Dancing with the Stars
"Look at what people onstage are bringing you emotionally and light accordingly — to support them, not overpower them." That strategy has guided Tom Sutherland through his career as a lighting designer, which started when he was still a teen back in England and includes an Emmy nomination for Dancing with the Stars.
In 2018, when Sutherland was called in to help revamp the lighting and set design for DWTS, he remade the stage as an Art Deco–themed club. "The Great Gatsby concept in films was very popular at that time, and so was that architecture," he recalls. "We built festoon holes into the audience balconies to get nice glimmers into them."
In 2020, he faced the additional challenge of shooting DWTS without an audience, thanks to Covid-19. "Lights and video walls were placed in positions previously occupied by the audience to fill the voids. We were continuously able to transform the room and create different scenes," says the designer, whose Emmy nomination came for the twenty-ninth season finale.
Raised in London, Sutherland was lighting school productions by age twelve. He began sending out letters of introduction to West End production companies and was soon invited to sit in at the BBC. On his sixteenth birthday, when a lighting programmer called in sick, Sutherland replaced him — and a career was launched.
He quickly graduated to Simon Cowell–produced shows like The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent. An MTV show, Wonderland — which Sutherland describes as "like a weekly block party" — paved the way for work in the U.S. Eventually, he began to work on live concert productions for stars like Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus.
At twenty-one, Sutherland became the youngest person ever nominated for Britain's Knight of Illumination award, for his work on a televised Red Hot Chili Peppers concert. The following year, he was invited to consult with TV production companies in China. "Working in China can pretty much prepare you for dealing with any environment in the world," he says.
Through his firm, DX7 Design, Sutherland designs lighting for some of the leading TV shows in China and worldwide. His work on this year's Brit Awards, for one, was "a childhood dream come true."
The thrill of a well-executed light design never gets old, Sutherland says. "When you walk into an arena and you see something you've worked on for years, there's nothing better than when the house lights go out and the audience is screaming."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #7, 2022, under the title, "He Saw the Light."