Alex Buono is a dedicated cinematographer with incredibly unique experience best known for his work as Director of Photography for the Saturday Night Live film unit since 1999.
“Quite frankly, when I began there (SNL) I really had no business shooting a television show,” Buono admits in a conversation with me. “I was 25 years old and looking back on it, I can see that I was truly a real rookie. But the show gave me this incredible platform to really learn my craft.”
Now, in the midst of his demanding and fast paced lifestyle, he is launching the sequel to his cinematography workshop, The Art of Visual Storytelling, entitled Visual Storytelling 2: Style & Subtext in Cinema, as well as co-directing and shooting an upcoming IFC series entitled Documentary Now!
After picking his brain, I can now share with you more about his life, how his career choice came to be, his experience at SNL, and most importantly – what you can expect as an attendee at the AVS2 workshop (whether you are just getting your start as a visual storyteller, or if you have years of cinematography experience under your belt). From the sounds of it, Buono has plenty more valuable information to share and you aren’t going to want to miss out the opportunity to hear it. Check out when AVS2 is coming to a town near you and reserve your spot here.
ON GROWING UP: WHERE WAS THE PASSION TO MAKE FILMS BORN?
Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Buono found himself interested in movies at a young age. Nobody in his family had any experience working in the film industry, but he says, “I was sort of taken by them. I was one of those kids that fell in love with Star Wars and E.T. and wanted to just somehow be in the movie business.” From there, he got involved in art and photography which blossomed into a desire to attend film school. He went to USC film school directly out of high school and began developing his skills there.
ON LIFE POST-FILM SCHOOL: WHY INSTRUCT A FILMMAKING WORKSHOP?
When Buono came out of film school he became a camera assistant and worked for a handful of experienced cinematographers who knew their position was his ultimate career goal. “They were excellent cinematographers, but they were also just really generous with what they knew,” Buono says. They would often go out of their way to say to Buono, “Hey, this is why we are doing this,” or, “Hey, do you understand why we are doing that?”
“I was definitely inspired by how much they knew and how generous they were in sharing it with everybody,” which Buono admits is, “definitely the big reason why I kind of told myself that if I could ever be in the position to do that, then I would.” When he is sharing his knowledge of cinematography through his MZed workshops, he doesn’t think of himself as teaching a class, but more so returning a favor, he explains:
“I think of it more as a mentorship where I’m trying to do what these other cinematographers did for me, for somebody else.”
ON VISUAL STORYTELLING 2: WHAT HAPPENS AT THE WORKSHOP?
If you attended Buono’s first MZed workshop, The Art of Visual Storytelling, you can look forward to the sequel being chock full of all new demos and techniques to expand and heighten your prior knowledge. The all-day, interactive workshop will hit 32 cities between July 22 and September 19 and will immerse attendees in a true filmmaking environment, utilizing them as the hands-on crew during a variety of challenging and exciting demonstrations. Following the demonstrations, there will be an evening lecture stressing the importance of visual subtext in cinema and how to look for it and utilize it in your work.
“I’m in a unique position at SNL, and in this new TV series I’m directing and shooting (Documentary Now!), where we are just constantly inventing and re-creating styles,”Buono says. “Every day is something different and so I’m in a position to show people a lot of different techniques, tools, and approaches. They are going to see a lot of different styles of cinematography and there will be something that really speaks to them. One of my big goals is to just run through a lot of demos. There’s not going to be a lot of lecturing – it is going to be hands on the whole time.”
WHO IS AVS2 BEST SUITED FOR? BEGINNERS OR ADVANCED FILMMAKERS?
Buono believes the workshop is suited for all types of visual storytellers, although you always ride a fine line of trying to balance the experience for beginners and advanced filmmakers alike. Because of this, he finds value in weighing the material slightly more towards an advanced level.
“My feeling is, even if you are very new to filmmaking, if you have the ambition to show up to this workshop then you’re the type of person who will be able to keep up,” Buono says. “And if you’re a more advanced cinematographer, I don’t want to talk down to you or tell you obvious things.”
Whether you shoot wedding films, corporate videos, independent films, parodies, or anything in between, Buono believes you will take something valuable away from this workshop that will enhance your ability to genuinely connect with your audience.
WHAT TOOLS WILL BE USED DURING AVS2? ARE THEY AFFORDABLE?
If Buono harped on anything during our conversation, it was on the fact that this time around he has a deeper focus on using a combination of gear that he thinks is practical and accessible for this audience. His main camera platform for AVS2 is a C100mll camera, not much larger or more expensive than a DSLR, and a very straight forward lighting package. He notes that it’s always tempting to show off the most cutting edge gear on the market – and there will be some of that – but it is essentially useless to an attendee if they can’t find the gear at their local rental house. He hopes attendees will recognize that using the tools he utilizes in this workshop is totally within the realm of possibility.
“I thought to myself, that’s got to be really frustrating for attendees that they go to a workshop and they’re shown all these cool tools that they can never get their hands on in their area,” Buono says. “I’m definitely focusing on making sure that I’m not showing people tools that you can only find in LA or New York. You can find these tools on this tour anywhere in the country and these are all more ubiquitous, acceptable, and affordable. I don’t want to show people things that are so expensive that it is just kind of a fantasy that they would be able to use them tomorrow and change the way they’re shooting.”
WHAT IS VISUAL SUBTEXT, ANYWAY?
Something Buono believes may not be so obvious to the wide array of attendees is the value of visual subtext, the focus of his lecture in the latter half of the workshop. “I think that really anybody, even an advanced cinematographer, might not be aware of how the truly great filmmakers in our culture use the power of symbolism in their filmmaking and visual subtext essentially is visual symbolism,” Buono says.
VISUAL SUBTEXT (in Buono’s words): “It’s using metaphors, motifs, and symbols to deepen the meaning of your images and as soon as you start to open your eyes to it, you’re going to see it everywhere. It’s an incredibly powerful tool that you have to think about when you’re planning a shoot, but it will definitely deepen the power and meaning of your storytelling.”
ON WORKING FOR SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: HOW HAS IT CHANGED YOU?
Buono admits his time at SNL has been the biggest staple in his career, having just finished working on his 15th season with the show. In that time, he has witnessed a plethora of technological advances and innovative changes in shooting techniques.
“The Internet came into our lives in a mainstream way during the time that I’ve been at SNL,” Buono says. “I’ve seen our spots evolve from these little interstitial videos to these short films that take on a life of their own online and it’s been an incredible platform for me to grow up as a filmmaker.”
He acknowledges that the show itself has gone through phases and that there were times when the show was actively trying to make short films that nodded in an obvious way to the audience that it was comical, and therefore, okay to laugh at. Over the course of 15 years though, Buono believes that is not necessary anymore.
“Audiences have become so much more savvy,” Buono says. “The median age of filmmaking has dropped so much. Now you have young teenagers making really cool short films. So the level of our filmmaking has gone up so high because we definitely feel like that’s where it needs to be, and every season the bar is raised higher and higher.”
Buono feels as though they don’t need to be nodding to the audience anymore, and that now is the time to simply keep creating work that is as authentic as possible.
ON SHOOTING THE 40TH ANNIVERSARY SNL TITLE SEQUENCE: A DEMO RECREATED AT AVS 2
Buono likes to use his personal blog as a platform to write about some of his biggest challenges and most exciting projects. In one of his recent entries, he shares what went into shooting SNL’s current title sequence – a process not only meaningful and gratifying to him, but one that he will completely recreate in a hands-on and in-depth demo during AVS2. In his blog, he writes:
“While the usual shoot is a dead sprint from Thursday thru Saturday night, every few years we produce a new Title Sequence and that sprint becomes a 3-week non-stop marathon. Especially when it’s the 40th Anniversary season. The passing of Don Pardo — the legendary voice of SNL since 1975 — only amplified the feeling that this new sequence needed to be something extra special.”
To Buono, the current title sequence is a great demonstration of visual subtext. Some people may look at a title sequence year after year and wonder what is so challenging about shooting actors and cast members looking into the camera and smiling paired with a few shots of New York City, but Buono says, “This one is really special in that the show challenged our director Rhys Thomas and myself to come up with a style that fit this banner year. They were having this enormous 40th anniversary special that we were building up to and and they wanted something really different and special and something that somehow evoked the spirit of being on the air for 40 years, manifested within the title sequence.”
Without dialogue to assist in telling the epic story that is SNL, a concept was born to create the title sequence as an homage to 1975 – approaching it using only techniques that could have been done in 1975, including in-camera techniques, slow motion, black and white, and freelensing. “There was no fancy visual effects shots,” Buono says. “There was nothing that had to be done in a computer, and I really like the simplicity and the purity of that approach and it turned out really well. I really dig it, it is my favorite title sequence we have done over the years so I am really proud of that.”
ON DIRECTING ‘DOCUMENTARY NOW!’
Documentary Now! is a comedic IFC series directed by Buono and Rhys Thomas, and created by Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers. The series consists of six half-hour episodes, each one a stand alone film based on classic documentaries that span from the last 50 years of documentary filmmaking.
“For me, it’s this perfect collision of the comedy work that I do with SNL and it’s authentic re-creations, combined with documentary filmmaking, which I also have a passion for and I do on my own when I’m not working.” Documentary Now! premieres on IFC Thursday, August 20 at 10 p.m. Check out the trailer here.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON VISUAL STORYTELLING 2 AND HOW TO RESERVE YOUR SPOT – CLICK HERE.
Ethics Disclosure: This is a sponsored post brought to you by MZed.