting team will work with a head programmer on a production who will aid in setting up wireless transmitters and receivers that they can remotely programme from their lighting desks. The majority are set up with batteries, but the set is also always hard-wired to power supplies, which allows for the lighting controls and dimmer circuits to be controlled back to the light desk and then on an iPad.

“It’s a real team effort on a big film. It’s the same on a commercial or on a short pop-promo, just a smaller scale.”

When it comes to balancing the decorative lighting fixtures (practicals) with the larger set lights and diffuser boxes, the team do this is all done manually rather than in post-production.

“We take colour temperature readings and balance our lights to match the practicals, but a lot of the time the set and actors can be lit with the practicals and enhanced with some soft light,” Smith explains. “If you’ve got big windows on a set and you’re trying to create a daylight interior, then we’d use bigger lamps as sunlight combined with some big soft lights just to push light in, otherwise the effect is too contrasty. It all depends on the vision of the director and the cinematographer, the emotional content in that scene, and how we want to portray it with the lights. It’s almost like painting a picture in my opinion. You hear it said sometimes, but the more you think about it, it really is. You’ve got the story and with that there’s got to come pictures, and it’s how we paint that picture using our lights for a different variety of looks or feel, and the tone of the story. We could be depicting a party, rave vibes, or the total opposite with calming dappled light through trees or a dark room that’s just candlelit. It all revolves around the lighting. Without that, it’s just a radio programme, isn’t it?

“99% of the time, gaffers get creative input with the directors and cinematographers on the bigger productions. Sometimes you work with those that want to do it their way, but that’s quite rare these days. They might just give you some guidelines of the style and the look, and then you’ve really got to dig deep into your knowledge base and figure out not only how to do that creatively speaking, but also logistically with certain restrictions such as weight, height, or budget. You also need to consider the availability of certain types of lights at any one time, because when it’s busy, you can’t always get your first choice of your complete list of lights, so sometimes you have to think outside the box.

“There’s a lot of gaffers and ring gaffers that own a certain number of lights and bits of equipment, but the bulk of the lights will be hired from lighting rental houses. Practicals are normally purchased, whereas the rest of the set lights are normally rigged as more of a temporary installation. We also hire all the various distribution lighting control. We also have a separate department that works under us to scaffold riggers, who construct the scaffolding and truss and motors for the lights to hang on.”

At the end of a production, the teams are conscious to make sure the practicals aren’t wasted. The wireless control elements are removed, and the fixtures are sent to a props warehouse. Anything hired is returned and any cables will be reused where possible on other productions.

Looking at new technological developments in film lighting, Smith notes the vast improvements in LED capabilities. “It’s come on leaps and bounds, going from just bicolour to six channel, six colour LED. Also, the ways of controlling it and the size, plus we can get beautiful, almost laser-like COB LED now that has seamless joins and a beautiful little pocket of diffusion that it sits in. We’re using that for a lot of detailed work now. You can also get LED pads and panels; you can get LED arrays printed that fit into certain lights that we’re now 3D printing our own LED bases and PCBs with our own LEDs that we’re fitting into all our own lighting fixtures. Having 3D printers is a big step in the right direction.

“We manufacture a lot of our own circuitry and code for certain hand props and practicals. It’s not only having the right kit, but some fabulous people around us that can do those jobs.

“We just made all our own underwater lights for a scene on Mission Impossible VIII: Dead Reckoning Part 2. We created over 1000 lights to go into different sections of a submarine with boards that house LED strips. We’ve had a resin tested over the last six months that is clear and creates a lovely watertight containment for the LEDs. It makes it pretty much non buoyant, so it doesn’t put any stress on the weight of the set that’s going under water. We’ve got our own water sensors, heat sensors, cameras, ingress for moisture, all within our battery boxes that we can monitor on a computer in our workstation. It’s a whole world of creativity.”

During the Covid-19 global pandemic, the film and TV industry ground to a holt with the uncertainty of how productions could continue through all the restrictions. But the strong sense of community and team bonds that were fostered among the lighting crews over the decades led Smith and some fellow gaffers to establish the International Cinema Lighting Society. Smith, co-founded the society with gaffers Michael Bauman and Rafael Sanchez with a few informal zoom conversations on a Saturday night with a group of international gaffers to discuss various Covid protocols around the world to find out who was doing what, and which productions were shutting down. “It was very, very informative,” he explains. “I, Mike, and Raffi said ‘Look, there’s something here. We don’t have a society for lighting, gaffers, or programmers.’ We decided to develop it officially and that’s when Bea Patton got involved. She headed up the formalisation of the society with our help and a lot of amazing members, who became the founding members forming committees. We set up a membership committee, a corporate membership committee for manufacturers, and an accountant committee.

“It’s mainly just gaffers, programmers, and rigging gaffers and practicals heads of departments that have access to the full membership category. Then we have an associate membership for aspiring gaffers or programmers, best boys, and anyone that’s interested in the industry like colour scientists, projectionists. Then we have an observer membership, which is for the lighting technicians and people that are just starting their careers in the industry. The reason we can’t have lighting technicians in straightaway as full members is because we wanted to keep a certain pedigree of the best at the top that can inspire, educate, and mentor the younger ones coming through. And unfortunately, if we included light technicians as full members as well, there’d just be too many applicants and we wouldn’t be able to handle it.

“The society is run entirely by volunteers. Bea left us a year after setting up and structuring, and we’ve now got our Executive Director Ediola Pashollari who is our first fully paid member and is responsible for setting us up with our nonprofit status in the US.

“Now we’re having a huge website re-design and are sponsored by roughly 30 manufacturers, and we’re up to about 600 members across 40 countries around the world.”

Fundamentally, the aim of the society is to provide a community and platform for sharing knowledge and expertise among fellow colleagues in the industry. Much like many roles within the freelance television and film industries, sharing of information and skills is uncommon, in Smith’s opinion. “It was kind of a closed shop and people were worried about losing out on work if they shared too much of their expertise. Through ICLS, we flipped that attitude on its side, and everyone is sharing information not just about safety but about new technology and new protocols and certain rigs, etc. We have zooms every week with presentations from individuals who have worked on certain movies as well as from manufacturers that are trying to promote their new lighting products. What’s more fabulous for us is manufacturers coming to us with their prototypes rather than us going to shows. They’re coming direct to the end-users who will be hiring their lights and getting their expert advice before they even put money into manufacturing something that might not be suitable.

“We also run events and attend lighting events or expos and have live ICLS gatherings to promote and mix and generally be a community and meet people face to face. We don’t talk about people’s individual rates or negotiate on rates as we’re not a union. We’re just a society of happy and very proud individuals that needed to become more of a team, which we have achieved.”

The society also utilises Discord with 120 channels covering various topics from products to rigging techniques and day-to-day insights.

Looking ahead, ICLS wants to establish educational and mentorship classes, whether online or face-to-face events. The team wants to grow its global reach and diverse membership and is looking at setting up individual regional meetings to avoid time zone clashes, allowing conversations to be more accessible for all.

“We want to spread the word of lighting safely but informatively and build some momentum behind the society, which then gives us the money to invest into the educational channels and mentorship schemes. It’s very tricky because first and foremost, it’s electricity and there’s different codes of conduct globally. We must be mindful of how we educate in the UK as that won’t be correct for the US, which in turn won’t be right for India or Asia. But the principles of lighting remain the same and can be taught. Everyone in the society sharing their knowledge is really helping to get the different techniques and technologies out there to those that might not have had the conduits to it.”

Smith concludes with parting advice for those wanting to get into the industry or begin a career as a gaffer. “We need to look at this sensibly,” he says. “I always tell anyone that wants to get into the industry to go get an electrical qualification first. It’s important because we’re working with electricity first and foremost, and you need to have the ability to work with it safely, install a distribution system, maintain, and not overload a distribution system, and have the general knowledge of electrical safety, installing, testing, and certifying electrical installation. I wouldn’t have anyone on my practicals team that wasn’t a fully qualified electrician.

“We have trainees who do an electrical qualification while working with us for up to three years. Those that are coming out of film schools need to take a step back and get a full electrical qualification first.

“Then it’s time to do the exciting bit and learn about the lighting because you’ll have built great technical knowledge, but you’ll also have much more respect within the industry because we know you’re safe and you’re going to work safely with others.”

He also believes that it’s all down to building a strong network. “Reach out to as many individual gaffers as you can find. There’s plenty on Instagram, reach out to studio productions like Netflix, Amazon, and Apple, which have entry routes and apprenticeships with colleges that allow you to work alongside a team as a trainee.

“Alternatively, you can go into a lighting rental house as I did, and work with them and learn the equipment. You really must fight for it and get your name out.”