Practical Shooting Lessons for All Occasions: Tips from Alex Buono’s Visual Storytelling 2

Fresh off wrapping Season 40 of Saturday Night Live, for which he is the film unit’s DP, Alex Buono launched into Visual Storytelling 2, a 32-city cinematography workshop tour with creative education company MZed.

In Visual Storytelling 2, Buono takes his students behind the scenes to learn how any visual style can be created, in time and on a budget. Buono’s mastery of disparate styles is on display on a weekly basis at SNL, where he is tasked with parodying everything from The Office to young adult fantasy movies. (You don’t need to wait until fall to see more of his work—he also co-directed and shot Documentary Now!, a new series from IFC starring Fred Armisen and Bill Hader that premieres August 20.)

In Portland, Oregon on August 4, about 50 attendees gathered for the day-long workshop in a mid-sized hotel ballroom. The room was outfitted for fully realized lighting and shooting demonstrations. Each demonstration had its own custom backlit backdrop, and for a viewer watching the live camera feed to 15 color-accurate IKAN monitors placed throughout the room, it seemed possible that we really were on the streets of New York City… or in a post-apocalyptic cave, or wherever the scenes were taking place. A handful of enthusiastic young crew members, serving as camera assistants and stand-ins, kept the fast-paced workshop running smoothly.

“The hardest part of the job,” said Buono, “is learning to articulate yourself to your crew.” Judging by the way he packed information, anecdotes and entertainment into a day that flew by, Buono’s mastered that skill. He comes off as approachable and funny—what one might expect from a DP who spends much of his time working with SNL‘s cast of comedians. He is exacting with himself and his work, but he can’t afford to be too precious, given the time pressures under which he works.

About half of the attendees had taken Buono’s Visual Storytelling workshop in 2013, but he promised there would be little overlap between the two. The original had skewed toward demonstrations relying on brand-new gear and discussions of the finer points of color sampling and bit depth. This time, Buono chose to focus on practical and accessible equipment and setups. This is the current workshop’s greatest strength: He teaches material that is directly applicable for his students, and his versatility makes him an ideal instructor for cinematographers and operators who may spend more time shooting industrial spots, documentaries or commercials than TV or feature films.

Alex Buono leads a workshop in Vancouver

Alex Buono, background, leads a Visual Storytelling 2 workshop in Vancouver

Many of the demonstrations replicated recent sketches from SNL, such as Jim Carrey’s parody of Matthew McConaughey’s Lincoln ad, the “Hobbit Office” sketch with Martin Freeman, and Miley Cyrus’ “We Did Stop” music video. Each setup taught a specific technique: diva lighting, driving scenes and dealing with fluorescent lights, to name just a few.

Those unable to attend one of the workshops—which run until September 20—can pre-order the HD download of Visual Storytelling 2, available August 15. In the meantime, here are five lessons I picked up from Buono.

1. Think outside the matte box.

For SNL’s Season 40 title sequence, Buono used a variety of “parlor tricks” borrowed from Pablo Picasso, wedding videographers and everyone in between. Using a combination of free-lensing (commonly known as lens-whacking, a term that Buono finds “crass”), long-exposure photography with new light-writing technology and custom bokeh filters, Buono created a range of bold in-camera effects. He suggested that these techniques could also be applied to corporate videos to add flair and create unique branding opportunities. (He elaborates on these ideas in a blog post.)

2. Know how your footage will be used.

At SNL, Buono receives the script for his spot on Thursday, shoots Friday and broadcasts Saturday. With that quick of a turnaround, Buono has learned to pay attention to the editing rhythm the script calls for. Knowing whether your shots are going to be onscreen for 15 seconds or 15 frames will help you learn what you can and can’t get away with, and light and shoot accordingly.

3. When lighting, less can be more.

Buono credits master cinematographer Conrad Hall for this lesson. Humans have evolved seeing their world lit with a single source, slightly above the eyeline—the sun. (That’s why light from below feels ghoulish; we feel like something is unnatural.) This day-to-day fact means that fewer light sources can often give a more natural look to a film, while avoiding the trap of too much fill light.

4. Don’t coast with the same tools—be specific with camera and lens choices.

Buono criticized the network TV one-size-fits-all aesthetic of using an ARRI Alexa with Optimo lenses. He prefers to vary his choices to achieve a more specific look. Parodying classics such as Grey Gardens and Nanook of the North, Documentary Now! promises to showcase Buono’s stylistic range.

5. Don’t let cinematography hog the budget.

Even if you can convince the director or producer that they should pay for an expensive piece of lighting or rigging equipment, Buono reasons, you’ll just end up stealing from the art department or hair and makeup budget. No matter how cool your lighting setup or camera move may be, the footage won’t look good if there wasn’t enough money left to build and decorate a great set. MM

Visit here for more information on Alex Buono’s Visual Storytelling 2 tour. Daytime workshops costs $249, nighttime seminars cost $99 and the full experience package costs $299. Pictures courtesy of MZed.

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