Hands-on introduction to lighting at film school: An interview with Joe Lyons of DePaul Cinespace Studios

Power Gems caught up with Joe Lyons, Associate Director at DePaul Cinespace Studios in Chicago; a 32,000 sq ft professional production facility which serves one of the top film programmes in the United States. DePaul University’s working studio sits alongside the commercial studios at Cinespace Chicago, offering film students hands-on instruction in filmmaking including lighting.

Film set at DePaul Cinespace Studios in Chicago where Joe Lyons is Associate Director - interviewed by Power Gems

Tell us a bit about your background, and how you came to be at DePaul Cinespace Studios in Chicago?

After film school at Columbia College, Chicago, and time as a production assistant, I was invited to join Local 476, the combined IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) union in Chicago. I began to specialise in lighting and eventually made my way to Los Angeles where I joined IATSE Local 728, the set lighting union. After a few years working on features and television in LA and then time in New York, I came back to Chicago with my wife to start a family; this happened to coincide with the boom we are experiencing in production.

My wife, Meghann Artes, an accomplished filmmaker who teaches at DePaul in the animation and digital cinema programme, heard about the possibility of DePaul partnering with Cinespace to begin classes at the studio and that they would need an Equipment Manager.

Working with DePaul seemed like a great opportunity to stay involved in the local production community and draw on my years of experience to help prepare the next generation of filmmakers.

Do you miss your former life as a set technician and best boy electric?

I miss the camaraderie of being on a crew the most. But the long hours, the hot summers, the cold winters? Not so much! I still keep in touch with everyone I used to work with. And by going to work at DePaul Cinespace Studios every day, I still see most of them.

Do your duties include selecting the equipment to purchase for the students use? If so, how do you make your decisions?

Yes, I research and purchase every piece of grip and electric in our inventory at Cinespace. For a lot of the things, I default to the equipment I used every day on set in my former career. Consequently, our students have access to almost everything that the professional crews next door have. That is a big advantage to DePaul students that I didn’t have when I went to film school.

As for the decision to go with Power Gems for most of our electronic ballasts, that didn’t take much research. I have used them many times in the past and was always impressed with their reliability and build quality. Add their versatility to handle multiple fixtures and be flicker-free at virtually any speed and it’s an obvious choice.

You’ve got industry-standard equipment like Power Gems ballasts. How are the next generation of filmmakers finding the next generation of high speed ballasts?

Students are getting more and more sophisticated in their filmmaking abilities. Many of them own cameras and have been making films from a very young age. Some of them even already know about equipment like Power Gems electronic ballasts. These are the same units they see working on the sets of the TV shows as they walk to class and they have them on hand when they step through our doors. They are probably unaware of the biggest benefit they get from using Power Gems – little to no down time from unreliable equipment!

Film programmes in the States can’t always offer students the kind of close relationship with the industry, as DePaul has by forming an alliance with Cinespace Chicago Film Studios. What practical difference does this make?

The alliance between DePaul and Cinespace is crucial to what we do here. While still paying close attention to the students’ development and learning goals, we try to create as professional an environment as we can. They use the same gear in the same facility as professional crews, and that reduces the intimidation many feel on the first day on a professional set. This gives DePaul students the ability to go right from film school into one of the many film crews working nearby with hardly a hitch. That’s an incredible advantage they have over almost any programme out there. Our facility at Cinespace also has a loading dock, which gave us a great opportunity to purchase and fully equip a three-ton grip and electric truck that is available for student location shoots.

The atmosphere of having the classroom within a working studio must further engage and excite the students. Your thoughts?

I think students are a bit awestruck and inspired when they first walk in the doors to DePaul Cinespace Studios. The expansive stages, the gleaming equipment, the stocked grip and electric truck, the close proximity to professional film production, it can all have that effect on you. But what happens is they get used to it, and the awe wears off, but the inspiration stays. They get used to working with the high-end equipment and the operations of a real studio. Then they can focus on creating their art and making something that will express who they are and what they want to say with the same methods the pros use.

Given that the amount of filming in Chicago has improved over the last few years, have you noticed increased attendance in the classes provided at DePaul?

As film production has expanded in Chicago, we have experienced similar growth. DePaul’s film programme only started a little over a decade ago, and when my wife applied to work here, I wasn’t even aware they had one. But under the leadership of Dean David Miller, talented faculty members and a dedicated staff, it has steadily grown. Now with the addition of the Cinespace alliance, it has really taken off. There are currently over 900 undergraduates and 200 graduates in our programme.

DePaul recently upgraded the facilities within the space at Cinespace, a good sign. Tell us about some of the changes.

We started in 2013 with one 8,000 sq ft stage, one classroom, a scenic shop and support space. Last year we added another 7,500 sq ft in stage space to which we installed a large soundproof retractable dividing wall so it can be used as two separate stages. All of the stages have ample power and pre-hung truss for safe overhead rigging. We also added two more classrooms, a two-wall green-screen hard cyc, editing suites and an advanced camera area. The added stage space meant adding more grip and electric equipment to handle multiple classes and projects at one time. And of course, all of that means more cameras, so we now have an ARRI Alexa and Amira, a RED Epic and Epic-W, two SONY FS7s and multiple Canon C300 and C100 packages.

Our thanks to Joe for sharing his experience of life at DePaul Cinespace Studios

This interview is part of an occasional series. If you enjoyed this, you should read:

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Film set at DePaul Cinespace Studios in Chicago