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Guest Post - Adam Epstein: Why Creative People Need Interpersonal Skills

While technical know-how is a necessity, being able to navigate the interpersonal and collaborative aspects of creative work is potentially far more important for finding success as an editor/filmmaker/designer/fluffer/anything. Here are some tricks I've learned.

Somewhere deep in space, boundless light-years away, there is a perfect planet, bold in the ether. Apart from the pleasant breezes, ample parking, and personal flying massage unicorns, it is perfect because on this world, the only opinion that matters is yours. Your creative whims are never challenged, there are no political hierarchies to navigate or superiors to please, and fragile egos are implausible bogeymen whispered about around alien campfires.

Every so often, a representative from this world hops on their unicorn and rockets to Earth. We celebrate their arrival, allowing them to maintain their rarified alien lifestyle. But the journey from their world to ours is a treacherous one, so only a very, very small group survives the trek to terra firma. We refer to them as “Studio Heads.” Or “Coen Brothers.”

When you’re working with someone, or especially FOR someone, there are going to be notes.

For the rest of us that are not from beyond the cosmos, the realities of Earth-bound ego and creative compromise are unavoidable. When you’re working with someone, or especially FOR someone, there are going to be notes. And personality differences. And more notes. While technical know-how is, of course, a necessity, being able to navigate the interpersonal and collaborative aspects of creative work is potentially far more important for finding success as an editor/filmmaker/designer/fluffer/anything.

There are countless books and manuals that can teach you the ins and out of editing software and techniques, but I’ve yet to find the chapter that covers how to be cordial, or swallow your pride, or maintain a loose, pleasant vibe in the room at 4AM when the coffee shakes have taken over and everyone starts to look like a tweaked-out, face-melting ghoul from The Devil’s Advocate.

(original source: http://tribecafilm.com/stories/why-creative-people-need-interpersonal-skills-collaboration)

You’re going to (often) be wrong about things – can you deal with that graciously? Do the living, breathing, opinionated people you’re working with actually want to spend long, stress-filled hours in a room with you? How do you go about picking your battles? Have you noticed that none of the above has anything to do with actually editing? Have you figured out how it’s sometime best to say nothing? And when you do decide to take a stand for something you feel strongly about, are you a blunt, ego-driven asshole that turns people off, killing what might have been the “right” idea, or can you have a more nuanced, Jedi mind-trick style of persuasion where you’re willing to forgo credit in order to service a better outcome? Ideally, you end up saving people from themselves without them ever realizing it happened. Gotcha! These WERE the droids you were looking for, sucker! Just kidding, you’re the best.

Tensions and frustrations grow from situations where expectations don’t jive with reality.

First off, try to recognize and make the most out of where you stand in the hierarchy of a project. Why are you there? Understanding how the people you’re working with view you and your potential contributions is important when figuring out boundaries and maintaining balanced egos. Were you brought in for your specific voice and unique creative input, or does a producer want a button pusher to execute their rigid vision? Tensions and frustrations grow from situations where expectations don’t jive with reality – you were expecting to be the artistic visionary, they were expecting someone who cut to a different shot of the horse when the tall dude standing behind you said “now.” Is that a terrible way to work? Of course. But is it a real thing that some, very precious people expect? Another of course!

Often times the best way to get something you believe in across is to go ahead, do it, and then show it -- if it’s good, people tend to go with it.

Both you and the director/clients/etc you’re working with hopefully share the goal of getting what you’re working on to the best place it can be – you might just differ in how you think that goal should be reached. It should be a discussion that comes from a position of mutual respect and a willingness to listen and consider. If you’re working with people who are honest with their opinions but don’t take things personally, of course go ahead and give suggestions or challenge notes, but make sure to be able to articulate your reasons and be able to demonstrate why something does or doesn’t work. Often times the best way to get something you believe in across is to go ahead, do it, and then show it -- if it’s good, people tend to go with it.

But unless a project is yours and yours alone, or you are one of those unicorn-riding space lords, at the end of the day, the clients/director/groupies will have the final say. And that’s the way it should be -- it’s their name on the project, and therefore their stakes are that much higher. My favorite illustration of this is from Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance from 1981. Brooks plays a film editor working on a sci-fi picture. At one point, he makes what he feels is a breakthrough on a section of the movie that might have been a little too on the nose. James L. Brooks (who’s most likely one of the aliens we talked about before) plays the director of the film. The back and forth is perfect:

The hair and the gear may be outdated, but that dynamic still lives in the edit room - which, by the way, needs a new radically new setup

That perfect planet might have sounded appealing at first, but it’s only later on, years after you hitched a ride there on some rogue unicorn, that you realize a harsh truth: When you’re working well with others, there are no limits to what you can make together. But if your opinion is the only one being heard, the heights you can reach are limited by you and the fact that you’re…just…one…person. TWILIGHT ZONE TWIST!!!

The hair and the gear may be outdated, but that dynamic still lives in the edit room - which, by the way, needs a new radically new setup

That perfect planet might have sounded appealing at first, but it’s only later on, years after you hitched a ride there on some rogue unicorn, that you realize a harsh truth: When you’re working well with others, there are no limits to what you can make together. But if your opinion is the only one being heard, the heights you can reach are limited by you and the fact that you’re…just…one…person. TWILIGHT ZONE TWIST!!!

The hair and the gear may be outdated, but that dynamic still lives in the edit room - which, by the way, needs a new radically new setup

That perfect planet might have sounded appealing at first, but it’s only later on, years after you hitched a ride there on some rogue unicorn, that you realize a harsh truth: When you’re working well with others, there are no limits to what you can make together. But if your opinion is the only one being heard, the heights you can reach are limited by you and the fact that you’re…just…one…person. TWILIGHT ZONE TWIST!!!

Guest Post - Alex Buono: How We Did It SNL "The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders"

Part of the fun of writing this HOW WE DID IT for the SNL short film “The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders” will be finding out how we actually did it, because quite honestly, it’s all kind of a blur…

Let’s start at the beginning.

This spot was simply titled, “New Horror Trailer” and when I first glanced at the script on a Wednesday night, I figured it was going to be a Halloween-appropriate horror film spoof. It wasn’t until the 2nd page that the voiceover reveals: “From the twisted mind of…Wes Anderson”. Wait – this is a Wes Anderson parody? Hell yes! And right off the bat, I gotta give props to writers John Solomon, Rob Klein, Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider for this keenly observed mash-up of a classic home-invasion horror with the hand-crafted charm of a Wes Anderson film.

For those of you who attended my Visual Storytelling workshop, you know that I spent a fair amount of time deconstructing the work of Wes Anderson. Needless to say, I could not have been more excited to take-on the parody challenge of emulating one of my favorite filmmakers. This is the kind of SNL spot I live for.

Very quickly, however, it became clear that this was going to be a very different type of challenge. Wes Anderson is one of the most idiosyncratic filmmakers of our time; his style is so unique that you might think it would be easy to satirize. But here’s the problem: turns out everyone has a different opinion about what MOST distinguishes Wes Anderson’s style. Is it the limited color palette? Flat space camera moves? Symmetrical compositions? Snap-zooms? Twee, hand-crafted art direction? Slow-motion walking shots? Clearly it’s all of those things and more, but within the limited context of a trailer, which are the most important signatures to include? And within a subculture as film-literate as the writers and producers of SNL, we were surrounded by astute Wes Anderson connoisseurs. Suddenly this spot had morphed from something I was dying to shoot into something I was terrified to shoot!

One thing was immediately clear: there is no way we were going to find a location that would look enough like Wes Anderson’s “World” – we would have to build sets. The script called for a living room, kitchen and bedroom, along with a handful of tableau sets for character introductions (such as “closet full of antique typewriters”) – all of which we could build on stage. But the script starts with a misdirect — a classic horror trailer setup: the spooky night exterior of a cabin in the woods being descended upon by shadowy intruders – which we knew we could NOT shoot on stage. Also bear in mind: the SNL office is in the middle of midtown Manhattan…not exactly the prime spot to find a “cabin in the woods” location.

There was, however, one clever option that we had previously employed on a spot from last season – another trailer parody, “Djesus Uncrossed”. Steiner Stages in Brooklyn – a premiere sound stage facility — is located within the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which also contains a bunch of disused Naval Officer residences: boarded-up, overgrown, condemned old mansions. Not exactly the back lot at Universal Studios but perfect if you’re looking for a spooky old cabin in the woods.

Set design began as soon as the spot was green lit on Wednesday night. Our unflappable Art Director, Andrea Purcigliotti, designed a handful of sets with our director, Rhys Thomas, with an emphasis on symmetry. The largest set was the living room – a 20’x20’ space with perfect symmetry on all four walls: matching doorways, matching archways, windows and bookshelves balanced on all sides. This would give us opportunities to design symmetrical compositions no matter what direction we shot in. The kitchen and bedroom sets were a little smaller but followed the same principal.

The kitchen was originally laid out at 12’x12’ but on the shoot day, Rhys recognized that it would give us a more fun perspective shot if the kitchen were abnormally long so Andrea added an extra 8’ to make the set an exaggerated 12’x20’. A black&white checkered-tile floor enhanced the almost forced-perspective feeling.

 

Director Rhys Thomas chatting with Edward Norton

Wes Anderson loves his controlled color palettes and we debated the color of the sets on this spot more than any other spot I’ve worked on. Eventually we combined the dark pink signature color of “The Royal Tenenbaums” with the wall-papered flourish of “Rushmore” for the living room along with the faded yellow and teal palette of “Life Aquatic” and “Moonrise Kingdom” for the bedroom and kitchen.

created by bethmathews.com

Next up on the prep day was a location scout of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We didn’t find a cabin in the woods but we did find a former Naval surgeon’s residence that looked more like a haunted French chateau – which seemed somehow even more appropriate for Wes Anderson’s style. The building was covered in ivy and overgrown trees but with a little grooming and dressing up, we thought it would work perfectly.

(original source: http://www.alex-buono.com/how-we-did-it-snl-the-midnight-coterie-of-sinister-intruders/)

To establish the mash-up joke, the opening night exterior sequence was supposed to look like a contemporary horror film (think: “Cabin in the Woods”, “The Purge”, “The Strangers”), not a Wes Anderson film. To me, that means a lot of hard “moonlight” backlighting trees and throwing shadows on the house. To achieve this look, we would need some big lights high above the 3-story house and treeline, which meant this was going to a fairly big lighting setup by SNL standards. I ordered an 80’ condor lift with two Arri T24 fresnels – which are 24k tungsten lights. Positioning a condor for a large night exterior setup is always tricky because it takes a long time to setup; if you guess wrong and have to move the condor, it’s going to cost you a lot of precious time on your shoot day.

 

My gaffer, Keith Devlin, and I spotted an area on the main road for the condor chassis where we could elevate the bucket of the lift so that one of the T24s was front-lighting the house though a tree, casting contrasty shadows. The other T24 was aimed 90˚ back toward the camera position, backlighting the trees and ground in front of the house. We placed a few par-cans with narrow beam globes in the condor so that we could light any specific smaller areas from the condor as well. I added ¾ CTB to all of the lights in the condor to achieve the saturated blue moonlight look that I associate with contemporary horror films. On the ground, I bounced a 9-Light Mini-Brute off a 12’x12’ bleached muslin to add some soft, very dim ambience. Mini-Brutes are nice because you get about 5,000 watts of light from 9 individual globes so you can easily control the output by just switching off lamps. They’re also relatively small and easy to move around. I added two additional Mini-Brutes on the ground behind the house, up-lighting the trees to separate the edges of the house. Inside the house, we picked four windows and dressed them with sheer curtains, then backlit with 1K open face redheads to give the house a warm interior glow. Again – this was a fairly big lighting setup for us, no doubt. Our call time to rig the shot was 2pm and, with a crew of four grips and four electrics, we were ready to shoot by the time the sun went down at 6pm.

Meanwhile, back on stage – which was only a short walk down the hill — I had a separate crew of three grips and three electrics pre-lighting the sets to be ready for when we finished the night exteriors. The biggest task was setting up a lighting balloon over the living room set. I used an Airstar 4K Elliptical (via Available Light New York). It’s got a flattened sphere shape with about an 8’ diameter and is easy to skirt. The balloon light is filled with helium and it simply floats over the set to create a very soft top-light with no rigging. Let me explain: yes – we’re on a very nice sound stage with a grid that is built for hanging lights, but hanging lights can be enormously time consuming. Not to mention – since the lights would be hung over the set – working from the grid would delay the art department from dressing the sets until the grips and electrics were finished rigging. ENTER: the lighting balloon, a simple tool that floats up over the set with no rigging and – voilà — beautiful, controllable, soft top-light very quickly.

The rest of the sets were very simply pre-lit. I placed 4’ 4-bank Kinos over the windows with 5600˚ globes for a full blue night look. I placed a 30” JEM Ball over the kitchen – which is basically an easily rigged Chinese lantern with a 1,000w globe inside. I also placed Rifa lights over the windows for warm soft backlight. Rifa lights are pretty old school but they’re so lightweight and easy to rig (and inexpensive!) that I find myself using them all the time. Finally, I rigged an MR-16 strip-light gelled with full CTO behind the fireplace and used a Magic Gadgets Shadowmaker flicker box to create a warm firelight effect.

In addition to this pre-rigging, I knew I would use a large soft bounce source as the main keylight for most of the scenes on stage. To my eye, that’s how I think Wes Anderson’s DP, Robert Yeoman, lights many of their scenes. I used a 2k open face bounced into an 8×8 unbleached muslin. Using an un-bleached muslin creates a warmer look than a bleached muslin, more like the look of a household lamp. I also kept the 2k on a dimmer so that I could dim it down into an even warmer source. Our Set Decorator, Ipek Celik, did such a great job of carefully dressing the sets, as did Brian Hemesath with the dead-on costume design, and my strategy was to simply illuminate the scenes with soft, semi-contrasty light, allowing for graphic, wide-angle compositions.

Which brings us to a discussion about the camera package. Wes Anderson’s first few movies were shot on film stock using anamorphic lenses (Panavision Primos), with a 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Interestingly, “Moonrise Kingdom” was shot Super16mm with a 1.85 aspect ratio, which allowed for the more vertical compositions that Anderson and Yeoman were going for. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” was shot with a DSLR – which is not surprising since that is how most stop-motion is shot these days – and was also framed for 1.85. Anderson’s next film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is back to film stock and apparently combines 1.37, 1.85and 2.39 – different aspect ratios for different parts of the movie!

We decided to emulate the more classic “Tenenbaums” and “Rushmore” format with a 2.39 aspect ratio. We’ve shot plenty of spots in the 2.39 format at SNL but we’ve always used normal lenses and cropped the shot with a 2.39 letterbox in post. Well, we decided to go all the way with this exercise and shoot anamorphic, due in large part to Rhys’ experience shooting anamorphic for a feature he directed this past summer, “Staten Island Summer“.

Before I launch into our specific camera setup, let’s chat for a second about shooting anamorphic. “Anamorphic” is one of those fetishized terms among cineastes that not everyone completely understands. Simply put, an anamorphic lens is a normal lens with an added front element that “squeezes” the image 2:1, creating a tall, skinny distorted picture that is later “unsqueezed” in post, becoming a widescreen image. Anamorphic lenses are sometimes referred to as “scope” lenses, whereas non-anamorphic lenses (normal lenses) are referred to as “spherical” or “flat” lenses.

To make matters even more confusing, the anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio is often indiscriminately referred to as 2.40, 2.39 or even 2.35. To clear things up, the true anamorphic aspect ratio is 2.39. Sometimes that is rounded up in vernacular to 2.40 (two-four-oh) but that’s a misnomer — it is not 2.40. Nor is it 2.35, which was an early anamorphic format specifically referring to films exhibited between 1958 and 1970. Anytime you hear any of those three formats referred to, it means 2.39:1 aspect ratio.

What’s the point of shooting anamorphic instead of just shooting with normal lenses and letterboxing the image? First of all, there are some major optical differences in the image. An anamorphic lens gives you the horizontal angle of view of a spherical lens that is half the focal length, yet retains its optical compression and depth of field. So a 40mm anamorphic gives you the same horizontal angle as a 20mm spherical, yet with the compression and depth of field of a 40mm spherical – which looks dramatically different.

Now this next part is going to get a little complicated because there are a few variables. At a more fundamental level, shooting anamorphic allows you to make every pixel count. By squeezing the image at a 2:1 ratio, the anamorphic image fills the sensor from top to bottom with your 2.39 frame. We were shooting with an Arri Alexa Plus, which has a 4:3 sensor – which is much taller than the Super35mm sized sensor that is in most other digital cinema cameras. This is critical because a squeezed anamorphic image is twice as tall compared to a normal image.

By shooting anamorphic with the Alexa Plus 4:3, we were using the full height of the sensor, allowing 2582 x 2160 resolution. Now, comparing apples to apples – using the same camera – shooting 2.39 with a normal lens and letterboxing the image reduces the usable resolution to 2880 x 1206, with the rest of the image hidden under the letterbox. Do the math: you’re comparing 5,577,120 pixels to 3,473,280 pixels. In other words, shooting anamorphic with a 4:3 sensor gives you 38% more usable resolution. On the other hand – and counterintuitively – if you combine anamorphic lenses with a 16×9-sized sensor, you will actually get a significant loss in resolution. An anamorphic frame fit into a 16×9 sensor will only fill 66% of the sensor. Yikes. Point is: if you want to get the most out of an anamorphic image, I recommend using a camera with a 4:3-capable sensor that will accommodate the “tall” squeezed image that anamorphic lenses produce.

A 4:3 sensor has a native aspect ratio of 1.33, but when you “unsqueeze” the 2:1 anamorphic image, you get an image that is double-wide, or 8:3. So even though you are framing 2.39, you are actually capturing 2.66 – an even wider image. That gives you some latitude to reframe the image right or left in post if need be.

 

What is the effect of all this? You end up with a 2.39 aspect ratio, yet with dramatically more image compression and shallower depth compared to shooting with spherical lenses. The image is also processed at higher resolution – which means less noise and a richer/sharper image. Other optical effects include out of focus highlights that have an oblong bokeh and horizontal, sometimes blue lens flares (see: any JJ Abrams movie).

Back to our shoot. Along with the Alexa Plus, we had a set a Hawk V-series lenses from Vantage (via rental house TCS), specifically: 40mm, 50mm, 75mm, 100mm and 135mm. Wes Anderson favored the 40mm anamorphic on his earlier films and we, too, found the 40mm to be the most useful to create that signature look, which includes a bit of cylindrical distortion on the edges of frame. We ended up using the 40mm on 90% of the shots. One big exception was for the night exterior “Binocular POV” shots, wherein Rhys wanted to play with snap-zooms, so we needed a zoom lens. Unfortunately, it can be hard enough to source good anamorphic prime lenses, let alone a high quality anamorphic zoom lens, so for the binocular-POV shots, I had my 1st AC, Paul Schilens, add a non-anamorphic Optimo 24-290mm to the package and we just cropped for 2.39. I have to admit, bouncing to the Optimo zoom for the binocular POV was a tad disappointing after shooting with the Hawk anamorphics. The difference is immediately recognizable; while the aspect ratio is the same 2.39, the anamorphic image appears more “present” and graphic – due in large part to the longer lens compression and shallower depth.

One disadvantage of anamorphic lenses is that they don’t focus as closely as most spherical lenses. In the letter-reading sequence, Rhys wanted to shoot extreme close-ups of the letters, filling the frame with just a single word. I used a +3 diopter to focus as closely to the letter as possible and we still didn’t get as close as we would have liked. In retrospect, I would have been better off using a macro spherical lens for those shots.

Another key touchstone of Wes Andersonian cinema is the use of very crisp whip pans that land dead solid, usually on a perfectly symmetrical frame. Now I am a big fan of the O’Connor 2575 fluid head, but admittedly, performing a whip-pan that lands dead solid on a set frame is a fool’s errand with a fluid head. This kind of operating calls for a geared head, and there’s even a way to take the operating precision one step further. I mounted a Scorpio 2-axis remote head on a Fisher10 dolly – something I would rarely do – but the remote head allowed me to set limits on the pan and tilt wheels. I could set my frame on either side of a fast whip-pan, turn the dampening up on the controls and then just spin the wheels to nail the move every time. Bear in mind, this trick is only useful for hitting a very specific frame that is not changing (so it’s not great if you’re following an actor’s movement). The other advantage of using a remote head on a dolly in this case is that our sets were very small and it made the operating much easier to be out of the way. In one shot, Ed Norton-as-Owen Wilson says, “C’mon kids – get in the panic room!” and the camera whips off his gesture 135˚ to a yellow tent setup in the living room. Performing that 135˚ pan was much easier to operate remotely rather than physically moving my body around the camera and dolly.

Operating the Scorpio Head. (Left to Right: Alex Buono, Rhys Thomas, Justus McLarty and Adam Epstein)

For another fun shot, we wanted to track behind a paper airplane as it flies through the house. Our original plan was to use a 3-axis remote head on a crane arm, mounting the plane in front of the lens so that we could “fly” the plane by tracking forward while rising and lowering on the crane arm, using the roll axis to simulate the fluttering yaw of a paper plane in flight. Nice idea…then we returned to planet Earth and mounted the plane to a handheld camera that I walked through the house, rolling the camera as I walked to simulate that fancy 3-axis remote head. Ha.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the homicidal stop-motion mouse at the end of the spot. This was one of those little gems in an SNL script that I loved but figured we couldn’t actually shoot because we just wouldn’t have the time. Fortunately Rhys held his ground and found an outside animation company called Dancing Diablothat created this shot for us. The mouse was made by our longtime specialty-prop fabricator, Dan Castelli, who somehow built this entire perfect little model over Thursday night! Dancing Diablo was provided with the mouse model and the background mini-set along with very specific directions from Rhys, including instructions to replicate the animation style of “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, which itself paid homage to the old school style of stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen. So, for instance, each frame was shot twice for less fluid motion and the mouse’s fur was animated, just like in “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, to call attention to the stop-motion style.

Director Rhys Thomas and his Homicidal Mouse

If I haven’t adequately expressed how long and complicated this shoot had become, let me headline it: I was on stage at 10am Friday morning with Rhys (director) and Justus McLarty (producer) along with Andrea (art director) to walk through/tweak the sets as they were being painted. The animation unit started their day at 3pm and (somehow) had a finished shot by 3am. Meanwhile our night exterior crew arrived at 2pm, our stage crew arrived at 5pm and we all finally wrapped at 7am. Saturday morning. As in: the day of the show.

Hilariously (in retrospect), a little side-story is that I had agreed to be a speaker at a big New York photography event on that Saturday called PhotoPlus Expo. So now it’s 7am and I’m giddy by what we’d just pulled off but also exhausted beyond comprehension… and I had a 3-hour lecture starting in about an hour. Needless to say, the lecture went by like a fever-dream; I have no memory of it but I hear it was well received…

But that is not where this story ends, for as soon as I finished the lecture, I got a call that we had more to shoot! Alec Baldwin was already appearing in the Opening Monologue and he agreed to do the voiceover for our spot so he was added to the “character tableau” sequence, appearing in the recording booth for, “…and Alec Baldwin as the Narrator…”. Love it! How perfect – the voice of “Tenenbaums” would be the perfect way to tie this all together. So it was back to 30 Rock with yet another crew – this time, just my 1st AC, Nick Demas – and a very simple shoot in a recording booth with the same Alexa/Hawk camera package.

By now it’s 6pm on Saturday evening. Rhys and I had been reviewing the color grade from our colorist, Emery Wells, while he and our editor, Adam Epstein, had been turning our mountain of footage into a jaunty trailer. Wes Anderson’s music scores are just as iconic and signature as his art direction and I’m amazed at how well Rhys and Adam nailed the tone. They managed to combine the Kinks-dominant British-invasion sound of “Rushmore”, the twee classical notes of “Tenenbaums” and the percussive sound of “Life Aquatic” and “Moonrise Kingdom” — using only library tracks (with the exception of “Me and Julio” by SNL-pal, Paul Simon).

There are two major deadlines for the Film Unit. The Dress Rehearsal starts at 8pm – for which the goal is to have the spot fully mixed and color corrected, but sometimes it’s not quite there yet. Then, of course, the live show starts at 11:30pm, and you’d think that would be a pretty hard and fast deadline…except in this case, when Rhys and Adam were truly down to the wire – scrambling to finish revision notes from the dress rehearsal, minor voiceover changes and final color fixes. Rhys was downstairs in the studio edit bay where the final picture and mix are married together and uploaded to the live switcher. As Rhys was watching down the final cut, he noticed two errors: one shot slipped into the cut without being “un-squeezed” and another repositioned shot had lost its repo. We all know that these kinds of errors happen all the time, but they rarely happen when you are literally gun-t0-the-head, minutes away from a live broadcast.

It’s now well past 11:30pm — but our spot technically wasn’t airing until after the 2nd commercial so we’re basically in penalty time. Rhys is racing to explain to Adam over the phone which shots need to be fixed. Now remember: I hadn’t slept in what feels like days at this point and all I recall is Adam working his stylus at lightning speed, whispering to himself, “It’s gonna be close…it’s gonna be reeeeal close…”. Too close, in fact — as Rhys was then told by the studio that we were out of time; they would have to run the version with the errors. CUT TO: CLOSE UP – Rhys’ face, crushed in defeat. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Rhys, Adam had just uploaded the fixes to the server, then raced over to the live monitor and just held his breath as our spot went live exactly 20 seconds later.

What none of us knew at the time is that the studio associate director, Matt Yonks, decided to roll the dice and play the fixed spot directly to the air. The spot was literally still loading into the switcher as it was being broadcast out. Holy crap. Thank you, Yonks!

And then, on the 17th floor of 30 Rockefeller Center at about 11:50pm, there was a flurry of high-fives and fist-bumps and woop-woop!’s as our spot – fixes and all – made the air.

And I guess that’s how we did it.

Guest Post - Adam Epstein: 9 Pieces of Advice for Editors and Other Creative People

If there’s anything the Internet is good for, it’s haphazardly blasting out opinions – preferably in a bullet-pointed list! So to that end, here’s a fun-time grab-bag jamboree of technical insight and creative advice

One of the side products of getting older, apart from the emergence of World Series MVPs and internet millionaires who were born while you were in high school, is the fact that people start asking you for professional advice. This has been an odd notion for me to wrap my head around, as I still see myself as a somewhat stunted buffoon who now just happens to have a couple gray hairs and a few nicer shirts -- so far, it seems to be a convincing adult costume.

That being said, I’ve spent enough hours in multi-monitored rooms working with both talented individuals and, um, other people, on projects ranging from 5 second off-air promos to studio-produced feature films to have developed some opinions about what I find important to my creative process. And if there’s anything the Internet is good for, it’s haphazardly blasting out opinions – preferably in a bullet-pointed list! So to that end, here’s a fun-time grab-bag jamboree of technical insight and creative advice – it’s coming from an editorial-centric perspective, but apply as needed and call a doctor in case of unexplained rashes. I’m sure he’ll recommend an enormous grain of salt.

And for an added level of intrigue, some of the advice is NOT advice, but instead, selections from an erotic techno-thriller novella I’m working on calledScience Friction. I leave it up to you to figure out which is which. To the big board!

Make it so anyone can walk in, look at what you’ve done, and immediately know what’s going on.

(original source: http://tribecafilm.com/stories/snl-editor-adam-epstein-advice)

1. WORK CLEAN

Oh, hi there – it says here that you’re an “artist” whose process of discovery requires chaos and a complete lack of structure or constraints? Buuuulllllshit. Work clean. Work really clean. Creative pursuits are innately loose, free-flowing explorations dependent on intellectual flexibility and improvisation, but there still must be a solid, locked-down foundation that anchors even the most insane experiments. I’ve worked on many jobs that were started by other editors, and nothing lets you know whether or not someone is a real, dyed in the wool pro faster than seeing how they manage a project. Make it so anyone can walk in, look at what you’ve done, and immediately know what’s going on. Being truly organized might not sound like the sexiest aspect of a creative process, but to my mind, precision and simplicity in the midst of manic situations is beautiful. That sentiment is good enough for the judges onChopped, and therefore it’s good enough for me -- Alex Guarnaschelli seems like a warrior queen who would brunoise me if I thought otherwise.

Give yourself something, anything, to react to and then let that be the jumping off point that gets you moving forward.

2. GET SOMETHING DOWN

An empty canvas, a blank timeline, my girlfriend’s potential outfit for the day – each a breeding ground for infinite hypothetical combinations and ways to tackle the task at hand. The paralysis of options is a real thing. Starts are hard -- you’re creating within a vacuum. So give yourself something, anything, to react to and then let that be the jumping off point that gets you moving forward. Having something tangible to watch, to read back, to compare 4 different pairs of shoes against, even it was almost mindlessly barfed out there, gets you past the harder task of pure creation. It’s now about commentary and refinement -- you’re making something better as opposed to figuring out what to do. And personally, I thought the black ankle boots with the boy jeans looked great, but then again, they all look amazing on you, honey.

3. CHECK THE BOOT DISK

That’s what the sign on the wall said. Krystal ran her fingers across the letters -- it was oddly cool to the touch -- and the hairs on the back of her neck went taut as she remembered her early days at Swampbot Tecnotics LTD, long ago, and the first time she saw Breck Mixon, the most respected coder, wine expert, and swordsman in the New Tallahassee cyber-surveillance office. “Check the boot disk, indeed,” she muttered to herself. Even then, back before Penbroth went rogue and the world went mad, Breck knew how things worked.

Being able to identify the moments in other people’s work that really stick with you gives you a backlog of inspiration to draw from when it comes to your own projects.

4. KNOW WHAT YOU LIKE (AND WHY YOU LIKE IT)

Being able to recognize what it is about something that makes you like it, as opposed to just liking it, makes it easier to bring style and nuggets of “hell yeah!” to your own work. When I truly love a movie or a song, the root of that love is often an incredibly brief moment: the split-second harmony between Mick and Keith when they sing, “rank outsider” in “Tumblin’ Dice,” the immediate, insane cut to the van crashing into a tree in Wet Hot American Summer, the way Trey Parker can make any word into a joke on its own. Being able to identify the moments in other people’s work that really stick with you gives you a backlog of inspiration to draw from when it comes to your own projects. It’s like like a pinboard for your interests – which gives me an idea for a website. I think I’ll call in Interboard. I’ll be waiting for your call, Venture Capitalism.

5. ACTIVELY ENJOY WHAT YOU’RE DOING

“Sitting down and writing is the worst.” Not true. Sitting down and writing, or editing, or whatever, is definitely challenging, sometimes maddeningly so, but there is a yard and a universe of difference between something being hard to do and it being awful. No matter what project I’m working on, I try to find a morsel of fun in it – it helps to keep me sane and is a good way of tricking myself into making a mundane exercise into a more enjoyable process. If you’re lucky enough, you’ve found yourself in a position where people are willing to pay you actual, legal money for your creative input and technical skills. And money, even if it starts to feel like hilariously abstract life-tokens when you think about it for too long, is one of the best things to use when it comes to buying food or magazines. Or both at the same time!

You’re a programmer? Study photography. Graphic designer? Start a terrible band with some friends.

6. DROP EVERYTHING

Penbroth was now less than half a lacrosse field away from them. “I said, drop EVERYTHING!” he shouted again, as Breck frantically typed away at the virtua-pad, fingers flying while Krystal plunged the two-headed key fob into the glowing, purple orb. “Faster Breck!” she screamed as Penbroth drew closer, lead pipe in hand, cyber-mutt by his side, “The orb can’t stay open much longer!” Mixon slowly looked up at Krystal and smiled. “Listen kid…this isn’t my first time at the dance.” He held out a finger and let it hover above the pad. Krystal inhaled and time stopped. “I would never have made it this far without you,” Breck said. “I want US to push it. Together. Now.”

7. BE A POLYMATH

Anything you do outside of your standard creative routine will only serve to make your normal work that much more vibrant and well-informed. It’s also the best way to avoid burnout. You’re a programmer? Study photography. Graphic designer? Start a terrible band with some friends. Spend too much time in an edit bay? Convince someone to let you write a column on their website…then slowly spread hidden codes containing ancient secrets within the 4th and 112th word of each of your columns. Exposure to other creative fields, especially when I’m not good at them, helps to keep my brain constantly engaged. Juggling between pursuits that you enjoy makes returning to your “normal” focus feel that much fresher. Unless your normal focus is juggling. Then you’re screwed.

 

8. MESS AROUND

It’s never been easier to stumble upon happy accidents. The digital tools available today have made it easier than ever to truly play around on your own and experiment in a no mistakes, no consequences manner. Often times, something I’ll stumble upon or learn while mindlessly messing around will find its way into a “real” project somewhere down the road. Allowing yourself to play in an unstructured setting leads to the stream of consciousness discoveries that are much harder to find when you’re “doing work.”

9. NEVER FORGET

“Never forget that, Krystal. Dr. Drave Penbroth, regardless of what he became, started out exactly like us – a lean, sexually permissive, computer genius from The Everglades.” Krystal nodded as Breck caressed her lower back with his new, ExoSkin hand. It felt real enough that she’d almost forgotten the events at the lab. “I know, Breck…I know. And that’s what scares me.” Breck swung himself up into the saddle and kicked the throttle on the HoverSki. Krystal climbed on behind him. “Baby, being scared is being alive. We had a tech ops briefing to be at 5 minutes ago. Now just gimme a kiss and let’s float.” She kissed the back of his neck as they blasted off through the marsh, wake behind them, everything else ahead.

Guest Post - Alex Buono: How We Did It SNL "Me"

The story behind the SNL trailer-parody “Me” is a story about reacting when all of your best-laid plans go wrong.  We had a great plan for shooting this spot but that plan completely fell apart…so here’s how we responded.

For starters, this spot is a satire of Spike Jonze’s “Her”, which is one of my favorite films of 2013, both thematically and aesthetically.  I love the near-future look and use of an intimate warm palette as opposed to the usual steely blue (or, god help us: teal & orange) that has become the defacto look of science fiction. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s gorgeous cinematography was a perfect marriage with the design and tone – it’s a shame he wasn’t recognized with an Oscar nomination (but don’t get me started…no disrespect to any of the beautifully shot nominated films but IMO, Hoyte along with Sean Bobbit/12 Years a Slave are noticeably absent.)

Point is, what a treat to get a chance to recreate the look of “Her” with someone as funny as host Jonah Hill in the lead.  The spot was written by Jonah along with Rob Klein, John Solomon and Kent Sublette, who together created a script that lovingly pokes a little fun at the movie’s premise of a man who falls in love with his Operating System.  In this case, rather than Joaquin Phoenix’s “Theodore Twombly” character falling for his sexy Scarlett Johansson-voiced OS, Jonah Hill’s “Twombly” falls in love with an OS voiced by…himself.

The script draws on exact scenes from the movie so we already had an excellent reference to go after.  Much of the movie takes place in Twombly’s LA high-rise apartment so, naturally, the apartment’s living room, bedroom and distinctive elevator were our main locations.  Director Rhys Thomas is always careful to add as much scale to our spots as possible so he was also focused on somehow including the cabin scene.  New York was still on the heels of the polar vortex and still had snow on the ground, so we were tempted to drag Jonah out to a park to shoot sun-flared shots from the movie’s mountain-retreat scenes but we quickly realized there was no way we’d have time for it.  Little did we know how short our schedule would eventually become…

As I’ve often noted, a big part of my job at SNL is to be a cinematography-detective – to do whatever research I can into how the reference was originally shot and deduce the rest based on my own experience.  Thankfully, there’s no shortage of articles about how “Her” was made.  In particular, I found the ICG magazine interviewwith Van Hoytema to be the most technically revealing.  In the article, he outlined exactly how they approached the movie, choosing to shoot on the Alexa for its low-light sensitivity so they could capture those gorgeous Los Angeles and Shanghai night skylines in near available-light.  They also used a mixed bag of older lenses with stripped coatings to achieve the distinctive soft, hazy/flared look.

Our first challenge was to decide how to approach the incredibly specific architectural style of the apartment interiors.  For about a split second we considered shooting on location – mostly due to finding an apartment (via @nycscout) that looked amazingly similar.  But the weather was promising to be overcast and possibly snowing, so we quickly decided there was no way we could achieve a sunny Los Angeles look without building a set.

Art Director Andrea Purcigliotti designed our set with Rhys on Wednesday night, but bear in mind: we don’t have the luxury of just saying, “Build an entire replica set!”  Our set construction crew also has to build the entire live show, too – so we have to be incredibly efficient in our set designs.  One of the biggest challenges for Andrea and Rhys in designing a set is honing in on the key signifiers in the architecture and building only as much we need to sell the spot.  On that note, just like “Midnight Coterie” and so many other parodies — this spot would be nothing without the incredible art direction.  Young cinematographers take note: stop hogging the whole budget with your precious lights and camera gear!  Give the budget to the art department and I guarantee they will make your job much easier than all those fancy toys.  I was given a lot of very nice compliments about the look of our Wes Anderson spot but the truth is, the art direction was so perfect that all it took was a simple bounce light and we were lit.

Andrea Purcigliotti’s set design, created in Sketchup Pro

The biggest challenge of this set build was how to deal with the signature floor-to-ceiling windows throughout the apartment.  We needed a Los Angeles cityscape outside those windows, with both a sunny daytime look and a vibrant night look.  Our choices were either: greenscreen or translight.  Both presented immediate problems: if we go with greenscreen, that would mean that nearly ever shot in the spot would require compositing.  We were shooting this spot on a Friday and it had to broadcast the next day, so to add 25 or 30 VFX shots on top of the already absurdly short turn-around schedule seemed like a recipe for disaster.

The alternative to greenscreen is a translight, which is a giant photographic backdrop that is hung outside the window of a set and, when lit properly, looks exactly like being on location.  You can even get a Day/Night translight which, when front-lit looks like a daytime cityscape but when back-lit looks like a twinkly night skyline.  The trick is that these translights have to be hung a distance away from the window so that they don’t look too sharp.  Lighting them evenly requires distance too – perhaps 15’ to 20’ from the window.  That means that the translights have to be much larger than the set window itself.  For a set with floor-to-ceiling windows on two walls, you’re talking about a fairly large translight that wraps around the set.  In our case, we were looking for a translight that was around 70’ long by 20’ high.  Once hung, I could pre-light the translight from the front and the back, allowing us to toggle between a day-look and a night-look at the flip of a switch – with no compositing!  This was a no-brainer…except for one completely inexplicable reality:

THERE ARE ALMOST NO TRANSLIGHTS IN NEW YORK.

If someone can explain this to me — please do – because I have been struggling to understand the dirth of translight options in New York for years.  With all of the production and stage space available in the city, how can there be almost no options for large-scale city skylines?  Don’t get me wrong, there are a couple of high quality vendors for smaller translights and painted backdrops; We use Oliphont Studio backdrops all the time.  But no one carries anything of the scale that you’d need to shoot even an average-size set.  The solution that I’m constantly offered: “You gotta get that from LA.”  In the words of our buddy Seth Meyers: Really?!

So on Thursday morning our production manager, Justus McLarty, got on the horn with JC Backings in LA and found dozens of great options in ideal sizes: 75’x20’, 90’x20’…Obviously, getting the translight from LA to New York overnight is a hassle but it didn’t seem undoable…

EXCEPT THEY CAN’T OVERNIGHT ANYTHING LONGER THAN 15’.

So that means we have to pick translight options that are already much smaller than we’d prefer.  We ended up finding a couple of decent options that are 64’x12’ and 40’x15’ — which are definitely not ideal but I thought could work.  So we pull the trigger on the translights and are told that in a best case scenario, they’d arrive on set by around noon on Friday.  Ugh.  That means there is no way we could schedule a morning shoot, so we flipped our entire schedule and planned for a Friday night shoot instead.  No one likes to pull an all-nighter, wrap at 7am and then have to finish the spot that same day but once in a while we have no choice.  It was either that or shoot Friday morning with greenscreens and then have to deal with dozens of composite shots – which we decided would be even worse.

Next I had to figure out how I was going to light these massive translights for both day and night looks.  There are many ways to skin that cat but I find the easiest and most common is to use a bunch of skypans — a very broad light with a bare bulb source that throws an even flat light.  They come with either a 2k or 5k globe.  In the film days we used to use 5k skypans but now with all of the hyper-sensitive new image sensors, I don’t need as much light so I tend to go with 2k skypans.  My plan was to flat-light the translights from the front with a skypan every 6 feet or so.  We’d hang skypans from a grid over the set to front-light for the day look and position another set of skypans on stands behind the translight to backlight for the night look.  It will take a lot of skypans but luckily they are relatively inexpensive.

To sell the illusion of daylight on a translight-set, I’ll often also add a strong sun-source such as a 20k with ¼ CTS gel for a sunny look, or perhaps a large overhead bounce from outside the windows with ¼ CTB to create a flatter overcast look.  Sometimes I’ll even add 1/8 Plus Green to simulate the look of the greenish glass used in high-rise office buildings.  You can check out this post about an earlier spot, “Bathroom Businessman” for a description of that type of setup.

In this case, I was trying to simulate an exact shot from “Her”, which looked like earlier morning light semi-diffused through downtown LA haze, so I used a 20k with ½ CTS through an 8×8 frame of Half Soft Frost.  For the night look, I was fascinated to learn about how Van Hoytema shot the original night exteriors.  I read that they used almost no additional lighting outside of the practical lamps on set.  They just used small custom-built LED instruments which they could easily color match to the outside color temperature and also dim way down without warming up the color temp.  Great idea!  I was very tempted to try the same technique but in the end I decided that dealing with the translights was going to be a big enough challenge; I didn’t need to add an experimental custom lighting rig into the mix.  In retrospect, I’ve used LED strip-lights on theatrical-lighting jobs and they would have worked very well on this spot…Next time.

Simultaneously we had to sort out our camera package, but we kept it simple and ordered the same gear that they used on “Her”: a two-camera Alexa package with a set of Cooke Mini-S4s with stripped coatings for that signature soft contrast look – which our camera house, TCS, happened to have available – along with a set of Zeiss Super Speeds.  The Zeiss lenses used on “Her” were also coating-less but I didn’t have time to track down a matching set.

By the end of a very long prep day on Thursday, we had a solid plan for the shoot and I went to bed feeling pretty good about it all…Then it all fell apart.

Friday morning began with a phone call from the shipping company that was delivering the translights:

THE TRANSLIGHTS WERE STILL ON THE GROUND IN LOS ANGELES.

Here’s a valuable little nugget we learned that day about shipping unusually long objects overnight: the only place that a 15’ long shipping tube can fit on an airplane is the nose-cone, and if there is already cargo in the nose-cone, the package has to wait for the next available flight.  Apparently our translights sat at LAX all day waiting for a flight with nose-cone space and it just never happened.  And the shipping company didn’t think to inform us.

So now it’s Friday at about 11am; we have to start lighting in a few hours and we have no translights to light.  Our only choice is to go back to the greenscreen idea…except that since we pushed our schedule to a night shoot to accommodate the translight shipping, the greenscreen compositing schedule is now practically impossible.  Oh crap.

We order the greenscreens and also make a last-second hunt through the catalogue of backdrops that the SNL Live Show has in their stock.  The Live Show has a lot of backdrops but they’re relatively small – many no more than 10’ long – but I figured that if we line up a few of the backings on the same pipe and throw them out of focus, maybe you won’t notice that you’re looking at a combination of Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia skylines!  Justus also made a last second search through existing stock at Broderson in New York and found a good looking option, granted it was very small – 15’ long instead of the 70’ we were planning for.  In the end, our new plan is to get away with these small backdrops whenever possible and only use greenscreen for the wider shots.  If we could reduce the number of composite shots to only a handful, maybe we could actually pull this off despite having just a single-day for post production.

(original source: http://www.alex-buono.com/how-we-did-it-snl-me/)

Another set I haven’t mentioned is the elevator set.  If you’ve seen “Her” you’ll remember the distinctive shadowbox pattern of moving tree silhouettes that create the illusion of a moving elevator.  Rhys and our graphics person created a simple animation in the vein of the moving trees, which we projected onto an 8×8 rear projection screen that made up the back wall of the elevator.  Then I just rigged a couple of Image80 Kino Flos over the elevator as a soft toplight source.

Finally, the cabin set was actually just a faux-wood wall with another wall made out of a curtain on a rod.  The lighting was mostly from the practical lamp sources on set, augmented only by a 2k open face bounced off an 8×8 unbleached muslin, dialed way down to match the warmth of the practical lamps.  Ironically, the set we spent the least amount of time thinking about turned out to be – in my opinion – the best match to the real film.

So let’s talk about the night shoot itself.  By “night shoot”, I mean literally: the cast is not available on Friday evenings until their full day of rehearsals and fittings, which means we can’t even start shooting until about 11pm at the earliest.  Shooting on a Friday night also means that we’re keeping the host and cast members up all night leading into a very long Saturday that caps off with them performing live on TV…not exactly ideal!  In most cases, we try to wrap by around 2am for everyone’s sake – and in a best case scenario, rehearsals might even finish early and we’d get our cast on set by 10:30pm instead of 11…

EXCEPT THAT REHEARSALS RAN LATE…

…so we didn’t have a cast to shoot until about 12:30am.  Can we shoot the entire spot between 12:30 and 2am?  We’ll try!  This spot turned into the fastest per-setup shoot we’ve ever done.  No, we didn’t finish by 2am but we made our entire shotlist and wrapped by about 3:30am.  The biggest treat was when Michael Cera dropped by at around 1am to play “the surrogate”.  Somehow having the “Superbad” duo reunite on set with us kept the whole shoot light and fun, despite the late hour.

The biggest miracle, of course, is how in the world director Rhys Thomas, editor Adam Epstein and VFX Supervisor Todd Sparsfield finished this spot in the next 12 hours for broadcast that night.  By using our stiched-together translights, we managed to reduce the number of greenscreen shots to just two(!).  The night backdrops looked a little funky so Todd also added additional twinkly-light effects to the skylines to polish them up, along with some additional sun flares to the daytime scenes.

In the end, a spot lives or dies not by how good it looks but by how funny it is. Lucky for us, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera are such funny and talented guys (and let’s not overlook Vanessa Bayer’s spot-on Amy Adams impression).  I was especially impressed with how committed Jonah was to staying true to the introspective tone of the original film – this wasn’t just broad jokes while dressed in high-waisted pants.  Jonah shared with us that he actually called Spike Jonze beforehand to make sure he was okay with the spot (he was), and in the wake of the spot’s broadcast, it was so gratifying to see how many people who loved “Her” had fun with “Me”.

Spike and Hoyte, if you’re reading this: bravo on the inspiration.  As for the rest of you: go watch “Her” – one of the best looking films of the year no matter what the Academy thinks!

 

Guest Post - Adam Epstein: The New Roles TV And Film Editors Must Play Now

'SNL' editor Adam Epstein argues that the job of an editor now encompasses many surprising new roles, from sound designer, to motion graphics creator, to ego-massager.

 

Earlier this summer at the wedding of a friend I've known since we were babies, I had the pleasure of being reacquainted with friends of my parents who I had not seen for roughly 20 years. Fun times!

"Adam, your mother tells me you're a, um, an editor, yes?" 

"Uh huh."

"So that's where you get all the pictures and movies, yeah, and then you take them in there and make them into the show, right?"

"Well actually it's a lot more tha -- I mean yes…that's exactly what I do."

"Wow, that sounds like so much fun. Working with celebrities!!!" 

The slightly drunk, middle-aged Jewess raised a valid question. What does it mean to be a film and television editor today? Does anyone really just "edit" anymore?

"I am an editor," is now assumed to be the start of a list rather than a declarative statement.

Modern editors, pushed by the immense technological advancements in digital post-production over the last 20 years, are now asked and expected to have a solid grasp on a wider variety of skills and disciplines than ever before. "I am an editor," is now assumed to be the start of a list rather than a declarative statement. "I am an editor…who is also a sound designer. And a compositor. And I can make motion graphics. And know how to troubleshoot computer systems. And follow the trends in software, hardware and storage technology. And know color theory. And camera systems. And try to stay immersed in music. And can function as a personable armchair psychiatrist in a roomful of stressed out people who are each trying to make their mark on a project. And can do all of this under pressure, on a deadline, and under budget. Yes, I got your e-mail about the budget changes. Sure, sounds fun. Let's never, ever leave this dark room. No, thank you."

(original source: http://tribecafilm.com/stories/adam-epstein-editing-room-confidential-the-new-roles-film-and-tv-editors-must-play-now)

Don't get me wrong. It is AMAZING that we now have the tools to be able cut, score, color-correct, sky-replace, skin-smooth, and ass-shrink (just make the picture 5% skinnier -- far more common than you would imagine) feature-quality footage, and do all of this on a laptop while flying Virgin from JFK to LAX. (Relatedly, Virgin from JFK to LAX is the Dockers of flying.)

I love new tools. Sometimes too much. Coming across a new wonderfully designed piece of software that makes a workflow easier is always a pleasure, often creepily so. Knowing how to re-wire an Avid never hurts. But I don't think the more left-brain focused pursuits required of modern-day editors should ever lessen the time, attention and importance devoted to the bigger picture, right-brain side of editing, the far more important part of the equation. 

No matter what, the technical side should always be there to enable and empower the innate sense of "is this working."

In the end, "IS THIS GOOD?" should be the only question you should be trying to answer.

On Saturday Night Live, where I've been cutting the film pieces for the last 4 seasons, the manic pace of the show coupled with the high level of quality we strive for each week requires a lot of technical variety. Because of our time constraints (we tend to shoot everything late Friday night for air the next evening), on a standard piece I'll be green screen keying and compositing, sound designing (normally involving some variety of fart medley), music editing, creating motion graphics (again, probably something with farts), title designing, blah blah blah in addition to the, ya know, "editing" part. Again, the fact that the tools exist and allow us to accomplish all this pretty much simultaneously in less than a day IS A GIFT FROM EVERY GOD. 

But….all of it, all the tools and techniques, in the case of SNL, must be in the service of making it funny.

One can have memorized the manual for every NLE out there along with every keyboard shortcut to be able to slam together 22 minutes of international house-hunting footage faster than the other guy, but if you don't have an innate sense of whether or not something is working then the technical is all for naught. 

Does the piece "feel right?" From the most reverse-cymbal filled, dip-to-black-between-every-shot Bravo promo, to the next $120 million Vistavision robot-rap-battle sex comedy (see you guys there), in the end, "IS THIS GOOD?" should be the only question you should be trying to answer.

And it's a question that can only be answered by the people in the room -- a good editor working with a good director. And sure, a producer or agency rep can come in for a bit.

Some advice to aspiring editors: learn every program in the Adobe Creative Cloud. Actually open up Final Cut X. “Find” a copy of Nuke online and start to teach yourself that insanity. Become the fastest keyboard wrangler the coked-up associate creative director in the room with you has ever seen. All of these are brilliant ideas that will only help you as you move forward.

But instinct, feel, and intelligent personal interpretation of material should always be the driving force behind being an editor.

Though that new set of plug-ins does look pretty damn cool.

(You should follow him on Twitter)

Guest Post - Alex Buono : How We Did It SNL "The Beygency"

Some shoots are really hard and some shoots are really fun.  “The Beygency” was both.  This spot combined set builds on stage with multiple location moves along with night exteriors, stunt drivers, chase scenes and even a dance choreographer… plus the star of one of the biggest movie franchises in the world and a surprise cameo from one of the biggest stars on TV.  Best of all, this was a fake movie trailer satirizing my favorite of all genres: the suspense thriller.

Before I launch into this post, I want to acknowledge that the universe of paranoid thrillers, and therefore this parody of thrillers, owes a huge debt to a legendary cinematographer who recently passed away: Gordon Willis.  In addition to his more famous work on “The Godfather” films, Willis shot three films with director Alan Pakula that are sometimes referred to as the paranoid thriller trilogy: “Klute“, “The Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men“.  If you dig suspense thrillers, consider digging into Gordon Willis’ filmography a little deeper than the Corleone family and Annie Hall…

Gordon Willis and Alan Pakula’s paranoid thriller trilogy

The writers of “The Beygency” were Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, the same scribes from our recent “Dyke & Fats” spot, along with “Girls Promo”, “Midnight Coterie“, “Twin Bed” and a bunch of other film unit spots.  Their inspired idea: combine the cult of Beyonce fandom with a Tony Scott / “Enemy of the State” meets “The Adjustment Bureau” storyline.  Andrew Garfied would play the “everyman” who just happens to admit that he isn’t totally crazy about that one Beyonce song, which suddenly thrusts him into a world of cat-and-mouse flight from a group of shadowy agents, led by Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah, known as the Beygency.  What can I say…you had me at “Tony Scott”.

Let’s just get this out of the way: who doesn’t love Tony Scott?  That guy was such an incredible visual storyteller.  Sure, he may have laid a few eggs but he also basically invented new cinema grammar with “Top Gun”, “True Romance” and IMO, his best work: “Enemy of the State” (“EOTS“) –  one the best paranoid thrillers of the last 20 years.  Hell – it even has Gene Hackman essentially reprising his “Harry Caul” role from another one of the founding thriller classics, “The Conversation“.

My first step on any spot is a concept conservation with our director, Rhys Thomas.  For this one, we talked about “The Adjustment Bureau” and a few other more recent thrillers but mainly we deconstructed Tony Scott. Now, if this were a feature film, perhaps we’d spend a week or two viewing Tony Scott movies together, digging into some deep cuts like “The Hunger” and “Beat the Devil“…really teasing out his influences…but we only get about an hour to figure this out before Rhys has to start making decisions.  In that brief chat, we identified a handful of signifiers for Tony Scott’s visual style: shooting with multiple cameras, compressing space on long lenses, bold saturated color palettes, slick contrasty lighting, constant camera movement, atmospheric diffusion (steam, haze, smoke, etc)…all of it evidence of his strong graphic skills and history in the commercial world.  Yet one of his most powerful techniques was far more subtle: his command of the visual component of LINE.  He understood exactly how to use lines when composing his shots to carefully control the visual intensity of the story.

Below is a snapshot from “EOTS”  and a great example of how Scott uses countering dutch camera angles to create contrasting lines and spike the visual intensity at just the right moment.  Rhys and I knew right away that this dutch-angle technique was something we should definitely emulate.

Movie trailer spots are always the hardest spots to produce – they just require so so many locations, so many costume changes and so many shots to approximate the scope of a real movie.  Add the choregraphy of a chase sequence on top of that and you start to really stretch what can be accomplished in a single shoot day.

As always, the script was green-lighted late on a Wednesday evening and as Rhys was describing the spot to me, my first thought was: holy crap – how are we ever going to find – let alone shoot – all of these locations in one day?  The script called for: INT. LIVING ROOM, INT. DELI, EXT. ALLEY, EXT. ROOFTOP, INT. DARK CELL and MONTAGE…which actually doesn’t sound totally un-doable…except for that last part: MONTAGE – which of course is short-hand for: a whole bunch of other fun shots and locations, to be figured out...

The other challenge is that most of the script was set at night, yet we would have to start shooting Friday morning due to the live show rehearsal schedule (don’t forget: the live show has to rehearse those other 10-12 sketches at the same time that we’re shooting)…It became immediately clear that we would have to approach the interior locations as set builds while the night exterior scenes would of course have to be shot on location.

Rhys and Art Director Andrea Purcigliotti immediately identified the LIVING ROOM and DARK CELL as the most likely candidates to build on stage, and they got to work sketching out a basic layout.  Rhys wanted the living room to feel like a Georgetown-esque townhouse, riffing on the “EOTS” vibe.

For the DARK CELL, we quickly researched different versions of prison cells: is it an interrogation cell? No – the Beygency are not cops…Is it an Abu Ghraib-style plywood torture cell?  No – the Beygency should not evoke the military…It should feel more clandestine…how about a Cold War underground bunker vibe?  Yes – something like that…How about a concrete cell?  Yes – that works.  What kind of concrete – cinderblock?  No – it’s not a prison – more like concrete slabs.  But not too clean – that will start to feel like a cool modern house…How about water-stained concrete…YES!  That’s it.

Andrea spends the rest of Wednesday night designing the two sets, handing over the blueprints to our set shop, Stiegelbauer Associates by 6:30am.  Stigelbauer physically builds the sets all day Thursday, delivering them to our stage on Thursday evening.  Our rigging grips assemble the sets Thursday night by about midnight and our scenic team somehow gets them painted in a few hours – including that stained-concrete treatment for the DARK CELL.  (Our secret weapon is our charge scenic, a true artist named Lyvan Munlyn).  By 5am the walls are drying and ready for us to show up and start lighting.

Set drawings for DARK CELL and LIVING ROOM

BACK TO THURSDAY — here’s how the prep day breaks down: Rhys and I, along with our 1st AD Gabe Blomand producer Justus Mclarty, spend most of the day scouting for the many additional locations for all of the MONTAGE moments we hope to shoot.  As we were scouting the streets around the stage, we noticed a storage facility literally next door to our stage, which has lots of corridors and sparse fluorescent lighting – this could definitely work for a quick shot or two.  Meanwhile our set decorator, Ipek Celik, is racing around the city pulling set dressing and props as fast as she can.  Back at headquarters, our coordinators - Melanie Bogin and Tom Carley – keep the ship afloat through an ocean of gear pickups, crew bookings, location agreements and insurance certs…all while our crackerjack office PA, Louis Leuci, is pounding the streets near the stage to find a gas station that would allow us to shoot at their mini-mart counter for the INT. DELI scene – which we scouted next.

Finally we needed to find our night exteriors – a rooftop and an alley, along with someplace to shoot a bunch of other montage moments which at this point were just ideas: maybe a black car pulls up, maybe footsteps run across pavement, maybe Andrew pulls a hoodie over his head and hides behind a dumpster…Alleys are surprisingly difficult to find; you want something narrow enough to photograph as an alley and not just look like a barren street – and on our schedule, we need to find it within a block or two from our TBD rooftop location.  This was getting to be such a mission impossible scout that I was actually lobbying to build the alley on stage…

Then another (very welcome) curveball is thrown: Kiefer Sutherland and Mary Lynn Rajskub agree to be in the spot!  The premiere of “24: Live Another Day” was that Friday night but they would have time to shoot with us IF we can shoot the scene in about 30 minutes and IF we can shoot the scene Friday afternoon.  The aforementioned alley scene, originally written for another cast member, would be a great cameo for them so Chris and Sarah quickly rewrote the NIGHT EXT. ALLEY scene as an INT. PARKING GARAGE – and we were off to find a parking garage with a sufficiently dark and creepy vibe.  Think: Deep Throat from “All the President’s Men“.

CUT TO: Friday morning.  First up is the DARK CELL.  We wanted the location to feel subterranean so I had my gaffer, Keith Devlin and Key Grip, Mort Korn, light the scene with contrasty bounced light from below, using a 1k fresnel bounced directly off the floor and then diffused through a 4×4 frame of 216 diffusion.  We also had a small 2’ 2-bank Kino rigged over the set for some very dim fill light.  A 2K gelled with 1/2 CTO created the shaft of light through the cell door.  At one point I was going to place a light above the set projecting  through a steel grid to create a pool of hard contrasty light for Kate McKinnon to step into.  I decided against it and slightly regret not doing — she was wearing a contact lens that gave her a hilariously milky eye which didn’t read very well in the low-key lighting — but otherwise I think the scene turned pretty cool as is.

Next up was the apartment set where Andrew first vocalizes his displeasure with Beyonce, only to have his house suddenly surrounded by helicopter spotlights and a team of shadowy agents kicking down his door.  This was the opening scene of the spot where we wanted to visually setup Andrew’s “everyman” quality with warm lighting and soft drifting camera moves.  We used a 4K ellipsoidal lighting balloon over the set to create a very large soft lighting source, with a black skirt to keep the toplight off the walls.  The balloon light is a somewhat expensive rental and I could have created a large soft toplight a number of other ways but the lighting balloon is exceptionally fast to setup.  When compared to the time and manpower it would take to rig a comparable soft lightbox from the grid above, I think the balloon is a great solution.  We dimmed the balloon way down to create a warmer look, and added small fresnels over the top of the set to add some additional warm backlight.

On cue, the lights would all cut out while a 2K bounce gelled with full blue turned on to simulate a “lights out” moment before the helicopter spotlights pierce through the windows.  For the spotlights, we used two 4K HMI Molebeams – which were amazingly effective for this effect.  We also added atmospheric haze in the room with a DF-50 hazer so that the spotlights would create strong shafts of light through the windows.  If I’m being honest, I’ll admit that we stole this effect not from Tony Scott but his brother Ridley, à la “Blade Runner”.

 

Influenced by both Scott Brothers: “The Beygency” versus “Blade Runner”

 

While of course we’d always love to have more time to shoot these spots, for me this living room scene is the one I wish we could have spent a little more time with.  Looking at the final spot, I could have done a better job of shooting this 4-person dialogue scene and making it feel like real movie coverage.  If I could go back, with a lot more time, I would have lit and shot each eyeline separately.  As is, the camera doesn’t quite seem like it’s in the right place for a few of the angles and the lighting is a little unfocused.  But this is also a great example of the kinds of choices that we have to make a hundred times every shoot day: do we take the time to shoot this living room scene properly and sacrifice a few of our montage shots?  We always tend to favor adding more shots and greater scale versus getting stuck on any single scene.

Camera-wise, Rhys and I decided to shoot with the Epic Dragon.  At first glance this spot actually seemed more like an Alexa job — filmic with that subtle analog grain feeling, not necessarily as clean and crisp as I associate with the Epic —  but we both thought that the Dragon’s small form factor and lighter weight would help us move as fast as we’d need to on this one – not to mention that the improved dynamic range from the new Dragon sensor is really quite impressive.  For lenses, I had my 1st AC, Paul Schilens, prep a set of Leica Summilux-C primes, which are beautifully sharp wide open at T1.4 – and I suspected we would be shooting wide open for the night shots.  We also had an Optimo 24-290mm zoom, which would give us the telephoto reach when we needed that long lens, compressed space look so common in Tony Scott’s style.  And for those signature dutch-angle shots, we used a Tango Head, which is an ingenious low-profile plate that snaps between the camera and the fluid head, allowing you to rotate the camera on the optical axis at up to 45˚ in either direction with the swivel of a handle.  Much easier and more precise than setting up the tripod on a precarious angle.  For the handheld shots, I also used an Easyrig, which my lower back thanks me for.

With our two stage scenes in the can, we raced next door to the storage facility and shot the dialogue scene between Taran and Jay, accompanied with their posse of fedora’ed goons.  This scene is a great example of how sometimes constraint breeds creativity.  We shot this scene in the hallway of a storage locker facility but because it had a long strip of institutional-looking fluorescent lighting and by shooting low angle, you’d never guess we weren’t in a more appropriate, shadow-agency location.

Next up: COMPANY MOVE – from our stage location in Long Island City, back to Manhattan and across to the Westside highway for the parking lot scene.  This was a hell of a drive through Friday midday traffic and we knew we would have zero setup time before we entered our very narrow window with Kiefer and Mary Lynn so we kept it extremely simple.  The parking garage already looked amazingly creepy – it was more like a parking dungeon with grimy columns and pockets of fluorescent light.  And the lights were not the normal “cool white” tubes that we’re all used to these days – these fluorescents had an extremely blue-green spike that we thought looked perfect for the vibe.  We brought in two Kinos, gelled them to match the existing tubes, and lit a single setup that we’d shoot with two cameras.  Kiefer, Mary Lynn and Andrew all showed up and we shot the entire scene in about 20 minutes.

(original source: http://www.alex-buono.com/how-we-did-it-the-beygency/)

 

Then we lost all of our actors – Andrew had to return to the show rehearsals, and Kiefer & Mary Lynn were off to their premiere.  Luckily we had a stunt double for Andrew who was dressed in matching wardrobe so we could shoot a handful of inserts chasing his feet and the back of his head around the parking lot.

Our next move was back across the river to Brooklyn for the night exteriors – to Greenpoint Terminal, where we also shot “British Movie Trailer” and more recently, “Dyke & Fats“.  I had sent my grip & electric team ahead of us to get the location prepped since we didn’t need much help in the parking garage.  One of the most time consuming parts of any big night setup is laying all the cable out from the generator to your set, which in our case was two hundred feet in one direction and then 7 flights up in another direction.  I provided very specific overhead diagrams and our producer, Justus, was able to jump ahead of us and supervise the whole pre-rig before we arrived.

We were now playing a waiting-game with the cast.  We had a couple hours before Andrew, Taran and Jay were done with the live show rehearsals and could return to us on set, so we shot as many montage moments as we could without cast members.  There’s a reason that so many shots in the finished spot are in silhouette, or are just shots of feet or backs of heads…

For one of my favorite shots in the whole spot, we found a construction scaffolding-tunnel that we filled with fog.  The temperature difference between the warmer internal tunnel and the very cold outside night created this unexpected swirling-vortex effect with the fog, which we blasted with the 4K Molebeam straight back at camera.  Our director Rhys turned out to be a pretty spot-on double for Andrew as well and that’s him running in the tunnel away from the goons.

 

For the quick shot of the suburban barreling through a wall of fog, we stepped right outside the tunnel and setup the same fog machine around a corner with a 10K backlighting the scene.  We brought in our ace stunt driver from the “Dyke & Fats” spot, Tony Guida, and he pulled a perfect fishtail around the corner, through the fog and skidded to a stop right in front of the camera.  Then he did it three more times hitting the same mark.  Please don’t try these kinds of shots without real precision drivers!

We got the call that our cast was leaving the studio – about 20 minutes away – so we made the move to the rooftop of the nearby building, where my grips had already setup a full circular dolly track.  This is where we depart momentarily from the Tony Scott aesthetic and my background as a former camera assistant on Michael Bay jobs betrays me.  Yes: we shot the signature full-circle, slow-motion, “Bad Boys”-style stand-up shot of the Beygency agents.  No: it didn’t make the cut.  Yes: it was totally bad ass.

We stayed on the circular track for most of the scene between Andrew and the little boy, who rips off his “mask” to reveal that he’s actually Taran in disguise – a fun lift from “Mission:Impossible 3“.  We lit the scene very simply: I had a 9-Lite Fay, gelled with ½ CTO and ¼ Plus Green to give it a slightly dingy street light look, diffused by an 8×8 Unbleached Muslin very close for a large, soft key light, with a 2K on a high stand backed way off for a back light.  When Taran, Jay and the fedora’ed agents finally reveal themselves and then break into a choreographed Beyonce dance, Rhys’ idea was for this to be our suspense thriller version of a Beyonce video, so we cued our 4K Molebeam “helicopter spotlight” effect to ballyhoo behind them like a circling chopper, all staged with the NYC skyline behind them.

 

FINALLY…for our last location move, we head back to Long Island City where our day began to shoot the gas station for our INT. DELI.  Once again I had my grip & electric team move ahead of us, where they added a few Kinos to augment the existing fluorescent lighting.  In this case we were dealing with a mini-mart full of the traditional cool white fluorescent tubes, so we simply put matching tubes in our Kinos.

By this point we were all exhausted and to top it off, our star, Mr. Garfield, was starting to feel under the weather – not a good thing when he’s got a live show to host the next day!  We had to shoot this last scene between Andrew and Bobby Moynihan in two setups: one setup on Andrew, then let Andrew go home and shoot the reverse on Bobby with Rhys once again standing in for Andrew.

This is also a great example of how shooting 5K resolution with the Epic Dragon really helped the scene.  Because we were in a time crunch and needed to release our actors ASAP, we shot the scene in loose medium shots, knowing that Rhys and editor Adam Epstein could zoom in and reframe the shots in post as needed.

The post production story behind this spot is just as frantic and exhausting.  The edit officially kicked off at 4pm Friday afternoon as the footage started to trickle in to Adam in the edit room…was derailed at 11pm Saturday night when THE WHOLE SYSTEM CRASHED just as Rhys and Adam were trying to export the final version and which they barely recovered from in time for the broadcast…and ending at 1:30am on Saturday night.  Yes — that is 30 minutes after the live show is over…what gives??  Well, don’t forget: the West Coast broadcast is 3 hours later — which means the live broadcast may be the “final” version but with those 3 extra hours, the West Coast gets to see an even more final version…and even then there may have been a couple tweaks before the “final-final”: the online version.

For a warp-speed view of the entire post process, check out Adam’s timelapse screen capture, covering the entire edit from Friday afternoon until the very  last export on Saturday night.

 

What I Wish I Knew Before I Got Into Wedding Photography

Dave & Quin Cheung are the visual artists behind DQ Studios (www.dqstudios.com) and co-creators of Motibodo Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop Keyboards (www.motibodo.com).  This husband and wife team are internationally awarded image and album makers and educators in business, lighting and client relationship.  Their unique command of light and uncommon client experience has created a thriving global network of clients amidst the ever-growing competition.  They make their home with their two hockey-loving boys in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

I asked Dave to share his thoughts on "5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Got Into Wedding Photography"


Wedding Photography can be an amazing business and adventure.
If someone told me we would be able to spend our creative energy through photography AND enrich the marriages of many, AND make a living AND travel the world from India to Thailand to Argentina AND meet people in the industry that would become our best friends, we’d call you crazy.  And probably have studied something else in University :)


Thinking, “My work sucks!” doesn’t stop just because you’re a paid professional.
As artists, we’re inherently our own worst critic.  But that’s a good thing.  Using the energy to push each other forward without bringing us down has led to creative breakthroughs.  


Working together as a married couple is wonderful.
Before dqstudios was born,  we didn’t think we could work together.  Though we had to work through the unique challenges that come with working with your spouse, we’re so thankful to be able to spend our days together in work and pleasure and couldn’t imagine NOT working together.  


The work never ends.
Being self-employed and working from a home-office has been wonderfully liberating.  But not setting boundaries for work and play made us learn the hard way what it’s like to over-extend ourselves.


There is no such thing as “Balance” in work/family/faith.
We’re often asked, “How do you balance your business/family/faith?”  Finding balance in work and life at large is an ever-elusive goal of many.  But over the years of guilt and pleasure we’ve come to understand that life comes in waves of busy-ness and calm, joy and sorrow.  Understanding there will be seasons of rest and seasons of crazy has helped us weather the storms and enjoy life’s blessings more deeply.  


Thanks to Dave Cheung!

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