Over its unprecedented 40-year history, Saturday Night Live has maintained a reputation as one of the premiere broadcast comedy shows in history, but also as a de facto springboard for many of the greatest comedic talents in the world. SNL has also (over four decades) aggregated many of best writers and directors of comedy, and the new IFC series Documentary Now! grew from that remarkable wellspring of comedic genius. The new six-part series was created by SNL alums Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers & Rhys Thomas, and was produced by Broadway Video, and executive producers Lorne Michaels and Andrew Singer. The series was co-directed by Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, whom also served as the first season’s director of photography. Technicolor’s industry-leading broadcast team managed color-finishing on the first season.
The genesis to the series began with the success of a filmed segment on SNL, produced in 2013, entitled “History of Punk,” a fake documentary written by Meyers and Armisen, and starred Armisen as a Johnny Rotten-like punk rocker with the auspicious name Ian Rubbish. It was pretty evident to all attached they were on to something that they subsequently agreed to flesh-out over the course of the next few years awaiting the right moment when all the stars schedules aligned with IFC planning.
In speaking with Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, it was immediately evident that both are students of classical documentary filmmaking but also their intent, shared by the talent and production/post teams, was to create a sincere comedic homage and love-letter to their favorite documentaries. Per Buono, “Everyone involved with the project is a ‘docu-phile’ – Seth is a documentary nerd; Bill is something of a savant when it comes to films. The historic documentaries being paid homage to include films like the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens; Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook Of The North; and Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line…an eclectic mix from very different periods and sensibilities.
One of the most memorable aspects to “History of Punk” was the “look” of the finished documentary – a meticulous recreation of mid-1970s period-authentic detail, 16mm-like photography and rough-hewn style. It was this essential attention to detail that the filmmakers and talent all committed to: replicating the appropriate “feel” for each of the very different historical documentaries that the series pay homage to. Coming up with specific, different looks for each of the series episodes was the greatest single challenge presented to Technicolor’s finishing team and colorist Scotty Klein.
That attention to detail was manifest in both the production photography directed by Thomas and Buono, extending to the post-production finishing. In all cases, the filmmakers analyzed how each of the classic docs had been photographed, with specific understanding to original camera and laboratory technologies, film-stocks, lighting & location challenges, etc. Buono’s New York City camera equipment rental company, TCS, was able to supply the production with vintage, period-appropriate lenses and, in the case of their “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” episode, with the actual lens used by director Errol Morris on his legendary The Thin Blue Line.
After production wrapped in Iceland in April, the filmmakers turned their attention to finishing the first season with the same level of exactitude. Aside from the usual set of tools Klein uses in his color suite at Technicolor (the DaVinci Resolve), the filmmakers elected to also employ a suite of film emulation tools from LiveGrain, that maintains a definitive library of digital plug-ins that are based on every known motion picture film stock created after the early 1960s. Klein had earlier employed the LiveGrain tools on the last season of HBO’s hit series finished at Technicolor, True Blood – the series 7th year being the only season to be shot digitally. It was LiveGrain’s founder Suny Behar who actually first recommended to the filmmakers bringing the Documentary Now! series to Technicolor – based on the earlier success of True Blood. Stated Buono, “The series allowed us to really push the authenticity in how we approached principal photography and post…using newer techniques married to older approaches.”
Based on the critical and audience regard for the series’ first season, IFC picked-up the show for both a 2nd and 3rd season…quite a vote of confidence.