As the SNL Film Unit Begins Tests, Debayering Downtime Is Not an Option

While 4K and high-frame-rate recording are making slow but steady inroads in feature filmmaking, the higher-resolution format has been a harder sell to television networks who still broadcast in HD, one-fourth the resolution of 4K. But with the coming wave of Ultra HD television screens, 4K is not just a future technology but a viable business strategy for content owners aiming to future-proof their shows. If the arduous, uneven and often disastrous results of upresing from standard definition to HD are any example, sooner or later, production will need to catch up.

Saturday Night Live's Film Unit, known for the short film and commercial parody segments that air throughout the show's live broadcast, has started testing 4K workflows within its breakneck 24-hour turnaround schedules. "There's no mandate from NBCUniversal," Alex Buono, a DP who has worked for the Film Unit for the past 15 seasons, told StudioDaily. "it's more like, 'Hey, if you guys want to test out some 4K workflows, that would be great.' The network knows that someday they'll be going 4K, and they need to start steering the ship in that direction. They also know we have the perfect situation to test new workflows, since we turn everything around so fast and we're already used to bringing new workflows and technology on set. And second, SNL is lucrative, evergreen content for them. They'll be selling and reselling these spots forever, so delivering in 4K is the definition of future-proofing."

Buono, like editor Adam Epstein, works as a contractor for SNL's full-time Film Unit director/producer Rhys Thomas, whom Buono credits—along with the producers of SNL—with enabling an atmosphere of creative dialog and workflow experimentation on set. The Film Unit, which had previously experimented with the Red Epic 4K workflow, dove into its first Canon C500 4K shoot right before Christmas. "We were using the Codex [to record the Canon Raw files] and it worked flawlessly," says Buono, "but it leaves you with these massive raw files to deal with. And on our timeline, it almost killed us. We almost didn't have a spot to run that night because we couldn't figure out how to get those files debayered fast enough to start editing. We lost almost 12 hours of time trying to debayer this footage. We would normally start editing at 6 p.m. on a Friday night, and [instead] we literally started editing at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning. Obviously, that was the first time we did it—in fact, it was the time anyone had broadcast C500 4K footageand it wouldn't be that much of a nightmare if we did it again, but it took us really close to the edge."

Strangled by that workflow, Buono says, the team began looking for a better solution, turning in April to AJA's Ki Pro Quad, at present the only tapeless recording device that can debayer 4K Canon Raw data live while simultaneously recording to Apple ProRes 422 or ProRes 444. "Once we're in the ProRes world, we've already got it — we're fine," Buono says. "The trouble for us is starting with those [Canon Raw] RMF files. It's 8 p.m. on a Friday night and we've got raw files to deal with. What are we supposed to do with them? We don't have time to have all of this stuff debayered and transcoded." Buono acknowledges that debayering is "no big deal" for productions with bigger teams and more time, but says it is a killer for their tightly wound precision workflow. "I can imagine that anybody who is just trying to finish a job quickly doesn't have time to deal with that." Aware that AJA was announcing a recorder for the C500 at NAB and shipping it soon after, the Film Unit tried to wrangle a Ki Pro Quad before the show. "We tried another recorder with the C500, but we really wanted the Ki Pro," says Buono. "We thought we might get one before NAB but, to their credit, AJA told us they didn't want to send it out before it was completely ready."

The recorder arrived shortly after NAB, and the Film Unit chose two spots with guest host Zach Galifianakas to test the new workflow: "Kanish," which made it to the dress rehearsal but not on air, and a spoof of a New Balance sneaker commercial, above."'Kanish' was simply the happiest C500 experience for us," says Buono. "We like the C500 flavor of 4K, which is really pretty. We keep going back to the C500, even though the workflow is complicated, because the picture is so nice. The color is so nice and the dynamic range is so smooth that it's like, 'Wow, I guess it really is worth the extra time in post.' But we all wished we could just capture 4K ProRes on set. We finally got our hands on the Ki Pro Quad and it totally streamlined our workflow." 

Shot on a Friday — one in the morning and one at night — both spots were finished by 8:00 p.m. for SNL's dress rehearsal on Saturday night. "We obviously don't need 4K for the live show, since we're not broadcasting in 4K," says Buono. "The show wants a 4:2:2 HQ master. We finish everything in 4:2:2, but what was amazing about this test was that our colorists are able to deliver it in 4K within that timeframe as well. We didn't want to completely destroy Emery Wells, our go-to guy at Katabatic Digital, with two 4K spots to grade, let alone another regular spot in 4:2:2, so we sent the second spot over to Light Iron [and colorist Sean Dunckley]. It didn't even seem like it was a test for Michael Cioni and his team but more like, 'Yeah, we can do that. Sure. What else do you need?' Both of them still also had to deal with the last-minute changes that often follow the dress rehearsal, and both of them handled it beautifully."

Buono's C500 and AJA Ki Pro Quad rig (photo above and top courtesy of Alex Buono and AJA).

And what's ahead for the SNL Film Unit next season? "As it becomes easier and easier for us to archive our content in 4K, we want to do that," says Buono. "From the production side, shooting 4K and delivering 1080 has its own advantages. It's saved our asses when Adam can blow up a shot to 200 percent and it still looks perfect. And if Rhys or one of the writers has a better idea in the edit room, 'Hey, why don't we cut to that,' and we know we didn't shoot it, but in 4K we can just extract it. It's just the way it's been and I expect it to continue. SNL has been incredible and Rhys has been a dream to work for, someone who is totally open to new technology and has allowed me to experiment and find new, better and faster workflows."

Buono is currently on a 31-city Visual Storytelling workshop tour he has put together with an independent tour producer and various technology vendors. He says the workshops will walk attendees through his favored workflows, giving them a chance to recreate some of the content he's already shot, from movies and documentaries to the short parodies he's shot for so many years for SNL.