Parodies: 28 Years of Laughter
By David Heuring
Saturday Night Live is an institution, often copied and a dependable ratings winner for NBC Television. At the time of its premier in October 1975, however, it seemed as though the inmates had taken over the asylum. SNL was edgy, anti-establishment and hilarious. The show, which was broadcast live in an era when almost all TV aside from news and sports was filmed or taped, featured sketch comedy, music and a "news" segment. But the most subversive element of the show might have been the straight-faced commercial parodies.....
More than 300 of SNL's commercial parodies and comedic short films have been produced by the SNL Film Unit and directed by Jim Signorelli, a cinematographer-turned-director and producer who brings a finely tuned visual sense to his work, including "real" television commercials. The weekly Saturday Night Live episode comes together over the course of six days, and the commercial parodies, which usually air immediately after the opening monologue, are sometimes produced in as little as three days. Some parodies are done with more time, but the schedule is always miniscule compared to a normal television spot.
"City after city, we would set up our gear, shoot reversal Ektachrome news film, get it developed, cut the camera original and have contact prints ready for the television stations' newscasts each night," he recalls, "and then go on the next city!"
After 35 years, Signorelli still thrives under intense time pressures. As was true during his days with Kennedy, he oversees every aspect of production for the SNL film unit. It's not unusual for a spot photographed Friday morning to air on Saturday.
"When I direct, I expect to average one set-up every 15 minutes," he says. "At the end of the day, I want to have 25 set-ups done, but I don't want to do it at the expense of the piece or by rushing the cinematographer. There's a delicate balance between what is important and contributes to the feel of a shot, and what's unnecessary."
Signorelli knows that the spots must have the ring of truth for the punch line to work. The parodies must feel like a real commercial in spite of the comparatively limited production resources.
"These spots will ultimately run many times," he says. "The quality of the writing and execution must be such that they will still be funny later. Good comedy looks effortless on the screen. It requires tremendous work to get it right."
Signorelli has worked with many cinematographers at SNL. The one common trait is their ability to recreate a high-quality look with a fraction of the time and money behind the average national spot. The majority of the commercial parodies are produced in either 35 mm or Super 16 film formats to emulate the look of national TV commercials. He alternates between a few talented shooters who are in tune with his thinking. This allows him to concentrate on directing the actors, whose time is usually extremely limited by the demands of rehearsing the live portion of the show.
Fortunato Procopio has photographed hundreds of real TV spots for major clients, as well as feature films, documentaries and music videos, in addition to his work with Signorelli on SNL. According to Procopio, the typical production schedule for the show includes a run-through of the planned material on Wednesday night. After the run-through, decisions are made about the content of the show, including additional material that can't be produced live on Saturday in Studio 8H. That material is assigned to the film unit.
On Thursday, the concept can be rewritten. Preproduction takes place between noon and 8 p.m. Sets can be constructed overnight, and lit from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m., when the talent arrives. Filming is usually complete by 12:30 p.m., and the film is whisked to the lab. Signorelli says a cut version of the spot is usually ready to be presented at dress rehearsal Saturday afternoon.
Procopio says that the choice of acquisition medium is always based on the piece being parodied. "We've shot nearly every film and video format from Hi-8 to MiniDV to DigiBeta -- from Super 8 to 35mm," he says. "We choose the format that best enables us to emulate the original commercial or genre, from the slickest 35 mm film images to the cheesiest, bad digital video. This requires careful coordination and the cooperation of the technicians and the facilities involved."
Procopio says that preparation and experience are keys to meeting the rough deadlines. "During preparation, you have to keep asking yourself 'what if,'" he says. "We all work with Jim to determine what key elements will sell the gag. Exhaustive planning helps maximize our resources. Experience helps us prepare for spontaneity. Actors, writers and directors can be spontaneous, so we must be prepared to give them what they need.
Will Ferrell, Jim Signorelli and Fortunato Procopio on the set of "Inside the Actors Studio"
"The SNL hosts are often the hottest current stars," he says. " Once the guest host is on set it's time to shoot. We have the responsibility of making them look good with no testing or much time on set. That's never easy. We've shot glamorous music video parodies with female stars like Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Lucy Liu in a few hours. They have a 'hard out' because the rest of the cast and crew is waiting to rehearse with them back in Studio 8H. Any time spent making technical adjustments handicaps Jim's ability to get the shots he needs."
Even after 25-plus years, the television audience is conditioned to expect a real commercial when studio techs cut away to the parody commercials. "They recognize it more quickly than they used to, but they still don't anticipate it," says Procopio. "We need to keep that suspension going until the right moment. Today's audiences are extremely visually sophisticated. If it doesn't look right they know immediately. We need to make it look right. That may be bad or good -- film or video. On balance, most commercials are still shot on film. So, film is often the right choice, but we chose Beta SP for a quite inelegantly shot spot about a lawyer who sues dogs. I know that the look as a whole makes audiences shake their heads wondering whether it's for real In many cases, that's a lot of the fun."
The SNL film unit has found a way to make film an option despite the time pressures because in many cases it's essential to the comedy. "Because we have mastered the quick film turnaround, we are free to choose whatever image capture medium best suits the piece," says Procopio. "During shooting, I find that film is the least limiting. It's much more difficult to create the cinematic looking images we are after using any other medium. The limited range of current video cameras puts a lot of pressure on the camera and lighting crew. The film unit doesn't often have the luxury of total control. Film has a very natural feeling highlight and shadow compression. I'd rather be under the gun and shooting film than any thing else."
- from Kodak's "In Focus" magazine
View SNL parodies shot by Fortunato Procopio
"Magic Mouth "
"TRL Charlize Theron"
"TRL Lucy Liu"
"Reliable Investments - Alec Baldwin"
"TRL - Pierce Brosnan"