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Short Films in Focus: 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 dullest jobs an actor can agree to do: be a stand-in for a lighting test for a film that might get made. As he sits there, no one asks him to speak. No one comments on his abilities as an actor when he tries to make the job interesting by doing monologues. They only need him to sit there, occasionally take direction on which way to shift his eyes, and put up with being a piece of furniture while gaffers move lights around until the director is satisfied. “This is gonna look great for when we actually cast this thing,” the director thoughtlessly says to Malky. With each lighting session, the relationship grows more and more hostile. 

This is what you don’t see on even the most comprehensive behind-the-scenes special features on a Blu-ray. The lighting test only helps the director and DP. The poor actor has to just be a face on film and, in this case, gets treated as such. He’s willing to take it since, I’m guessing, his more fulfilling work as a Shakespearean actor on stage can only go so far, financially. Malky also appears to know the director and is doing him a favor. 

Malky’s story is a common one. Often, I see short films that are clearly made by cinematographers, not storytellers. Not that one can’t be both, but I cannot tell you how many short films I’ve seen where the director clearly didn’t know how to work with 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 unfulfilling day. This is obviously a different kind of situation, but it bears mentioning. 

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

“Lighting Tests” reminded me of another short film I reviewed a few years ago called “No Other Way To Say It,” about a voice actor who has to deal with indecisive directors who constantly give her pointers just for the sake of it. Both films observe the disconnect an actor can feel with their director or with a project or job they don’t believe in. And both films are funny and painfully real in a way that any actor who watches it can feel that they're not alone. 

Q&A with director Tom Nicoll

So how did the idea for this film come about?

I had been thinking about the nature of the industry, about actors who in the early stages of their careers have to take all kinds of jobs, and perhaps be exploited within those jobs. I know a few actors and you hear stories about terrible jobs they’ve been on, or just being used as a human prop for days on end. I thought there was an interesting story to tell here. 

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

I sympathize with both characters here. Malky is trying to stave off boredom while Tom just needs a body to sit there so he can get his job done. But then, neither are listening to each other. Is there one character you personally side with more than another? 

I tried to make a film that just presents this specific interaction and allows the audience to decide for themselves what they feel about it. But if you were to push me I would say I side with Malky. For me, Malky believes there is an implicit quid pro quo in these tests: I will be a body for the lighting tests, but I want to be able to show you my craft. But Tom has no interest in that at all.

Do you have an idea in your head about what kind of film Tom is planning on making?

Good question! In my head it was a Regency-era period drama, which was basically just an excuse to have Malky dress up in a funny costume and make up a silly line that he thinks would suit that era. 

What has the reaction to the film been like? Have you heard other stories from other actors or filmmakers?

The reaction has been pretty incredible to be honest. The crew for this was tiny—on set there were five of us including Liam the actor—so to have the film playing at so many great festivals, and then for so many people to see it online through Vimeo Staff Picks and Short of the Week has been hugely gratifying. 

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

And yes, I’ve had a few actors say they’ve been in exactly the same situations as Malky!

What's next for you?

I’m developing a feature film with Screen Scotland at the moment, and then working on a couple other feature scripts alongside. I’ve also got another short on the horizon too.

Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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