Lighting the Way: Tobie Smuts

Gaffer Tobie Smuts in action behind the camera.


Gaffer Tobie Smuts chats to Screen Africa about when he fell in love with lighting and how he got into the industry…

Tell us a bit about your background in lighting and how you got into it

From a very young age, I was fascinated with photography and my dad gave me his Pentax camera to use. I guess it all started there with seeing light for the first time while taking pictures. In high school I started playing in a band and I helped with the stage sound and setting-up of lights like all small bands do. Later I started assisting the sound and stage crew for extra cash. I helped in some big stage productions for Johnny Clegg, Ammapondo and the MACUFE shows. My love for lighting grew from there. I qualified as a construction electrician and wire man after school (my dad said I could go study film or anything else after that). I saw in the credits at the end of films that electricians could work in movies, and I was sold. I started working in theatre lighting part-time in between my apprenticeship, and that’s where I really fell in love with lighting. I did a lot of freelance theatre work for the Barnyard Theatre Group along the Garden Route. Then I left for the UK for a two-year working holiday and landed a great gig at the Edinburgh Arts Festival, where I ran two fringe stages for an American stage company called Rocket Productions. I came back to South Africa after two years, landed in Cape Town and phoned every production company I could find in the Yellow Pages for work. I called a gaffer just to try my luck and, to my surprise, he said to join them the next day. And the rest is history. I quickly moved from one job to the next, my photographic, stage and electrical background paved the way to where I’m today and I’m still on the journey. Always learning and improving.

Why lighting? What about it captured you?

I really enjoy the creative collaboration in achieving the vision of the cameraman and the mood of the film. I also enjoy working in a team and attacking problems on the fly creatively.

As a gaffer, what are you currently working on?

In summer we have an overflow of international and local commercials being shot in Cape Town. I also will be starting a small film with Out of Africa in February.

Do you prefer lighting on location or in studio, and why?

Both scenarios have their pro and cons. If I have to choose I’d say location shooting – it’s definitely more work but it is also more fun.

What is your current favourite piece of lighting equipment to use? Why?

I’d say The Gaffers Control from Belgium and DoPChoice products from Germany. With budget constraints, we are often forced to find innovative solutions in order to be more efficient. I run my sets mostly wirelessly and The Gaffers Control is amazing, as it controls most of my lights wirelessly. DoPChoice has also sped up the way we shape and control soft light, eliminating the need for a forest of stands and flags.

How else do limited budgets affect your department and how do you overcome this?

The only way is automation: you have to replace the guys you need to do the job with technology, unfortunately. Wireless technology like The Gaffers Control, Cinelex, Exalux, Lumen Radio and W-DMX.

What one lighting invention or trend of the past 10 years has, in your opinion, changed industry standards for the better?

By far it would be DoPChoice lightshaping tools. Additionally, I’d say the advent of LED technology has had the biggest effect. Pixel mapping and pixel fixtures have opened up possibilities never before explored, like LED screens for lighting effects and reflections.

What are the primary current trends of the studio lighting industry, and where do you see it heading?

LED fixtures, without a doubt, have helped budgets. They’ve also given the DoP instant control over his or her lighting rig. The wireless approach on set speeds up the process if you have a competent operator. Giving the DoP a Mini Desk, or tablet, to control their lights on-set next to his or her camera makes for a great working environment.

If there’s almost no budget for lighting on a production, what can you NOT do without?

I have an LED light that is IP52 (rain proof) called the EXALUX Wide Rock with a V-lock battery. It is wirelessly controlled from my phone, bi-colour and battery operational. And if there is really nothing, a Riffa 80 tungsten light.

What has been the highlight of your career in lighting to date?

To date it would be having the pleasure to work with DoP John Seal on Mad Max: Fury Road. I was next to him for 10 months and learned so much about telling the story with light.

What’s one piece of advice, practical or otherwise, that you would give to a newbie in the industry?

I think it would be attitude: have a humble, hungry and happy attitude. Always keep improving on yourself and your skills, and know that rejection is part of life.

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Chanelle Ellaya
Chanelle Ellaya is the editor of Screen Africa. She completed her BA Journalism degree at the University of Johannesburg in 2011. While writing is her passion, she has a keen interest in the media in various capacities. Chanelle is an avid social media networker and a firm believer in the power of social and online networking. Between writing and tweeting, she finds time to feed her love for live music.


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