Saturday Night Live with DP Alex Buono… on a Sunday

What does a director of photography do when he completes his 15th season working on the Film Unit of Saturday Night Live and he has some free time on his hands? In Alex Buono‘s case, he goes on the road to over 30 cities to talk about how he helps to create the fake commercials, the show’s opening title sequences and other non-live elements of the show.

I was lucky enough to be in attendance when The Art of Visual Storytelling Tour came through Chicago this past Sunday. It was a pleasure to hear Alex speak about his experiences as a DP and how SNL manages to shoot, edit, color correct and finish, one or more shorts a week for the show, and do it all in less than two days. Every week.

He’s currently five cities into the tour, which combines discussions of the cameras he has used in the last few years as well as using one of SNL’s fake commercials, British Movie Trailer, to actually run through of his process from the initial table read (five people in our group stood in for Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Nasim Padrad, Fred Armisen and that week’s host, Russell Brand) to planning the shots for the Friday shoot day, including creating the lighting set-ups on an actual set the tour has brought with it.

SNL's Film Unit DP Alex Buono recreates the lighting for the parody commercial "Red Flag"

SNL’s Film Unit DP Alex Buono recreates the lighting for the parody commercial “Red Flag”

It was a great opportunity to see exactly how Alex manages to complete anywhere from 15 to 40 shots in a day in multiple locations, with a cast simultaneously preparing for a live show the next day. He broke down the example script into shot lists and discussed some of the challenges of shooting, including having no time for weather days, for example, when Louie C.K. was the host the week during hurricane Sandy. The plan was to shoot a Lincoln parody of his sit-com Louie, with Louie playing Abraham Lincoln as a stand-up comic.

Alex explained that Louie really wanted to replicate all the locations he had used in the intro to his own show. However, all the locations were suffering from the blackout and were completely without electricity. None of the locations they were going to shoot at had any power. Completely dark.

But they managed to pull it off anyway, by bringing a generator to power up the first building, a pizza joint where Louie grabs a slice, getting the shot, moving the production and the power to the next location, and repeating the process again and again. A great story.

When Alex initially joined SNL’s Film Unit, the production was shooting on 35mm film. As technology changed over the years, Alex was always looking for opportunities to maximize the insanely short production schedule of the show and expand the artistic choices he wanted to make visually. He became well-known in the industry for pioneering some of the earliest broadcast television uses of the constantly evolving new digital cameras. In 2009, he used the Canon 5D Mark II, the first DSLR still camera that could also shoot video, to create that year’s cast opening title sequence.

“Kenan Thompson said he wanted to be shot on the Brooklyn Bridge in the middle of the night and I was like, um… that’s great Kenan… yeah… sure. The Brooklyn Bridge at night with no film lights,” Alex began.

But after doing some tests with the 5D MkII, he was surprised to discover that the camera’s large still photography sensor, and it’s giant sponge-like, light collecting ability, shooting at ISO 1600 could actually produce a beautiful usable moving image with only the street lights on the bridge. Shooting with wide open apertures of ƒ1.4 to ƒ2.8 produced a very cinematic depth of field with minimal camera support set ups, at night, in only available light or with very minimal battery powered artificial support light.

He also realized that the small form factor of that particular camera allowed him to quickly and easily shoot the 12 cast members more discretely, and in the locations of their choice, without the production slowing crowds of people and other unwanted attention that a larger crew and traditional film lights on the streets of Manhattan would normally attract. Kenan got his Brooklyn Bridge shot and Alex had helped to revolutionize the tool set of cinematographers everywhere.

These days, Alex’s cameras of choice include the Canon C300, C500 and the new 1D C.

Using an umbrella reflector to recreate the sophisticated look for Kristen Wiig's character in "Red Flag"

Using an umbrella reflector to recreate the sophisticated look for Kristen Wiig’s character in “Red Flag”

Back to the tour. After recreating a few more of the lighting and camera set-ups for parody spots such as Red Flag and Rosetta Stone, we took a dinner break and returned for what may have been my favorite part of the wonderfully long day, we put the gear away, and settled in for a three-hour, in-depth discussion about Visual Structure and the craft of cinematography. Alex took us through his own personal experiences in dealing with the visual components of any image: space, line, shape, color, tone, movement and rhythm. I had to smile as Alex called up examples from some of my favorite directors, such as the Coen Brothers, Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, David Fincher and Wes Anderson to illustrate the various points he was making.

During one of the breaks during the day, I spoke with Alex about how he managed to walk the tightrope of structuring the tour in a way that wasn’t too over the heads of the emerging DPs in attendance without boring those of us with more cinematography experience. For me, it’s always interesting to hear another point of view and perspective. I know how I do it. But how does he do it? I enjoy adding things I hadn’t previously thought of to my own bag of tricks. I told him he somehow managed to thread that difficult needle between too basic and too advanced in a very unexpected and inspiring way. He said he appreciated that.

Did I mention that in addition to being a generous share-er of information he’s just a great guy in general? No? Well he is. One of the good ones.

Alex Buono - The Art of Visual Storytelling Tour

Alex Buono – The Art of Visual Storytelling Tour

If any of this interests you, gentle reader, the tour is continuing through more than two dozen additional cities in North America through August when SNL begins to gear up for another season. And if you missed Chicago or any of the previous dates or if the tour isn’t coming to a city near you, Alex is planning to record one of the upcoming tour sessions, both the technical workshop and the evening Visual Structure discussion, for DVDs that can be purchased here.

All in all it was a great day of inspiration. I recommend checking it out if you create or want to create more compelling moving images.

You can also follow Alex on Twitter: @AlexBuono

As always, I like to add that I have no connection with the producers of The Art of Visual Storytellers Tour. I just like to pass things like this along to anyone who is interested.

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