What Matters: Multi-Disciplinary Lighting Designer Seth Bernstein on LEGO and Dealing With Anxiety

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Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

Seth Bernstein is a multi-disciplinary lighting designer whose work defies all genre conventions and traditional boundaries. In a single year, you can find his work on television for Saturday Night Live or on a concert stage like Madison Square Garden in New York and the o2 Arena in London.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

I live for collaboration and problem-solving. I’m at my best when there’s a ticking clock or a group of people gathered around to make something magical. That really came into focus when I joined the team at Saturday Night Live as the film unit lighting designer. Every week, we do in three days what another production would require months to accomplish. I also learned that rising to challenges is a muscle you exercise and strengthen. 

With every iteration, you learn when to listen to your gut or to ignore the noise from general anxiety and fear of failure at such a high level.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

That’s a great question. My first memory of being creative dates back to grade school and my LEGO set. I was interested in television production from a very young age and was frustrated that there were pirate ships, police stations, and castles but no television studios! 

I remember going to the local toy store to scope out other LEGO kits which had the parts I needed to make my studio. I got the spaceship for the control panels, an army set where the guns looked like cameras, and I ignored all the directions to make my studio.

What is your biggest regret?

I try to live without regret. My visualization is that there’s another universe out there where I took “the other path” or made a different decision and that other reality exists out there somewhere. I don’t know why. I find that comforting to think about myself in another universe living the opposite reality and being equally happy under different circumstances.

That said, the other universe I’m the most curious about is what would have happened if I had assisted an established lighting designer instead of beating my own path. I never really worked for one of “the greats.” Instead, I started as a laborer and figured out my own niche in the fast-evolving entertainment industry.

I guess you could call that my biggest regret.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

The only times I’ve gotten over heartbreak is when I’ve embraced the black and white nature of the before and after instead of trying to find grey areas. It’s such a brutal process, but I force myself to acknowledge that I will never be the same after what happened. How am I going to change to continue? 

There’s sadness and grieving involved in that process for sure, but I keep trying to think about what adjustments I can make as the days and months tick away. Eventually, I feel some success in creating the new me, and the grieving falls away over time.

What makes you cry?

Loss of a loved one and loneliness.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

There’s a momentary feeling where I feel the floor drop out from under me. Those last seconds while an arena full of people cheer or you witness some bit of magic up close on camera. Then, there’s usually a week where the success reverberates around social media or casual conversation. But it’s nothing compared to the moment when it happened.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

Oh definitely—I think it’s reincarnation in some form or another. You meet a new person, and you get a sense of familiarity but can’t place it. Or you’re in a new place, and you feel a presence. That’s how we live on.

What do you hate most about yourself?

I hate my anxiety and my insomnia. I hate how it takes a toll on my health and limits my energy to fully be there for those around me. However, it’s inextricably tied up in my work and process, and I can’t ever seem to escape it.

What do you love most about yourself?

I love my decisiveness. I love how quickly I can analyze information and reach deep for a “gut feeling” and then move on.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

It’s the simplest—rice, lentils, cumin, and cinnamon. I travel so much that my stomach often needs a reset. That is the only thing that hits the spot. Perhaps it’s a holdover from my last reincarnation? I don’t know any other explanation why I love this meal so much.