NBC's 'Saturday Night Live' Eyes Ultra-High-Def 4K

Alex Buono Camera - H 2013
Courtesy of AJA Video Systems

Alex Buono Camera - H 2013

In its 38 seasons, Saturday Night Live has experienced plenty of technological change in production, including in 2005, when it began broadcasting in high definition.

Now, NBC and SNL are eyeing UltraHD, or 4K, which contains four times as much data as today's HD.

In recent years, SNL has tested 4K cameras, but in the later half of the recently wrapped season, an initiative began to finish and deliver certain pre-produced program segments in the format -- an uncommon decision at this stage.

While all leading set makers are now offering 4K consumer displays, new technology and technical standards are needed to enable over the air broadcasting of 4K imagery -- and broadcasters would need to determine whether there is a viable business model for such a transition.

This season, SNL film unit director Rhys Thomas, director of photography Alex Buono and the production team have been experimenting with a variety of 4K workflows in order to master in the format. Buono related that NBC and SNL's interest in using 4K today is to future-proof the content for the coming years.

Part of the testing involves creating a fast turnaround to fit SNL’s tight schedule. “We shoot [the pre-recorded content] on a Friday and broadcast on Saturday," he related. "[The question is,] can it be delivered in 24 hours?”

One experimental pipeline included the Canon C500 camera with an AJA Ki Pro Quad, which is a tapeless recorder that supports real-time debayering of 4K Canon RAW camera data with simultaneous recording to Apple ProRes 422 or ProRes 444 files. Buono told The Hollywood Reporter that this combination resulted in “one of the smoothest 4K turnarounds that we ever had."

“We love the look of the Canon C500 camera, but with our production turnaround schedule, we don’t have time to deal with processing RAW camera files,” Buono explained. “We tried alternate 4K recording devices, but Ki Pro Quad is the only one that let us go straight from the camera to ProRes. Not only do we save a ton of processing time, but we’re also chewing up way less hard drive space—uncompressed RAW ties up at least 1TB of storage per hour of footage; with Ki Pro Quad recording to ProRes, we’re down to less than 600GB per hour.

This workflow was used for two segments from last season's episode hosted by Zach Galifianakis: A ‘70s cop show spoof titled Kanish and a New Balance sneaker commercial parody.

For these, the crew shot on a Friday and sent one hard drive to the colorist and one to editorial (proxys), where director Thomas and editors Kelly Brickner (New Balance) and Alex Serpico (Kanish) did the cuts and sent the EDLs to postproduction that night.

New Balance was posted at SNL’s go-to post house Katabatic, where colorist Emery Wells did the conform and color grading in Assimilate’s Scratch, and sent it back to studio, where it was mastered in 4K Pro Res and 1080p Pro Res. The second short, Kanish, went to Light Iron and colorist Sean Dunckley, who used Quantel’s Pablo Rio.

Buono said that while more storage is required, 4K “has not [resulted in] a significant change in price.” The SNL film unit plans to continue to experiment with 4K going into next season, using new tools such as AJA’s Hi5-4K format converter.

So far, Sony Pictures Television has put the most emphasis on 4K production for broadcast programming. It has already used 4K to shoot and post its pilots of Black List, Rake and the Jim Gaffigan comedy. SPT also chose 4K finishing for 12 one-hour episodes of Showtime’s Masters of Sex, 12 half-hour episodes of Save Me for NBC and 22 half-hour episodes of The Michael J. Fox Show.

Buono is embarking on a two-month speaking tour, The Art of Visual Storytelling, starting June 3. He will be leading workshops around shooting and producing video, using examples from his 14 seasons on SNL as well as his feature and documentary work. It also will include a look at 4K workflows.