Short Films in Focus: Lighting Tests

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Short Film Spotlight: Lighting Tests


Tom Nicoll’s “Lighting Tests” tells the story of an actor named Malky (Liam Harkins) who agrees to take on one of the most boring jobs an actor can do: stand in for a lighting test for a film that could become manufactured. As he sits there, no one asks him to speak. No one comments on his acting abilities when he tries to make the job interesting by doing monologues. They just need him to sit there, occasionally take the direction in which to move his eyes, and agree to be a piece of furniture while the gaffers move the lights around until the director is satisfied. “It’s gonna look awesome when we launch this thing,” the director tells Malky without thinking. With each lighting session, the relationship becomes more and more hostile.

It’s what you don’t even see on the most comprehensive special behind-the-scenes features on a Blu-ray. The lighting test only helps the director and the DP. The poor actor just has to be a face on film and, if so, is treated as such. He’s willing to take it because, I guess, his more fulfilling work as a Shakespearean actor on stage can’t go that far, financially. Malky also seems to know the director and does him a favor.

Malky’s story is common. Often I see shorts that are clearly made by filmmakers, not storytellers. Not that we can’t be both, but I can’t tell you how many shorts I’ve seen where the director clearly didn’t know how to work with the actors, but certainly knew how to frame and light. Actors know when they’re working with a director like that and it can make for a very long and unsatisfying day. This is obviously a different type of situation, but it is worth mentioning.

Nicoll is wise never to show the other characters that Malky is talking to. I imagine them looking only at their monitors and patiently waiting for the magic hour to come. Malky constantly tries to stay engaged by reciting any monologue he can remember and only gets “Can you look a little to your left?” in return.

“Lighting Tests” reminded me of another short I saw a few years ago called “No Other Way To Say It” about a voice actor who has to deal with indecisive directors constantly giving him advice. Just for fun. Both films observe the disconnect an actor can feel with their director or with a project or work they don’t believe in. And both films are funny and painfully real in a way that any actor who watches them can feel they’re not alone. .

Q&A with director Tom Nicoll

So how did the idea for this film come about?

I had thought about the nature of the industry, about actors who, at the beginning of their career, have to accept all kinds of jobs, and perhaps be exploited in those jobs. I know a few actors and you hear stories about terrible jobs they’ve done or just used as a human prop for days. I thought there was an interesting story to tell here.

I wanted to work again with Liam Harkins, who plays Malky in the film. I knew he had a lot of different skills as an actor, and I wanted to write him a role that he could really get his teeth into and show his full range. I wanted to make a film that contained moments of comedy and empathy, and left the audience with a few questions at the end.

I sympathize with both characters here. Malky tries to stave off boredom while Tom just needs a body to sit there so he can do his job. But then, neither of them listens to each other. Is there one character you personally side with more than another?

I tried to make a film that just presents that specific interaction and lets the audience decide for themselves how they feel about it. But if you pushed me, I’d say I’m on Malky’s side. For me, Malky thinks that there is an implicit counterpart in these tests: I will be a body for the lighting tests, but I want to be able to show you my trade. But Tom has no interest in that.

Do you have any idea in mind what kind of film Tom is planning to do?

Good question! In my head it was a Regency era drama, which was really just an excuse for Malky to dress up in a funny costume and make up a silly line that he thought would suit this era.

What was the reaction to the film? Have you heard any other stories from other actors or filmmakers?

The reaction has been pretty amazing to be honest. The team for it was tiny – on set there were five of us, including Liam the actor – to get the film screened at so many major festivals and then to get so many people to see it online via Vimeo Staff Picks and Shorts of the Week has been extremely rewarding.

I loved seeing the different interpretations of Malky and Tom’s relationship: some people just found it hilarious the whole way through; some people have really sympathized with Malky and see it as a kind of tragedy. My favorite films are those that don’t impose their point of view too much on the audience, where you are given space to interpret. I’m glad this movie does that for people.

And yes, I heard some actors say that they were in exactly the same situations as Malky!

What’s next for you?

I’m developing a feature with Screen Scotland at the moment, and then working on a few other feature scripts in parallel. I also have another short film on the horizon.

Collin Souter
Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing movies in Chicago for 14 years, including on WGN Radio where he was part of the weekly movie review segment on The Nick Digilio Show.


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