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Lighting the way for brilliant productions

If it wasn’t for his 5-year-old daughter who adores holiday decorations, David Wilson would never touch another Christmas light again in his life. For this professional lighting director, it conjures up bad memories of hanging thousands of lights in subzero temperatures at theme park in Ohio, a two-week installation that left him with frozen hands and feet.

Wilson of JCALPRO, a Boston production and stage management company, is the guy behind the scenes, whether it’s installing trade show booth lighting or working with a touring rock show to provide rigging and equipment. “Of all the aspects of event production, lighting is the most visual, and in my opinion, the most dramatic,” said Wilson. “Lighting can transform a bare room and add drama and emotion.”

Trade show production at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and other venues is JCALPRO’s bread-and-butter. Lest this sound simple, Wilson cites the example of a lighting backdrop planned for a fancy banquet dinner held by an international insurance company. The concept was to set up a gigantic scene that appeared to be a wall of 70 glowing window cut-outs. The problem was, the traveling exhibit’s crew forgot to bring the lighting needed to illuminate the windows. The solution? Wilson sent a team of workers to every hardware and home improvement store in town, buying up extension cords, clip lights, plug-in strips – everything needed to mount the lighting exhibit. “Lighting might sound straightforward, until you start thinking about all the details involved,” said Wilson, who handles everything from the paperwork, logistics of site work, crew management, and the actual set-up and breakdown.

Q: How did you get into this line of work?
A:
Years ago, I was working as a DJ, and someone mentioned that if you could provide lighting equipment during the DJ gigs, you could make an extra hundred dollars a night. That sounded good to me, and then I also began taking courses in theatrical lighting. I started designing theater and dance shows, and eventually developed into a full-time project lighting manager.

Q: You’ve been in lighting over 10 years. How has the field changed?
A:
Lighting has evolved to become very computer-based, and dependent on visual and graphic networking. I receive emails all the time about new technologies that are pushing ‘brighter, faster and better.’ And, since entertainment companies are notorious for not being very energy-efficient, there’s a big push lately to go green, using LED lighting and other means.

Q: You’ve done lighting for concerts, sports, and movies. Do you have the finest front-row seat in town?
A:
I’ve definitely met my share of celebrities through doing this. Some highlights include building the set for Wheel of Fortune at the Convention Center; it was interesting to see a game show that I’ve been watching since I was a kid. I’m also a big Dave Matthews fan, and I worked on his show at the TD Garden. And I watched the NHL Winter Classic right against the boards, the best seat in the house in Fenway.

Q: What’s the best career advice you’ve ever been given?
A:
You’ll never know everything in this business. There’s a running old joke with stagehands, ‘I’ve forgotten more about lighting than you’ll ever learn.’ There are some theories that were used 50 years ago that are still being used today.

Q: How do you make it look like there’s water on the stage with lights?
A:
You can have moving lights that overlap and move different directions or simply take a can of water, blow a fan across it and make it ripple, then shine a light on it, and reflect the image. There’s a fine line between trying to find a high-tech solution and simple techniques.

Q: Who changes the light bulbs in your house?
A:
I do, every single one of them.

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