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Head of Lighting Under the Spotlight

We grabbed a moment to sit down to have a chat with the Head of Lighting for Imagination, the very talented Jonny Milmer, to give you a little more of an insight into the profession and how Jonny got to where he is today!

Let’s start at the beginning, – you studied at the University of Derby and left with a BSc(hons) in Sound, Light and Live Event Technology, what led you to that course?

I was keen to do a lighting and sound based course that was a BSc rather than a BA. I knew a lot of the London theatre school courses were BAs, which at the time wasn’t something I was interested in. I knew that the Derby course was a very technical and engineering based degree that at the time seemed like the right path to take for my undergrad degree. I didn’t know at this point that I would follow a creatively led career. In hindsight, a creative theatre lighting design course may have suited me better but I’m grateful for the depth of technical knowledge that I have following my time at Derby.

During your time at university did you have an end goal of the career you’d like to head towards?

Not particularly. I was always interested in pursuing a career in lighting and sound. Like most young people, I assumed this would naturally take me into the world of touring or theatre in some way. It wasn’t until my second year at university that I realised that I was more interested in lighting and lighting design specifically. A lot of my university classmates were extremely good technicians but few seemed to show the same level of creativity that had pushed me into lighting design.

You worked as a freelance lighting technician whilst at university to gain experience as well as becoming president of the University Events Society, do you think it’s vital for students to involve themselves in as much as they can prior to leaving university?

Yes, it’s absolutely vital. Students should get involved with as many things as possible. University learning is structured to provide a very specific set of skills. These need to be combined with a wide range of extra-curricular activities. As an employer it’s these extra activities and work outside of university that will stand you out from your classmates and give you the edge that is required in a very competitive environment. If your CV is full of university shows it would suggest that your experience is solely within the relatively sheltered environment of the education system. Someone that has additional experience outside of the university will stand out from the crowd as it shows motivation, initiative and a broad range of experience in different environments and with different teams of people.

Your first break into the Live Events Industry came working for PRG Europe; did you find the job lived up to your expectations?

My work at PRG was a fundamental influence for me getting my job as a lighting designer at Imagination. I wasn’t at PRG long but learnt a huge amount working there. It was a very steep learning curve and opened my eyes to a lot of professional standards of work. It also provided an important understanding of the level of work that is required behind the scenes when producing very large shows. I would recommend a similar route for graduating students that are interested in a career in live events.

Anything you wished you’d known before taking the leap into that first role?

That there are full time employment options in our industry, not everyone is freelance. I think some students assume that the only job opportunities in the live events industry are as a freelance technician or designer. The reality is that there are many full time jobs at wide range of different companies within the live events industry.

You’re now working as the Head of Lighting Design for Imagination; can you tell our students a little about what your daily routine might involve?

I manage a small team of talented lighting designers with a wide range of skills, including theatre lighting design, TV, Rock n Roll touring, dance, live music, opera, and corporate events. We pull experience from all of these different disciplines to create exciting and creative designs.

A typical day in London when I am not working on a job may involve sitting in a creative meeting with a team of other creative people from different disciplines (scenic design, media content design, graphic design, sound design) about a show or a stage layout. Alternatively it may involve drawing up a lighting design idea or finding some supporting mood images for an idea we’ve had. It’s a creative studio so we’re always looking at new equipment or coming up with ideas for shows and events.

When we’re not in the office we are traveling abroad delivering shows on site, which could range from anything including huge arenas to 12th century museums. No two days are ever the same.

You were involved in the event for the launch of the Jaguar XE last September, can you tell us a little about how that came about and your role regards to it?

I was initially involved as part of a small team of creative people including the show director, the producer, the sound designer and the set designer. Our task was to produce a huge show that would take an audience of 3000 through the history of Jaguar and future story of the brand, specifically the Jaguar XE. I was the lighting designer and our task was enormous. Collectively we had 8 weeks to write, design, cast, choreograph, rehearse, build and produce the show.

The show would be 1 hour long and include 5 different artists including Emeli Sandé, Eliza Doolittle and the Kaizer Chiefs. We needed to create a welcome bar area and post show area to hold 3000 people. Additionally we were required to produce a Jaguar XE “takeover” of London where we would fly a car under a helicopter along the Thames then along the river in a boat, whilst turning all of the buildings and bridges including the London Eye and Shell building on the south bank red with lighting. We also had an exclusive performance with Emeli Sandé on the Thames whilst simultaneously projection mapping onto the County Hall building next to the London Eye.

All in all it was an extremely big event in a very small amount of time. The lighting design element, for which my team and I were responsible, only represented a small component of the show but an extremely important one for a show of this style.

Having worked in a vast area of Live Events for various industries, what type do you most look forward to when the opportunities arise?

I’m particularly interested in shows that are one-of-a-kind. I like very large one-off events or shows that are to launch a product or an event that will never be repeated. I really enjoy the creative design phase of the job that requires a team of people to sit down and discuss the concepts and work out solutions to the problems. I also enjoy working in venues and places that I have never worked in before.

For those students still at college and looking to enroll at Backstage next year, explain a little about what kind of areas you’d be tutoring them on?

I take a master class in Show Control Systems and it’s use in the industry. Imagination uses show control in many of its events and I help the students understand more about show control systems and specifically how Imagination uses them in the real world. I also help set course work based on real-world examples of projects.

If you had the chance to add a skill to your arsenal, what would it be?

 I’d really like to be able to speak another language fluently. I have the upmost respect for people who are able to do so.

And finally, how would you describe working in the Live Events Industry to someone that’s totally new to it?

It’s a little like a whirl-wind of shows. You get swept up in the excitement and speed of the shows and events bouncing from show to show. Before you know it, you’ve traveled the world, and it’s 10 years later and you’ve worked on some truly amazing shows with some incredibly talented people.

Thank you Jonny, it’s been a pleasure! – Thank you.

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