SNL’s Digital Evolution

Saturday Night Live. A weekly network television tradition. An iconic proving ground for generations of top comedic entertainers. The basic format of SNL hasn’t changed much since its debut in 1975: topical humor about what’s happening at the moment. The opening sketch ends with "Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!" Cue the opening title sequence, applause and guest monologue. "We’ve got a great show for you tonight," is followed by a commercial parody. Enter the SNL Film Unit, where Alex Buono has served as a director of photography since the late 1990s. Almost every week, the Film Unit team is faced with shooting a parody commercial spot that will need to emulate the original as closely as possible, but with a far smaller budget, crew, resources and, most significantly, far less time.

The SNL Film Unit crew (pictured) are responsible for anything on the show that isn’t performed live.

"The Film Unit is essentially responsible for anything on the show that isn’t performed live," says Buono, "including the title sequence, commercial parodies, short films and pretaped segments of live sketches. Any given show might include two, three, sometimes four film scripts. And I should add, I’m not the only film unit DP, of course. Every week at SNL essentially starts from scratch. The incredible writing staff and producers spend the first half of the week creating a new show from whole cloth. By Wednesday evening, the lineup of sketches is selected, and that’s when SNL Film Unit Director/Producer Rhys Thomas finds out which film scripts are greenlit for that week."

At that point, Thomas, along with production manager Justus McLarty and a small staff, begin their weekly producing scramble. Buono is emailed the script Wednesday night, and by the time he arrives the next morning, the team is already moving at full speed as their sole day of prep becomes a blur of location scouting, art department wrangling, schedule logistics, equipment orders and crew staffing. "Typically, we’ll always have a base crew of film unit veterans on hold—first AC, key grip and gaffer," explains Buono. "Then, depending on the scale of the script, the size of the crew may vary from that of a typical commercial shoot with a crew of a few dozen, all the way down to a skeleton crew of just Rhys, me and a DSLR."

Buono shot many of the 2009 and 2010 commercial parodies with a Canon EOS 7D.

Buono notes that time is always the biggest pressure. "Shooting on Friday for broadcast on Saturday is an enormous challenge, and compounding that is the insane schedule that our cast members somehow heroically maintain—bouncing between multiple film shoots along with the other dozen or so sketches they have to rehearse all in the same day."

The limited availability of talent has been a notable factor in Buono’s mind-set about gear. "My overriding goal has been an evolution toward flexibility," he says. "Working with so many great writers, performers and guest hosts, we have to be able to react to improvisation quickly. The last thing I want to tell the director or writers is, ‘I need another 20 minutes to re-light if we want to shoot it that way.’

In the continual pursuit of efficiency, during the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Buono embraced the DSLR format, shooting the SNL title sequence using the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and many of the season’s commercial parodies with the Canon EOS 7D. "We loved the filmic look and low-light sensitivity of DSLRs, along with the small footprint," explains Buono, "but the downside is that they’re made for still photography, not cinematography. They lack some of the essential features of production cameras, such as timecode, SDI outputs and XLR inputs, so working with them has always involved a bit of jury-rigging."