Alex Buono DoP for the SNL Film Unit talks about his next project and the importance of working with a tightly knit crew.

Photo copyright Rhys Thomas

Alex Buono hangs out with some pretty fun people. Having just returned from Colombia for a shoot on the second season of the satirical series Documentary Now!, the DP and director has been traveling the world for a new IFC show created by Saturday Night Live alumni Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers. Targeting the documentary tradition, episodes on Documentary Now! have included parodies of such famous films as the Maysles Brothers’ 1975 film Grey Gardens and Errol Morris’ 1988 doc The Thin Blue Line. Armisen and Hader put their spin on the subjects of these classic films while Buono and co-director Rhys Thomas design the production in a way that perfectly emulates the look and feel of the documentaries, giving them a visual sense of humor just as important to the series as the performances.

Referring to Documentary Now! as a “love letter” to classic documentary work, Buono and his team have been ever authentic in recreating the style of these films as the same time as they bring the satirized content to a new audience. For the first season episode, Kunuk Uncovered, the show traveled to Iceland to put together a faux mockumentary based Nanook of the North, from 1922, one of the first hugely successful documentaries to be captured on film. He employed vintage prime lenses to achieve the tattered monochromatic feel of a film nearly a century old, and it’s this attention to detail that has made the nascent series a critical darling, renewed by IFC before the first episode had even aired. Streaming juggernaut Netflix has picked up the series as well

(Above) Buono’s gaffer Sean Sheridan adjusts a Chimera OctaPlus 57 and Barger 6-Lite on the set of “Love Struck,” a Saturday Night Live shot spot featuring Ronda Rousey. Photo copyright Rhys Thomas

…thanks to a tightly knit, well-orchestrated crew, many of these are cobbled together within only twenty-four hours of receiving the script.

As a former camera assistant, Buono learned from legendary cinematographers in the field like Conrad Hall, ASC, Jack N. Green, ASC, Dean Cundey, ASC and John Schwartzman, ASC. In addition to camera credits for blockbuster films like Twister and Armageddon, he was nominated in 2003 for an Oscar for a short film called Johnny Flynton where he produced and also helmed camera. Buono majored at USC in film production and still photography, and, since his graduation in the mid-nineties, his extensive retinue of films has only continued to grow by the year with documentary work, commercials, full length features and music videos. 

Alongside his impeccable resume, Buono is probably most famous for seventeen years of work behind the famous “mock” vignettes poking fun at commercials and pop culture on Saturday Night Live. As Director of Photography for the SNL Film Unit, he is responsible with director and frequent collaborator Rhys Thomas for quickly piecing together the celebrated weekly shorts, and thanks to a tightly knit, well-orchestrated crew, many of these are cobbled together within only twenty-four hours of receiving the script. (In 2013, Buono broke down the workflows and techniques that have enabled him to work so quickly and somehow found the time to create and tour a nationwide workshop called The Art of Visual Storytelling, which is now available online as a DVD or via download — www.mzed.com.)

Often times Buono and crew have to turn a script into a finished project in less than a 24 hours. Pictured above, Buono (left)  films a take from “Love Struck,” an SNL short spot featuring Ronda Rousey, as prop master Rob Ackerman throws a basketball into frame.

“At SNL, we have a great crew,” he says. “We do it very fast, but there’s a lot of setups, and there’s a lot of lighting, and you need to build sets and have a really great crew, sometimes a big crew, to light these things. The pace of it is definitely much more like a traditional movie or television show.”

“Documentary Now! is incredibly fast paced,” he continues. “It’s a small crew. We shoot it almost like a documentary. We don’t have any coverage. We might use zero lighting or we’ll bounce a light up on the ceiling, but it’s much more like a real documentary, while SNL is an exercise in doing something that is very much like that “thing” that we’re satirizing.”

For a feature series that makes fun of documentaries, the sense of humor behind Documentary Now! is definitely very esoteric, but with heavy hitting names and guest stars, it’s also the natural extension of Buono’s work and relationships with SNL. Thomas and Buono run the show as executive producers and directors, with Buono also wearing the hat as cinematographer. Thomas shares co-creator credit with Armisen, Hader and Meyers, as well.

On a shoot for the second season, Buono and his team just returned from Bogota, Colombia. Lighting up in the middle of the jungle required a bit of help from Chimera. Buono says that they brought a generator and relied primarily on a Chimera OctaPlus 57 lightbank with Joker 800 and 1600 bulbs as key light for interviews as well as ambiance.

“It was fun being in Columbia,” he says, “because I had a very good grip and electric team, but they’d never seen an Octaplus! They were pretty happy with how fast and easy it was to build and move around.”

“It was fun being in Columbia,” he says, “because I had a very good grip and electric team, but they’d never seen an Octaplus! They were pretty happy with how fast and easy it was to build and move around.” Used primarily for the interviews, Buono also worked the easily collapsible fixture as a soft window light source. “I could have used an HMI,” he says, “and bounced it into something, sent it through some diffusion, skirted it off for the rest of the set, but now you’re talking about this big setup and five or six stands.”

Buono often turns to the OctaPlus to bring a unique light to his work. “It’s just a beautiful light and so easy and fast to work with. I had the five-foot build of the Octaplus and it pushed this soft-looking, almost ambient, very subtle key that worked perfectly for me. It’s just a super versatile light.” Photo copyright Rhys Thomas

Instead, they used the OctaPlus with speed rings for an 800 Joker and a 1600 Joker as well as the Chimera Triolet with a tungsten-halogen JT 500W bulb on a dimmer system. “That’s one of my favorite looks right now,” he says, “a dimmed down OctaPus with that long tungsten filament in it. It’s just a beautiful light and so easy and fast to work with. I had the five-foot build of the Octaplus and it pushed this soft-looking, almost ambient, very subtle key that worked perfectly for me. It’s just a super versatile light.”

I was also lighting things much more carefully for this episode and the Chimera was the perfect solution because it gave me a pretty key light but it was still fast to setup, which helped maintain that kind of frenetic documentary energy on the set.

“For this episode — shooting in the jungles of Colombia — we definitely wanted to keep that feeling of very natural light. I like comedy when it’s played really straight and authentically, and the laughs comes out of the absurdity of the moment. I like it when it feels very realistic, when it feels like this could be a drama, but then what is happening or what is being said is totally absurd, and that’s why it’s funny… If we’re doing a commercial parody, I make it look like a commercial. If we’re doing an authentic documentary, I pursue it like a documentary. I just try to treat what we’re doing as authentically as possible.”

“Some episodes of this series are completely verite with almost no lighting and with a raw, real aesthetic. For this episode in Colombia, on the other hand, I definitely was trying to make it look as pretty as possible. I was using much nicer lenses, whereas in episodes where I’m trying to make it look like a seventies documentary, I’m using a really, really old zoom lens to give it that sort of look. I was also lighting things much more carefully for this episode and the Chimera was the perfect solution because it gave me a pretty key light but it was still fast to setup, which helped maintain that kind of frenetic documentary energy on the set.”

Though he started at SNL with 35mm film stock, Buono was a DP that quickly embraced the burgeoning technology of video capable DSLRs. He found himself to be one of the very first cinematographers awarded membership in Canon’s Explorers of Light, and for a couple of years many of the title sequences and commercial parodies on SNL were shot partially with Canon 5D Mark II and EOS 7D cameras. Despite this, Buono says that he has always been platform agnostic and that he believes in the right tool for the job. On Documentay Now!, he is primarily using dedicated camcorder solutions like the Canon C300, and XF305 as well as ARRI Alexa and RED Dragon cameras. He’s embroiled in work on the second season for IFC with shoots and post scheduled to take up his time through September. Buono frequently posts lighting and production breakdowns for SNL and other projects on his website at http://www.alex-buono.com/blog/

Our thanks to Alex for the glimpse at what goes into his stunning projects. Make sure to check out his work at alex-buono.com/ and follow him on Twitter and Facebook!