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IN CONVERSATION with Michael Chan of Lighting Insomnia

ETA chats with Michael Chan of Lighting Insomnia. Michael is a lighting designer based in Singapore who has been called upon for his services across a spectrum of projects that has involved concerts, events, exhibitions, installations, theatrical as well as kinetic programming.

What have you been up to during this COVID-19 Circuit Breaker period?

Lots of Netflix, haha! I think like most of us, the Covid-19 pandemic was a completely unexpected whirlwind that came out of nowhere, and I was caught by surprise by it as well. So in the first few weeks, it was just a whole lot of binging on Television series (Abstract: The Art of Design is a great series on the creative process of designers by the way) and movies that I had been meaning to watch.

But passive absorption of information/entertainment typically doesn’t last long for me, and I moved on to reading more articles and books (I am now 70% through the Lord of the Ring). I also started attending online courses on Udemy for topics I found relatable to my work, such as Interior Design Lighting. Being a MA user, I also took the time to attend the webinars for MA3, watch tips videos, read the manual and mess around with the onPC software. I also have begun to switch over from AutoCAD to Vectorworks Spotlight for my lighting plans, so it’s another new software I have been working on learning. When theatre companies began to release their archives of past productions, I also took the chance to watch shows that I didn’t have the opportunity in the past to catch, such as Emily of Emerald Hill by Wild Rice, and A Monster Calls by the Old Vic.

Have you discovered anything related to work during this period that will help you further?

Oh yes, as mentioned earlier, I have been watching lots of shows, both recorded and live on the topics of design. And one of the perks of working in the Arts and Entertainment industry, and as a designer, is that whether I am intentionally trying to observe or just taking it all in as an audience, I can learn something from the production. And I think I have learned quite a bit about design, and how to improve the process, just by the sheer amount of watching and reading I have had the time to do so.

On the software front, I am now more confident about using the MA3 and Vectorworks. It’s always a bit of a battle to figure out a new software while you’re trying to get a show up and running. And while the natural tendencies of tech people are to try out and play with the latest gear/software, it must never be detrimental to the show, or the timeline of a show. This is something I learned the hard way in the past, where shows haven’t turned out as great as it probably should have because I got too carried away with wanting to use and try out gear/software that I wasn’t familiar enough with. So this “extra” time to work on learning software is actually a great way to prepare for the future.

How are the next few months looking for you in terms of jobs?

It’s all very much up in the air at the moment. Like everyone else, all of my projects have either been cancelled or postponed. Thankfully, it seems like things are beginning to open up a bit, and the postponed projects might continue to push ahead.

I was supposed to have two permanent installations opened earlier this year, and with the opening, the final payments. Now both installations are looking to open at the last quarter instead, so fingers crossed.

If, and it’s a big if, the situation continues to improve, I also have a few projects that are in the pipeline, and those would help tremendously. I would have still lost about two-thirds of my average yearly earnings, but at least this year wouldn’t be a complete wipe-out.

Do you have suggestions as to how freelancers can protect themselves should unpredictable incidents like what we are experiencing currently happen again in the future?

Unless you are Bill Gates, I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the global wide devastation of a pandemic. The speed and completeness of the shutdown of our industry came as a shock to all of us. But I do think all of us can prepare better for emergencies like this.

First of all, financial literacy is a must. Freelancers are already a more vulnerable group of people in terms of employment security. We only get paid when we have work, and there is very little to zero government schemes or company structure to protect us. While things have improved, the impetus is still on the freelancer to educate themselves on creating a system where they plan for health insurance, rainy day funds and a retirement fund for themselves.

My practical advice would be to first work out your average monthly expenses. We often do not know how much we are spending. Following that, do your best to save up at least 6 months worth of expenses in cash, and park it in a high interest-earning bank account. For freelancers, I would say one year worth of cash is even better. As long as you are still saving for retirement and ensuring you have sufficient health insurance. For Singaporeans, don’t diss the CPF – guaranteed returns is a very powerful tool in savings.

Freedom and a sense of security is a balancing act. While we do not have a boss or company to answer to, we also don’t enjoy the same amount of protection afforded to a full-time employee. So take the time to establish a strong, basic understanding of finances. Once you work out what you need, what you have, and what you will need, you can take actions to create a system that gives you true (financial) freedom, to continue to do what you love. Like Spiderman says, with great power comes great responsibility.

That’s enough for my financial talk. I will end off by saying that in this VUCA ( volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world we are living in, we need to be nimble and adaptable. Keep learning new skills and make sure you are creating value. I believe if we do that, we will continue to be employable.