How a Set Lighting Technician Does Money

Photo by Sam McGhee (cropped) on Unsplash.

Cecilia (not her real name), is a 26-year-old set lighting technician in Atlanta.

How much do you make?

I make $55,000-$60,000 a year. I could probably reach $65-$70 if I didn’t take any breaks. I hear rumors of some people who are third set lighting technicians who work on Marvel movies and work year-round, they’ll hit like $80K.

What is your job title?

I’m a set lighting technician, some people call us electricians, that’s kind of the slang for us. I work in the lighting department for the film industry. A Lighting Designer, or what we call a Gaffer, calls for a light on set and I bring it and adjust it how the Gaffer wants it and that’s how it rolls.

Are these union jobs that pay well?

Yes, by and large. Some people survive very well in the commercial world. They earn more, but they don’t have taxes taken out and nothing is paid into any funds for insurance or pensions.

When I do work on independent projects it’s cooler jobs, more prestige. Also, when you work independent jobs that pay less, you usually have the opportunity to move up. I worked on a union independent job, where the contracts are different depending on the budget. It had a budget of $1 million and I earned a lot less than I usually make, but instead of being a third lighting technician, I was a Best Boy, or an Assistant Chief Lighting Technician. I took a lower-paying job to get experience for the next step up.

After Best Boy, that’s Gaffer next?

Yes, that’s true. I would get hired as a Gaffer after that. Theoretically as a Best Boy, people would start offering me Gaffer jobs.

A lot of people will sit comfortably at Gaffer for awhile. If you want to stay in the Lighting department, you stay at Gaffer. My end goal is to be a Director of Photography, which is the head of the Lighting and Camera departments. Most of the ACs I talked to said that the best DPs they work with came up through lighting.

To be honest, camera pays a lot better than lighting, but if what I’m doing right now will benefit me in the long run, then I’m just going to take the pay cut. It’s not like I’m starving or anything.

How did you work before you joined the union?

I didn’t do a lot of non-union work before joining the union. I joined the union, paid my union dues, and within two weeks started getting calls. I happened to join at a time when it was very busy and they needed warm bodies badly.

When I joined you paid an application fee and all of your union dues upfront for the year. The upfront cost when I started was $800 total. After that, you pay quarterly fees. I’m very lucky that my union has a union dues incentive program. They take 3 percent out of your paycheck regardless, but if you work enough during the quarter, you won’t have to pay dues.

What does the union provide you?

The union provides a few things: health insurance, retirement plan. Another great benefit is that they will pre-negotiate all of your rates. For our union, we tend to work 12-hour days. We have 8 hours at straight time, after 8 hours it’s time-and-a-half, and depending on the studio that you’re working with, you’ll go into double-time at 12 or 14 hours. There are rules about how often you have to feed us or provide hotels if we’re working a certain amount of hours away from the city.

Another big thing that the union does for us is turnaround times. When they call a wrap, there’s a certain number of hours that production has to give us before production starts the next day. Our turnaround right now is 8 hours, so if you call wrap at midnight, you can’t have us back on set before 8 a.m. I’m hoping turnaround times for our union go up. Our contracts are getting renegotiated this year and 10-hour turnaround times are on the table.

You recently had a downturn, where there weren’t a lot of productions happening. Can you talk about that?

This downturn was a little uncharacteristic. There is always a slow period near the beginning of the year, due to budgets and schedules getting figured out. Things just don’t end up cranking back up until February or March.

This year though, it was fairly busy in January and February. I didn’t work from, oh, the beginning of April to mid-July. Some people say election years are slower. I’m really not sure.

Pilot season is in the spring and we lost a few pilots to New York and Louisiana. When a pilot shoots, it’s a week to two-week job. When that show is picked up, that same crew is guaranteed employment for however long that first season shoots, if they want it. Since we didn’t have those pilots, we didn’t have as many new TV shows starting in Atlanta.

Do you have any specific financial choices that you have to make that relate to the industry? Any out-of-pocket costs?

I really do rely on my car a lot. Atlanta has a public transport system, but it is not a great one, unless you live in the city and know where you’re going every day. I don’t. We shoot inside the city, outside the city, everywhere. I really needed a car. Some people write their mileage off; I am not as diligent about it. We have to buy things like heavy-duty boots and rain gear, as well as the tools that I carry around with me. I have to use a flashlight on set, since I do night work. I carry with me a C wrench, a knife. My most expensive tool is a clamp meter that I carry with me.

Is it industry-expected that you have your own tools when you come to set?

Oh, absolutely. All of us have our own tools.

What are your recurring expenses?

Well, of course there’s rent. Then car and car maintenance, which, since I got a new car, I’m hoping that the car payment will be my only expense for awhile. Then let’s see, I’ve got car insurance. Anything health-wise with copays for prescriptions. I’m personally in therapy, so I have that expense as well. Thanks to the union, I have really great insurance, so it’s not that expensive. Then food or when I lose tools. That’s it, outside of utilities.

How much is your rent at your new place?

$1,300 a month. It’s a two-bedroom, one-bath that I split with my boyfriend, so $650 for each of us. We used to have a roommate, mostly to cut down on costs. My boyfriend is still in college. He’s almost done, but he’s made the choice to pay for tuition out-of-pocket in cash every semester. It’s a very big expense and I wanted to keep our rent as low as possible for him. A roommate can be great, but also a lot of trouble. She decided to move out and we are just keeping it the two of us.

Could you talk about food expenses? How has that changed since you moved in together?

Things are about to change again since I just started back with work. I get fed breakfast and lunch at work and sometimes dinner. Sometimes I just want a small snack when I get home and of course I have to eat on the weekends. We spend about $60-$90 a week between the two of us.

Do you have any savings goals?

I had been saving for a car, though that money just said goodbye since I got the new car. I really want to buy a place, so I’m saving up for a down payment. I have a couple of vacations in mind that I’d like to take. Mostly the down payment is the big savings goal.

When you save from your paycheck, do you have a percentage that you take out for savings?

I probably should work out a system where I do a percentage. Honestly, it’s more free-flowing than that. I look at what I’m being paid and what bills are coming up and I think “Well, I don’t need X amount of dollars in fun money for the next week or two weeks.” Usually after a couple of paychecks I look at my account and I’m like, “Well, y’know, honestly two grand of this can be moved to savings” and I move it and then I don’t touch it.

I’m in the habit of having two savings accounts, one general and another one. That one is labeled “Rent,” but technically it can be used for any general savings. When I got to the industry, my rent was cheaper and I started paying rent several months in advance. My landlord was okay with it, and I wouldn’t have to worry about rent for three months. Then I started getting scared that I would need that money, like something would happen with my car, so I started keeping it in savings. So when I think “Oh, maybe I should pay my landlord a couple months in advance,” I transfer it out of the “Rent” savings account.

I find it interesting that you choose to pay your rent months in advance instead of keeping that cash liquid.

My rent is only $650, so I can do that. It’s not uncommon for people to be paying a grand or over a grand if they live by themselves in Atlanta. If I did live by myself, I would definitely not be paying rent in advance. When I lived with roommates, I lived with three other people and my rent was $475 for a few years with the same landlord. It felt really easy to put a bunch towards rent and know that whatever money came in was mine and not somebody else’s.

Do you see yourself, when you have a mortgage, trying to pay your mortgage off as fast as possible by putting a lot of money towards it?

Yeah, I can definitely see that happening. I haven’t really quite worked out the details of that in my head, but that’s my plan with this car. This is the first time that I haven’t bought a car in cash. I took out a loan for $8,000 and I put $2,000 towards the car already. I know that my next payment is going to be $1,000, not the $169 or whatever is on the bill. The term is for 72 months, but I’m trying to pay this car off in a year. I like to be as debt-free as possible.

Do you have any other debts, outside of the car loan?

No, I’m lucky enough to not have student debt and I don’t have any credit card debt.

Did you have to take out loans for film school?

No. Thankfully, North Carolina had a really great film program in-state anyway, so it just seemed like the most obvious choice. When we went to file for FAFSA, my mom had just lost her job both of those years, so I got money for it. My mom covered the rest. I would have arranged to pay her back, but school wasn’t that expensive for me to start out with. I got really lucky.

Speaking of your mom, you had to support her recently. Could you talk about that?

I had to support my mom for like seven months last year. She lost her job in June and this one finally started in late January.

Did you support her out of savings, or was your salary enough for you guys?

I had to support her out of savings, unfortunately. If it had just been our living expenses, I could have supported us on that out of my salary. She and her ex had bought some property in Tennessee for retirement. Obviously, they’re not together anymore and they’ve been trying to sell this property for years now. It won’t sell, so they have to keep making payments on it. That’s an extra $500 a month. It isn’t bad for a property, but when you combine it with all of the other expenses, it seems like a lot when you’re not even seeing any benefit out of it.

My mom had multiple credit cards and paying those was the big thing. My mom is a low-maintenance person. She doesn’t need to have a lot of expensive stuff, so it wasn’t like I was supporting a big spender. It was the debt that was kind of a killer.

Unfortunately, I did have to draw from my savings quite a bit. It’s also possible I made some bad decisions while I was living with her.

Can you elaborate on that?

In order to cover everything, it made sense for me to move in with her and save the money on my rent. Even though it wasn’t my favorite thing to do, I just kind of did it.

I took two lower-paying jobs while I was living with her. One was the Best Boy job I mentioned earlier. Normally, my rate is $28 an hour. When I took that job, I made $18 an hour, which is a huge pay cut to do something that I knew I needed the skills in. We had a conversation about it and Mom told me to go for it and not to worry about it. Maybe I shouldn’t have listened to her, but I don’t regret it. But if I hadn’t taken that job then I wouldn’t have had to draw on savings as much. And then I did another show in the fall that was with the same people and I made the same rate. I wasn’t besting that one, but I was doing a favor for a friend.

So by taking these lower-paying jobs, that kind of escalated needing to pay for things out of your savings?

Yeah, my mom and I sat down and calculated it and with my savings, we determined that we could make enough money for me to take these jobs. But yeah, I think I probably would have come out better financially if I hadn’t taken these jobs. On a personal level, I loved both of those jobs and I wouldn’t have traded them at all. It just means that I have more of a responsibility, now that I’m working at a regular rate again, to put away more money to build up my nest egg again.

Do you see yourself continuing to live in Atlanta?

If all goes well, yeah. Kind of the end goal is, I’d really love to live in Atlanta for a few more years. There’s a specific suburb outside of Atlanta that I’ve fallen in love with and the housing prices there are nowhere near as bad as the city. I’d really love to buy a house there before those values went up, that’s for sure.

Once you get up to a Gaffer position, it doesn’t matter quite as much where you live if you’re in with the right Director of Photography. I would have the freedom to move wherever I wanted to and just fly in for jobs. And once you’re a DP, it doesn’t matter where you live. Plenty of DPs are bicoastal.

Any advice that you’d like to share with Billfolders?

Watching for the future is definitely something that you want to consider. As cool as it is to live in a super-hip part of town, it’s probably not necessary. Just think about the worth of something in your life. It’s not bad to spend money on something if it makes your life better, but if it’s not, then it’s probably just something that can be put off until later.

Allison Kupatt is a North Carolina native living in Raleigh. She’s known Cecilia since high school when they spent AP U.S. History talking about movies and music.

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