John “J.M.” Montecalvo ’09 always knew he wanted to be in the movies. There was just one problem: getting up the nerve to audition.

“In high school, I was too scared to audition for plays so I told my dad I auditioned and didn’t get in,” he said. “I was lying, and my dad found out and called the dean.” Montecalvo was given the ultimatum to either audition or do time in detention.

Faced with the alternative, Montecalvo mustered up enough nerve to read a few lines. He didn’t get in, but he did work on the set and from that point forward, he was hooked on theatre.

He came to Saint Mary’s through a connection with Saint Mary’s Gary Diomandes and Montecalvo’s high school mentor Tom Haynes ’00, arts director at LaSalle Academy in Providence, Rhode Island. “They both paved the way for where I am today,” he said.

During his time at Saint Mary’s, Montecalvo eagerly worked on all aspects of theatre, from sound to lighting to costumes to acting — and loved every minute of it.

This well-rounded experience helped prepare him for a career as a lighting designer, frequently working with NBC Universal in Hollywood.

“I was convinced I was going to be an actor until my junior year in college,” he said. But during his London theatre study abroad program, Montecalvo discovered during a hectic acting schedule that memorizing lines quickly and cold reading weren’t his strengths.

Instead, he focused on lighting design, choosing to get a master’s degree at Illinois State following his graduation from Saint Mary’s.

Two years ago, he moved to California. He interviewed with Radiance Lightworks, starting on the bottom as a basic electrician at Mattel Toys and working his way up to being a master electrician and lighting designer. He now works as a freelance assistant lighting designer with Universal Studios.

His first big event in California was lighting the after party for the ParaNorman movie premiere at Universal Studios Hollywood. Next, through Radiance, he worked on specialized lighting for the Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios, which included seven haunted mazes with different themes.

Montecalvo says Universal spares no expense and packs in the crowds. He enjoyed working on lighting for mazes that require 3D glasses. “There’s a certain way you can light something to make it pop out when you wear 3D glasses, or make the walls look like they are moving,” he said. With live characters everywhere, he describes it as one immersive and scary experience.

“I love it,” he said, “But ironically I hate being scared. I would never go to this event if I wasn’t working it. But it is a lot of fun. I get to do stuff at Universal that normal people wouldn’t get to. I go in and out of sound stages. I get to drive my car through the park at night. There are only so many people who get to do that. And I get to work on premieres and with people I would never have gotten to otherwise.”

Montecalvo also got to design lighting for a Whoville scene at the studios. This same scene was featured on NBC’s “The Voice,” as the final three contestants were given Kia cars. “I got to work with their designer,” Montecalvo said. “It looked great on TV. It was a cool experience.” Check it out here.

His favorite part of the job is that no two days — or jobs — are ever the same; from lighting Whoville to lighting rocks.

He did a permanent lighting installation in a backyard, illuminating boulders with complex lighting equipment. “It was a three-month process, completing a light show with music for his back yard,” he said. “It’s one of the most impressive things I’ve ever done. The boulders from Thailand are two stories high and 30 feet around. Each one is an individual piece of art.”  To see pictures of this project, and more of the projects Montecalvo has been involved with, visit Radiance Lightworks.

“I probably work at Universal Studios six months of the year, and not one day is the same; it’s always a new challenge and a new adventure,” he said. As a freelance assistant lighting designer, Montecalvo has most recently helped outfit two local news channels with all-LED lights, a first in the industry. “It’s never been done before,” he said “We’re setting a precedent for the way news will be lit within the NBC family. This was a prototype and when new studios want to upgrade, they will come through us.”

For this project, Montecalvo was able to work with — and learn from — lighting designer Robert Finley III, who has worked on movies like Forrest GumpStar Wars: Empire Strikes BackGhostbusters and The Goonies.

For Montecalvo, it’s a dream job. “Being a freelance designer, when someone comes to you with a project, I get to pick and choose the people I like to work with every day as my crew. Going to work is hanging out with my friends and getting to make money every day. There’s nothing better than that.”

This article, written by Deb Nahrgang, was previously published in the Spring 2014 Saint Mary’s Magazine.

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