Saturday Night Live's Film Unit: Making TV Fast
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Kylee Peña : Saturday Night Live's Film Unit: Making TV Fast
The SNL Film Unit – the group behind those pre-taped film and commercial parody segments – produces at least one spot for every episode of SNL. And they do it from scratch every show week, a dead sprint for each Saturday night. You'd think these crazy turnarounds might lead to weekly panic and despair but when you talk to the Film Unit's Director of Photography and Editor – freelancers Alex Buono and Adam Epstein – you're painted a picture of a well-oiled machine with an improvisational film spirit.
Don't get me wrong: a broadcast deadline is a frenzy, but this team has developed a confidence in themselves and each other over the last several years they've been working together, led by the Film Unit's director/producer Rhys Thomas, and that confidence is augmented by a trust in their tools to let them push the boundaries of what's possible in a couple days even further.
Director of Photography Alex Buono has been with SNL's Film Unit since 1999. After graduating from USC film school, he worked as a camera assistant on big studio films like Twister and Armageddon, while shooting indie features, music videos, anything anyone would let him shoot.
Alex made his way to a gig with SNL when he was working on an independent feature film that was being produced by the then-producer of the Film Unit while the show was on hiatus. She invited him to come try shooting a spot when the show started up again, so he did – and kept getting brought back by long-time SNL veteran director and founder of the Film Unit, James Signorelli: "I was very very lucky. By no means was I actually qualified to shoot the film unit at that point in my career, but Jim and I got along personally and he kept bringing me back."
Adam Epstein, who's been editing with the Film Unit for five seasons, got started in the industry when majoring in communications in college led him to working on a student comedy television show. After that introduction to deadlines and editorial, he jumped into internships and learned how to use Avid, moving up to working on promos and then as an assistant at a big post-production commercial house.
After getting frustrated with the waiting game of working his way up from assistant, he transitioned to being a writer/producer/editor and did work for clients like Comedy Central and VH1. Director Rhys Thomas, who he knew socially and professionally, asked him if he wanted to give the SNL gig a try. "I said sure, got thrown into the fire, and it all worked out. No one got in any screaming matches or fights, and since then I've been brought back. At the end of the day though, I owe everything to Rhys for taking a chance on me."
Alex shoots the film spots on all different cameras, recently choosing the Red Epic Dragon for a complicated shoot. Adam cuts on a maxed out older style Mac Pro tower with an NVIDIA K5000 graphics card and accesses media through a fiber channel SAN, using the latest version of Adobe Creative Cloud. Each spot is color graded, gets a 5.1 mix, and is finished in Adobe Premiere Pro CC with less than a day of post-production, delivered sometimes just minutes before air. I spoke to Adam and Alex a couple days after they finished the Tony Scott style parody of Beyoncé's fandom, "The Beygency."
Andrew Garfield and Taran Killam in the Beygency skit on May 3, 2014. Photo by: Dana Edelson. © NBC
Creative COW: You're really working on a crazy timeline, so let's go through it each day, for production and post.
Alex Buono: Every week the writers are creating new sketch scripts from scratch leading up to a Wednesday table reading. All the writers, cast members, producers and department heads – including our director, Rhys – sit around a big table and read through dozens of sketches. By the end of the day they've picked about 12 sketches that are going to go up that week. Out of those 12 or so, one or two or sometimes even three of those will be deemed "pre-tapes".
It's roughly around 8 p.m. on a Wednesday night when Rhys gets the script selects. I'll get an email with the script and we'll start talking about it. It's usually a brief conversation but we've got to make some key decisions at that point: are we going to shoot this on a stage? Are we going to be building sets? Are we going to do this on location? These big bold questions you have to get answered right away.
I actually live in LA, so I have to fly to New York on Wednesday night. I arrive in New York on Thursday morning, get into the office at 9AM and we hit the ground running. From 9AM until it's done, it's kind of a dead sprint. Thursday is a prep day so you're scouting locations and booking crew and booking all your gear and putting together a shot list. We'll often shoot starting Friday morning. In the case of what we did with the "Beygency" spot, our call time was 5AM and we finished at about 2AM on Saturday morning. That's a little unusual, it was definitely a very long shoot.
Adam Epstein: This [Beygency] piece we just did, as far as scope and timeline, I think it was kind of the most nuts one yet, right Alex?
Buono: This one definitely felt pretty nuts, because we had basically a full day on stage and then once that was over, we had a full day on location, all within the same day.
Epstein: In the same way, I get the script from Rhys either Wednesday or Thursday and we'll touch on some things: tone examples, this is the trailer he's playing off, like that sort of Tony Scott suspense style Enemy of the State thing. We'll look at those things we want to use for touchstones. I get ahead of the game as far as pulling potential music cues or I'll read a temp VO, pulling sound effects, building temp titles, anything that kind of gets us ahead before it really starts.
This week I started getting the footage around 4 p.m. on Friday and then worked up until 3 a.m., got a few hours of sleep, came back on Saturday and then had to deliver a pretty much final cut to dress rehearsal by 8PM. We're also doing a full mix and a full telecine.
On set our long-time Film Unit producer, Justus Mclarty, is copying camera media cards over to a shuttle drive on set. He's getting that drive back to 30 Rock, where in-house editor and tech Matt Yonks puts it all up on our internal SAN where all the media lives, and I'm just taking raw footage and working with it straight from the get-go. At the same time, all the footage is consolidated and organized for our Colorist on a separate drive to do the eventual conform in whatever flavor that we choose to conform to. So for instance, this shoot was with the Dragon and we were shooting 5K files but the final master ends up being a 1920x1080 ProRes HQ for broadcast.
After the Dress Rehearsal at 8PM, there's usually a few change notes so we'll be doing a re-mix as well as over-cutting in all the master footage we're getting back from color correction. Then we output a final 5.1 mix and locked final color picture for air ideally ten minutes before it's supposed to be on. That's usually what we shoot for.
How are you communicating with the color house elsewhere in the city on such a tight deadline?
Epstein: On Friday or Saturday morning, wherever the cut is at, which is usually at a pretty temp place, I'll kick them out a reference picture along with an EDL. As the cut develops, I'm giving them updated cuts and updated shot requests. For the main delivery, they're sending over a drive with final color corrected shots, usually with 2-4 second handles on either side of everything. For the changes between dress and air, there's usually a handful of pickups and the colorist will just FTP us shots as needed.
How about the sound mix. Is that done in-house?
Epstein: We work with a couple great mixers, Devin Emke and Shane Conry who are in-house. Due to its trailer-style, this was a very sound design intense piece, so to save time, for dress we ended up using just the stereo mix that I'd been working with during the edit. For air, I send a rough pic and an OMF to mix, and then Rhys will go and watch everything down, make sure everything looks and sounds great, and then they'll kick out a 5.1 mix that will then get tied to final picture in the control room that plays it to air.
I've noticed a lot of visual effects and graphics in these spots, especially screen replacements. Do you do those on your own or send them out to someone?
Epstein: I often end up doing them just because of our timeline, but if it's something incredibly elaborate that needs a true GFX artist, we'll go out of house or use in-house talent like Edmond Hawkins. Before we started cutting in Premiere, I was having to kick out stuff, bring it back in, render it out...the normal FCP/Avid to After Effects workflow. So being able to keep everything linked the whole time is great with the combination of Premiere Pro, After Effects, a lot of Mocha tracking and screen replacement stuff. And it really varies from piece to piece so you're constantly having to stay flexible.
Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield during the Spiderman Kiss skit on May 3, 2014. Photo by: Dana Edelson. ©NBC.
There are so many different styles to these spots. Do you always use the same cameras and have an established workflow, or do you tend to change it up?
Buono: It actually changes every week. The Film Unit doesn't own any camera gear – we choose a camera that's appropriate for the job. Last week we used an Epic Dragon, the week before that we used a Sony F55, and the week before that we used an Alexa. One of the nice things about the show and what's so unique about it compared to most television shows is that every week is a completely new look and style.
The live show is a whole different story, and an incredible technical feat unto itself which I'm not involved in, but as far as the pre-tape spots go, each one is supposed to feel like the authentic thing that we're satirizing. We've gotten an opportunity to try out a lot of different cameras and formats, so I think Rhys and I both have a good feeling for, 'this one feels like an Alexa job, this one feels like the Dragon would be great, or this one feels like having the smaller form factor of a C300 would be great'.
It also speaks to what's so cool with working in Premiere Pro – Rhys and I can shoot on any format and Adam can deal with it. Even most recently when we're shooting with the Epic Dragon, it's got these massive files and I was definitely afraid it was going to take this tremendous amount of time to flip this footage into something we could cut. And Adam's like 'nope – I'm just dragging files into the timeline and we're cutting natively'.
There was this moment a couple seasons ago where we had to decide 'are we going to switch over [to Premiere Pro]?' At the time it was CS6, and there were just so many reasons that it made our lives so much easier. Most of those reasons are from Adam's perspective, but from my perspective as the cinematographer it's fantastic to know that in our crazy timelines, we can just choose whatever camera we think is appropriate. I don't have to worry that a different camera would be better but because of the post workflow we can't use that camera. I feel pretty much unlimited to choose whichever I think is the right tool which is amazing for what we do.
Epstein: I think one of the interesting things about the last few years especially: it's not that it's easier as far as being able to get stuff done early. No matter what we're working on, we're going to be working up until the last second because there's always going to be more that we can be doing.
For us it's not about getting done earlier as much as it's about getting more done within the same time frame. We're still going up to the deadline, but if you look at a piece now versus a piece four years ago, it's night and day as far as what we can get done and the quality of the cameras and the quality of the footage. That's a testament to not just technology but also to the skill of everyone in the Film Unit.
Did the advent of better digital workflows and cheaper cinema style shooting with DSLRs change the way the way the show was produced?
Buono: When I started in '99 we were still shooting on film stock and still dealing with the same turnaround, so we were shooting on film on Fridays and still had to put it on the air by Saturday night. After lab processing and telecine, it didn't leave much time for our director and editor to actually cut the spot before it had to broadcast! Anything beyond the most basic color correction was often out of the question.
Espstein: We immediately started embracing any digital medium that existed just to avoid the time consuming film processing and telecine so that we'd have more time in post. Through the mid-2000s, we shot on everything from MiniDV and HDV to the CineAlta and Varicam, but then there was this dramatic leap forward starting in 2009 with the DSLR 'accident' – that combination of the large image sensor with the camcorder. And then that sort of drove the next round of cine-style cameras that all had a large image sensor, small form factor, high ISO and file-based workflow.
DP Alex Buono enjoys the freedom of camera choice when delivering footage to Adobe Premiere.
Another thing happened that was a unique fundamental shift in the tone of the film spots. We had a changing of the guard in that our long time leader and producer/director of the film unit, James Signorelli, retired. In his shoes came Rhys Thomas – a very tech-savvy director in his early 30s who wanted to push the envelope with these spots and redefine our mission.
For years, there was this philosophy that there should be a little bit of a nod to the fact that these spots are parodies, a little hint letting the audience understand that this is not a real commercial. The thinking was: by doing that, the audience is in on the joke and they can laugh at it. And Rhys came with a totally different attitude which was 'no, I want these spots to look as authentic as possible'. And that was a big change. At that point, everything was to be as accurate as possible, as real as possible. If it's a movie trailer, it's going to look exactly like a movie. If it's a commercial, it's going to look exactly like a commercial. That made a huge difference, but with our timelines, our schedules, our equipment – how do we do these things? And a lot of that was only doable because of these huge leaps in both camera technology and post technology.
It seems like now you aren't held hostage by camera or workflow testing since you don't have time for it. That's a lot of confidence to have in something on such a quick deadline.
Buono: In the early days of 4K – and I mean like only four years ago – we definitely struggled. We tried out the Red One when it first came out and it was a real struggle on our timeline. Debayering and processing the footage just took so long. And slowly we've all – not just us, the whole industry – has figured out these workflow solutions.
Epstein: I think a lot of that can be attributed to this interesting and cool place that post is at: between the companies making the products and the creators that are actually using them, the timeline to incorporate things into the end product is faster than ever. For there to be a new camera or new codec and for it to not be quickly addressed seems anachronistic. There are always going to be problems, but compared to when we first started going HD when I was working in commercials, THAT was such an enormous pain in the ass. You got it done then, but compared to now? Things are just so seamless.
How has Premiere Pro evolved for you since you got onto CS5.5?
Epstein: When I started with the show, it was Final Cut. Then we tried out Premiere Pro 5.5 on one of the last shows for a really simple spot, just to see if it could work. Then the next season we started on CS6 in earnest. I know there's a lot of "controversy" surrounding a cloud-based system versus having a hard copy. Many people still want to hold a product in their hand and have the security in that, and I get that. But for me, having updates and little tweaks that editors actually use coming through frequent updates is the overriding factor. It just makes so much more sense, especially if you want to be staying on the bleeding edge of how things are going. There's obviously something to be said for having a system that is 100% rock solid and you know exactly how it is – me personally, I like to stay on whatever the newest stuff is. And I feel that's where the future is going to be going. Cameras, codecs – this is going to keep changing exponentially.
Buono: Adam and I actually haven't spoken since we finished the "Beygency" spot. Did you guys do very much 5K repositioning?
Epstein: We did a fair amount. Mainly to get impact punch-ins and stuff.
Buono: That's a great example of why we're sometimes shooting 4K. On our insane timelines, shooting 4K – in this case 5K – gives Adam and Rhys the options to zoom-in and/or reframe as needed. In the case of the "Beygency" spot, we were shooting a scene between Bobby Moynihan and Andrew Garfield. It was our last scene, 2AM, everyone was exhausted and Andrew was feeling a little under the weather. We had to get it done in one setup. We shot it with two cameras in two medium shots so that Rhys and Adam could take it from there and reframe however needed. That's an example where being able to work with and easily conform 4K or 5K native files within our ridiculous half a day timeline, gives us so many more options.
It seems with this level of flexibility in the various tools, you can focus a lot more on the story part of things within the day or so you have.
Buono: Put it this way: Lorne Michaels once famously said that the show doesn't go on because it's ready, it goes on because it's 11:30. And where we were at 11:30 a few years ago is a lot further behind than we are now. We're always going to work up to the last second. We're always going to feel like we could do more. We'll probably all always feel like we could really use another day on this. But by working with these new tools – and Premiere Pro is a great example of it – we can actually get so much more done. A few years ago we were feeling like: that's about 60% of where we want it to be. Maybe now it's at 90%.
Epstein: This [Beygency] job in theory would have been a perfect four-day edit. That would have been great. On our timeline there's no time to take a step away, let it settle and think about it for a bit, and come back with clear eyes and a fresh perspective. There's no time for that 15-minute walk during the day, letting your sub-brain come up with something else. When you start it, you're going full speed as fast as you can for 16 hours nonstop. It's kind of crazy in one way, but it's also liberating versus when we're working on another project like a commercial and you have a month on the edit for a :30 or :60 second spot and you're like, "What the hell are we gonna do to fill that time?"
Have you figured out your own method to get a fresh perspective on an edit in the tight deadline, or are you just making decisions and moving on right away?
Epstein: Just make a decision. The thing I like about that is you don't have time for the over-think. It's improv, for lack of a better word. We're at a point where everything is based mainly on feel, because there's no time to really overthink. If something is working, and everyone agrees, then that's it.
Since so many writers and cast members involved in the show come from an improv background, what kind of improvisation or creative leeway do you have on the set or in the edit?
Buono: I think that's a really great way of putting it. When you hear the word improv, you think about that comedy style, but it's really a great way of putting this filmmaking style. When you have no time and you're just told 'here's our location, come up with a way to shoot the scene', from my perspective on the production side, it feels like constant improv. Like, okay we had this plan but ten things changed since the plan started, so here's the new plan.
The other interesting thing is that we've got writers on set with us. The writers may have finished re-writing the spot the morning that we're shooting or even while we're still shooting it – if a joke isn't landing, they're coming up with a better joke while we're shooting it. They'll be throwing out alternate lines as we're rolling. Their alternate idea might mean we have to shoot the scene a little differently. There' a lot of improvisation from my end.
Epstein: I would say the nice thing is if you can put out an idea for something in the edit and it works and people see that it works, then it's in. And the good thing is everyone is coming from the same place. At the end of the day, everyone has the same goal: make the best piece we can.
Andrew Garfield, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Kiefer Sutherland in the Beygency skit on May 3, 2014. Photo by: Dana Edelson. ©NBCUniversal Media, LLC
There is this theory in creativity that constraint breeds better creative ideas, and you definitely have constraints with your deadline and the various pieces you're given at the start of each production. Do you feel like this helps you work?
Epstein: Personally I enjoy it. I've explained it to people that the process at the show is like a drug in every sense of the word. It feels great when you're doing it, but it's also unhealthy and addictive. You want to keep coming back to it. The constraint and timeline is the thing that brings that feeling out. I like it because you feel very alive in the moments because you have to be focusing as intensely as you can for an extended period of time. And a lot of times I'll look at something we did a little bit ago and not even remember how it happened.
A lot of improv is all about trusting one another to get you somewhere. What does that mean for the atmosphere on set and in post, now that you've been working together for several years?
Buono: The atmosphere on set is surprisingly calm. We're lucky to have a very cool-under-pressure director in Rhys, but a lot of it also has to do with the fact that as a team, we've done this together so many times. If you brought in a totally new crew I think they might freak out. But since we've done it so many times we know we're going to make it. And we also know instinctively if we're in trouble, if we're not gonna make the day and we need to change our plans. Even this last weekend shoot with so much to accomplish, we kind of all knew how we were going to get it done. It's all this kind of controlled chaos.
Epstein: That is exactly the phrase I was going to use. In the edit, with the writers and producers coming in, I try to keep the mood as light as possible. I try to keep any sort of panic in my own head initially, and try to power through while keeping everyone at ease. That being said, there's definitely been plenty of times, especially right up to delivery, where it's myself and Rhys in the room and we definitely need to get this out in the next minute and twenty seconds or we're pretty screwed.
Buono: It's very important to make sure people don't panic. And that YOU don't panic – that you don't start to project the voice of panic because that'll just infect everybody. It's also been a long process of building a team that is cool under pressure. One of the things I reflect on is the fact that at the end of the day all that really matters is that these spots are funny. We do our best and we really want them to look as good as possible. We wanted last week's spot to look exactly like a Tony Scott film. But as long as it's funny, that's all that really matters. As a cinematographer, you can stand in the way of performance if you're not careful. If you take too long to light the set, if you set up a shot that's way too elaborate and it takes too many takes to nail it, that in turn could mean that the director and cast don't get the time they need. Our job is always to serve the performance and if you're inhibiting the performance then you're doing the wrong thing.
Epstein: We've worked on enough stuff and I've spent so many hours in the room working with Rhys that there's a shorthand as far as knowing what's working. We're lucky also that we have very similar taste as far as what we find funny. If you're working with someone new, a lot of that process is less about the actual piece you're working on and more about figuring out the other person's brain and how they work. Here, that's established and then some, so it lets us be not really precious about what we're thinking or moving with, and it just gets done within the madness of it all. In that regard, I never take for granted how lucky I am to get to work with someone like Rhys.
Adam Epstein and film unit director Rhys Thomas.
All this madness and intensity must take a bit of a physical toll on you?
Epstein: I'm an extrovert naturally and I like running around and being active. With post in general, while I love it, the actual act of sitting and being still is very counter to my normal nature. It's hard, but we've done it enough that I know on a Saturday morning, about an hour in, I'm going to be getting an insane headache that basically hits at the same time every week. I know that that's coming.
Buono: For me, it's a job that's basically Thursday through Saturday. I measure the physical toll in how many days it takes for me to recover. I have to be ready to come back the next Wednesday night, so hopefully by Monday I've gotten enough sleep and rest that I'm sort of back to being a human. I was absolutely a zombie on Saturday all day and most of yesterday (Sunday).
Epstein: I slept until 3PM Sunday. Today I'm working from home, but we're working on the movie Rhys directed over the summer ("Staten Island Summer"). We've been doubling up between that and the show, so the first half of the week we're working on the movie and Rhys goes to start the SNL process, and then I would work on the movie until Friday and start the SNL weekend, then continue that. So juggling that is definitely not the healthiest thing, but it's better to be busy than bored.
The instant gratification of these spots must also make it worthwhile. I see these being passed around the internet almost immediately, or shown at the office on Monday morning, even by people who aren't staying up to watch the live show.
Epstein: I'm not gonna lie, it never gets less fun. For me, what I find most exciting is less seeing it up on Hulu and seeing number counts and stuff. It's the times when we finish something early enough that when we deliver it, Rhys and I will go out on the floor and hear the live audience react to it.
To me, that's fun because I can't think of another place where you're getting an audience to react to something that you literally finished five minutes ago.
Buono: Filmmaking and live theater have always been at the opposite ends of the time spectrum. I don't know where else this has ever existed, where you can make a film and get the same kind of immediate audience gratification you get from live theater. Most of the time, you shoot something and it's a month or six months or a year later that you get the audience reaction – and you're often kind of over it by that point. But here, you're still so excited about it, you haven't had a moment to get burned out. And there they are reacting to it. That is really fun. There's nothing else like that.
Epstein: I never don't appreciate how unique it is.
Buono: It's also gratifying in ways that are hard to even explain to people, like today, Beyoncé herself posted on Instagram her approval of [The Beygency] spot. That's awesome. We did a parody of Girls, Lena Dunham's show, and Lena Dunham tweeted out – in the moment – how much she loved it. It's just this weird immediate sensation that you are living inside of pop culture. It's unique and I can't think of any other place where that could happen.
Now that you've done so many of these spots on this compressed timeline, you must have learned a lot about making things happen so quickly. What kind of advice do you have for people on deadlines?
Buono: One of the things I tell myself is that this job is not about this one shot. This is about the whole day. I'm not shooting a scene, I'm shooting an entire script. You can kill a whole day if you get lost thinking: 'the lighting on this has to be perfect and I'm not shooting until it's perfect.'. That's a lesson that is difficult to learn. In the fast turn environment that we're in, you make it as good as you can in the time you have, and then you have to start shooting. For me, it's about being cool with that and being happy with how it looks given all of the obstacles.
Epstein: Agreed. From my end of things from a perfection standpoint, a lot of people in post put a lot of emphasis into gear and tricks and technique, and that's great. You need that as a solid base. But I think that the thing that will eventually make you the most successful isn't the technique in specific software based stuff. That should be in service of the kind of broader perspective of whether or not something is actually working.
Do you feel this is right versus do I know specifically this plugin. I think it's more about your gut and your head than about a fast set of shortcuts.
Buono: One of the big milestones you reach as a cinematographer, or at least I did, is that point early in your career where you become so obsessed with doing certain trademark shots – the sweeping crane shot, the Scorsese-style long tracking shot, etc.
Eventually there's a point where you realize, if we shoot a 30-second choreographed Steadicam shot right now, it's not like the editor is going to use it. He can't use it. He needs like 5 seconds, 2 seconds, or 12 frames. And so there's no point in my wasting four hours blocking a perfect steadicam master when he only needs 12 frames. Or if we're doing a shot and there's a minor bump in the track, I know Adam can stabilize that so we don't need to do it again.
As a cinematographer, there's a lot to understanding what the editor actually needs. Like: do I need a smooth continuous take or will he never in a million years use a smooth continuous take. I can't tell you how many times I've done shots where I've got the crane out and you do this complex move and then we end up using the last five seconds of it where it might as well be a tripod.
As a cinematographer, starting to understand how things are edited will enable you to not waste all your time and budget playing with all these toys when the editor is not even going to use the footage. Understanding what the editor needs is a big step in the right direction.
If you're on a production and already have an editor, it's a good idea for the cinematographer and editor to actually meet each other and have a dialogue with the director about the shotlist and how you're covering a scene. That's a conversation that too often doesn't happen.
Epstein: The more we support each other the better, the smoother the process and the better the final product. It's a mutual appreciation society sort of thing.
If you'd like to learn more from Adam Epstein, check out his post production workshop tour this summer: www.cuttingedge.mzed.com
SNL – "The Beygency" Edit Timelapse from Adam Epstein on Vimeo.