Live from NAB, it’s Saturday Night Live [Editors]!

Published on in Industry Announcements / Events

by Bradford Hill

Session Notes from "How SNL Produces Short Films in 48 Hours or Less" at the NAB Show. 

Speakers: George Winslow, Rhys Thomas, Stacey Foster, Alex Buono, Adam Epstein

(Basically, the SNL Film unit produces killer shorts in less than the time it took me to write these session notes). 

First, they kicked off the session with a montage of some of the best recent SNL shorts, including ‘Red Flag’, “Sopranos Diaries” and the “Real Housewives of Disney”.
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Then they showed my personal favorite, the Louie CK parody “Lincoln.”

How many of you would have guessed that happened in the wake of Sandy? More to come on that later.

Basically, the film unit has Thursday - Saturday to make an entire shoot happen before the live show. Ideally, Thursday is prep, Friday is on camera at 8 or 9 a.m. But it’s based around the framework for the live show as well – so the cast is pulled between live sketches and taping  making the shooting window very small. If the shoot is say, 9am – 2pm, then they are in a “post race” to Saturday night. More frequently, the scale has gone up and production has taken longer. Sometimes less than 24 hrs.

In the case of Lincoln, they found out Wed. (well written piece), but everything below 29th was blacked out after Sandy. 

First problem, how do we recreate the very recognizable Louie opening? 

Can we bring generators? Pizza guy was operating on candles. We literally turned on generator for lighting on that one building. The subway wasn’t working, police were everywhere, and the city was on lockdown from shooting. We had to do all this without drawing attention. [We] had to shoot really quickly then disperse like cockroaches. 

Stacy Foster (Coordinating Producer of Saturday Night Live) explained, “We stay out of their way. We help be the buffer, whether it be with the city, the rest of the production team, or if you need the artist an extra hour and need me to argue with the producer…we enable all these logistics to help the creative guys do their job.  They have a lot of support and are not operating in isolation.”


Alex Buono on the process: 

The big challenge with the show is the time factor. We recently did a commercial for Adobe, and our first thought was that the lax schedule was a luxury, but then almost got bored. 

"You gotta get your team at SNL, so many people have been there so long, and know each other so well (key grip since mid-90s, gaffer every shoot this season, 1st AC, etc.) It’s difficult with new people."

Any time there is a new PA or something you have to be like, “Yeah, this is going to be different than what you are used to.”

As cinematographer, you want it to look great but also have to keep in mind the time constraints. There is a fine line. The short should look good obviously, but you also need to move the schedule forward and maintain elements in a practical manner.

Lorne Michaels said it best: "The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready to go on; the show goes on because it’s 11:30." 

So, what do they do first when given a particular script?

The guys agreed that there are so many possible styles, if it’s a mock promo, then they realize it will be very sound design and graphics heavy. It’s all about finding the rhythm with tons of research. Why does this particular piece feel that way, and how can we emulate? Then they get on the same page with whole team. Their fave part? Bringing little nuggets that weren’t necessarily in the script to begin with. Then it’s all about getting confidence as quick as possible to the people who need it. 

Adam Epstein: 

I started as a PA, and then went up the ranks. When I started, it was 35mm or 64mm with film to the lab by 4 o’clock. We still try to get to assembly Friday evening, but it’s not always ready. Someone over your shoulder: “Is that going to be there?” (Like a green screen up or something that looks unfinished). 

Beware of what you succeed with, if you pull off a seemingly impossible task that ends up awesome, e.g. all green screens, then they are like, “let’s do that again!” (Sure, why not?)

Heartbreaking Rehearsals / Noteworthy Quotes.

Then after all the shooting and editing, you still have the rehearsal in front of a real audience. This starts the heartbreaking process of getting rid of stuff that we thought was funny all day. Then re-do some shots, back to AfterFX, back to mix (the whole finishing process), but this time, the whole finishing process is from like 10-11:30 p.m.

One time we were literally ingesting the piece / feeding the show as it was playing (EVS Playback). 


Equipment, Gear & Tools

The guys switched to Premiere before anybody was using it for broadcast. For them, the back and forth necessitated a new tool, not the other way around I think it was Rhys that said: “If we see something new that will help us get more done / smoother in the timeline, we’ll try it out. But it will never cut things down THAT much. Even if there was a magical “done” button, we’d still use every last second to keep pushing to make it better.”

SNL was in 5D, then 7D before in market, I think we were the first to broadcast with those. Also first to broadcast the Alexa, the RED EPIC monochrome, etc. We’re looking for the best tool for the project; so the EPIC was perfect for the Chanel spoof / Brad Pitt commercial. It had just come to NY, and it was an option. So we used it.

- Using brand new G-tech thunderbolt drives (saves us 20 minutes) maybe we’ll have time to rerecord voiceover or whatever. 

- Right now, there is a sweet spot between filmmakers and manufacturer

-  You can literally request a “firmware update” when a few years back it was unheard of to give feedback like that, that actually made a difference.

SNL was on film until 2004-2005. Most were on film and just a few digital. The following season, it completely switched - 15 pieces video, and 3 on film. Film to mini DV was a black period. It was a heavy time — we’ll get you something that looks really bad, really fast.

In the last few years, there has been such an explosion of new cameras and formats (Canon mark II was a game changer.) We shoot a lot on the Alexa.


Last tips for the road:

- Don’t ever start over at end of the day, you just want it to be funny. 

- Take out anything that will distract people from whether or not it’s working. Is this music working? Is this joke / take working here? The gear should become invisible you should be interacting with the footage as fast as you are thinking about it. 

- They have never missed a deadline, sometimes not color corrected, but online it is!  

- Can’t really do much planning until the show has a host - but the goal is to be topical. Writers are rewriting even on set sometimes. But, that’s part of the fun as well. 

- We’re trying to go to a 4K workflow. Alexa used the most often looks great, piece of cake to start editing. So easy for us. 

- 4 times we shot 4k with Codex and Gemini recorder, keypro happy with the C500, and we’ll try the 55 before end of season. Who knows, maybe ‘Go Pros’ strapped to head of every actor? ;-) 

- We don’t own any equipment so we don’t need to be married to any piece. This one feels like the Alexa, or this one needs the sharpness of a C500, or whatever.

- Since it’s a 40-week season, we all work on commercials, indie films, documentary, etc. as well depends how motivated we are in summer hiatus. 

Images courtesy of: Katrina Diamond & Google

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