New Work: Saturday Night Live
NBC’s legendary sketch comedy show “Saturday Night Live” launched its 38th season this month with a new title sequence designed by Pentagram’s Emily Oberman and team. Inspired by the lights and architecture of New York City at night, the dynamic, highly graphic sequence deconstructs the cast, title typography and the city itself through a shimmering, slightly trippy prism of dots and angles. The new sequence accompanies major cast changes for the show, and the titles introduce the SNL players with beautiful portraits by longtime SNL photographer Mary Ellen Matthews, animated with jump cuts.
Oberman and her team worked closely with SNL producers James Signorelli and Steve Higgins on the project. Oberman has worked with SNL since 1994, when she and Bonnie Siegler, her partner at Number Seventeen, were hired to design parody commercials for the show, including the classic “Crystal Gravy.” They later designed the logos and several title sequences for the show over the years, most recently in 2009. At Number Seventeen Oberman also designed identities for other shows produced by SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels and his company Broadway Video, including “30 Rock” and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”.
“Saturday Night Live” is famously broadcast “live from New York,” and the title sequence always depicts the city as a big party. The show is a comedy, but the titles are not typically funny; rather, they serve as a friendly, straightforward introduction of the players with the city as a glamorous backdrop. The show has an established visual personality, and for Oberman part of the fun of designing the opening sequence several times has been creating new, different takes on the same theme. The titles are not redesigned every year, but the new season includes major cast changes—the introduction of featured players Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson and Cecily Strong; the return (for now) of Jason Sudeikis; and the departure of favorites Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg as well as Abby Elliott—and the time felt right for a fresh opening.
The previous title sequence featured the cast filmed in familiar New York locations. For the new sequence Signorelli wanted to make a more graphic visual statement using stills of the cast. Oberman developed an idea inspired by the lights and angular architecture of New York at night: the lights become dots and the angles are slices. Typography and footage are abstracted through the concept, with cast names appearing as a series of circles that come together to form letters. At the same time, images are sliced and layered to create a sense of dimension and movement.
The final effect is elegant and fluid, creating diamond-like facets that are constantly shifting, like reflections of light in glass or glimpses of the city from a moving taxi. Signorelli and director of photography Harrison Boyce shot the city streets, which provide transitions between the portraits of cast members by Mary Ellen Matthews. The cast is the star, not the graphics, but the sequence finds a balance between image and typography that is impressionistic and very New York. (Since the premiere, the stop-motion portraits have become popular as gifs on Tumblrs and blogs.)
The entire project was completed in two and a half weeks. Much like the process of creating an SNL episode––writers, players and producers hunker down and create a show from scratch in a few days’ time––Oberman and her designers found themselves in a race to finish the titles in time for Saturday night’s premiere. SNL’s casting is usually in flux until the last minute, and with the big changes this year, the deadline was even more pressing.
“The SNL titles are craziness unlike any other project, but the insane energy keeps everyone going until they are done,” says Oberman.
Pentagram Project Team: Emily Oberman, partner-in-charge and designer; Jonathan Correira, Lyanne Dubon, Alex Stikeleather, designers; Lucea Spinelli, project manager.
Director: James Signorelli.
Editor: Alex Serpico.
Lead animator: Graham Holly.
Additional animation: Quietman.
Cast photography: Mary Ellen Matthews.
City photography: James Signorelli, Harrison Boyce, Martin Holly.
After Effects: Samuel Macaluso, Paul Daniel, Adam VanDine.