“SNL’s” Emmy-nominated “HBO Mario Kart Trailer” sketch edited with Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects
Image source: Ryan Spears, “SNL's HBO Mario Kart Trailer”.
In the realm of television comedy, few shows push the boundaries as far as “Saturday Night Live” (SNL). With its knack for clever sketches with satirically humorous takes on current events, “SNL” has won numerous awards not just for writing, but also the production skills that go into making a weekly entertainment package that consistently attracts millions of viewers. We’re honored that the incredible editing team behind “SNL” uses Adobe Creative Cloud tools to help bring the acclaimed show to life.
In a recent sketch, “SNL” took a creative leap by blending two vastly different universes: the whimsical world of Nintendo video game “Mario Kart” and the gritty, post-apocalyptic backdrop of HBO's “The Last of Us”. The result was a comic masterclass that not only parodied the iconic franchises but also managed to seamlessly weave them into a thrilling mini drama with Pedro Pascal, the star of “The Last of Us”, playing Mario.
Behind the scenes, editors Ryan Spears and Chris Salerno assembled the ambitious “Mario Kart” sequence in less than two days, relying on Adobe Creative Cloud tools to create a stunning final cut within “SNL’s” typically short turnaround time. With Adobe Premiere Pro, they were able to quickly organize and edit multiple layers including VFX, sound, and titles. The integration with Adobe After Effects enabled the VFX team to quickly ingest chunks of edited content and start their work with minimal preparation.
After a buzzed-about airing in February 2023, the HBO Mario Kart Trailer has since been nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Picture Editing for Variety Programming. In the lead up to the Emmys, we spoke to Spears and Salerno who let us in on some of the secrets behind the edit and how Adobe tools helped bring the segment to life.
How and where did you first learn to edit?
Spears: I taught myself to edit with some basic video software in middle school. I was fascinated with filmmaking, but I didn’t have access to a digital camera. I made do with the family computer, clips, stills, and music downloaded from the internet. Most of my early efforts were trailers for video games I liked or video book reports.
Salerno: My earliest memory editing is from when I was around 10 years old. I stole my family’s video camera and tried to make an action movie with my younger sister. It wasn’t until I uploaded the footage to my editing software and added music that it felt like a movie, and that’s when I became fascinated with learning the ins and outs of video editing.
How do you begin a project/set up your workspace?
Spears: I usually work off a template project with bins and matching folder structure. Like most editors, I prefer to work with at least two monitors, keeping my program, source, timeline, and effects controls on my main monitor and almost everything else to my left on a secondary monitor. I find it helps to keep me focused on the work. My keyboard shortcuts are a customization of the default Premiere Pro keyset. Over time as my technique and workflow developed, I’ve modified Premiere Pro shortcuts for efficiency and speed, which is crucial for our work on “SNL”. Recently I’ve been experimenting with a Loupedeck Live console to access the benefits of tactile dials and buttons. I find it makes editing more organic and analog.
Salerno: When beginning a project, I make sure that everything is organized in a way that allows me to work as efficiently and quickly as possible. At the desktop level, I always use the same folder structure so that I know exactly where to find each piece of media and so that everything stays linked. In my project, I match my bin structure to the folder structure almost identically.
I also like to work with a vertical monitor on my left for my media so that on the main monitor, there is just my timeline and source/program windows. Recently, I’ve started to view my timeline panel vertically, allowing me to see the maximum number of layers in the sequence, which is especially helpful since I rely heavily on sound and can end up with as many as 60 audio layers.
Tell us about a favorite scene or moment from this project and why it stands out to you.
Spears: I love the racing sequence because I think it’s a testament to the strength of our GFX/VFX team, the imagination of our Film Unit director, Mike Diva, and how efficiently we can work together to pull off something like that in less than three days. Mike and our director of Photography, Lance Kuhns, filmed a pre-vis using an iPhone, an office chair, and a bunch of toy cars. I cut together my first pass of the scene using that pre-vis along with some temp music and sound design.
Over the course of 24 hours, it continued to evolve, first with the green screen footage with our talent, then enhanced sound design, then our score came in. Finally, about an hour before dress rehearsal we started getting comped VFX shots in. We went to dress with that scene in a bit of a loose place because we were having to imagine a lot of the pieces. But once we had our first pass from the VFX team we went to work carving it down, matching it with score, upping the sound design, and making it sing. All the while VFX kept making improvements to their work and sending us updates. In the end it grew into one of the most intense and advanced looking scenes “SNL” has ever created.
Salerno: For this project, my main focus was crafting the opening as well as helping with the sound design and score throughout the piece. But my favorite scene is the reveal of Pedro Pascal as Mario because this is the moment that sets the tone for the rest of the sketch and the tension that Ryan built leading up to it is what makes it work so well.
What were some specific post-production challenges you faced that were unique to your project? How did you go about solving them?
Spears: Every week at “SNL” presents its own set of challenges, and I think a lot of the work we had done up to this point on sketches like “Meatballs”, “Chucky”, and “A Christmas Carol” really laid the groundwork for what we did with “Mario Kart”. But this was also probably the biggest ‘world build’ we have ever done. To give our design, VFX, and art department time to do their work, production started a day earlier. But the shoot still took place on Friday, giving us the typical turnaround for edit. We just buckled in and used every tool and resource we had.
Chris, who usually cuts for another unit at “SNL”, had the bandwidth that week to step in and help cut the “Last of Us” intro that sets the stage for the piece, allowing me to stay focused on the bulk of the edit. Nahuel Attar, my first assistant editor, helped keep things running smoothly between the edit and the VFX team, constantly sending them updates on our cut and helping integrate their work into my timeline. He also helped fill in my rough sound design and conform for air. Finally, we worked closely with the show’s composer Eli Brueggemann to create a score that synced with our edit and pulled the piece together.
Salerno: This project was the most ambitious sketch I’ve seen attempted at the show. From the various set-builds to the VFX that would be required, the scope was huge. We have an incredible VFX team who constantly one-up themselves and this week was no different, so it required a lot of coordination between all the different artists as well as the edit, which was really led by Nahuel. It’s rare that two film editors would work on the same sketch at the show, but it just so happened that the unit that I usually work with had a dark week, so I was able to jump in and help the piece however I could.
What Adobe tools did you use on this project and why did you originally choose them? Why were they the best choice for this project?
Spears: We lean heavily on Premiere Pro for “SNL” because of how fast we can bring elements into the edit, as well as compatibility with After Effects which allows our VFX team to quickly ingest chunks of our edit and start their work with minimal turnover prep. One feature that we’ve really started using a lot is Speech to Text. Having a searchable transcript of the entire shoot enables us to find and review every single time a line was said, or even unscripted moments, in an instant when writers are in the room. This means we can mine the best comedy without skipping a beat.
Salerno: Premiere Pro is our primary editing program at SNL. The fact that we can ingest and begin cutting footage within minutes of the cards being broken is vital to our workflow at the show. And then to be able to prep and round trip the finishing process in such a short amount of time allows us to work on the edit up until the deadline without having to build in too much time for finishing. One tool within Premiere Pro that I rely on heavily is the Essential Sound Panel. It allows me to very quickly give breadth to my audio and elevate my sound design with just a few clicks.
Do you use Frame.io as part of your workflow? If so, how do you use it and why did you choose it?
Salerno: I use Frame.io on projects outside of “SNL” mainly since most of the work that we do there happens in the room. But one project where I really benefited from using it was when I worked for the Adult Swim show “Joe Pera Talks With You” as first assistant editor. We sent out cuts of episodes to producers and the network through Frame.io and then they would give timecode specific notes back to us at their leisure. Then I would load those notes into Premiere Pro and I, as well as the editors, would be able to see their comments as markers right in the timeline.
Spears: Right, because our turnarounds are so short, we usually only get one posting out at 3:00 am on Saturday and then creatives bring their notes into the room. But I have had the pleasure of using Frame.io on several indie and commercial projects and love the integration with Premiere Pro.
If you could share one tip about Premiere Pro, what would it be?
Spears: Invest time in learning keyboard shortcuts, make your own, and develop streamlined workflows. That kind of Premiere Pro proficiency translates outside of “SNL” in ways that allow me to work quickly, impress clients, and use the time to experiment and get more done.
Salerno: Organization is key to efficiency and working in Premiere Pro is no different. A thoughtful bin structure in the project panel allows you to identify and find assets quickly. I am also very fussy about the look of my timeline as I edit. I assign specific tracks and label colors to each type of media which allows me to move through a timeline and know exactly what to look for.
“Mario Kart Trailer” timeline in Adobe Premiere Pro; image source: Ryan Spears.
Who is your creative inspiration and why?
Spears: I’m always open to inspiration but I think the bedrock of my editing ethos comes from Walter Murch. I spent years learning how to use editing tools before I read his essay on film editing, “In the Blink of an Eye” and it gave me a sense of direction and articulation that my earliest work was missing. Now I know why I’m using the tools and how to use them with intention.
Salerno: He’s not a filmmaker of any kind, but my biggest creative inspiration at the moment is probably the record producer Rick Rubin. I’m always inspired by the way he can mine the purest creativity out of an artist in such a sensitive way and make music that reflects the artist’s intention completely. I feel like as an editor, it is my job to see the filmmakers’ vision through and help create something that is true to the intention of that artist as well.
What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to face in your career and how did you overcome it? What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers or content creators?
Spears: Patience is key, from waiting for that next project or trying to break into a genre, to working with creatives in the editing room. Editing is a collaborative exploration and sometimes you get ahead of yourself and end up at a destination before the writer or director gets there, so you need to go back and go on that journey with them. Together you usually find lots of little side routes or stops along the way that you may have missed alone but make the final product all the better.
Salerno: I’d say that working through the pandemic and the various challenges that came along with that was the hardest point in my career. Aside from the obvious existential dread of it all, the process of editing changed greatly. Luckily, “SNL” found a way to continue with the “At Home” episodes but this meant that instead of the show being mostly live with only a few pre-taped sketches, the entire show would now be pre-taped and fully edited. While it was difficult at first to adapt to an entirely new workflow with fewer open lines of communication and fielding footage of all types from the cast and crew, we eventually found our flow and were able to work efficiently by being willing to adapt and problem solve along the way.
Share a photo of where you work. What’s your favorite thing about your workspace and why?
Image source: Paul Del Gesso.
Salerno: A desk space with multiple monitors is a luxury as it allows for my most used panels to be visible at all times and makes for an efficient workspace.
Image source: Paul Del Gesso.
Spears: Minimal clutter, a high resolution monitor, and a good mouse and keyboard are key. And when things really come down to the wire, a standing desk is a must.