The 1 Thing This ‘SNL’ Lighting Designer Wants TV Actors to Know

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Photo Source: Will Heath/NBC

A veteran of the most fast-paced environments in show business—“Saturday Night Live” and the late-night talk show circuit among his many credits—lighting designer Seth Bernstein knows what it takes to get ’er done. It requires across-the-board cooperation from those in front of and behind the camera, as well as actors who internalize this one thing above all else: “The minute an actor steps onto a mark, everybody’s working.” 

“What I would love for actors to know, and many know it already, is that when you’re on-camera, someone’s always working. The minute an actor steps onto a mark, everybody’s working.”

How would you describe the role of the television lighting designer? 
As a lighting designer, I’m involved in the process of planning a shoot. The really unique part of television is the speed with which it’s produced, especially in the sketch comedy, late night show, commercial shoot world. It’s all very last-minute and they’re often reacting to world events or to something in the news. My job as a lighting designer for television is to be a little bit psychic, and see around the corners: hear the unheard, see the unsaid, and plan the lighting design for a shoot that I really know next to nothing about; you contrast that with the theater experience, which is months and months of set planning, building a scale model, rehearsal in a room. Last week, on Wednesday, I received word that I was going to do a “Beauty and the Beast,” Disney song parody for “The Tonight Show.” On Wednesday, I got the go ahead, spent all day drawing up a lighting plot, budgeting, getting feedback with the budget, logistics. Thursday: Ten hours to load it in, two hours to look at it on-camera, and Friday morning, one hour to shoot it with Jimmy Fallon. 

READ: This Lighting Designer Wants
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So how are you working with talent directly on “SNL” for example? 
There are two different ways, and what actors could key into, is the difference between being a regular cast member, and being a featured guest star. On “SNL,” we spend a lot of time with the stand-ins, getting the lighting right—both for the drama of the scene, but also for the cosmetic look of the individual. Skin tone is hugely important with the dramatic look of the pre-tapes—because I do the pre-tape segments, I don’t do the live show, and they’re often more dramatic and cinematic. So there’s balancing the drama, and skin tone, which I find hugely rewarding. And what I love about the current diversity of television is, visually it’s just beautiful. And I love the beauty of everybody onscreen together, from a purely aesthetic point. But it takes work, that’s undeniable. Working with the cast members, they have stand-ins, and we spend a ton of time with the stand-ins—a ton of time in television being, like, 20 minutes. 

For an “SNL”-type show, you have the time between when the director talks to the cast member, they do the slate, and they say action to get the lighting perfect. Nobody wants to wait for lighting. What I would love for actors to know, and many know it already, is that when you’re on-camera, someone’s always working. The minute an actor steps onto a mark, everybody’s working: The sound guy’s getting the boom in place, the director’s talking. For the cast members, there’s a get to know you moment, but stay on the mark holding the eye line; it is incredibly valuable to everybody. Everybody wants the first take to be usable. Even if you have to break the eyeline, keep the face rotated in the right direction. The more time we have to work on you, the better you’ll look.

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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