I have lived in New York City since 1992.
I’ve done all the classic Big Apple stuff. You know, yelling at tourists for walking too slow, eating Nathan’s hot dogs in Coney Island before going on the Cyclone (not a great idea BTW), and making out on the Staten Island Ferry with a stranger who I never saw again. Good times.
But I had never once gone to see Saturday Night Live being taped.
Well, that all changed with a bang a few weeks ago when my friend Todd Goldstein at Pentagram asked me to help out with the Season 44 opening titles. I should note that this conversation happened on a Tuesday morning, and the season premiere was happening that Saturday night, so I kind of knew right away that this was going to be a little nuts and also a lot of fun.
A good story, in other words.
Additionally, the project was to be overseen by Emily Oberman, who is a partner at Pentagram and also a designer I admire a lot. She worked with the legendary Tibor Kalman at M&Co and was the original designer for Colors Magazine. She’s a big deal. Though I had met her one time before, this would be an opportunity to work more directly with her, get to know her better, and hopefully learn a thing or two along the way. So I was pretty excited about that.
Another fun factor: we would need to work up at 30 Rock, on the SNL floor, amidst all the craziness. Which actually turned out to be pretty insane and hilarious. For instance, in the office across the hall from the VFX room where I was stationed, there was a baby pot belly pig hanging out ready to be used in a sketch!
Gotta admit, I visited that little pig many times. It had a calming effect when things got hairy.
The main thing that I learned from this experience is that a lot of the magic of SNL comes together at the last second. There’s a highly creative, yet anarchic fast-and-furious system in place that’s been around since the start of the show, and it means that the best idea wins, no matter when it comes along. If something isn’t working in the dress rehearsal two hours before air, it gets changed or cut. And that spirit is infectious, somehow, even down to the graphics. Amazingly, this meant that we finished up the opening titles (and bumpers and all the other little odds and ends for delivery) sometime around 11pm on Saturday night, half hour before the show aired live on national television. Incredible!
However crazy it was to make, I think the sequence came together really nicely and I’m proud to have been a part of creating it. In addition to myself, Todd, and Emily, the team of people working on the project was fantastic. My hat is off to all of the editors, producers, directors, graphic artists and other talented, hard-working people that bring the post-production end of the show to life every week behind the scenes. Working with them all was a lesson in grace under pressure.
My part in the madness was animating the “squiggles” — the little hand-drawn elements that pop up over the footage. In my mind they represent the antic, zany energy of NYC. According to the Pentagram website: “The flickering is echoed in animated squiggles and scribbles of electric color that highlight lines and forms in the images of the city. The hand-painted strokes are a nod to a different New Wave―the art of the New York post-punk scene of the ‘80s―while also nodding to Edie Baskin’s hand-painted photographs, one of SNL’s early stylistic trademarks.”
Damn, that’s way better than I could have ever put it. And a lot of nodding.
Here’s another thing. The stage where they film the show is really small. Most of the post-production staff watches the show live on TV, in their offices on a different floor. People hang out and drink beers and watch their work until the show ends. I figured that was the closest I would get to the action too. But at the last minute, out of nowhere, staff photographer Mary Ellen Matthews grabbed myself and the Pentagram team and brought us downstairs right into Studio 8H, so we were able to watch the cold open (and the title sequence) live on stage as it premiered, wincing and laughing along with the rest of the audience at Matt Damon’s sadly accurate, rage-filled Brett Kavanaugh impersonation. Classic!
After that, we somehow wound up in the backstage dressing room area for a while, which was crowded and uncomfortable. Chris Rock was there, chatting with Michael Che, while Todd and I pretended not to look at him or notice that he was a foot away from us.
Later on we went up to the famed writer’s room, which featured lots of booze and even more celebrities. One of my favorite moments was seeing Aziz Ansari standing uncomfortably alone in the doorway for a long time, as people walked past and avoided him. He looked very small.
I don’t really care about famous people that much. But because I’m a design nerd, the highlight for me was hanging out and working with Emily Oberman. I was really impressed with her vitality and energy. A force of nature, no doubt. She has an exacting vision, but isn’t afraid to give people on her team room to experiment and make mistakes as part of the process, even under a lot of pressure. Also, she went and got me a big handful of candy when I was hangry and feeling beyond low-blood sugar. Thank you Emily!
And finally, some boring technical stuff. How did I make these squiggles? Really fast, using the Brush Tool in After Effects, which was a first for me. Usually I avoid that tool like the plague. But since it was all done on the fly at the last second, I needed something fast and editable*, and I was able to make that finicky Brush Tool work for me. Yes, there’s a learning curve, and I wish the AE development team would figure out how to incorporate the amazing brushes found in Photoshop, but it worked for me pretty well this time.
*Editable, that is, with the help of a few expressions. There should really be an easier way to change the color of all the strokes on a layer at once, for instance, or the line thickness. Many of my squiggle shots had hundreds of strokes, each just two frames, all squeezed into one layer. Selecting all of those strokes vertically, each time, in order to change the color creates a big logjam in the workflow if the color palette is being updated while you work.
And before you say Hey Nol, a Fill effect would be a simple way to change all those stroke colors at once. Yes, it’s true. But since the strokes have to be directly on the footage, the Fill effect will return a full-screen of color unless you also toggle off the Paint On Transparent checkbox each time. I found it easier to put a Color Picker and expression Slider on the footage, quickly link the color and stroke thickness to these effects with the expression pick-whip, Copy Expression Only, select all the remaining strokes at once and then Paste.
Gotta be an easier way!
Anyway, that’s pretty much it. A good story, a nice piece for the reel, and on to the next adventure!
Thanks for reading!