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December 2014
Issue: January 1, 2013

SNL: Cutting humor; cutting-edge technology

By: Randi Altman
NEW YORK — Once upon a time, the Saturday Night Live Film Unit –— those responsible for the fake commercials, shorts, title sequences and pre-recorded elements used in sketches — shot on 35mm film stock. 

On the surface that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when you take into account that they were shooting on Friday for a Saturday show, you realize the implications: films labs, telecine sessions and other time-intensive steps. Alex Buono, one of the Film Unit’s primary DPs for the past 12 seasons, remembers it as an “incredibly challenging” workflow.

“Back in the film days, the photo-chemical process meant that we wouldn’t have footage to edit until well past midnight on Friday night — with less than 24 hours before the show was broadcast.” Buono says back then they were so desperate to get the edit started earlier they began recording the video taps with visual timecode and then eye-matched the real footage when it finally arrived in the wee hours of Saturday morning. “Those were dark days in the edit suite. People forget how ghetto the old B&W video taps looked! Not exactly an ideal editorial format.”

WILLING TO EXPERIMENT
When digital formats like Mini DV and DVCAM arrived in the early 2000s, the Film Unit embraced the faster workflow but lamented the image quality, especially when compared to 35mm film. 

“SNL’s been an amazing place to experiment with cameras over the years and has given me the chance to experience the entire digital format evolution firsthand,” shares Buono. “Not so long ago we were shooting with prosumer cameras like the HVX200 — with relatively small 1/3-inch image sensors that imparted a very ‘video’ look — and then there was a huge shift around 2009.”

Pictured L-R is Film Unit director Rhys Thomas and DP Alex Buono on location with the Canon C500, which they intend to use more. Right now, Alexa typically gets the nod. 

That’s when DSLRs arrived. The team saw the advantages and embraced the format. “We shot the 2009 title sequence with a Canon 5D Mark II,” remembers Buono, “That was a huge wind change for the Film Unit because suddenly we had this tool that combined what we loved about the look of film — the shallower depth of field, wider dynamic range and greater low-light sensitivity — with the incredible workflow of tapeless media. Shooting with large image sensor cameras has made a huge difference to us — and I think you can see it in the quality of our work from the past few seasons.”

Following the 2009 title sequence, the Film Unit shot the majority of their commercial parodies that season with a Canon 7D. With the introduction of so many other large image sensor cameras over the past three seasons, the SNL team adopted the attitude of, ‘let’s see what works best for us’, relying on local rental houses, including Abel Cine, TCS and Hello World Communications, to supply the gear. 

“Since the large image sensor revolution of 2009, the Arri Alexa has evolved into our most common A-camera, but we’ve shot our share of spots on the Red Epic as well. The release of the Canon C300 was also a big deal for us because that camera seemed to be a perfect marriage of form factor and workflow.” 

But their experimenting didn’t end there. “Thanks to my tech-savvy director/producer Rhys Thomas constantly pushing to find better tools and evolve our workflow, we’ve shot the network debut of many of the most popular cameras in the market — starting with the 7D back in 2009, but we were also one of the first to air footage from the Alexa. 

“More recently we shot the debut of the Canon C300 and the Epic Monochrome, and just a few weeks ago, the debut of the Canon C500, which was fascinating — shooting 4K resolution with this compact camera. People think of Saturday Night Live as a place for cutting-edge comedy, but it’s also a place for cutting-edge adoption of the latest production technology.”

CURRENT WORKFLOW

A typical Film Unit workflow might involve shooting with the Alexa in Log-C 4:4:4 color space to SxS media cards in native ProRes.  For on-set media management, the team is using Light Iron’s Lily Pad Case (pictured at the bottom of this story) — which the Hollywood-based post house developed for dailies and on-set color correction based on their experiences with datacentric workflows on films like The Amazing Spider-Man, Total Recall and Flight.
 
The Lily Pad sits inside a Pelican case and is made up of a MacBook Pro, a slew of import slots, including SxS and RedMag, a 6TB drive and Colorfront’s Express Dailies software. 

“It’s our hub for all of the production footage,” explains Buono. “We drop in our media and download the Log-C files. From there we batch export two matching folders to G-Tech Thunderbolt drives. One folder is the robust Log-C files and another is a matching set of ProRes LT proxies. The Lily Pad also performs an auto checksum to make sure we’ve got a perfect data transfer when duplicating these files.”

The full color space version is sent to colorist Emery Wells at NYC’s Katabatic for color correction. The proxies are sent to the edit room at SNL where Film Unit veteran editor Adam Epstein begins to cut. The Lily Pad also adds an Alexa-specific LUT to the proxy files so Epstein isn’t forced to use the “super flat Log-C footage and our director/ writers aren’t looking at footage that doesn’t have a LUT applied,” says Buono.

The G-Tech Thunderbolt drives, meanwhile, play a crucial role in combating the show’s biggest challenge: turnaround time. “The nature of the show is to always push the envelope, which for us means higher and higher production value on shorter and shorter turnarounds. For a recent show, we were still shooting on a Saturday afternoon for a spot that went on the air that night!  Having a drive that can upload and download 12x faster than FireWire800, saving, say, 20 minutes per transfer, adds up to a significant time savings for us on our gonzo timeline.”

THE POST PROCESS

Epstein, who Buono calls an “editing and motion graphics savant,” will typically begin working Friday afternoon: pre-building graphics, gathering sound effects and finding music options as Buono and Film Unit director/producer Thomas are still shooting. Footage will start shuttling in from the set and then Thomas will arrive after wrap to start editing with Epstein by early evening.  

Editor Adam Epstein (right) cutting on Premiere Pro 6.

Epstein, who had been working in FCP 7, recently switched over to Premiere CS6, along with the rest of Adobe’s Creative Suite 6, for this season’s workflow. “For a timeline as condensed as at SNL, it made the most sense,” explains Epstein. “More than anything, the integration with After Effects via dynamic linking is what put it over the top — not having to export, import, re-export QuickTimes between the NLE and AE is huge.”

This not only speeds things up but also helps with creativity, allowing director Thomas more flexibility to try alternate versions of graphics and make changes late in the game, since changes to an After Effects project appear seamlessly in the Premiere timeline. Thomas and Epstein keep editing and massaging the footage until around 2am, when they kick out an EDL and a QuickTime reference that is emailed to Wells at Katabatic.

On Saturday morning, Wells gets the EDL and reference clip, does a quick conform on the Log-C footage and starts color correcting in Assimilate Scratch. Thomas and Buono then send notes on the grade back and forth with Wells throughout Saturday afternoon, and Wells finishes the grade by around 5pm Saturday evening, kicking out a ProRes HQ that he sends back to the show.

While everyone knows that SNL airs live at 11:30pm, there is also a two-hour dress rehearsal at 8pm, after which the show is honed and 30 minutes of material is cut.   Explains Thomas, “This means that sometimes I might be restructuring the edit or changing a crucial line of voiceover with less than an hour before the show airs, but that kind of challenge is half the fun of working at a live show!” 

“There’s pretty much always a handful of changes between dress and air,” adds Epstein. “We try to anticipate what those may be and have a best guess ready to go. We also keep Emery Wells standing by at Katabatic to color correct and upload any new shots or alternate takes. Then we still have to kick out new picture and OMF files to conform the mix. It’s usually a sped up re-conform — though if a piece really kills with the dress audience, there may be no changes at all — which is always very satisfying!”

Does working on such a tight turnaround hinder the creative process? “It’s a double-edged sword,” says Thomas. “On the one hand, of course, I’d love more time. My mission from Wednesday night onwards is to deliver something you’d never believe was produced, shot and finished in under 72 hours (and sometimes under 24 hours!). This means drawing in as much scale, production value and polish as the script deserves. We’d never dream of using our turnaround as an excuse. On the other hand, the constraint of time forces you to be decisive. There’s no time to second-guess. In that regard, it’s quite liberating.”

Epstein concurs, “It’s all about finding the balance between delivering our ideal version and delivering on time. There are always things we wish we had more time to smooth out, but the knowledge that there is a definitive drop-dead time forces us to keep moving forward. More than anything, working with a team that’s fast, organized and capable of delivering beautiful footage on such a short schedule makes my job that much easier.  What Rhys, Alex and production manager Justus Mclarty are able to deliver in the short time they have is amazing.”

Adds Buono, “One of my favorite Lorne Michaels quotes is, ‘We don’t go on because we’re ready; we go on because it’s 11:30.’  Working on a show whose creator embraces such an experimental, high-wire act ethos week after week is inspiring, and by far the most satisfying part of my job.”