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Breaking Down Wes Anderson's Techniques for SNL's Spoof

By Wesley Fenlon

SNL's director of photography goes into detail on lenses, camerawork, lighting, and set design, all of which had to come together incredibly quickly to parody Wes Anderson's iconic style.

If, somehow, you couldn't tell Edward Norton and Owen Wilson apart, you may very well have thought The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders was a new film from director Wes Anderson. It's not a new film, though--it's a parody from Saturday Night Live, perfectly lampooning Anderson's signature style by replicating it very, very well. Alec Baldwin even shows up to narrate the trailer, reprising his Royal Tenenbaums role. It's a great bit of mini filmmaking--good for a couple minutes of laughs. But as SNL Film Unit Director of Photography Alex Buono's blog illuminates, it took an incredible amount of work to put the trailer together in three short days.

Buono writes that Anderson is one of his favorite filmmakers, and he's already spent a good deal of time deconstructing the director's films. Still, that didn't make it easy to whip up a parody of Anderson's style. "Wes Anderson is one of the most idiosyncratic filmmakers of our time; his style is so unique that you might think it would be easy to satirize," he writes. " But here’s the problem: turns out everyone has a different opinion about what MOST distinguishes Wes Anderson’s style. Is it the limited color palette? Flat space camera moves? Symmetrical compositions? Snap-zooms? Twee, hand-crafted art direction? Slow-motion walking shots? Clearly it’s all of those things and more, but within the limited context of a trailer, which are the most important signatures to include? And within a subculture as film-literate as the writers and producers of SNL, we were surrounded by astute Wes Anderson connoisseurs. Suddenly this spot had morphed from something I was dying to shoot into something I was terrified to shoot!"

They needed to design and build a set that could be used to emulate Anderson's film sets--perfect room symmetry with balanced objects within the environment, perfectly controlled color coordination. A mixture of Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore colors dominated the living room, while yellows and teals from Life Aquatic and Moonrise Kingdom dominated the kitchen and bedroom. The set also called for a couple other rooms for sight gags, like "a closet full of antique typewriters."

Set design began on Wednesday night, three days before SNL aired. The set was then constructed at Steiner Stages in Brooklyn, which is inside a Naval yard. The Naval yard provided the perfect overgrown, spooky-looking abandoned buildings for exterior shots, which set up the trailer to look like a typical horror movie before the Wes Anderson joke was sprung.

Even with a set perfectly evoking Anderson's look, it took a very specific type of filming to make The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders look like Anderson's films. "We decided to emulate the more classic “Tenenbaums” and “Rushmore” format with a 2.39 aspect ratio," Buono writes. "We’ve shot plenty of spots in the 2.39 format at SNL but we’ve always used normal lenses and cropped the shot with a 2.39 letterbox in post. Well, we decided to go all the way with this exercise and shoot anamorphic."

This is where the blog post gets really cool: Buono dives into the technical differences between film aspect ratios, and how much those differences can affect the look of a movie.

Buono writes: “Anamorphic” is one of those fetishized terms among cineastes that not everyone completely understands. Simply put, an anamorphic lens is a normal lens with an added front element that “squeezes” the image 2:1, creating a tall, skinny distorted picture that is later “unsqueezed” in post, becoming a widescreen image. Anamorphic lenses are sometimes referred to as “scope” lenses, whereas non-anamorphic lenses (normal lenses) are referred to as “spherical” or “flat” lenses.

What’s the point of shooting anamorphic instead of just shooting with normal lenses and letterboxing the image? First of all, there are some major optical differences in the image. An anamorphic lens gives you the horizontal angle of view of a spherical lens that is half the focal length, yet retains its optical compression and depth of field. So a 40mm anamorphic gives you the same horizontal angle as a 20mm spherical, yet with the compression and depth of field of a 40mm spherical – which looks dramatically different.

Now this next part is going to get a little complicated because there are a few variables. At a more fundamental level, shooting anamorphic allows you to make every pixel count. By squeezing the image at a 2:1 ratio, the anamorphic image fills the sensor from top to bottom with your 2.39 frame. We were shooting with an Arri Alexa Plus, which has a 4:3 sensor – which is much taller than the Super35mm sized sensor that is in most other digital cinema cameras. This is critical because a squeezed anamorphic image is twice as tall compared to a normal image.

By shooting anamorphic with the Alexa Plus 4:3, we were using the full height of the sensor, allowing 2582 x 2160 resolution. Now, comparing apples to apples – using the same camera – shooting 2.39 with a normal lens and letterboxing the image reduces the usable resolution to 2880 x 1206, with the rest of the image hidden under the letterbox. Do the math: you’re comparing 5,577,120 pixels to 3,473,280 pixels. In other words, shooting anamorphic with a 4:3 sensor gives you 38% more usable resolution. On the other hand – and counterintuitively - if you combine anamorphic lenses with a 16×9-sized sensor, you will actually get a significant loss in resolution. An anamorphic frame fit into a 16×9 sensor will only fill 66% of the sensor. Yikes. Point is: if you want to get the most out of an anamorphic image, I recommend using a camera with a 4:3-capable sensor that will accommodate the “tall” squeezed image that anamorphic lenses produce.

Another interesting tidbit: Once you unsqueeze the image, it's actually 2.66:1, giving you a bit of room at the edges to tweak a shot's framing. Buono goes on to write about using a geared head on the camera rig to accomplish Anderson's whip pans, and contracting out the stop motion mouse that appears at the end of the trailer. Incredibly, the stop motion, in the vein of Fantastic Mr. Fox, got turned around in about 24 hours. Filming the rest of the spot took most of Friday, into the wee hours of Saturday morning, and it took the entire day to cut it together into a finished trailer.

There's a whole section of the blog dedicated to lighting, and more on filming--check those out before watching the finished SNL trailer. Even for SNL, this one was down to the wire, as Buono describes: "The spot was literally still loading into the switcher as it was being broadcast out. Holy crap."