21CF Chats: Emmy-nominated Bob Barnhart, lighting designer for FOX’s ‘So You Think You Can Dance’

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Bob talks about his latest Emmy nomination, his weekly schedule on the show and more

Last month, FOX’s hit dance competition show “So You Think You Can Dance” (Mondays at 8/7c) was nominated for five Primetime Emmy Awards, including one for Outstanding Lighting Design/Lighting Direction for a Variety Series. Bob Barnhart, lighting designer for the show, has received 41 Emmy nominations of his own throughout his career and says they are always appreciated.

Bob Barnhart

“We all love it when this show is acknowledged by our peers,” he said. “It is one of the most artistic shows on TV — choreography, set, costumes, hair and makeup, directing — and it competes against some of the largest budgeted shows out there. So when any department gets recognized, we all get recognized.”

I recently spoke to Bob about his latest nomination for his lighting design work on “So You Think You Can Dance.” During our conversation, he talked about why he enjoys lighting this show, keys to his career success, his favorite part of the job and more.

Your first nominations date back to the opening ceremonies for the Centennial Olympic Games, numerous Academy Awards and some music specials. You also have 20 Super Bowl halftime shows, among many other huge events, under your belt. How does your work on those big live events compare with what you do on “So You Think You Can Dance”?
When I lit my first dance show in college, I quickly realized that the lighting designer could really influence the story, mood and overall vibe of a dance. So when “So You Think You Can Dance” came along, I had one question for [co-creator, executive producer and judge] Nigel Lythgoe: “Because this is a competition show, do I have to light each dance the same, or can it be specific to the dance?” His response was, “It has to be specific to the dance.” So I said, “I’m in!” Since day one of Season 1, we have had fantastic artistic freedom, which makes this one of the best shows to work on in my 35-year career.

Can you walk us through what a typical week working on “So You Think You Can Dance” looks like?
On Friday, I receive the choreographers’ creative summary. This tells me what music they are using and any ideas that they may have for any departments. I listen to all the songs and make some color notes and set configuration ideas (now that we have spinning walls). Saturday rehearsal videos start being emailed. Once I have seen every video, I put together a creative outline for each dance, making sure I am breaking up colors and overall looks from dance to dance. I need to do this in advance so the dances don’t all end up looking alike, and the “red” one stands out or the “low moody” one has its own special feel. On Sunday, the lighting crew comes in and we get 25 minutes to program each dance, without cameras or audio. Monday is show day — we typically shoot the big group number in the morning and then rehearse the show, take a meal, and then live at 5!

How closely do you and your team work with the contestants on the show?
We work very closely with the choreographers and try to funnel all my ideas and requests through them. As the season progresses and the dancers get more comfortable with the process, you will notice an increase in dialog with everyone.

You’re nominated for last season’s finale. Is there a particular lighting moment in that episode that stands out in your memory?
It was a good finale overall. I think “Hyper-Ballad” choreographed by Mia Michaels stands out for lighting. A lot of work in a very short amount of time has to go into singling out each chair and then having each light move with the dance.

What have you found to be the most important part of successfully collaborating with all involved parties on the show to bring a creative vision to life?
I have found that the best creative teams feed off each other. We can inspire and be inspired by a collaborative attitude. The best part of the creative process on “SYTYCD” is the producers let us all work freely, they trust us, and that produces a much higher level of creative release and product.

How has your line of work changed the most since your first nomination in 1997?
Live broadcast cameras have gotten much better. More importantly, lighting equipment has developed at an exponential pace. From moving lights to LED products, our tool chests allow us to provide a much higher production value than before.

You got your start running follow spotlights for some famous musical artists in the ’80s, then you got your degree from Cal Arts. When you look back to those early days of your career and consider where you are today, what do you consider the most important milestones or learning moments along the way?
Without question, I came to realize that attitude, work ethic and personality are really what makes you you — and it’s “you” they are looking for. At the professional level, your skill set is expected. So the only way to really stand out is to allow the best parts of you to shine. Your skill set is critical, mainly for yourself. If you love what you do, your enthusiasm will come out, and enthusiasm is infectious.

How do you come across new ideas or approaches in your work? Does inspiration typically come from your personal reflections, observing what your counterparts are doing or elsewhere?
Experimenting and not being (too) afraid to fail. For example, if you watched Super Bowl LI Halftime Show, which of course was on FOX, the first minute of the show, you saw Lady Gaga on top of the roof, where we did a 300-drone American flag behind her. I came up with that idea by seeing an Intel drone display online. I developed a way to show that technology off by fitting it into an idea I had for the opening of the show.

What do you consider to be the most rewarding part of your work?
When the talent you are lighting tells you they are happy with the way they look. They are the ones “exposed” to the world, and our job is to make them comfortable on camera.

“So You Think You Can Dance” airs Mondays at 8/7c on FOX.