What Our Members Do: David Bernstein, Technical Director

Where are you currently employed?

I am, and have always been, a work-for-hire freelancer.

Current projects?

For “America’s Got Talent” and “Dancing With The Stars,” I work as a screens TD; I operate the switcher that controls the LED screens on set. I’ve also been the screens TD on “American Idol,” which was supposed to happen again this season until the coronavirus pandemic changed everything. We almost didn’t finish season 3, but tech manager John Fekas came up with an engineering solution for all the talent to perform and judge and host from home.

Therefore, I was the line cut TD — live cutting the cameras and graphics for the director — for this season’s “American Idol” finale. I also work as line cut TD on “So You Think You Can Dance” and “The Titan Games,” among other shows.

I round out my schedule with stints at NFL Network and filling in for fellow TDs when they need to “book out” of a show in a hurry. I still accept the occasional sports broadcast booking in order to keep those skills up to date. (They’re different from entertainment TD skills).

Describe your job.

I’m the technical director, so I’m technical and I sit next to the director. I’m the interface between her and the technical crew in a live or live-to-tape multicamera television production. This job requires you to be on top of every technical detail of the production. I’m responsible to the director for ensuring that all the technical facilities required for the production have been installed and are working correctly. Of special importance is the set-up of the control room. I work with the facility engineer to lay out the monitor wall so that cameras, playbacks, graphics devices, and all the other sources needed for the show have been placed in monitors where the director, associate director, script supervisor, producers, and other control room staff can easily find them in the chaos of live production.

Once all of that is taken care of, it’s time for me to start my actual job, which is the set-up and operation of the heart of a live production – the video switcher! All the sources needed for the show must be mapped to buttons where I can quickly(!) access them in the heat of production. All of these sources must be “facs’ed out” [pronounced like “fax,” it’s a contraction for “facilities check”] with the Local 600 Utilities to confirm that we are getting the correct video from each source, that cameras get tally lights and return video channels from the switcher, and that the PL comm circuit between cameras and the control room is fully operational.

All of this must be accomplished without leaving my seat! I remain behind the switcher at all times because that’s where everyone (especially the director) expects to find me. I rely on all the communications tools at my disposal so that I can support the tech crew from that chair.

Another important part of the TD’s skill set — the artistic side — is the creation of video effects: split-screens, multi-box effects, picture-in-picture, and various video treatments. These need to be built in advance (or sometimes on the fly, as in “Oh, by the way, I need….”)

The key part of the job that determines whether or not I get called back to the next production is to push the right button at the right time! To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, if you can keep your head while all those around you are losing theirs – you just might be a good TD!

How did you first become interested in this line of work?

I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, where rugby is practically a religion. When I was nine, I discovered the TV cameras at our local rugby stadium. Those big TV-81 cables led to a corner of the stadium where I convinced the gate guard to let me see inside the truck. Soon I was standing right behind the guy who, with the push of a button, was changing the picture on millions of TV sets all over South Africa! I could watch the game from eight different angles in one place! This was where the action was.

Who gave you your first break?

In the 1990s, I was working as a freelance audio engineer in Connecticut. My wife’s co-worker was (and still is) married to sportscaster Dan Patrick, who offered me a tour of ESPN after he heard about my TV truck adventures in South Africa. Somehow the tour turned into a job interview, and I was hired at ESPN in Bristol, CT in February 1995.

What was your first union job?

My first IA 700 work was for Fox Sports West after I moved to LA — and my first “real” (entertainment) IA gig was the Prince Super Bowl halftime show in 2007.

What credits or projects are you proudest of, and why?

I worked on so many great shows, but since joining the IA, I have a hard time picking a favorite. There are so few days when work feels like work – it’s just that much fun doing what I do for a living! One standout has been working as screens TD on “American Idol,” which leads to…

What was your biggest challenge in your job (or on a particular project) and how did you overcome/solve it?

I was line cut TD on “American Idol” for most of its final season on Fox. When ABC picked up the show, Fremantle, the company that produces the show, ordered a major redesign of the set that involved wrapping the entire stage in LED walls. Director Phil Heyes got the budget increased to include a screens TD, and I was called. Even at the end of season 2 on ABC, I still couldn’t figure an accurate pixel count on the “Idol” set, other than to say that it takes four 4K (UHD) feeds to fill that beast. The idea is to be able to put live-camera image magnification (IMAG) any place on the walls or floor. The show is produced in 720p, but the graphics are delivered 1080p, so to use the existing switcher at Television City’s Stage 36 where the show is shot became problematic. Just two weeks before the first live shows were scheduled to air, I managed to “procure” a switcher that functions in a revolutionary new way. I was sweating bullets, but we made it work, and it’s been on the show ever since.

What was the most fun you’ve had at work?

Probably that Prince halftime show at the 2007 Super Bowl. The weather looked like it was going to wash the whole thing out, but Prince insisted on performing and he nailed it. But honestly, pretty much every day in a control room is fun!

Jobwise, what do you hope to be doing five years from now?

I want to be on the cutting edge of technology in our business, finding and implementing amazing new tech to enable our more creative collaborators to tell engaging stories in front of a live audience.

What are your outside activities, hobbies, passions?

Besides watching rugby matches, the other thing I did as a nine-year-old on Saturday morning was to go flying with an Air Force reserve squadron that had a reconnaissance mission profile. The Commanding Officer of this unit was a client of my father, who was an ad exec, and he invited us to check out their new planes. The flying bug bit me hard and has never let go. That said, I have been so busy with my career over the years that I haven’t logged a lot of hours, but I love every second I spend in the air. I also enjoy sailing and photography.

Favorite movie(s)? Why?

My first summer in the US was hot and soupy in Amherst where I was studying Electrical and Computer Engineering at UMass. I spent most of the summer indoors in air conditioning watching two movies on HBO over and over until I could recite almost every line. My favorite was “Real Genius” (1985) — thank you, Martha Coolidge — which fed a personal fantasy that I could have been smart enough in 10th grade to make it into Cal Tech. The script totally plays to my (lame) sense of humor.

The other movie was John Hughes’ “Sixteen Candles” (1984). I attended an all-boys boarding school in a different culture, so I enjoyed this film for “what might have been” had I gone to an American public high school.

More recently, my wife has led us into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). What an amazing collection of stories — so well created both in front of and behind the lens! There is a curated timeline of the suggested viewing order of the films and TV shows, and it all fits together like clockwork. Amazing!

Favorite TV program(s)? Why?

Besides all the shows I am fortunate to work on, and the great MCU shows, I enjoy classics like “Law and Order” (the original series) and “Seinfeld.” Among more contemporary shows, I like “Stranger Things” and “The Americans.” I’m sure I’ll think of a bunch more after this article is published.

Do you have an industry mentor?

Many top-notch TDs have shared their experience with me, but my primary mentor is Eric Becker. We met when my sports TV world collided with his entertainment TV world on the Super Bowl halftime shows produced by Don Mischer (another mentor). Eric opened many doors that helped me transition into entertainment productions, and I have worked behind him many times as screens TD. He has a well-deserved international reputation — smart, professional, largely unflappable — and I have matured into an employable TD in Hollywood, thanks to his example. Honorable mention must go to Bob Ennis who continually challenges me to strive for technical excellence.

What advice would you offer to someone interested in pursuing your line of work?

Learn everything technical about production. Pay attention to everything around you as you work your way up the ranks in the business. Learn how to shoot and edit so you can anticipate the director’s needs. Learn as much about television engineering as you can so that you can communicate clearly and troubleshoot effectively with your engineers.

Was there ever a circumstance when you had to rely on the Guild for help or assistance?

The Guild is always there when something needs ironing out. Someone ALWAYS gets back to me within 24 hours (48 max!). I have all these silly little questions about benefits or safety training and it’s never any bother for anyone. Thanks, Cathy Repola and Ann Hadsell!

Is there anything you’d like to say to your fellow Guild members, some words of encouragement?

Do what you love. When you do what you love for a living, it’s not work — it’s a work of love.

Compiled by David Bruskin.

Want to be profiled in this feature? Reach out to SCollins@editorsguild.com.