In its nearly half century on air, Saturday Night Live has taken home an impressive 87 Emmy awards. This year, the iconic franchise was nominated for 10 more, including Outstanding Scripted Variety Series. SNL now extends its lead as the most nominated show in Emmy history, with executive producer Lorne Michaels earning 102 career Emmy nods – the most of any individual in Emmy history.
The show has also been nominated for Outstanding Production Design For A Variety Or Reality Series this year for (Co-Hosts: Steve Martin & Martin Short and Host: Jenna Ortega). We spoke with production designers Leo Akira Yoshimura, Keith Raywood, and Andrea Purcigliotti about the rigorous production design schedule, working with writers, and the correlation between production design and comedy.
First congratulations on the Emmy nominations. They are well deserved.
Leo Yoshimura: Thank you very much.
I think most fans of the show have a pretty decent idea of the weekly schedule by now as far as writing and the table read and rehearsals are concerned, but what is the weekly production design schedule like?
Leo Yoshimura: I can’t speak for Andrea, but on Wednesday, we start our day at 4:00 with a read through, and then we’ll read for about two hours, which takes us to 6:00. We take an hour off and usually we have dinner at that time between 6:00 and 7:00. During that time, there’s a meeting with the writers and the director about what is going to be in the show and what’s going what’s not going to be in the show based on the reactions to the reading. After that we have a meeting with the with the director, who comes in and kind of lays the studio out with us, and then after that, we generally lay out what each sketch needs in a very kind of basic kind of rough way. Then we have a meeting with the writers and the talent, and that usually goes on till about 11:30. We go through each sketch, we ask them what what they would like it to be and what their requirements are. This is still with the director, as well as the other parts of the production team, the lighting designer, lighting designers and the property department.
So, that takes us to about 11:30, and then we start seriously drawing the show. That will go on until about 1:30 or 2:00. Then we print the drawings and they’re sent out to the shop. That’s Wednesday. As far as Thursday, Friday, Saturday, we start rehearsal, as you know, on Thursdays, around noon or 1:00. We do the music first, which gives us kind of breath, because we generally don’t do anything because music brings their own set in. Then we start blocking and camera blocking the rest of the sketches, usually easy ones, like talk shows, or two person sketches; things that are simple in production value. We have this system of gray flats, which we move around so we can actually see the wall line of the sets, and we can suggest where there’s a door and where there’s a window.
We usually don’t see any scenery until around 6:00 or 7:00, which is when they start shipping things, and usually it will be the easiest things will come first, like the talk shows, and the one or two person sketches. We break from rehearsal around 9:00, and overnight, the shop will deliver the sets that we’re going to rehearse with on Friday, ones that are a little bit more complicated, ones that needed a little bit more time building. Those sets will be set up when we come into the studio at 1:00 for rehearsal, and then we rehearse till 12:00. During that time, the scenery continues to be to be built in the shop and delivered, and by the end of the evening, we hope that we have all the sets, except the cold opening.
The cold opening is the last thing that we design. It’s usually done on Fridays around 1:00 or 2:00, because it’s political and very current and it needs to be a parody of a real set. During that time, we have other crews coming in, such as scenic art coming in to paint. We generally don’t paint them in the shop, because we don’t have any time. The time in the shop is spent building.
Keith Raywood: Simultaneous to all of that, props, and set decoration are all being picked out in different prop houses starting on Thursday morning as well. That gets sent in hopefully according to the rehearsal schedule as well. So, if the first thing up Thursday is a talk show, after the music, like at 3:30, let’s say, the furniture for that will already be in so that they’re sitting in the right chairs that they’re going to be using for the for the actual show. So, all that’s going on outside at the same time. And then there’s Andrea.
Andrea, I feel as if your job has gotten a little more difficult in the last few years. I feel as if the pre-taped segments have gotten a little more involved in the recent seasons.
Andrea Purcigliotti: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. It’s very different to what Leo just explained just by the fact that we have one less day, as we’re shooting on Friday. We also have learned over time that we really can’t impact that sensitive timeline that Leo just mentioned. We have to have our drawings in at the crack of dawn Thursday, but I’ll get to that in a second. So, the film unit has generally not been part of table read, because there’s only a small percentage of the whole show that’s going to be dedicated to pre-taped content. As you know, the pre-taped content has been with the show since the very beginning, because the live show needs a tiny bit more time than commercial breaks allow. So, the film unit fits comfortably into where there might be a massive scenery or costume change that needs a bit more time.
Generally, we’ll get 12 scripts around two o’clock on Wednesday that we can start perusing. We don’t know what is going to get picked until generally between 9:30 and 10:30. From those 12, two to three, will get picked. We have three film units. We have the Film Unit, which I oversee, but we also have Ghost Unit, and then we have Beast Unit. I would say that Beast and Ghost came out of the digital short years. For for many, many years, the Film Unit and the Digital Short unit were separate. Around the time that they brought me on into a more permanent light, the Film Unit became the combined entity. They are produced, quite similarly to the way that a production company works. You have dedicated keys and crew to each unit, with very little overlap. Each independent script has their own unit to produce that content.
What generally happens is once we get picks, we all jump on a zoom call, and we start immediately hashing out the creative. We’ve learned over time to never draw before picks, because chances are, you’ve just jinxed the piece, and it’s completely irrelevant to the piece that actually got picked up. We work in in a program called SketchUp, which is a 3D modeling program, and what it gives you is an instantaneous design that we can start talking about over the Zoom call. So, if we know we’re in three rooms in a house, we can just build a model of a scaled room with no furniture in it. Then we determine where the gag happens. Do you want them to crash through the window here, or do you want them to crash through a balsa wood door here? We can just start really mapping out some of the gags and creative are immediately and it’s super helpful for everyone involved. We’re able to see and scale as as we’re learning this script.
But the real design and drafting happens after the call. We go through the night on from Wednesday night to Thursday. I’d say around midnight is when I will sit with the art director and just really talk over what we’re designing what what we’re using from stock scenery, what exists what doesn’t exist, what is a complete fabrication from scrap, what can we repurpose from other things. It really becomes a mad dash to figure out what this looks like. Typically by 6:30 in the morning, we’ve drafted up the design and I’m on my way to the scenery shop to make sure that they understand what’s going on. I’ll go look at my colleagues’ drawings and make sure that everyone is clear as to what’s happening, keeping everything separate. I meet with the foreman, I meet with the construction crew. I have an assistant art director that sits at the shop and watches everything as it’s being fabricated.
From Stiegelbauer, our our shop, I’m head into the city to go to our studios, which is independent of 30. Rock. It’s on West 66th Street. We have two massive stages, as well as a support space there. So, we can, and usually do, shoot three pieces, roughly at the same time, at that space.That’s a new development that happened over COVID. Part of Wednesday night was deciding if we were going to shoot on location, or what stage had available space for us. We would start literally from scratch every Wednesday night with a locations department and trying to figure out if it made more sense to shoot in a real actual location versus building a set. And then over COVID, with the and testing and cadence and all of that fun stuff, our producer got a warehouse space in Sunset Park. That was the first time we actually had a physical location. This enabled us to really save a lot of props and set decoration, and to warehouse a lot of things. The upsides were immense, but the side that made my life a little bit more difficult was that we now we were committing to building 22 sets every season, we were starting from scratch and starting with scenery every week. So if we’re going to shoot in a bar, then we’re building the bar as opposed to going to a bar, you know. The crew prefers it, the cast prefers it. It’s super easy and convenient.
Do the writers take your jobs into consideration at all? I mean, there’s got to be times when the you’re cursing them.
Leo Yoshimura: (laughing) No.
Keith Raywood: (laughing) That was a great question, but it’s pretty funny.
Leo Yoshimura: Did you use the word consideration? I don’t think Andrea, Keith or I have heard that word applied to our department.
Keith Raywood: No, our job is is making miracles.
Is there any point where you have to just put your foot down and say, “This is not something within our budget or within our time constraints?”
Leo Yoshimura: We actually have a tradition of not doing that.
Keith Raywood: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. The only question that might ever come up, and and I can’t even remember even that happening, is “Is it possible to do to do this in the timeframe?” It would never be any other question, but I don’t think we’ve ever we even get there. We just do it. We have to do it.
Andrea Purcigliotti: Yeah, I would. I would have to agree. I’d say that it’s not our job to say no, it’s our job is to say, “This is what we can do in the timeframe.” And sometimes funnier and better things come from that restriction.
Bob Odenkirk once said, and he was talking about “Mr. Show,” after his time with SNL, that he preferred as little production design as possible in sketch comedy. I’m just wondering if you feel there is any correlation between production design and comedy. Do you think bigger is better, or if stripped down serves comedy better?
Leo Yoshimura: I think it depends on on the writing. I mean, there we have some fairly complicated sketches. John Mulaney, has written several of them. They’re the ones that are usually based on a musical, and they’re very complicated. But, we do that and then we also do the simple, one man monologue, presidential conference. For us, they’re both kind of equal. We just try to do the best we can in both instances. Also, the cast is put through an enormous amount of pressure, We don’t get a lot of the people for the rehearsals because they’re off with the Film Unit. In the studio, we have people with little cards on their chests that say, ‘Mikey Day.’
Keith Raywood: Yeah, we have extras with the cast’s names pinned to their shirts.
Leo Yoshimura: That’s the way we sometimes have to block a sketch because they’re doing a pre-tape with Andrea.
Keith Raywood: Before Andrea was at the show the whole film, the whole pre-taped Film Unit thing was a bit different. We used to do a lot of parody commercials. I’m talking about fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago. First of all, they were more cast driven. They didn’t usually have guest hosts in them, which is more common now. And they were often done in the off weeks, or on a Monday or Tuesday of a show week. They were also kind of banked. Before a season, we might do like four parody pieces and shoot them in early September. And now it’s just, it’s just a different system. There were people like Gary Weis, and and and Tom Schiller who were doing film pieces. But again, they weren’t necessarily done on show rehearsal days.
Well, time just flew right by. I could talk to you for hours. I am such an admirer of your work. I’m a huge fan of the show and I have been since I was young So, congratulations again to everybody and good luck.
Leo Yoshimura: Thank you.
Keith Raywood: Thank you.
Andrea Purcigliotti: Thank you so much.
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