Editor Adam Epstein on Insane Deadlines, Making the Switch and the Rush of 'Post-Production Improv'

Ask Adam Epstein to name the toughest part of his editorial and motion graphics workflow for Saturday Night Live's Film Unit and he will tell you, unequivocally, that the intense 24-hour edit sessions preceding the live show are actually a lot of fun. It has to help that Epstein, a freelance editor, has been working this crazy routine for the past three years at SNL's storied studios in 30 Rockefeller Center, cutting the mock commercial spots that appear between live skits for film segment director and producer Rhys Thomas, himself a creative beneficiary of long-time SNL film segment producer Jim Signorelli. Now in his fourth season with the show, Epstein says the raw, manic energy that sets the late-night institution's writers and cast members in motion every week also keeps him singularly focused on the work ahead. "I'm not going to lie—it's cool every single time," he says. "If you're a comedy nerd like me, it just never gets old. But what I think a lot of people don't realize about SNL is there really isn't much carry-over from week to week. Every show starts with a completely blank slate, from ideas, scripts and sets, to the films. Basically you're starting from zero every time." It is finding a balance, he says, between "producing the best stuff possible with the understanding that there's basically a gun to your head. That can be a huge challenge but also an amazing, addictive rush."

Adam Epstein and an unnamed mime, likely a stowaway from a recent Comedy Central event.

Fresh starts have become so familiar to Epstein that he opted to make a similar but potentially riskier transition during last year's Season 37 and switch out his NLE from Final Cut to Adobe Premiere CS5.5 for the Mac. He has, however, been creating each spot's motion graphics in After Effects from the start, and therein lay his problem. "Because of the insane turnaround time and the collaborative nature of the show, my edit workflow is constantly in flux," he says. "I just have no extra time to waste going between After Effects and my final edit." Add to that the show's emerging preference for shooting greenscreen, and Epstein had even less time on his hands. "In the past few years we've done a number of spots that were almost entirely greenscreen and basically every single shot was being done in After Effects. Dealing with the lag time of kicking out a shot, rendering it, bringing it into the NLE, kicking it out, bringing it in, then getting a change from a writer or producer and basically having to start over again every time, was getting just too cumbersome to manage."

The turning point, says Epstein, came when Apple released Final Cut Pro X. "We thought, 'Well, this just isn't going to work at all.'" Though additional editors Kelly Brickner and Alex Serpico still work in Final Cut and will cut spots in it when needed, Epstein knew the primary edit workflow was ready for a radical change. "So much of what I do is After Effects-specific, so when CS5.5 came along with Dynamic Linking—definitely the killer feature for me thus far—we decided to try that out on a simple piece featuring Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell toward the end of last season," he says. "It went so smoothly that once CS6 came out, we decided to dial the full workflow in and make sure it fit our needs. So far, it really has."

Watch "Tres Equis, Part 1" in full from the September 22 episode starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. For part 2, see below.

If he had used his former setup for "G.O.B.," a new spot that had members of the Republican party designing tampons, Epstein says he might never have attempted the motion design he eventually used. "In the first few shots there are these subtle vine graphics that grow out behind cast member Vanessa Bayer," he says. "Normally, we wouldn't have had the time to put something like that in, with all the normal rotobrush work that has to happen in After Effects. But now that a clip is tied directly to a composition in CS6, I not only have more room to build it but I can also easily open up and tweak timings if someone requests a change. That might have taken me 20 minutes before and now I can pretty much do it instantly."

CS6 has also rendered the nail-biting final delivery to air virtually painless, he says. "We've made sure there aren't any hiccups with codecs and so far, everything's been going to air smoothly and looking great."

Shoots and Scores
The Film Unit production team, led by Thomas and featuring the camera work of long-time SNL DP Alex Buono, shoots all of SNL's pre-recorded videos during show weeks on Friday to accommodate the writers and the guest host's condensed rehearsal time. We spoke to Epstein just before the shoot for the show's most recent October 6 show starring Daniel Craig. A typical edit week for Epstein begins on Wednesday, after Tuesday's all-night writer sessions flush out enough ideas for viable film pieces. "Rhys will give me a heads up during the day about the possible spots, but until Wednesday night, when he gets the green light, we really have no idea what we'll be shooting," he says. Thomas and production manager Justus Mclarty "preproduce the whole thing all day Thursday," he says, "wrangling a location, wrangling crew and just getting everything organized for Friday, which is typically less than a full-day shoot." When the shoot wraps, Epstein dives headlong into the edit, often juggling two or more spots per show and sometimes revising edits right up to the show's first East Coast air time at 11:30 pm Saturday night.

Watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jason Sudeikis go at it in " Tres Equis, Part 2."

As an example of a "pretty typical workflow," he points to the two "Tres Equis" spots starring guest host Joseph Gordon-Levitt that aired on September 22. "Until the Wednesday prior to air, they had no location, no sets, no outfits—no nothing." Though the New York-based shoots draw from available DPs and grips, Epstein says there is a subset of recurring crew members that, while not on staff, "know there is likely to be at least one shoot every week the show is live. We'll go to them so we can have a pretty standard crew of the same people on set every time. It's a hard thing bringing in new people who aren't used to the timeline and the pace of it. So often we'll hear about an incredible DP or an amazing grip, but they may not be a good fit because there's nothing flexible about our schedule. In terms of the shoot, we have to get it done in the next three hours, period, because the host has to leave. Otherwise, we've got nothing."

Epstein is not just the film unit's editor and effects artist but also its sound designer. "There are a few in-house mix rooms at 30 Rock," he says, "so after I build the sound beds during the edit, I'll kick an OMF down to Mix and will then supervise the session. What's sort of weird about the process is that we're actually mixing for the live audience and what they will hear." Further tweaks may be made prior to the West Coast air time three hours later, he says, and when the spots become available online. "We've had stuff go to air that wasn't fully mixed, and we've had stuff go to air missing a final corrected shot. But it all makes it into the Web versions for NBC and Hulu."

Before he became a permanent freelancer at Saturday Night Live, Epstein says the Film Unit was heading in the direction of an all-in-house workflow, even while still using outside edit houses to post its video spots. Luckily Epstein's jobs up to that point primed him for any number of editorial futures. He started his career as an editor and producer at Stun Creative in Los Angeles, and began cutting on Avid before moving to Final Cut and eventually Premiere. "I pretty much still cut on all three," he says, "depending on the job." Epstein is no stranger to comedy, either, which helps him keep his head in an SNL mindset at all times. He was part of a team that created UCLA's first comedy TV show while enrolled there and now counts Comedy Central as a regular client.

Rough Cuts in Record Time
Even though Friday's production schedule is ironclad, Epstein says he can often begin assembling elements he knows will be useful for the cut a day ahead of the shoot. "Luckily, Rhys and are are pretty much always on the same page for where we are trying to get a cut," he says. "For the 'Tres Equis' spots that spoof Dos Equis' 'Most Interesting Man in the World' campaign, for example, we wanted to emulate 16mm film. I started to put together a bunch of different grain passes and started to do some tests with some custom light leaks. For sound effects-heavy spots, I also start pulling effects on Thursday so I can jump into it immediately on Friday without having to do the normal nuts-and-bolts prep work you'd normally do on the first day of a cut."

Watch the Film Unit and cast take Daniel Craig into full Bond mode with some of the "lesser known Bond girls you might not remember."

The script "always changes," he adds, "but when we get the first one on Wednesday or Thursday, we get a pretty good idea of what we'll be trying to do. By Thursday night, Rhys and I will also take a look at the visual language of the spot the piece was inspired by, and come up with a check list of styles we definitely want to hit, like the way the original uses graphics behind the actors, or other things to keep in mind when shooting and editing. We try to have as much of a solid base in the language of what we're trying to emulate before we start, even though we only have a day to try and piece that all together."

Depending on each week's timeline, Epstein sometimes begins basic assemblies and organization on set, conferring with Thomas on pacing throughout the shoot. "When it breaks, usually around 4:00 or 5:00 pm, I'll go back to 30 Rock and start the edit in earnest. From that point to air time, it's go, go, go." That race to the finish is rarely a straight line. "In our perfect world, we'll have all the footage and try to put together what we consider a best first cut," Epstein says. "Whenever we're showing a rough to the writer of the spot or to one of the producers, we like it to be as fully formed as possible. Our roughs don't tend to look and sound like first passes." After removing "any obvious things, like greenscreens" that might trip up a writer or producer from seeing the concept spring to life, he begins the process of organizing extra footage that may eventually find its way into the piece. "I try not to leave after Friday's edit, which can be early into Saturday morning, without having a really solid cut that Rhys and I are very happy with, along with cuts and additional takes we know the writers are likely to ask for." How does he do it? "It comes down to being fast but also having solid organization. I've consistently found that if you put in a few more hours getting comfortable with the footage up front, that will just make the finish process that much faster."

Grading happens during the eleventh hour of the, um, eleventh hour. Epstein sends Emery Wells, senior colorist and founder at New York's Katabatic Digital, a QuickTime reference and EDL "sometime in the wee hours" of Saturday morning. Wells then uses Assimilate SCRATCH to set looks with director Thomas midday on Saturday and begins grading what he's got; he continues to grade the pickup EDLs with additional shots he receives from Epstein via the Web throughout the day Saturday before sending a drive back to the studios at 30 Rock in time for the 8:00 pm dress rehearsal. Last-minute pickups or revisions that come after dress, which Epstein edits first and then sends to Wells for a final grade, can be traveling back and forth right up to 11:00 pm before the show airs. (To learn more about the SCRATCH grading and DI workflow Wells has developed for a variety of his other commercial clients, watch our Webinar on demand.)

Putting CS6 to the Time Test
With a fresh set of deadlines and creative challenges looming ahead of him each week, Epstein certainly isn't looking back. "Right now, especially in the context of what we do at SNL, I really think Premiere is the most forward-thinking and integrated of any of the NLEs out there," he says. "The best way I can put it is it just lets us do more within the given time. We need to get as much done as we can in the time we have. Something's got to go on air. With these tools being connected as they are within CS6, we have more flexibility to experiment in that short amount of time and come up with slicker, more polished looks."

So far, Epstein's colleagues are equally impressed with the transition. "Everyone on the tech side of things at SNL has been really gung-ho about the change after seeing just what it is we're able to do," he says. "When they see we don't have to deal with any external QuickTimes, save for those we use for the grading reference, it's like, 'Sold. That works.'"

What works for Epstein every time is in fact the show's hard deadlines. "I like that there's a drop-dead hour to finish and that's it. It's the opposite of working on a commercial, where you might have a month to work on it but also 8,000 versions, the last of which will likely end up looking just like the first. There's something incredibly liberating when you hear people laughing at what we've got and you just have to go with it."

While he says there will always be "plenty of tweaking along the way," even that has gotten a whole lot easier. "We tell the writers, bring us whatever you can think of. Now I can easily do sky and screen replacement, camera tracking, set extensions, 3D tracking—you name it." Epstein says this played out seamlessly in the "Tres Equis" video when the writers requested changes to a fake Twitter screen he'd created in the rough cut. "That shot was a pretty tight zoom, and the depth-of-field made Gordon-Levitt's shoulder really blurry. I used mocha, which now launches directly within CS6 and also lets you use variable feathers around your mask. I cut a mask, tracked that in mocha, brought that mask in and was able to really blow out the feathering around his shoulder but keep it nice and clean in the rest of the image for the fake screen." He says he built the screen in Photoshop, animated it in After Effects, "and that all linked dynamically in Premiere. When the writers, late in the game, asked to change what he says on Twitter, it was literally just a matter of opening up the Photoshop file and changing the type. Everything linked back to everything else instantly."

That's a good thing, says Epstein, because week to week, there's inevitably some new challenge that shakes things up all over again. "Every week is different; it's just never the same, and that's what I love about cutting for SNL," he says. "It's not like we're making it up as we go along, but the speed is so breakneck that you're basically doing post-production improv on every show."

Note: Detailed interface shots featuring SNL content in Adobe Premiere CS6 that appeared in the original version of this story have been removed at the request of show's producers.