An Updated Report On My Night At SNL…May 3, 2014
I’m re-posting my report from the next morning with some updates and added comments.
New: I originally only mentioned this is passing, but I was fortunate enough to spend six hours in 8H on Friday afternoon watching rehearsals. I had come directly from a two hour tour of The Ed Sullivan Theater and at the end of my day in 8H, I went to dinner with a friend from the “Tonight” show. It was quite a day, as was each of my seven days in New York. I had wanted to see the 8 o’clock dress rehearsal (and I did) instead of the live show…it’s a half hour longer and I could go back to the hotel and watch the live version to see what was cut. This was the weekend the new Spider Man movie debuted and the host was Andrew Garfield, the movie’s star with musical guest Cold Play.
At the dress rehearsal that night, there was a great “gotch ya” moment. Weekend Update host, Colon Jost did the warm up and said we (the audience) were going to play Stump The Band and he asked for someone to shout out an obscure song title. I couldn’t resist and shouted out “Boogaloo Down Broadway by the Fantastic Johnny C”. The band hit a few familiar notes like they were about to play it and then…they all shouted out “Yeah, we know it”, and that was it…it was funny.
One last thing. About 60 second before the show started, I turned to see Lorne Michaels standing next to me…two feet away. I knew he was deep in thought and it was best not to bother him, but I was dying to say “Excuse me, but aren’t you Max Liebman?”. I wish I had said it. If you don’t know who Max is, read on in the original part below. Enjoy!
LIVE FROM NEW YORK, IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT!
Last night, I was an eyewitness to live television’s only living legacy of the art of live variety show production…”Saturday Night Live”.
I sat on the front row of the floor seats. Looking at the stage, I was on the left side in the corner seat…only three seats on the front row and to my left was the other half of the 8H floor space…the perfect place to see everything.
I’m going into some detail this morning, but believe me…there will me much more on this! Before I go anywhere though, I must first thank the SNL crew for their incredible hospitality, especially John Pinto and Phil Pernice.
These are the pros that do the work: On Camera 1, our friend John Pinto. This is the Chapman Electra crane camera and his long time driver is Phil Pernice, with Louis Delli Paoli and Robert Mancari handling the boom arm duties.
On Camera 2, Paul Cangialisoi. On Camera 3, Len Weshlel. On Camera 4, Carl Eckert. On Camera 5, our old friend Eric Eisenstein. These are pedestal cameras, but when a portable is needed, one of them will handle that.
These are two more men that need to be acknowledged…Ed Ruotolo and Pete Phrane. In a way, these two are “the last of the Mohicans”. Ed and Pete are the only two sound boom operators in live network television!
Knowing what I know now, we really have to thank Lorne Michaels too for keeping the show true to the way it would have been done when live entertainment television was in it’s heyday. Max Liebman and Lorne have a lot in common and it seems that Mr. Michaels goes the extra mile to acknowledge that in a way.
Liebman produced NBC’s first ninety minute Saturday night hit… “Your Show Of Shows” with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. That show was done the same way, with ped cameras, a studio crane, two sound booms and a live audience.
To his credit, Michaels has taken this a step further. Like last night, I and forty or so others get to sit in the floor seats each week. This adds intimacy to the presentation, but also a few more degrees of difficulty for the crew and stage hands.
Sketches take place everywhere, on both ends of the studio and in the middle too, on all four walls, which means four ped cameras, the Chapman and two sound booms have to move there, set up and be ready for the start of each sketch. But remember…there’s scenery too and lots of it!
Sage hands are constantly in motion setting up the next scene and striking the last and some of the set pieces are quite large and elaborate, but everything has to move at the same time while staying quiet and out of each others way. This is a huge 3D chess game that is beyond fascinating to watch.
On top of all this is the Q card team which has to be in place with the cards over the lens of the correct camera. At times, the cards have to be held in three or four different places at once and kept in sync.
There are kings, and then there are Kings of Kings. The crews at “Saturday Night Live” are Kings of Kings, and then some! In each one of them, from the floor to the control room to the dressing rooms and beyond, both talent and technical…all of them are living legacies. The art of live variety show production, in all of the world, has only one true home; NBC Studio 8H!
With all due respect to all the other live network crews, especially the brilliant New York video artists behind the cameras at Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman and Seth Meyers, you are also Kings of Kings, but you have to admit that SNL is in a class by itself as the format and conditions are very different from any other show. It’s apples and oranges.
Now…to the dance. There is a magical coordination and flow of choreography that goes largely unseen that is absolutely stunning to watch in person. The great shots you see on screen are the product of the dance, but the dance itself is a true sight to behold!
One level of this dance is exclusive to SNL. All live shows have floor traffic but SNL has overhead traffic too, and lots of it! Here, we have Louis and Robert swinging John Pinto’s crane camera over head AND two sound booms! It was very interesting in Friday’s camera blocking rehearsal to hear a discussion of boom shadows. This is one of the elements exclusive to SNL that the pros there have to deal with, and they do it well.
Another part of this “level one” dance is the move…the migration of men and machines from one end of 8H to the other, or somewhere in between. There are utility men and women with each camera to handle the cable which is absolutely necessary, and when they move, it’s done with care, calm and efficiency and is a thing of beauty to behold in itself.
The second level of the dance is most pronounced during the musical guest performances. Frankly, I can not begin to express the art of this dance any more than I can describe the art of this kid in the clip dancing to “Happy” on SNL a few weeks back. He “has the music in him” and it is joyous to watch him turn it loose! It’s not overdone…just tasty and cool! You can see it in him through out the clip. This is qued to his part. Take a look.
What does this have to do with the SNL camera crew? Every one of them “have the music in them” and express it visually with a ballet of moves that will bring tears to your eyes should you be lucky enough to see it done.
During the musical performances, all four ped cameramen are peding up and peding down, trucking left and right, in and out, back and forth…all constantly in fluid motion. They trade places with each other on the in and outs and in the center, with Pinto and company booming up and down, and over the heads of the others the whole time.
This is true art and these are video artist at work!
Speaking of art…watching Phil, Louis and Robert handle the Chapman Electra is a thrill! World wide, this is the only true studio crane in operation in live television. Everything else that flies is a jib, and with all due respect to the jib operators…there is no comparison.
The Electra boom is in perfect balance on the up and down and should Louis and Robert turn loose of the boom arm, it will not move and is rock steady. Seeing Phil back the whole thing into the tunnel under the seats is a sight to behold.
In closing, my sincere thanks to everyone at SNL that have made me feel so welcome this week. I am deeply touched and truly honored to have been able to see all of you, and be a witness to the extraordinary work you do.
8H IS the home of the Kings of Kings! Thank you all for continuing the legacy of live television at it’s best! -Bobby Ellerbee
Here’s a clip of the promos.