Q&A: Adam Epstein, Editor, 'SNL' Short Films

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One of the biggest treats each week on Saturday Night Live is to see what kind of bizarre short films will be shown. These mini-movies are the product of the writers along with the filmmaking unit headed by director/producer Rhys Thomas. Adam Epstein is their editor.

We spoke with the busy editor when he caught his breath after the season premiere episode, for which he put together a sendup of a promo for the HBO show Girls in which Albanian visitor Blerta (Tina Fey) helps put some of that show’s characters’ complaints in perspective.

What kind of preproduction do you get on these shorts?
Adam Epstein: We have a three-day turnaround for each live show, which means I see a copy of a script late Wednesday night. Thursday is all preproduction—Rhys and his team are getting location, wardrobe, props and everything else, while I start to pull music, sound beds, sound effects and graphics or titling that I think might work. So if it’s a parody piece like “Blerta,” I’ll get a graphic the original show uses or come up with something in that style. I also use this time to get as familiar with the rhythm and style of what we’re parodying as I can. In this case, I looked at HBO promos for Girls.

If you’re building graphics or titles, do you do that yourself?
If it’s very complicated, we might have someone else work on it while I’m editing, but in this case I created the titling and I composited them in.

What tools do you use for editing and the titling and effects work?
I edit in Adobe Premiere Pro and I do a lot of work in Photoshop and After Effects. That was one of the major reasons we switched last season to Premiere Pro from Final Cut Pro—it was much simpler to move around from doing one thing to another, and speed is obviously very important when we do these films.

What’s a typical shoot like?
Usually they shoot all day Friday—sometimes into Saturday, but it’s rare. On those [later] pieces I’ll start cutting on set in order to have things organized as soon as possible. For “Blerta,” [the production team] started Friday morning on location and wrapped around 6 p.m. Then by 6:30 p.m. I was able to start cutting in earnest.

What cameras do they use?
It varies from piece to piece. This one was shot on both RED EPIC and ARRI Alexa. We tend to prefer the look of Alexa material, but they shot the night walk-and-talks on the street using a Movi stabilizer with the RED as the Alexa was too heavy.

How much coverage are they able to give you with such a fast-paced shoot day?
It’s actually a lot. They usually cover everything with two cameras, with wide shots, over-the-shoulders, and then go in for close-ups and reaction shots. It’s not a crazy amount of footage, but given the timeline they’re under, it’s always an impressive amount. I’ve rarely felt like we lacked coverage on something.

Aside from the ability to move in and out of After Effects and Photoshop quickly, are there any other facets of Premiere Pro that help you do your work?
I prefer the way it deals with previews. We do one render, and if we change just a portion of the piece, we don’t have to re-render everything. On our schedule, any time you save is very valuable.

So you start editing around 6:30 Friday night. Walk me through the rest of the process.
We like to leave by early Saturday morning, around 2 to 3 a.m., with a basic assembly in order to have a cut to our colorist. Then we’re back in the morning, refining everything while getting notes from the writer or producer of the piece.

It gets color corrected at an outside facility and mixed in one of 30 Rock’s sound studios and comes back in time for the 8 p.m. dress rehearsal. Then there are always some final tweaks based on audience reaction. I make those, kick out a new EDL, and we have about 90 minutes to get back a color corrected, mixed version for air.

That’s quite a schedule. Do you ever worry it’s not going to get back in time for air?
We definitely came close a few times—playing stuff directly to air, unrendered—but, fingers crossed, we haven’t ever been in a situation where the film couldn’t run [in its scheduled time slot]. It’s not like we can relax and say “It’s all ready to go” an hour beforehand. But we do try to have at least ten minutes to spare.

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