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Emmy Nominee: Saturday Night Live Editors Ryan Spears, Chris Salerno on the “HBO Mario Kart Trailer” Parody

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Chloe Fineman and Pedro Pascal in Mario Kart HBO Trailer from Saturday Night Live / NBC

Most people who watch Saturday Night Live when it’s actually live on Saturday nights may not be aware of how much goes into every show, starting on Monday with the first pitch meeting with the host and Producer Lorne Michaels. It gets even more insane to think about when you start considering some of the pre–taped pieces – the commercial and trailer parodies, the music video spoofs – that require a good deal of post.

Emmy-nominated Editors Ryan Spears and Chris Salerno know the score, so to speak, as they are the editors for many of those weekly pre-taped pieces. For the Saturday Night Live hosted by Pedro Pascal, they were commissioned with editing an elaborate trailer parody that merges Pascal’s HBO show, The Last of Us, with the popular “Mario Kart” video game. (You can watch that trailer below.)

Below the Line spoke with the two editors about their roles in creating that trailer with only a few days between receiving the script and having it ready to air on the show on Saturday night. Anyone who has ever wondered what happens on the show behind-the-scenes, this is the interview you’ll want to read, because it will make your jaw drop.

Ryan Spears

Below the Line: Congratulations on the nomination for the “HBO Mario Kart Trailer.” I know you both have been with SNL for some time. Do you guys normally work together on edits?

Ryan Spears: No, not very often. There are typically three film units at SNL. Not all three shoot every episode, and it just so happened the week we were doing “Mario Kart,” Chris’s unit was not shooting that week. It was really going into it the biggest, most ambitious thing we’ve ever done. We took advantage of Chris being available and brought him on to help with different aspects of the edit. He did a lot of work on the intro section, the setup with The Last of Us, and then helped fill in sound design, so that I could keep focused on the edit and keep the edit room running.

No, typically we don’t get the opportunity to work together, and we have first assistant editors who work very closely with us in the room. My main first assistant editor’s name is Nahuel Attar, and he’s in the room with me on Fridays and Saturdays, usually helping the process along. We were lucky to have Chris available that week to help as well and take a little bit off my plate so that I could focus on the bulk of the main part of the edit.

BTL: You mentioned there are three units. I know there’s the Please Don’t Destroy guys do their bits every week, but then there can be music videos and commercial parodies, so are there units who focus on those specific aspects every week?

Spears: The unit I’m with is called “film unit,” and its legacy goes back to the original in-house production unit for the show, All that stuff used to be a little bit more out of house. Film unit typically gets the higher budget, more involved pieces, and Mike Diva is our director for that unit. He has a lot of experience with VFX and stuff like that.

We didn’t really do too many music videos this past season, but typically a music video might end up in film unit or big trailer things end up in film unit. And then we have “beast unit,” which does a lot of the Please Don’t Destroy guys’ [shorts]. Chris, what’s the name of your unit now?

Chris Salerno

Chris Salerno: Basically, I’m on a unit called “ghost unit,” and the way it works is we each are assigned to the director of the unit. I typically work with director Amber Schaefer – this was her first season – and then the other unit is the “beast unit,” and that editor, Paul Del Gesso is mostly [editing] Please Don’t Destroy pieces.

Like Ryan said, the film unit typically gets the larger budget, more involved sketches, and then something like a commercial parody or anything from a smaller-scale sketch to even sometimes smaller-scale music videos, the other units seem to handle. Basically, every week on Wednesday, we receive the scripts for the week that we’re gonna be working on for the weekend. This week, I just didn’t receive a script for my unit, so I read the other two scripts, and seeing the ambition and the scope of this one, Ryan and I immediately got together, and I wanted to see however I could take some of the pressure off.

BTL: For something on this scale, I’m amazed you don’t even get the script until Wednesday. I know it takes time to write them, but that’s a really tight turnaround for something so elaborate.

Spears: Yeah, typically that’s how it is. They have pitch meeting on Monday, they write Tuesday, then they do the table reads on Wednesday. “Mario Kart” was a little bit different because it was a script that [Head Writer] Streeter Seidel and Mikey [Day] had been kicking around for a little while. They had been writing it independent of whom the host might be, but they what type of host would be good in it. Even back in like November, they had the idea for it, and then, when Pedro was added to the list of hosts, he was like a no-brainer for this. I don’t know that they necessarily had The Last of Us element or not in there yet, but once you bring him in, you integrate some of that stuff into it.

BTL: Knowing the scope of it, they actually had decided and picked that script on Monday as opposed to after a table read on Wednesday?

Spears: They picked it a little bit earlier than typical, and that allowed the VFX team and the art, like the set design and everybody on that side to get going a little bit earlier, because it was a massive build, both the environments for 3D and then also the set design stuff. A lot of that is – not the road at the end – but the road at the beginning is kind of practical, the tent camp, the cubes and stuff. They needed more time, but then they still shot it on Friday. We still only had a little less than 48 hours to cut the whole thing together.

BTL: Chris, is that typical for your unit also, that you get a script on Wednesday, they’re shooting on Friday and then you’re editing Friday night and Saturday to get it done?

Salerno: Yeah, definitely. Typically, Wednesday night is when we find out, and then obviously the pre-production period is truncated to basically just Thursday. We’ll jump on a meeting with all the department heads and just figure out a game plan. Sometimes, they’ll shoot Friday morning, sometimes a shoot could even happen Friday night overnight, which truncates the editing time even more. Obviously, for this one, it was important that it started at the beginning of the day on Friday, just because of the amount of elements involved. There are a few times that they’ll shoot a sketch on Thursday, but that is very few and far between, just based on the availability of cast or locations.

Pedro Pascal on Saturday Night Live / NBC

BTL: Are you guys being fed footage as they’re shooting?

Spears: Yes, and always been that way, and it’s a little more streamlined. We used to do a lot more location shoots back in the day before COVID, so they would send hard drives back with PAs or interns like every couple of hours. Now, because of COVID testing protocols, most everything is shot in a studio over on the East side in like the 70s, I think, and they are connected to whatever citywide fiber network there is. They’re shooting and then we have a DIT on set who is collecting the cards every couple of scenes and dumping them directly onto our server from set. They’re connected by fiber into the 30 Rock server, and they can drop that stuff on for us. Sometimes, you shoot in 30 Rock, so then someone just grabs those cards and brings them up to the post floor and dumps them.

We’re getting things as they’re shooting, and then we have junior assistant editors, usually two per piece, who are helping our first assistant editors break everything out, organize it. We start by syncing, and then we organize it, break it down by scene, and then we frequently do line by line breakdowns, where we take every single time a line from the script was said from every single camera angle and just line that up.

With the limited time that we have, the writers like to see everything very quickly, so I can show them every single take we have of a particular line. Sometimes, we mix and match if the line speed or line pacing read was good enough from one take, but the visual is better from another. We just basically pair those two. We’ll dub them as needed.

BTL: I’m amazed they even have time to get coverage. With the tight schedule, I would think they’d just be like, “Say the line. Got it. Perfect. Moving on.” But I guess in this case it’s necessary since they’re trying to recreate the look of The Last of Us.

Spears: We mostly shoot multi-cam on everything. I think “Mario Kart” was just two, might have been three. Almost every shot or take has at least two cameras running. Occasionally, we’ll do three cameras when it is tight, but yeah, they figure out ways to get it done, and they also have the crunch of talent schedules. On Fridays, we’re competing with rehearsal time on the stage in the studio for the live show. We only get Pedro for a few hours, before he has to go back to the studio and start rehearsing for Saturday.

BTL: Chris, when you came on board to help with this one, how did you guys decide who would edit what? 

Salerno: For this one specifically, since it was primarily Ryan’s unit, I was just like, “Whatever I can take, that’ll take some pressure off of you and allow you to focus on what has to happen in the room on Saturday.” For this one specifically, a lot of it was that opening, where it’s existing footage. We just were able to source that from HBO, so it wasn’t as dependent on what they were shooting.

As we go, the organization process is so important to our editing, just because of the speed. The first assistant editor and those assistant editors, they’re breaking down as Ryan and I are having the conversations of what is worth taking and what complete scenes are coming in.

Another part of it, like Ryan said, [is] we’re pretty limited on the timing of the talent. Sometimes, they’ll shoot one side of a scene and not be able to shoot the other side until hours later when the other cast member is available. It’s pretty dependent also on what complete scenes they’re able to cover, and what we can cut up front.

BTL: Once you know these parodies are happening, do you have to watch a few episodes of Last of Us, just to get some idea of the feel of the editing on those shows?

Spears: A lot of our stuff has some reference point. So we try to get to seeing that stuff as quickly as possible when we know what it is. We did a parody of The Watcher called “The Looker,” so we try to watch at least a few episodes of things to try to get the tone and the pacing and sound design and everything down so that we can match it pretty well.

Salerno: It makes it easier when there is such a specific reference point, because you can really lock down the tone early on since it’s pre-established. This season, I did a couple documentary series parodies, and even a road trip parody. You have a reference point, so it does a little bit of the legwork for you. Once we know that’s what we’re working with, a lot of our preparation is understanding that tone and what makes it feel the way it does.

Kenan Thompson in the “Mario Kart HBO Trailer” / NBC

BTL: Ryan, you mentioned VFX and the fact they sometime get involved early in the process? For “Mario Kart” when it has that whole ending on the racetrack, which involves visual effects, are they filming the actors on green screen and then VFX are added before it comes to you?

Spears: We have a great VFX team. Dave Eber handles a lot of our unit’s VFX, leads our VFX team for film unit, and Eugene Lee is our graphics designer. They took advantage of having the script picked earlier to start building backgrounds, environments, all that stuff. So that when we shot the footage, we actually had something to put it on. We had those backgrounds built, or they were in the process of building them much earlier than we typically would start working on that. Mike Diva has a lot of experience directing VFX heavy stuff. He has some VFX experience himself, and he knows a lot of great VFX artists that he was able to bring on to help with this project. It’s just like a continually like evolving conversation.

The Kart race at the end is one of the few times when we actually even had the opportunity to shoot a previs, so Mike and our DP Lance Khuns went to the studio on Wednesday and using an iPhone and an office desk chair and some little cars, they shot that whole sequence. I would say that shot for shot, the final version of that sequence is pretty close to what they previs-ed. All those different shots they planned out, and we tried to stick to that, so when I first cut it, I just literally cut his previs together, and then as footage comes in on green screen, I replace it with that, start adding in some sound designs, some music and stuff.

Getting close to dress rehearsal, we start getting our VFX comps in. For how little time they’ve had, they look amazing, but they still have a lot of cleanup to do with those. We lay those in, go to dress with a lot of work-in-progress graphics. For this piece, it was a little looser, a little slower than it ended up being. We could kind of imagine, but it was hard to really get the pacing down until we started to get those VFX shots in. Once we got those in after dress, we really cinched that scene down.

I think we ended up taking almost 15 seconds out, just by making trims, making things tighter. I think we cut one or two shots out of it. Dave and I are constantly talking and then Nahuel, my first assistant editor, does a lot of that communication between the writers and the director and the graphics team. As they’re talking and giving me notes about the edit, and I’m focusing on the edit, he’s listening to what they’re saying about graphics, and he’s communicating that to Dave and his team and saying, “Hey, they want this shot to have this kind of background, or it needs to be more this, that, whatever.” He can help facilitate that process, while I can keep focusing on the timeline in the edit.

A scene from “Mario Kart HBO Trailer” on Saturday Night Live / NBC

BTL: Chris, does your unit also have a whole separate VFX team?

Salerno: Yes, we have another different head of VFX for our unit. It’s usually Hannah Kim, but at this point, the VFX team has grown so much, because the scope of these pieces has grown so much in the last couple of years. There are so many VFX artists that are working, and for this one in particular, I wasn’t in the edit room on Saturday, so most of my communication with the team and the edit was through Nahuel, and some of that was also trying to help him lock in final versions of the effects, just because there are so many moving parts to them and making sure the right things got put in the right spot. It’s definitely easy to lose track when so many people’s hands are in the pot, really.

BTL: You also mentioned sound, another huge part, so is that all going on at the same time, and everyone is just working on stuff to get it all together for the edit on Saturday?

Spears: That’s all going on together, too. I mean, we really only have time for a mix. We don’t have time for a special sound design pass. We are doing the sound design ourselves in the edit. I’m trying to bring in as much as I can, and then depending on how heavy the workload is, I’ll turn to Nahuel and Chris will help us, too, and ask them to “take the most recent sequence and just fill it out. I have some of the hits and things here, but it needs to have some more layering, some more depth to it. Let’s get some fill in with the racing, try to get all the car sounds synced up in a way that makes sense.”

We have to do all that ourselves too, and we try to pull as much of that sound design as we can on Friday, and our junior assistant editors help with that. They pull a bunch of stuff, and we’ll go through, once we have the script, to highlight the sound design that we need and give them a list, so they can start pulling stuff. It’s a constantly moving process and you have 16 tracks of sound design, and it’s sometimes hard to keep in sync when you’re retiming everything. Sometimes, you just have to take it all off the timeline for a second and then bring it back in.

BTL: Are you mostly using library stuff for sound effects?

Spears: Pretty much mostly library. NBC has their own in-house library, which taps into a bunch of known libraries. There’s like 20th Century Fox stuff on there. There’s Hanna-Barbera stuff on there. All the libraries that they’ve paid for licenses, we have access to through their portal.

BTL: Licensed in perpetuity I’m sure, since you don’t have time to waste figuring out who to pay for stuff as you’re pulling stuff for Saturday’s show.

Spears: Pretty much all that stuff is perpetuity. Occasionally, we try to use a known song and there’s stuff about that. This one we actually got score from one of our in-house musicians, Eli Brueggeman, who does a lot of stuff in the show, so we worked with him to create a score for this piece.

That was another thing where it’s going back and forth, and “The cut’s timed like this now. Can you go back and retime your score to this?” It’s nice to have that, and then it also adds another layer sometimes of complication with the whole process of trying to get him the cut and have him sync up to where we’re at and hope that between the time we send it to him, and he sends it back to us, we haven’t made some more changes to the timing.

Salerno: The nice thing about working with Eli is, if we ask for it, he’ll provide stems, too, which I think helped a lot with the amount of constant changing and the specific timing that might be needed, being able to work with the stems of the music is really helpful in highlighting the right moments and making the tension fit. Rather than fit the cut to the music, you can really make music fit to the cut.

Spears: Especially for something that’s a trailer. Trailers these days are so music-driven. It really is key to try to get that in sync, and then, the writers really wanted to bring some of the Mario notes into the trailer music. At that point, you can’t really find that on a stock library. You have to custom build it.

Mario Kart logo courtesy NBC

BTL: Ryan, I know you’ve been working SNL for about five years, and I was surprised you were doing other stuff at the same time, like the Amber Ruffin Show. Is that stuff you’re doing on the off-weeks or off-season, or do you still have time to do stuff during the week?

Spears: I do, actually. With our turnaround times, we’re only working on Friday and Saturday, and we spend some time on Thursday doing a little bit of planning, and there are meetings Wednesday night that we try to hop on to. But my Monday through Thursdays are usually pretty available, so I’ll work with clients who are flexible with that. I was doing Amber Ruffin at the same time for a lot of that.

I’ve started to work on a little more commercial work. I’m repped by The Den now in Los Angeles and doing some stuff for them here in New York. I just did an animated show, Teenage Euthanasia on Adult Swim, going to them like, “Hey, I’m doing SNL. I don’t think I want to leave SNL for this. If you guys can work with me on a Monday through Thursday schedule, I’m more than happy to do it.” I worked with them on the first season during the summer, so they were more than happy to work with my schedule to come back for the second season.

BTL: Chris, do you also have other things you’re doing around SNL too?

Salerno:  Yeah, definitely. And like Ryan said, since the time crunch is so truncated into just a few days, we have most of the week. For the most part this season, SNL really was like three weeks on and then you have two weeks off, sometimes three weeks off, sometimes one week off. Not every single weekend is covered with SNL, and then also there’s obviously the hiatus in the summer and a short one in the winter, so there is a lot of time actually to branch out and do other things.

I similarly do work on commercials in the meantime, and I’ve worked on a few shows. I only recently started editing full time at SNL. The majority of my time at SNL was spent as an assistant editor, so that time I was also assistant editing for a couple of other comedy shows and cutting commercials.

BTL: Are you guys physically working at 30 Rock, and they have edit bays there, or are you also working from home now? What’s been the post-COVID regimen? 

Salerno: Before COVID it was 30 Rock, strictly 100%, and then once COVID hit, we did a couple of those at-home episodes, which were totally from home; it was 100% remote. We were sending files through Dropbox, through whatever file sharing we possibly could, and that was pretty crazy. But then, the show started to adapt, and as restrictions were a little bit less, we would still work remotely, but they would shoot, and we would be hooked up to a server, and it would be a little bit more of an infrastructure.

Now, what’s nice is, because of that, there’s a little bit of a mix of both where, like Ryan said, now that there’s a studio that most of the sketches are shot in, that’s hooked up to a server, and we actually have the ability to come in and work remotely if we want to. But then, when Friday and Saturday comes around, just because of the nature of the work and the fast-paced way we work and just the pressure cooker of it all, it really benefits being in the same room as the creative on Friday and Saturday. It’s a little bit of a mixed-hybrid situation, but on Friday and Saturday, we are pretty much always in the office, and I think the work benefits from that.

Spears: We went back that Fall of 2020 with a lot of restrictions in place. We moved the edit suites into conference rooms, because they were setting capacity for rooms by size. We would be in a conference room, we would be on one side, and we could have a maximum of two people on the other side. Some of the conference rooms had glass windows, so people would stand outside the glass window and watch the edit from there, wearing masks and everyone’s getting tested.

Being in-person with that show really helps a lot. We figured out ways to do it during the pandemic safely, and now we’re back to the way it was before. Like Chris said, we definitely have some new tools in the toolbox because of that, with both being able to get footage from set faster, and we use Teradici PCoIP clients to remote in as needed sometimes.

If for whatever reason, they shoot something a little bit early, or maybe we were working on a behind-the-scenes thing during the week, we can just work from home and remote in and do it from there.

BTL: Before you go, can you talk about the editing tools and software you use for this?

Spears: The show’s pretty much always been on Premiere. I think there’s a little bit of time before that where they were using Final Cut briefly. All the pre-tapes do cut on Premiere, because we can bring things into the edit super-fast. We’re getting graphics, we can literally just drag them into our timeline from the Finder if we need to. Export times have been great recently with upgrades to the new Mac Studios. I’ve been leaning a lot recently on the text transcription tools too, because writers really like to see every option when we’re working on the edit for some lines. The text transcription tool lets us get to those really quickly.

Also, sometimes something will get improvised on set that we’ll see when we’re doing our watchdowns, but we have a million things going on, we might forget when someone said an improvised line or maybe it wasn’t significant to us. It helps us find that a lot quicker with them in the room. “I remember Mike said this, it was really funny.” Before, it would be like, “I think he said it before we did this line or after this line.” We had to hunt around, and sometimes, if we didn’t find it very quickly, we’d have to have the assistant editor start looking for it while we worked on something else. Now, we transcribe all the footage, so they’re like, “Oh, he said this,” and I can just type in the word, and it just takes my playhead right to it, which is great. It saves us a lot of time.

Salerno: Going back to what Ryan was saying earlier about sound, since we really are the ones building the sound, and the sound design is pretty much relying on us, Premiere just makes it so easy to really edit the sound. When we’re sound designing, we can have up to 60 tracks of audio maybe, and to be able to use something in the Essential Sound panel, just be able to  slap on a preset and place a sound in an environment or make sure the vocals really come through and just have that preliminary mix happening while we’re cutting is pretty vital to how quickly we’re making those changes.

Also, at the end, the finishing process, even though it’s such a tight turnaround, they’re still mixed, and they still do end up getting colored. There’s an entire prep and conform that has to happen – could be 10 minutes, could be an hour – but in a very short window. Premiere makes it really easy to do all that prep and for the first assistant editor to just bring in the conform and bring it all back together and see it all in our Premiere timeline.

You can watch the “Mario Kart” spoof from Saturday Night Live below, as well as full episodes of the show streaming on Peacock.

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.
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