Oscar Dominguez: Lighting Design on “The Voice”

As a young man, Oscar Dominguez was “relatively clever” and in the right place at the right time, leading him toward a career as an Emmy Award-winning lighting designer.

by Christina Couch for GETINMEDIA.COM

If you’re having trouble getting a job, ask dad for help. That’s how Oscar Dominguez landed his first post-high school gig.

“There was a little television studio not far from a restaurant that my father ran, a little Mexican place,” Oscar says. “[The studio] guys would stop in from time to time. [My dad] went over and said, ‘Hey, my son’s all right at fixing stuff and he’s relatively clever. Could you guys give him a job?’”

Dominguez started doing odd jobs in the Los Angeles facility, but when one of the studio’s electricians didn’t show up for work, “they handed me a wrench and up the ladder I went,” he says. Oscar quickly became the house electrician, then gaffer before meeting Simon Miles, a lighting designer who would later go on to earn ten Primetime Emmys nominations for shows including Dancing With the Stars and Mr. Show with Bob and David. Miles took Dominguez on as his gaffer until the rookie was ready for jobs of his own.

Twenty-three years later, Oscar Dominguez has a Primetime Emmy for lighting design on The Voice and two additional Emmy nominations. His extensive list of credentials includes lighting work on reality series including The Bachelorette, The Bachelor, and America’s Next Top Model; talk shows like Lopez Tonight and The Tyra Banks Show; game shows ranging from American Gladiators to Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? and comedy specials for A-listers like Daniel Tosh and David Cross. He currently splits his time between setting the scene for Shark Tank and creating a new lighting scheme every week for The Voice.

Get In Media: What is your biggest challenge for a series like The Voice?

Oscar Dominguez: Keeping it fresh. We literally have gone through every single season on every single round and no two lighting plots are the same. We’ve redesigned it every time in order to just give it a little bit different feel. The biggest challenge is really coming up with new ideas and coming up with new ways of hanging the rig and coming up new placement or coming up with new fixtures. It’s keeping the environment flexible and reactive.

The live rounds especially are very, very complicated in the sense that we have a lot of acts that we have to get ready for the coming show. In these acts, sometimes we have to utilize set pieces or it’s supposed to feel environmental like you’re in a different space, so the rig needs to be flexible enough to generate this world. I don’t know if you watch the show, but we did one for The Swon Brothers a couple seasons ago where [they sang] “Seven Bridges Road”. They sat around a campfire and so we made the entire space look like you’re outside at night. We actually used real fire right in the middle of the set and they sat around with guitars. That was the light source for the space. Constant change and evolution is the biggest challenge on there.

GIM: How long does it take you to do the lighting design for a single episode?

OD: Really for us the design is in the plan, the actual rounds, and plot of the show. That can take anywhere from two to three weeks to get a good solid ground plan. We have a Monday [live] show and a Tuesday show. We start by dry blocking the acts on Friday. We’ll rehearse throughout the weekend and then we go through our dress on Monday and go live Monday night.

GIM: How intricately are you syncing the lighting to the music?

OD: The song will always lead you, followed by whatever the environment has created. We might have a little barn scene or a pickup truck and a hay bale or outside campfire. It could be any number of different things. Once that idea is brought to us by the performance producers, “They’re on top of an airplane wing and it’s supposed to evoke the feeling that we’re flying at night,” then we’ll listen to the song and the programmer breaks it down. [Lighting director] Dan Boland, who’s amazing at what he does, will start to break down and do the bulk of that then I’ll go through and go, “Yeah, this is great.” Basically we only have enough time to edit at that point because of the volume of work that we have.

[Boland’s] very familiar with my style and things that I really am fond of, so [we] sort of build a framework, if you will, and it can start with a base of color and accents, things of that nature. What that song sort of means visually, we try to translate that part of it. It’s more than saying, “This song has a great backbeat so there should be a pulse going with the bass drum.” That’s only one tiny aspect to the big picture of the song, and also making sure that everyone looks great from potentially anywhere from 12 to 15 different cameras.

GIM: How big is your lighting crew?

OD: It’s really big. In the live rounds, we have 12 follow spot operators, which sounds crazy, but we need to be ready for these people to be anywhere. We have a main programmer on the console, we have a media server operator, and we have a conventional board operator that does all the key [lights], the coaches’ keys, and the other audience elements in the show. We have our lighting director, gaffer, we have best boy, [and] probably another eight to ten guys on the ground. There’s like 30 guys on the show.

GIM: When you are brought on a new show, where does the lighting design process start?

OD: We have great three-dimensional renderings that are generated by our production designer. Typically, I will get the set in 3-D, all in CAD [computer-aided design], in Vectorworks specifically, which is the CAD program that I favor, and I’ll spend some time, hours, sometimes days. I’ll sort of wander through the set and then I start formulating a plan in my head, visualizing where these lights would yield the best results and trying to also be very experimental and different, go against the grain with our style and our approach. I’d love to have 1,000 lights, but be able to use just one well-placed light in order to evoke that emotion. That’s basically where it starts for me.

GIM: How does a show like Shark Tank, where there’s a smaller set and no music, compare to The Voice?

OD: What I love about [Shark Tank] is we can take our time and be very, very detail-oriented in the brush strokes of every light. What’s great is you can take the time to really experiment with color and hues and get this very dark, saturated, serious environment. It’s one of my favorite shows to work on. It’s really wonderful. The producers are great and they allow us a great deal of artistic license to deliver something that we feel looks really, really great and makes everyone happy. I’d say it’s very, very calm in contrast to The Voice, which is a wonderful speeding bullet train of fun.

GIM: What about for projects like The Bachelorette or Wipeout?

OD: I love the fact that the shows are so different. It allows me to be creative in different ways on different shows. I always feel like you should never be afraid to try out a new project in a genre that maybe you’re not familiar with, whether it’s the theater or music, reality. For us, the approach that we’ve always taken since the first season of The Bachelorette is to almost make it a fairy tale, to make this sort of hyper reality, this space with these beautiful jewel tones and shadows and things to make a fantasy world. We get to be very creative in our choice of instruments, placement, and power.

Wipeout is an entirely different animal than the other two. You’re outside at night. There’s water. There’s fire. There are all kinds of inherently dangerous things for lighting. We turn the Wipeout zone into this massive color machine that evokes, and in some cases creates, energy along with all the other contraptions on there.

GIM: You’ve done several reality series [including The Bachelor, Bachelor Pad, Randy Jackson Presents America’s Best Dance Crew, and America’s Next Top Model]. Is there more work for lighting designers in reality series than in traditional scripted series or vice versa?

OD: Not all [reality shows] utilize a lighting designer for the front end. They might have a director of photography who does double duty, will light the show with the gaffer and then be the lead camera operator. Actually, I think there are a limited number of reality shows that utilize a designer in service. More mainstream shows or specials or award shows, that’s where the services of a designer are really utilized.

GIM: You were nominated for an Emmy for The Tyra Banks Show. Is there anything that sticks out in your mind about that project?

OD: What was very challenging was … Tyra, who’s a stunning woman, beautiful, and knows good lighting. You’re not going to fool her. She’s been lit by some of the best people in the world, so she’s going to expect to look good anywhere she goes and she’s going to go anywhere she wants to go and you need to be able to, within reason, deliver that. What I remember [was], “Ok, I think she might run off here and if she does, I’ll put something right here and right here, but maybe she’ll run this way, so I need to put something here, here, here, and here,” and clearly you can’t have a sea of lights. We had to be very, very calculating to where we put stuff. This is one of the most beautiful women in the world and she’s been lit by some of the best people in the business and you cannot get it past her. If the lighting’s not right, she’s going to know. It’s not going to fly. Period.

GIM: You’ve mentioned that you do a lot of research with directors and producers to make sure that your work is capturing what they want. How does that process work for you?

OD: The producer may or may not be able to articulate in words what it is that they’re looking for, so I think that getting good references and really being able to pull out references and say, “You mean like this?” [is important]. Which means if you work in television, guess what? You’ve got to watch some TV. Do a little bit of homework to see what the other guys are up to. Stay informed. I think that being able to get key visual references, whether they might be stills or they might be references to other shows, enable the two parties to have a better understanding of what it is that they’re looking for.

GIM: For a student who’s [looking to become a lighting designer], what technologies would you recommend they really bone up on? Where do you see your industry headed in the next three to four years?

OD: Video mapping, where we utilize media servers to basically tie

into the audience lighting. In order for us to create these dynamic looks that change, we’re actually running pieces of video through the lights and the lights are broadcasting that video out. That marriage of video and light, I think on a large scale in event production, is huge. It’s really, really, really huge.

You could be the best lighting designer on the planet, but if you don’t have a comprehension of how the camera works or how it interprets light or how much light it has or where things will drop off at a certain light level … that is paramount. You can be the best in the world, but if you cannot wrap your head around the medium that you’re shooting on, then you are not performing your due diligence.

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