Saturday Night Live's Film Unit
Alex Buono, the cinematographer behind Saturday Night Live's Film Unit, discusses his work.
It’s 5:30 p.m., and Saturday Night Live Film Unit director of photography Alex Buono is calmly metering a Christmas tree on Stage 6A at 30 Rock. It’s just 30 hours until broadcast, and they’re only now beginning the shoot for “Now That’s What I Call Christmas,” an album-promo parody with guest host Jimmy Fallon and SNL cast imitating everyone from Shakira to Axl Rose singing traditional holiday ditties.
Two spanking new 6K Red Epic Dragons are on stage—one on dolly, the other slung from a Scorpio 23' telescopic crane. Today is their baptism by fire. Not only is this their SNL debut; it’s their premiere on broadcast TV.
Film Unit director/producer Rhys Thomas inspects the image on a TVLogic monitor. “It’s definitely got more dynamic range than the Epic,” he comments to Buono, who nods as he spins the Scorpio ControlHead handwheel. But final judgment won’t be passed until they see whether the workflow survives their unforgiving schedule: Thursday prep; Friday shoot; Saturday broadcast. “We’re such a great test lab for workflow, because we’re the ones who determine, ‘Can you do this overnight?’ ” Buono says, who is in his 15th season on the show..
Indeed, the SNL Film Unit is among the earliest adaptors of camera technology in American television, thanks to its need to create a constant stream of parodies that lampoon commercials, movie trailers, and music videos.
For instance, the show utilized a pre-release Canon EOS 7D for the ad parody “Bladdivan,” a pre-release Red Epic-M Monochrome for the ad parody “Brad Pitt for Chanel No. 5,” and a just-released Freely Movi M10 gyro-stabilized rig for “Stefon’s Farewell,” a send-off to Bill Hader modeled on The Graduate. For the fake allergy-medication spot “Flaritan” and four subsequent spots, the Film Unit was among the first to use the Canon C500 to capture 4K with three then-new external recorders: the Codex, Gemini 4:4:4, and Ki Pro Quad.
Why risk trying new technology on a breakneck schedule? “It’s totally motivated by the question, Can this make our lives easier?—because the workflow is faster; or the dynamic range is so much wider that I don’t have to light as much, so we can move faster; or it’s got so many more options for slow motion that we don’t have to bring in a second camera,” says Buono, now in his 15th season. “It’s always that we feel, ‘Aha! Someone just invented the perfect camera for this thing we’re doing. Let’s try it!’ ”
It wasn’t always this way. [...]
Published in the March 2014 issue of American Cinematographer.