CMU School of Drama

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

An interview with Saturday Night Live set designer Eugene Lee In 1975, Eugene Lee was offered a job on a new comedy sketch show launching on NBC. Lee had never worked on a TV show before, but he had designed sets for operas and theatre. He took the job and moved into an office opposite the NBC studios in New York’s Rockefeller Plaza.


Mark Ivachtchenko said...

This article is great since I lack a large database of famous American set designers in my brain and learned about them everyday is important for me. This, along with being from NYC and watching SNL, makes this story super relevant to me. As a kid I've always wondered how they manage to create, rehearse, build, and put on a one and a half hour weekly show in just four days and ever since I entered the theater business I REALLY began to consider that. This is just one of the impressive things Eugene Lee has done and to be honest I couldn't imagine myself designing sets for so many different skits in such a short notice so that's pretty damn impressive. Watching him explain his process is awesome because I look at myself and how I grew as a set designer and observed how I did the same thing and asked the writers/directors the same types of questions. This mad process that hovers around during these 4 days is insane enough but even crazier considering Lee and his team hand draft everything as well. His sets have such a high quality of work, craftsmanship, and design that they mimic grand sets like those built for plays and operas but done in a quarter of the time. When it comes to this time management, I hear Kevin's voice echoing in my head especially since he talks about how he has to consider lead time on strange or unusual objects and large backdrops. You really DO have to have things in hand in an hours time and that must be extremely expensive and difficult to do for some specialty objects. All-in-all, Eugene Lee is legendary (as I've recently come to realize) and I noticed that they're taking interns so hmmmm....It's got be thinking.

Sasha Schwartz said...

I saw this article on facebook, and I have it bookmarked on my computer now! I thought it was so so interesting to read about Lee’s process (especially thinking about how he went to CMU as well), and how the fast- paced nature of SNL feels eerily similar to that of theater. SNL is one of if not the most popular live programs on television at the moment, and it produced content that was incredibly important in the context of this election season. Kate McKinnon’s portrayal of Hillary Clinton singing Hallelujah will, I think, be an image many remember alongside the “real-life” pain felt around the world in the weeks following the results coming in, by strong women and many others alike. I thought it was very interesting how much of the scenic design is still drawn by hand. I wonder if this is primarily due to Eugene Lee’s experience within what he is so familiar with. It’s strangely comforting to hear that even a large scale production like SNL needs to rush through some things in order to get to the live product on time, because there’s no room for error on live television. It’s also very cool to hear about how the Cold Open sets need to be easily disassembled during the opening credits into the monologue- it was crazy to watch the crew do this so efficiently in the video SNL released. This reminds me a lot, on a much larger scale of course, of the box-truck sets we built in high school for festivals that needed to be set up and struck within 5 minutes. It’s very cool to read about the intensive collaboration that is happening behind the scenes of a show on a network that we think of as being so large and corporate and unapproachable- the relationships of the designers and producers behind the scenes are what bring this show to life every weekend.

Katherine Sharpless said...

I absolutely loved reading more about Eugene Lee, I've been a huge fan of his work since I learned that we are both from Wisconsin and have looked into his work. I'm intrigued by his process and his demeanor a and how they influence his designs. In a New York Times article, his house is described like an antique shop, with collections of typewriters, tin globes, roll top desks, and paintings covering the walls. For his scenic design for Wicked, he threw a clock down the stairs and examined the broken gears to create his concept. He seems very intuitive and curious, allowing him to design beautifully and creatively without gimmicks or complexity getting in the way of necessity. The SNL sets are interesting since they are practical and need to be executed realistically, and they can seem less creative than his theatre sets. However, reading this article explains the collaboration masterpiece which occurs every week for SNL, and I believe his creative genius lies in his editing skill and work ethic in this specific case. Of course, Lee doesn't work alone on SNL productions or his theatrical set designs, and I'd love to learn more about he and other acclaimed scenic designers work with their assistants and with others for a variety of projects.