How This Veteran Lighting Designer Worked His Way Up From Theater to ‘SNL’

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Photo Source: Kyle Dubiel/NBC

If you want to do lighting design for television, Seth Bernstein insists that you’d better love the field’s lightning-fast pace. Otherwise, the veteran lighting designer insists, you’ll burn out like a bulb—and he certainly would know, having worked on everything from “Saturday Night Live” to “The Tonight Show” and beyond. 

“Figure out who you are and be yourself. And if it doesn’t fit or it stops fitting, learn the lesson, and find a way to move on without burning the bridge.”

When you’ve signed on to a project and receive the script, where do you start? What’s your first move? 
First of all, I operate with an assumption that I won’t get answers from anybody. Because the set designer, the costume designer, everyone’s on the same schedule, so everyone is just, like, plowing. And the great thing is [that] everybody is used to this and everybody is on the same page. Everybody keeps their options open. But at the same time, everyone’s going a million miles an hour. Sometimes, I get to listen in on a production call and I can hear a little bit about what everybody’s thinking. But it’s just really a game of protecting your options, recalling lessons you’ve learned from past experiences, and then, as soon as you get to the end of it, learning a new lesson that then leads to your ability to be more “psychic.” Psychic is my code, but it’s actually just knowing the patterns and learning the lessons. And it just happens over time.

So, you don’t actually touch base with the DP ahead of time, for example? 
It varies per show. For “Saturday Night Live,” generally you’re in the room with the DP the day before. Sometimes they’re on another shoot. For the late-night shows, if it’s super last-minute, I barely even reach the director. Sometimes the director of photography is really just, you know, a shooter. Every show has its own way of negotiating how shoots happen. It’s knowing the workflow for the shows, making a million guesses but assuming nothing. A lot of it is knowing the source material ahead of time, being knowledgeable about periods of television, periods of movies, because it’s very often a period piece. In this [past] two-week span, we did a Harriet Tubman biopic for the “Amber Ruffin Show,” we did this kind of present-day “Beauty and the Beast” singalong music video for Fallon, and then the following Monday, also for Fallon, we did a “WandaVision” parody—which meant ’50s, ’70s, ’90s, today. 

How different is lighting something for television compared to working an event like a fashion show? 
It’s all [about] priorities. You could end up spending all the money and all the time working on a thing that doesn’t matter. For things like sketch, the most important thing is the performance. The throughline to my work is we’re creating a world. For, like, a Fallon sketch, we’re recreating “WandaVision” or we’re doing a present-day apartment Disney musical—that’s a world we’re creating in an apartment, with a hyper-reality. And for a fashion show, you’re also building a world; if it’s in a forest, you’re making a conceptual forest. It’s all based on lighting. That’s how I decide where I throw my efforts and where I throw the money in—because from top to bottom, it’s limited money and limited time.

Going back, how was it that you got started in lighting? 
It was somewhere in my DNA. I was in school plays in third grade, but was so excited to get offstage and go execute a lighting cue. I went from there to the local regional theater and interned in my teens, learned from theatrical lighting designers. I moved to New York thinking I wanted to be a Broadway lighting designer, but then I was really attracted to the speed of these [television] productions. It isn’t an inconvenience to me to have to put these things together so quickly. I love that pace; I love the instant feedback. I don’t think I have the patience to do every project on a six-month scale. Really, it was just having lighting in my DNA and then somehow loving the speed. Because if you don’t love it, it burns you out.

“It isn’t an inconvenience to me to have to put these things together so quickly. I love that pace, I love the instant feedback.”

So how did you break into television when you got to New York? 
It’s a million happy accidents and a million missed connections. It’s a small, small world. I always had interest in cameras; what I love about television versus theater is that everybody agrees on a way to look at it. The camera guides everybody’s [gaze]: We’re looking at this thing, and then we’re gonna pull back and look at this thing. I love the science of how the cameras respond to lighting. It appealed to a nerdy part of my brain in a way that theater didn’t. So, I started from the bottom, unloading trucks, being a grip, being an electric, meeting directors of photography. And then some of them got to know that I had a theatrical background and knew how a lighting console worked; things that were used in theater and not in television. Some technology I knew from theater was able to give me the boost from guy unloading trucks to consultant for the process, then console operator, then gaffer. So then I was a gaffer, which is like a cross between lighting designer and electrician. I was doing commercials that were done very quickly, and I would meet people and they would be like, “That was insane, and you didn’t freak out. You might be able to do ‘SNL’!”

Which is famously the most grueling production timeline. 
And it’s not like it’s a malfunction—it’s designed to be completely done Wednesday to Saturday. That is the process.

What advice do you offer to aspiring lighting designers and technicians? 
There are two final thoughts that I was thinking about. A lesson that I just learned again, that I really want to share is: In these sorts of super fast-paced environments—sketch comedy television, talk show television—the reaction that you get at the end of the shoot often has nothing to do with how well you did. In the moment, there are so many people involved, there’s so much going on, that reaction in the room might not be positive. But a day later, everyone reviews an edit and is like, “Oh, my God, they nailed it!” Not reading into the reaction in the room is really important, especially because they move so quickly. If you consistently do good work and stick to your principles and don’t react when they watch an edit, they’re going to have a completely different impression, despite whatever the initial reaction was.

Because it isn’t about “you,” which is a good reminder for everyone in this business. 
Yes! And then, in terms of breaking in, the other thing—and I know this is trite advice, but I feel it’s not applied to technical fields—is, figure out who you are and be yourself. And if it doesn’t fit or it stops fitting, learn the lesson and find a way to move on without burning the bridge. The biggest challenge is how to know when it’s a right opportunity, and also when you’ve outgrown it. Learn from everything, and it all just keeps coming around. If you’re interested in lighting, start with whatever opportunity you can get, make the most of it, and when you feel like you’re ready to jump to the next thing, find a way to move on without burning the bridge, and build one. It can take forever. It wasn’t like “SNL” happened overnight. It took three years of misses. They’d be like, “Are you available Friday? Never mind.” And, finally, they called and they were like, “Can you come in Wednesday?” And I was like, “Sure, if it actually happens.” And then the text message came: “11 a.m., 30 Rock, 8th floor. Be there.”

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