The longtime Saturday Night Live Film Unit Director of Photography talks about scouting and lighting spots for the show on a tight schedule, how he recreates the looks of commercials and movies for parodies, and how he uses metering and monitors together to fine-tune his setups.
Aimee Baldridge: You’ve been with the Saturday Night Live Film Unit for 15 seasons now. How did you get started there?
Alex Buono: I went to film school, and when I graduated I became a camera assistant. I was hired to shoot a low-budget feature in North Carolina, and the producer of it happened to also produce for Saturday Night Live. We got along really well, and at the end of the shoot, she was like, “Hey, you’re really cool. Do you want to come to New York and try shooting a spot for SNL?” That sounded pretty amazing to me, so I went. I formed a relationship with the director of the Film Unit, Jim Signorelli. He took me under his wing and called me “young blood” and kept bringing me back.
AB: How has the technology you work with evolved during your time with SNL?
Alex Buono: When I started in 1999, we were shooting on 35mm film stock. There was a high degree of precision, and it was critical that you understood how to light a scene based on meters and footcandles and contrast ratios. With the advent of digital acquisition, we had a couple years where we were shooting with really low-budget MiniDV cameras and just kind of getting exposure and running with it. That was the aesthetic for a couple years. It was really down and dirty.
By 2009 we saw the advent of DSLRs and the Red One. That led into the Alexa and Epic and the higher-end digital cinema cameras. We’re back to what feels like a much more traditional filmmaking style, and lighting has returned to where it should be in terms of its importance. Now every spot we do has some combination of very careful cinematic lighting or greenscreen compositing, and I’m lighting things the way I would have in the film days. I always have my light meter with me. It’s kind of come full circle.
AB: What is your weekly schedule like, and how do you scout and prepare your lighting in a tight timeframe?
Alex Buono: By Wednesday night, the producers and writers have selected the dozen sketches that are going to go up that week. One or two or three of them are going to be a Film Unit job. We have Thursday to scout and figure out all the props and art direction. Whether we’re building a set or scouting is the first decision. Gear pickups is next, so I figure out the camera, grip, and electric needs by lunchtime. I use Adobe Illustrator to create overhead diagrams and start roughing in the lighting plan, and then get the lighting package over to the vendors by 1:00 p.m. I have until 5:00 p.m. or so to keep refining the list, so I’m constantly saying, “OK, I know I said I wanted that but I actually need this.” They know the drill. They know it’s going to be chaos but kind of fun. And then I sit with my director, Rhys Thomas, and we do our shot listing and diagramming, and usually we’re up until midnight or so figuring it all out. Then it’s: Race to your hotel, sleep for a couple hours, and get up. Call time is 5:00 a.m., and we just start lighting and shooting, and we’re doing that the rest of the day.
AB: When you’re sketching out your lighting setup, do you meter the location to determine what lighting you’ll require?
Alex Buono: Yes, if we’re doing a location job. For example, we did a job that was a Valentine’s Day spot set in what was supposed to be a CVS pharmacy. The joke was that CVS is the solution for when you forgot it’s Valentine’s Day and need some last-second cheap gift for your girlfriend. So we were scouting pharmacies, knowing that we were going to have some totally mixed lighting situations, that there would be some fluorescent, some weird metal halide things, and maybe some tungsten or daylight from windows.
As we were scouting I had my meter and my color meter and I was just trying to decide if the location was going to work or be too much of a nightmare to deal with. We didn’t have time to gel all the windows. I could gel my lights to look more like the lights that were there, but that’s all I had time for.
So being on location with my meters is pretty important, being able to decide that there’s enough ambient light and consistency in the color temperature that I can just choose one specific gel pack for my lights and we’ll be OK—or decide the location is a mess, there’s not enough ambient light, the color temperature is all over the place, and we can’t shoot there. That becomes one of the deciding factors in whether to use a location or not: Is it even remotely feasible that we could shoot here, given that we only have a couple hours of setup in the morning?
AB: So you scout with an exposure meter and a colorimeter?
Alex Buono: If it’s a location job. If it’s a studio job or if we’re in somebody’s apartment where I’m not going to be encountering as much mixed color temperature, then maybe I’m not going to be using the colorimeter as much, but ideally those tools are both with me on scouts.
AB: You sometimes shoot parodies of films and commercials. How do you reproduce the lighting style of the work you’re parodying?
Alex Buono: That’s a big part of what we do, particularly if we’re doing a direct parody of a spot. We study the spot a lot. We just break it down. I think it’s a really good exercise for anyone to do. Go and look at your favorite movie and break down your favorite scene from it. Ask yourself, “How do I think they shot this?”
Some of it is that you’re looking at the quality of the light—how soft it is, how hard it is, where the shadow is falling on their face, and what’s the widest shot, which tells you how big the lights must have been, because they had to be backed off enough to be out of the shot. How contrasty is it? Are they using a lot of fill light, or is it just a single source with no fill, really contrasty and natural looking? What’s the direction of the light? What’s the color of it? Is it really cool or really warm?
Then you go from there to breaking down what you think the actual unit they used is. Do you think it was a very large fresnel or an HMI or a Kino Flo or some other kind of soft light? Was it a bounced light, or was it diffused light, which doesn’t look quite the same? It becomes almost like a bit of detective work to try to figure out how they did it and recreate the crime scene.
Click here to watch the SNL Red Flag skit.
AB: Tell me about how you lit the Red Flag perfume ad parody. It was beautifully shot, and the location seems like it would be difficult to light.
Alex Buono: That’s an amazing location. It’s the Customs House in lower Manhattan. It’s such a gorgeous location and has all those incredible wooden paneled walls. That was definitely a tricky location to light, mainly because you couldn’t rig anything to the walls or ceiling. I knew I wanted to create a really ambient, poppy overhead look so that everybody had a nice cosmetic backlight and I could bring in one light on the floor and give them a really slick, silvery reflected key light.
The problem was that I couldn’t put a light up on the Tiffany glass ceiling. So we brought in a helium-based bounce source. I wanted a big, soft bounce source, so we used The Cloud by a company called Airstar. It was like a 12x12 mattress floating above the set.
That’s a great example of a location we scouted on Thursday morning, and I had never used that bounce source before. On paper it looked like it could work, and we got there Friday morning and it all came together.
AB: Whether you’re working with an existing space or using a set that’s been built for you, why would you meter instead of using a monitor?
Alex Buono: I do a combination of both. I use a meter and also a monitor and the waveform monitor built into the camera. For me it’s been about learning to use all of those tools together very quickly. Back in the film days when all you had was your meter, you’d go home at night really crossing your fingers and waiting to see the dailies. Now you’ve got a lot more confidence that when you walk away you know what you got. A lot of that is from the monitor, but it would take me a lot longer to light the scene just based on the monitor. I can do it much faster if I use my meter to set the key level. At the very least I know that the key light and the camera agree that that’s the amount of light we’re basing the scene on. Then I may use my spot meter to verify the brightness of backgrounds, and if we’re doing visual effects it’s essential.
There are so many variables when you’re reliant on just the camera and monitor to light a scene: How calibrated is the monitor? How accurate is it? Can you trust the black level? If it’s an 8-bit monitor, is it an accurate reflection of the dynamic range of your camera? With a meter you can work a lot faster and more accurately, and you can reproduce looks that you’ve achieved in the past a lot faster and more accurately, because you don’t even need the camera. They can be setting the camera up over there, and you can be working with your lighting guys and lighting a scene on a different set, and you know what it’s going to look like because you know what the exposure is.
Director of Photography for the Saturday Night Live Film Unit and a cinematographer of indie films and music videos, Alex Buono received an Oscar nomination in 2003 for the short film Johnny Flynton, which he photographed and also produced. He repeated the dual role of cinematographer and co-producer on Green Street Hooligans, about London’s football subculture, starring Elijah Wood and Charlie Hunnam, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2005 South by Southwest Film Festival. He was also the cinematographer of Shanghai Kiss, shot in China. Following, Alex wrote, produced, and shot the documentary Bigger Stronger Faster, which premiered in competition at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and was distributed theatrically by Magnolia Pictures. Other credits include ESPN’s award-winning comedy series Mayne Street and 2nd Unit director/dp work for the ABC drama series Detroit 187 and the NBC drama series Chicago Fire.
You can learn more about Alex Buono's work on his website and see behind-the-scenes articles and lighting diagrams on his blog.