Saturday Night Live alters the style of its opening credit sequence and commercial bumpers every few years, making adjustments for cast additions and departures in the years between. This year is no different, especially as the show celebrates its 40th anniversary. But there’s more to the process than most viewers would think.
On Wednesday, Alex Buono, director of photography on SNL’s film unit, posted a lengthy explainer about making this year’s opener. Whether you’re a film aficionado looking for detailed discussions of camera lenses, an SNL fan looking for behind-the-scenes details, or a layperson simply interested in learning something new, the post is filled with fascinating tidbits. Here are a few of the best.
1. The film crew didn’t always attach lenses to their cameras. Using a technique called freelensing (or lens-whacking, which Buono admits is as awkward to say as it sounds), the film crew would hold up an unattached camera lens to their cameras’ lens ports and manually focus shots by moving it further away or closer to the camera. This technique allows for shots with some unique visuals, all thanks to a little manual ingenuity.
2. The Yankee Stadium shot happened IRL. In this year’s title sequence, an aerial shot of Yankee Stadium displays the words “Saturday Night Live 40” on the stadium’s jumbotron. Director Rhys Thomas arranged for the title to actually appear on the big screen—it’s not a post-production effect—as the crew flew over the stadium. What’s even more impressive is who helped them get in the air: Al Cerullo, a pilot behind some of the gorgeous aerial shots in films like The Wolf of Wall Street and Captain America.
Cerullo didn’t come cheap. As Buono notes, “It was one of the bigger line items on the budget. But for the production value they add, great aerials are worth every penny.”
3. Fuzzy lights become the SNL name. How did the title team manage this trick, in which light sources in the frame become form the show’s logo?
By actually using a filter shaped like the logo, called a bokeh. The logo had to be smaller than the diameter of the camera lens’ iris—so Buono and the team manipulated it to fit within 25mm and 50mm diameters on a filer. Then, as the camera was shifted out of focus, the frame’s fuzzy balls of light didn’t just sit there–they transformed. The effect required some precise math to make it work, but the end product is an impressive piece of practical visual trickery.
4. Light-writing the title. The film team captured this interstitial by using a recently Kickstarter-funded item and a process that has been around for years: light-writing. They captured and recaptured a flashing reproduction of the show’s name by “painting it in mid-air” with the Pixelstick. The crew then uploaded an image of the title to the device, which would then flash it in pixel form, line by line. The film crew guided the stick through the air so the camera could capture the entire phrase using long exposure. They then repeated the process to create an interstitial with a stop-motion quality.
5. The logo: It’s alive! One other trick the film crew employed was to actually place a physical reproduction of the words “Saturday Night Live” in different places around New York City. Instead of overlaying the title in post, the crew used a 3D printed out version of the title and shot it on location. The effect allows for the authentic shadowing seen in some of the interstitials. The logo even appeared on the set of the season premiere’s Guardians of the Galaxy spoof. More interstitials will pop up later in the season.
Buono’s full post is worth reading to understand just how much work went into every aspect of producing SNL’s titles. For the full effect of knowing what went into each shot, check out the opening credits themselves: