1 Rule for Getting Properly Lit On Camera

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Photo Source: Annapurna Pictures/Francois Duhamel

After over 25 years in the business, Kelly Clear is no stranger to the behind-the-scenes work that goes into a film project. Now, as chief lighting technician on Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” and “Manhunt: Unabomber” on Discovery, he tells Backstage how he makes actors shine.

Chief lighting technicians realize directors’ visions.
“I’m the head of the lighting department. I also have a rigging gaffer, and he has a crew. We have to coordinate how the rigs—all the lighting [and] power—get put in location to location. And then I have my lighting team. I watch rehearsals, I read all the scripts, and I work with the DP and often the director [to determine] what the lighting is going to be. It’s my job to make that happen.”

Rule No. 1 for an actor: Trust your cinematographer.
“[Actors should] listen to the director of photography. Don’t come in with any ideas about what you think the lighting should be. It’s never going to be up to [you]. There are older actors and actresses who have been around for a long time who could light themselves. They know. But by and large, most actors don’t. So that’s my tip: Always listen to the DP.”

READ: 5 On-Set Tips for Actors

If you want to work on a set, be prepared for adventure.
“Over my whole career, [I’ve had the] opportunity to travel all over and get paid and go to places I would have never gone. There’s always some great experiences. There’s a camaraderie that you end up having with the crew.”

Actors can sometimes assist the lighting department on set—just ask Tom Cruise.
“On ‘American Made,’ we set up a switch gag in the car for Tom Cruise, and it became obvious that there was too much waiting going on—waiting for me to come back to the car to reset the light. And so I just simply showed Tom how the light worked, how the little controller worked [that] we had hidden in the car, and he goes, ‘Oh, OK! So you don’t have to come back anymore.’ And I said, ‘No, don’t worry about it. Just don’t mess it up!’ But he did fine, it was great. He’s a very easygoing guy on set and great to work with.”

Interested in working crew? Education and hands-on experience are key.
“A little schooling goes a long way. There are a lot of different schools across the country. It’s not like you need to go to USC or someplace like that and get a degree in cinematography. Just learn about lighting and learn what the equipment is. A lot of people get a job at a rental lighting house and work in the shop and learn [that way]; that’s where they learn how the equipment works. They may not necessarily learn the appropriate use of that equipment until actually getting on a set, but what happens a lot of the time, and what happens here in Atlanta, is that I’ve had guys who worked at one of the rental houses say, ‘Well, I want to start working on sets,’ so we’ll bring them out and give them a shot. They’ll work as a day player. We try to nurture them a lot.... What I always tell people, particularly if they want to be a gaffer, is you have to practice your craft, so that means you have to light. You have to play with light all the time, and you have to be aware of what light’s doing. When you’re sitting in a room: What color is that light? Where is that light coming from? Why is it that color? Is that a reflective light? Is that direct light?”

Ready to put this behind-the-scenes knowledge to use? Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!