Saturday Night Live's New Look And How They Did It

Saturday Night Live's New Look And How They Did It

Alex Buono, member of the SNL's film unit, helped produce one of the coolest title sequences ever using time-lapsing, light writing, freelensing, and other effects. The show is celebrating their 40th season so they wanted this sequence to be classic and iconic, a little dressed-up, and typography integrated into the cityscape. 

The director, Rhys Thomas, spent the summer collaborating with the logo design team at Pentragram Design, led by Emily Oberman, and portrait photographer, Mary Ellen Mathews, on a new logo and font design along with a set of mood-boards to experiment with the overall tone of the sequence.  Buono explains the method and practices for capturing this series below. For more information please visit his site here.

"Rhys and I – along with film unit producer Justus McLarty — brainstormed a list of in-camera techniques to test: slow-motion, tilt-shift, black & white, long-exposure motion blur, double-exposures, light-writing, timelapse, strobe photography, aerial photography, infrared photography, optical aberrations, anamorphic distortions, prism-distortions, etc.  This was quickly shaping up to be a venture into experimental photography and I admit to being a little nervous about whether the execs at the show were going to think that we had stepped off the deep end. Bear in mind, our job is not to just create a cool montage of New York-y imagery set to music.  The most important task is to introduce the audience to our cast members – in this case, all fifteen of them – and serve as an energetic warm-up for the show.

Shooting fifteen different portraits is a tall order and, in years past, the approach has often been to corral the entire cast to one location — a cool bar, a rooftop party scene, a hip nightclub, etc – and shoot everyone out in one long shoot day.  Then, in 2009, we took a very different approach, shooting each cast member in a unique night exterior location.  This idea happened to coincide with the DSLR-revolution; I shot the entire sequence with a Canon 5DmII, which was the only way we could have captured all of those verite-style, low-light night exteriors at the time.  The 2009 sequence lasted three seasons, replaced in 2012 for Season 38 with a new sequence directed by Mary Ellen Matthews that took a studio portrait photography approach.  For this 40th anniversary season, Rhys wanted to return to the energy of shooting each cast member out-and-about in the city, even going to the extent of asking each cast member for location ideas: “Is there a place in the city where you’d like to shoot your portrait?” – offering the cast members creative investment in the title sequence and resulting in a really fun collaboration.

The other element of a new title sequence that we have to deliver are the show’s “bumpers” – the interstitial shots that run between the commercial breaks.  So in addition to the fifteen unique cast member locations, we had to come up with a minimum of ten unique bumpers, plus all of the b-roll footage to intercut with the portraits for the montage – all of which must adhere to our new in-camera, lo-fi manifesto.  This was getting complicated…

Rhys, Justus and I, along with our coordinators Melanie Bogin and Tom Carley, and office PA / research whiz-kid Louis Leuci, spent about a week brainstorming locations and testing in-camera techniques, including one rather absurd light-writing experiment involving a whisk stuffed with steel wool, doused in lighter fluid and set ablaze (that idea is still in development).  We quickly figured out that while some techniques were super cool, if we shot the cast members that way, this would quickly look more like a post-modern video installation than an SNL title sequence, so we limited our portraiture to only the most flattering techniques and relegated the more experimental ideas to either b-roll or bumpers.

For the cast, that meant two basic techniques: anamorphic lenses subtly distorted through prisms and…lens-whacking.  So let’s just get this out of the way: lens-whacking is not the coolest term.  Something just doesn’t feel great about saying, “Alright – the lighting looks perfect — now let’s do some lens-whacking!”  So instead, let’s go with the lesser-used term for the same technique: freelensing.  

For those of you in the dark on this concept, FREELENSING (or, ugh, lens-whacking), is a technique where you hold an unattached lens up to the camera’s lens port and manually focus the shot by moving the lens closer or further from the camera.  The technique allows stray light to leak into the port and flare the image, along with creating focus-distortions similar to tilt-shift and macro lenses.  The effect is incredibly volatile; the image is constantly shifting, refracting the optics and internal mechanics of the iris within flare-patterns.  It’s quite gorgeous with the exact kind of analog vibe that we were going for.

A word of caution: this is not the most camera or lens-friendly technique.  Not only is your camera’s sensor completely exposed to dust and moisture but you could accidentally strike the sensor with the rear element of your lens, say nothing of the risk of scratching or dropping your lens.  Some lenses are definitely much better for this than other lenses, and needless to say, I did not attempt to whack a Leica Summilux-C.  Well, okay – I tried it once but thought better of it…

Our camera package came from TSC, where owners Eric and Oliver Schietinger were a huge help in putting together a set of vintage lenses for me.  These were relatively small, Arri-bayonet mount lenses — some of which pre-dated the 1970s.  The size of the lenses was perfect for freelensing — the rear elements could easily fit loosely within the camera’s lens port with plenty of air-space for light-leaks but just large enough that I couldn’t accidentally strike the image sensor.  The set included: Zeiss Distagon 16mm and 24mm, Zeiss Planar 50mm, Cooke Panchro 25mm and 100mm, Kilfit Muchen 90mm Macro and a Zeiss Superspeed 50mm with the unique triangular iris pattern of the earliest generation Zeiss lenses.  I found the 50mm Planar the most successful, though I liked the 90mm for close ups.  Believe it or not, we shot almost all of the cast portraits using this technique: tiny old lenses from the pre-70s, unattached to the camera and hand-manipulated to find focus and allow light-leaks.  In fact, we often created more extreme light-leaks by flaring the sensor with practical lights and even flashlights.

We also carried a set of anamorphic lenses to shoot a clean safety on the cast members in case this freelensing thing ended up looking waaaay too kooky once edited together.  We still wanted the anamorphics to have an optically deconstructed vibe so we tested a set of Japanese-made Kowa Prominar lenses – also dating back to the 70s – which had tremendous flares and haze.  They looked amazing but became unavailable at the last second so we opted for a set of the brand new Spanish-made Scorpiolens 2x anamorphics by Servicevision, which are lightweight and gorgeous but a bit too clean for the look we wanted so I held a glass triangular prism in front of them to create refraction patterns and distortions.

Another big hurdle for this freelensing technique was that I wanted to be handheld.  Going handheld with a full size cinema camera while hand-holding a tiny lens and manually finding focus turned out to be pretty tricky.  I knew an Easyrig would help manage the weight of the camera but I’ve never been super happy with the mechanics of an Easyrig.  This device combines a Steadicam-like vest with an overhead arm and spring-loaded cord with a hook that grabs the camera from the top-handle and distributes the camera’s weight into your hips.  It’s a little goofy-looking but it’s an incredible back-saver – vital for anyone hoping for longevity in this biz.  Don’t ruin your back, my friends — your future-self will thank me!  Having said that, operating with an Easyrig can be limiting due to the pendulum effect created by the tension cord.  You can’t really tilt or roll the camera without fighting the cord, and the cord tension can sometimes amplify the bounce/bump of your footstep when walking with the camera."

To read more and see behind the scenes photos and final videos click here.

Lindsey Pantaleo's picture

Lindsey Pantaleo is a wedding and high school senior photographer based in Central Missouri.

Log in or register to post comments
1 Comment

It's almost like the crew checked out Sam Hurd's blog of photography techniques right before the shoot :)