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Still Live From New York: Eugene Lee Receives Twelfth Emmy Nom For SNL

All “Saturday Night Live” production designs, such as this Emmy nominated set by Eugene Lee, must be assembled in less than three minutes. Photo courtesy of NBC Studios.

By: Marjorie Galas

Ask Eugene Lee how he felt after he received the call informing him about his 2016 Emmy nomination and the product designer grasps for words.  He’s much more enamored with the fact that he’s remained part of the handful of originals still working on “Saturday Night Live”. In fact, he was a production designer on SNL’s premier episode October 11, 1975, and is gearing up for the series’ forty-second season this fall.

“I am happy, but really, I just love the work.  That’s why I do it,” said Lee.

Lee recalls the group photo long time alums of SNL would take at the end of each season.  With so few – Lee calculates no more than four original crew members – remaining, there’s no longer a photo taken.  Yet, the veteran production designer, who splits his time between SNL, “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”, “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and theatrical set design, is delighted each season he’s asked to return. His track record with the Television Academy alone reveals a level of excellence that keeps Lee in high demand.  He’s received twelve Emmy nominations through the years.  The first came in 1977, and his 2001 nom resulted in his first Emmy win.  With the exception of 2001’s nom for the television movie “On Golden Pond” all his nominations have been for his work on “SNL>”

Lee is quick to point out that he works with an amazing team consisting of a number of production designers he shares the recognition with, including Akira Yoshimura, Keith Raywood and Joe DeTullio.  Each production designer will take on sets they gravitate to in order to complete something that is both visually compelling an, true to the tone and needs of the story.  Lee’s personal favorite sets to design are those that have anything to do with boats.

“People in the department gravitate to what they like.  We meet in a group and talk about them and then we pick and hope we made the right choice,” said Lee.  “I gravitate towards boats.  I had a 50 foot sail boat when the show began.  If there is a boat sketch, I love that.”

With sketches assigned, Lee begins his process by asking what he calls the “obvious questions.”  These would include what time of day the sketch is meant to take place in, if the structure is located in a specific city and any other question that would help inform the look and style of what he’s designing.  Once he begins the design work, he has to be mindful of the handicaps affecting his game.  The primary “handicap” is the structure of the building where the studio is housed.  Originally created for radio programming, it is a challenge for designers to load in material and set pieces.   There are two sets of elevators and everything has to transform to the elevator’s specs prior to being assembled on the stage.  Lee recalled a classic car that was used in one piece nearly failing the elevator load in test.

“We picked it up from a kid on the street, and took it to a body shop where they removed the seats then cut the car in half,” said Lee. “It was a heavy piece that we weren’t going to get another chance with.  It made it into the elevator by half an inch.”

The set pieces are cleverly constructed to fit together quickly: set up for the sketches is generally completed in three minutes or less.  A group of stage hands helps in the load in.  Interestingly, many of the stage hands are the children of the original stage hands who worked on SNL 40 years ago.  Lee stays actively involved with the choices of every person brought into his department, and hires only those with the best attitude and temperament for the needs of the high pressure and fast pace.

Also important to the design of any set on SNL is the color palette.  Creator Lorne Michaels prefers muted colors that allow the actors to consistently remain “at the front” of the sketch.  The production designers consistently balance authenticity in the production design with the requirements the producers place upon color and elements, such as refraining from the use of practicals in their designs.  Lee recalled a reproduction of Grand Central Station in which Michaels requested lights be removed from the back of the wall.  After Lee clearly illustrated the lights were highly recognizable fixtures in the location and necessary to the sketch, he was allowed to keep them in the design.

“Mr. Michaels doesn’t like the scenery to be the star,” said Lee.  “Light bulbs drive him crazy.”

During SNL’s hiatus, Lee is busy overseeing the set design for an upcoming revival of “Oklahoma” in Washington, DC.  Highly decorated for his theater work – Lee has three Tony awards for shows including “Candide, “”Sweeny Todd” and “Wicked” – Lee hold great joy for theaters, both in the designs he creates for the stage as well as working on preserving and restoring theater structures.  He’s even created seating design for the SNL stage.

“The seats had to be made.  No one expected the show would last – they thought it would just be around for a few days,” laughed Lee.

Up next is a massive stage design including video projection for an upcoming Seth Meyers special prior to return to SNL.  Lee sees his busy schedule as a natural extension of what makes him happiest.

“I am interested in all kinds of things, mostly in being happy,” said Lee.  “What else would I do?”