Exclusive Interview: Adam Epstein Talks Tight Deadlines & Editing for 'Saturday Night Live'
Frequent readers of our site are likely familiar with the work of the Film Unit over at Saturday Night Live. On multiple occasions, we've covered the work of the Film Unit DP Alex Buono, most recently as he talked us through his work on the Wes Anderson parody, The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders. As we know from Buono's posts, the pre-production and production of these pieces are done on extremely tight deadlines due to the fact that SNL is a weekly show with multiple "shorts" per episode. However, for those of you who thought that those processes were as stressful and hectic as it gets, wait until you hear about (and watch) the post production of a few recent SNL shorts.
I recently talked with Saturday Night Live Film Unit editor Adam Epstein about some of his recent work for the storied television show. We chat about everything from how he landed at SNL to the technical aspects of his work as an editor for the show.
For those of you who have yet to see any of Adam's work with SNL, here's the piece around which we based most of our discussion. It's called The Beygency, and it should serve as an example of why you should never say anything bad about Beyoncé. Ever.
Now let's get to the interview with Adam!
NFS: Tell us a little bit about your filmmaking history. How did you end up editing for SNL? That's a cool gig, and I'm sure our audience would be thrilled to hear about how one goes about landing a job like that.
Adam Epstein: I came up in Los Angeles -- I went to UCLA where I was a writer and filmmaker on the school's first broadcast sketch comedy show. This was a great exercise, both in learning how to make things with and for a team of people, as well as how to function on little to no sleep. After school, I worked as a preditor (Producer + Editor) at Stun Creative writing and editing promos and image campaigns for network and cable -- promos are often something that people think of as "less than" when it comes to editorial, but in my opinion, the skills that you learn doing them -- how to make what might not be the most exciting footage into something far better, how to establish a flow and an exciting rhythm, how to really use sound design to plus things -- are great skills to have tucked away.
I left Stun to work in commercial post at Red Car, which was a real-world education in how traditional films/commercials get made. I was learning every step of big budget, multi-house workflows as far as dealing with mix and telecine -- plus probably most importantly -- how to deal with agency creatives, successful directors, and people in general in high pressure situations. This is the type of stuff that isn't in any manual and is, in my opinion, probably more valuable than knowing how to use a cool set of plugins. I moved to New York in 2008, and after working as a preditor for places like Comedy Central, Animal Planet and Sundance, among others, I ended up working with the SNL Film Unit entirely because our director, Rhys Thomas, who is also the SNL Film Unit producer, was confident enough (or foolhardy enough) at the time to give me a shot.
When I started, Rhys was producing for the Film Unit director at the time, Jim Signorelli, who had been with the show since its start and was responsible for pretty much every legendary commercial parody for the first 35 years of the show. I knew Rhys socially and had worked with his wife who is a very talented post-producer for commercials and film, and a spot opened up for me to come in and have a crack at it. Now knowing what goes into a standard week, I find it amazing that Rhys actually thought someone he hadn't worked directly with before would be able to pull it off -- but things went smoothly on the first piece, and we've been going strong ever since then. Rhys took over as the Film Unit director 4 seasons ago, and since then we've worked together on nearly 100 pieces. Fun times.
I wish I could say that "these are the steps to take to get a job like this" but I guess what it comes down to is having the skills and the chops at your disposal, that when you get an opportunity, be it through luck or other circumstances, you'll be prepared to impress and bring something to the process that makes you stand out.
NFS: As a weekly show, I'd imagine that you work on extremely tight deadlines, much like Alex Buono and the production team. Talk a little bit about how you're able to edit creatively and precisely in such short amounts of time.
Adam Epstein: Our schedule and deadlines are pretty much the same every week -- what Alex wrote about in his blog breaking down the Wes Anderson Horror Movie piece earlier this year is the norm. The writers at the show spend all of Tuesday night writing dozens of sketches, then late Wednesday afternoon is the read-through where the writers, producers, directors, etc. at the show read through all the scripts to choose what will be in the show. Out of those pieces, there are a handful that lend themselves to be film pieces -- I get an email or a call from Rhys or someone in the Film Unit on Wednesday night saying what the piece is, then a follow-up email with the script.
The production team then goes into full pre-pro mode, using the rest of Wednesday night and all of Thursday to pre-produce the entire piece. Shooting normally starts early Friday morning -- though a handful of times this season it’s been pushed even later. The Beygency was a piece like this. Depending on where the shoot is or what the turnaround is looking like, I either start cutting/organizing on set, or start back at 30 Rock as drives are sent back.
I try to get a rough assembly done by the time we leave 30 Rock, normally around 3AM, and send an EDL and a cut of where things are at to our color house. In the case of The Beygency, since they were shooting so late, I worked until around 3AM, got a few hours of sleep, and then came back in around 9 once all the footage was in -- then it's a mad dash to have a full cut for Dress (which needs to be done between 8:00 to 8:30 depending on where it is scheduled in the show lineup) that everyone -- Rhys, the writers, the producers, myself -- is happy with. It then plays at Dress, and there's a round of notes or changes between Dress and Air, which usually gives about 1.5 hours to address and have finished for broadcast.
Then we normally have a scotch. Again -- fun times. I'd like to heavily emphasize that everyone involved in every step of this process, especially the pre-production and production crews (Justus McClarty is the Film Unit's producer) is amazing at what they do. Their ability to pull off such polished, professional results in the time they have, starting from scratch on each piece never fails to amaze me.
NFS: Walk us through everything that's happening in your timelapse video of The Beygency edit. What's a typical workflow for an SNL skit like that, everything from ingest to output?
Adam Epstein: I touched on a some of the process above, but from a post-only perspective, I'm getting footage from set in shuttle drives that are then dumped onto our main SAN at the show, normally by our Studio Associate Director Matt Yonks, who is a talented editor in his own right. There really isn't the time to have a traditional Assistant Editor break things down the way they would on a commercial job, so I'm doing my own initial organization (making multicam clips as we normally are shooting at least 2 cameras, syncing to external sound, pulling selects, etc.).
Another drive that has all the footage goes to our color house -- we tend to work with either Katabatic or Color Collective, both of which are great places that are willing to accommodate our weird deadlines. They then use that drive to conform the EDLs and ref QTs that I'll send them throughout the process leading up until final cut. Before air, I'll kick out a reference QT and an OMF for our in-house mixer to mix and for both the studio audience and the 5.1 broadcast. After getting back a drive from the color house of individual QT shots based on our "final" cut, I'll overcut those shots, redo any comps, etc, before kicking out a full-res QT of the final piece to the control room. They marry that to the final 5.1 mix that they've received from the mix room and send that to broadcast. If things are going smoothly, they have final picture with final sound played into the system ideally 15 minutes or so before it airs. Again, that's a best case scenario -- it's often much closer. But we've done it enough that we know where we have to be by a certain time and we've yet to miss a piece.
NFS: It looks like you're also taking care of audio, VFX, and color, in addition to all of the editing. Is that the case, or are there other people involved in the post process? Is it important for editors today to have a "one man band" kind of skill-set it today's job market?
Adam Epstein: It varies from piece to piece. We always have a final mix done, and we normally have a telecine (though if the piece doesn't lend itself to a certain look, we don't -- for example, if it's a retro piece where we might end up laying it off to VHS and then re-ingesting. As a side-note, it's always funny when you end up doing that to source material that was originally shot on an amazing camera at 5K. Apart from that, I tend to do a vast majority of the sound design and a good chunk of the GFX work on the pieces. With GFX, if it's something that's more complicated than I have time for or can handle, we'll use an in-house artist, usually our friend Edmond Hawkins, who is really amazing. I also need to mention my friend Kelly Brickner, who is an incredible editor, and who cuts film pieces for the show with in-house directors Matt & Oz.
As far as editors being "one man bands," I think it's a combination -- obviously, the more you know and the more you can do on your own, the better, but at the same time it's important to realize the difference between you knowing how to do something and being able to do it as well as the professionals in that specific field. I can mix, and I can color, but people whose job it is to do nothing but that are always going to be better than the jacks of all trades. That team nature is one of my favorite aspects of filmmaking.
NFS: Talk about your editing setup from a technical perspective. What software and hardware combo are you using, and how do those things help facilitate a speedy post production process? Are you a Premiere Pro guy only, or do you jump back and forth between NLE's depending on the job?
Adam Epstein: When I started at SNL, I worked on FCP 7 (my background is in Avid and FCP mainly, though the first NLE I used in college was a very early, very stunted version of Premiere). Nowadays on the show, I work exclusively in Premiere, using After Effects and Photoshop for GFX, and a handful of other smaller apps/plugins for other tasks. We're working off a nicely equipped older version Mac Pro with a Quadro K6000 (which really helps) connected to a Fiber SAN shared by everyone at the show.
I only cut using Wacom tablets, especially due to the GFX and drawing work that comes up. Being able to dynamic link between Premiere and AE and not having to transcode any of our footage (we're working natively with everything -- RED .R3D files, Alexa, C300, F55, etc ) really helps considering our timeline and allows us to get more done in terms of both amount and complexity. I definitely prefer working in Premiere at the moment (the feature Rhys directed for Paramount this past summer that I've been editing is being done on Premiere) though I still use Avid and FCP7 on outside jobs when it's necessary.
NFS: In The Beygency, you're parodying a classic dramatic spy-thriller type of style. Describe that editorial style, and walk us through the techniques that you used in order to mimic it.
Adam Epstein: Something like The Beygency is fun to cut, because that type of intense, build-up/break down edit style really allows you to play with rhythm and pacing. It's very sound design heavy, so on pieces like this, I often find myself doing a radio-cut of sorts first -- selecting hero takes that match the script and using them as cornerstones to then build out from. If you close your eyes and listen to the way the music cues, the SFX, the VO and the bites are flowing, and it's working well, then you're on your way.
It's much different from a more standard film/conversation scene where so much more is about the visual language -- not that the visuals are any less important here -- but I feel that with trailers like this, the sound bed is what's pulling the visuals forward vs. the other way around. And then it's a ton of little, gloss things that sell it -- hard, bassy hits on cuts to black that then slowly fade into the next shot, cheated slo-mo that gives that steppy feel, quick inverted frames to punctuate the rhythm, lots of reverb and metal noises, etc.
Creating rough cuts on set. Director Rhys Thomas on the left. Adam Epstein to the right.
NFS: Anything else you'd like to share with the NFS audience?
Adam Epstein: Editing, or filmmaking overall, is far less about the gear or the software you're using and far more about your own senses and instincts -- and even more than that, it's about the team that you're working with. The reason the stuff I work on looks and feels "good" or "cool" is because I'm part of a team that commits hard to what they do and do it really well -- at every level of the production. Without great scripts, great directors, and a great crew, nothing I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of would exist.
You may be the best editor in the world, but if you're not working with a group of like-minded individuals with a common goal to make the best piece possible, then you're only going to be as good as you can be by yourself -- and that's never going to reach what you can do with a real, quality group truly working together.
Adam has cut tons of material for Saturday Night Live in the past few years. He is also on the roster at the Santa Monica-based commercial post house Hybrid Edit + Content. If you'd like to check out more of his work, head on over to his website. He’s also currently in the process of preparing for a multi-city post-production workshop tour that starts later this summer -- find more info here.
If you've got any questions for Adam about his work at SNL, or his technical processes as an editor, throw them down in the comments!