In film and TV production, lighting plays an invaluable role not only in how well the talent is seen on screen, but also for the aesthetic of a project overall. It’s a highly skilled trade that’s populated by very few African-Americans. Christian Epps is one of the talented few who’s built a career because of his ability to use lights to create the best ambiance on screen. Mr. Epps recently spoke with EBONY.com about how he’s mastered his career.
EBONY: How do you contribute to the overall process of making a film?
Christian Epps: A gaffer is in charge of executing the lighting. I read the script a few times and get a feel for the story. I work with the cinematographer to understand and collaborate on how the lighting supports what you see on the screen: happy, depressing, dangerous or comical. Along the way, I contribute my creative ideas that expand his vision of the film, and off I go to develop the equipment and labor needs. Consideration has to be given to the budget, the director’s style of working, production design, various locations, wardrobe, makeup, weather. Even the physical features of the main talent, such as bone structure, hair and skin.
EBONY: Why did you pick lighting designer as a career?
CE: My junior year, I heard I could get out of class early if I was in the performing arts department. I said, “Sign me up!” I didn’t act, sing or play an instrument, so I got on the crew. I loved my high school experience so much I figured, why get a regular job? I went on to Howard University for undergraduate, then at NYU I managed to get a scholarship for graduate studies. As a career, it’s a great mix. I get to add my creative ideas, in collaboration with great art, great artists, and we often examine the greatest of all things: our own human emotions. It also appeals to the 12-year-old boy in me who wants to build stuff. And it can pay well, too!
EBONY: What distinctive quality do you bring to your craft?
CE: I started in the theater, and that background has served me well. Theater, live broadcasts, concerts and comedy shows for cameras. They require a connection to story, emotion and musicality provided by a theater background, as well as the ability to get it right and get it on the air. I’ve also become adept at using and managing color and shadow, and that leads to a special knack for designing lighting for a diversity of skin tones.
EBONY: Are there any obstacles you’ve had to overcome to achieve success in your career?
CE: Certainly. I chose to marry and have a family in my mid-20s, and that cost more than a budding theater career could support. So now I choose to do film, TV and theater lighting to balance my creative and economic checkbooks. It turned out to be a great choice. Now I do lighting design in TV and corporate, gaffer work on films and music videos, and I still do a little bit of theater and dance lighting for the sheer joy of it.
EBONY: Please share some advice for others who look to follow in your path.
CE: One: mentors. Find them, ask for their help, and keep them on your team. This is the fastest way to learn your job and get a chance at the next opportunity awaiting you. Two: make sure you have a creative voice and can articulate it. Artistic, stylish, educated, all business, nerdy... whatever makes you the most happy. Your voice may be loud or it may be subtle. Either way, it’s your calling card. When the client is thinking, “Who can I call to expand my vision, scale this mountain, fight this battle? Who do I want to spend the next three months working with closely?,” your voice will attract the clients that are right for you.
EBONY: What’s next for you?
CE: I’ve been developing a very active business in Nigeria since 2006. This is a growth moment in their production industry, and they want people with Hollywood experience who appreciate them. I’m also joining the producing team on certain projects. It enables me to coalesce many years of helping clients figure out how to get the job done right!
Gil Robertson IV is a noted A&E and Black lifestyle journalist, author and producer. President and co-founder of the African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), he resides in Los Angeles and Atlanta. Follow the AAFCA on Twitter @theaafca.