EXCLUSIVE: Alex Buono’s Visual Storytelling Tour 2

Some of you — the fortunate ones — are familiar with our SNL Film Unit friend Alex Buono. He’s not just a Camera Nerd, he’s pretty much the Jackie Chan of Cinematography and regularly jujitsus impossible lighting situations until they tap out. Using whatever tools he can find laying around the room or home depot or AbelCine, he will lit’rally bend light to his will.

It’s pretty magical to behold.

He’s shot feature films, docs, commercials and TV. And way, way back in the day he was a camera assistant to legendary ASC cinematographers like Conrad Hall, Dean Cundey and John Schwartzman.

Two years ago, in a Ya-Ya Sisterhood of the Traveling Mövi moment, he toured the USA with his Visual Storytelling workshop. Along the way, he racked up so many Library late fees, they’re now forcing him onto the road again, to repay his debt to society. We assume. That or he’s crazy. But once again, his extreme lapse in sanity is our gain!

Yes, the Visual Storytelling 2 tour is gearing up to hit the road and Wired4Film caught up with Alex to talk shop, to talk Nanook of the North, to talk Thunderdomes and Mockumentaries…

DSC08585-1840x1152W4F:  So, you’re going to be doing another visual storytelling tour! Apparently, you enjoyed the first one so much.

ALEX:  I did enjoy it. It’s funny, there is an aspect to this where, once it’s finished, you’re like, “Oh my God. I can’t imagine ever doing it again.” Maybe because it’s so much work. It’s been two years and I guess I had forgotten how hard it was.

As I am preparing for this new workshop, I’m kind of excited. There’s a lot of fun things I am going to be able to share with the attendees. I’m looking forward to getting this thing up on its feet. There is a part of me that gets excited about how everyone is going to react to it. I hope this is as educational as I think it is.

It’s fun. Over the last two years, since the first workshop, there have been a lot of connections. You and I met before the workshop, but people like you who I met along the way have been super supportive of me and excited about this part of my life, I’m kind of looking forward to reconnecting with everyone.

W4F: I know you’re not allowed to say if you had any favorite cities, but… did you have any favorite cities?

ALEX:  That’s a good question. There were definitely some cities that felt just so enthusiastic. And there were cities that I had never been to — that I didn’t know what to expect and I was so surprised and happy with how enthusiastic they were. The one that springs to mind for some reason is Atlanta – and I had never been to Atlanta before—and I felt like that audience was so enthusiastic and they were so into it. I remember having a really good time there.

W4F: Atlanta is surprising. They are developing quite the Hollywood film world there. I just read an article that they are looking to create a full-blown studio out there, so they are on it.

ALEX: They are all over it. There’s a lot of production there. They have a really sophisticated audience and they ask really smart questions. They were definitely along for the ride, which was really fun.

W4F:  Are you still commuting from New York to L.A.?

Alex:  The reverse – L.A. to New York. I live in L.A. Thankfully, two things have happened. I was commuting for the SNL season. One new thing in my life, and I love the new thing in my life, has been that I was asked to shoot and co-direct a new comedy series from the guys who make … have you ever watched the show Portlandia?

W4F:  Of course!

ALEX:  So that team, along with a bunch of my SNL friends, created a new show for IFC called Documentary Now!  and it’s a series of fake documentaries — mockumentaries. It’s a comedy series–created by Seth Meyers, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, starring Bill and Fred in every episode. Every episode is basically an homage to a classic great documentary. We did an episode based on Grey Gardens and one based on Nanook of the North, the Intuit documentary that was an Eskimo film from the ‘20s.

I was the director on that and I was the cinematographer; it’s just been an amazing experience for me. It’s a little longer format; it’s a narrative structure. It’s not the short structure of SNL.  They are half-hour episodes. Wildly inventive. Every episode is different. We shot all over the place: We shot in L.A., we shot in Mexico, we shot in Iceland. So, that has actually been how I spent the last six months.

In the Fall, I will go back to SNL and then at the end of the year, I will go back to this TV series.

W4F:  Are these half-hour shows intended for Web or TV?

Buono_hader_snlALEX:  IFC is a cable network – and they are half-hour comedy shows on the cable network. It’s funny calling it comedy, because basically, we are making extremely straight, authentic-looking documentaries and we’ll add the absurdity in the narrative structure, but it’s all played extremely straight. It’s really hilarious.

W4F:  That’s great because a lot of what you do in the seminar is showing the different genre styles and cinematography associated with, for example, a cop drama or something like that. Are you doing that with the documentaries?

ALEX:  Oh yeah. This is almost like an extreme version of what I do at SNL.  We did an episode called Kanuk the Hunter, which is based on Nanook of the North. It literally looks exactly like it was shot in 1920 in the Arctic. A lot of what I do is talk about the way that I approach creating these different styles for every episode.  In this case, I literally got a set of lenses that were almost 100 years old, giving it a very different look. We shot it in Iceland. We used the techniques that they would have used.

Are you familiar with Grey Gardens?

W4F: No.

ALEX:  Grey Gardens was a film made by the Maysles brothers, kind of a famous documentary brother duo. Made in 1973, about these eccentrics who happen to be relatives of the Kennedy family, and they are living in this hoarder house in the Hamptons and it’s just a total vérité doc about these two batty old ladies and their lives. But it is one of the greatest, most beloved documentaries of all time.

We essentially created an homage to it with Bill Hader and Fred Armisen in the role of these two batty old women. It’s been great and just so much fun. In that case, it’s going to look like a 1973 documentary – all vérité. We shot with these vintage zoom lenses from the ‘70s and the ‘60s. I literally tracked down the exact lenses they shot the documentary with.

We did an episode based on the Errol Morris documentary called The Thin Blue Line, which is another famous documentary. In that case, I literally got the same lenses that Errol Morris used. I happened to know the rental house that they worked from.

AlexBuono_FilterThat’s one of the things I want to talk about in the class – minding those kinds of details – the lens that you use can add so much character to the image. That’s one of the big messages that I do want to leave is how to create this subtle distinction in the look of your project and how to create all these different visual styles.

A big message of my workshop is similar to the first workshop where I show a clip and then let’s all shoot it together. It’s going to be that, but on a more aggressive level and with a little more demonstration, consciously varying the visual style, as much as I can.

One of the things that I hear all the time is that “You guys at SNL, you do so many different things in terms of visual style, but I could never pull that off because I don’t have all that expensive equipment. I don’t know what fancy toys you guys have.” But the truth is that a lot of what we do is using the most basic tools that you can possibly find. We don’t have time to do all this fancy stuff, so oftentimes, I am just using the exact same tools everyone else is using.

So I thought that a valuable lesson in the workshop would be let’s start with the basic tools that you can find anywhere in the country. That’s a Kino-Flo, you can get that anywhere. So we are going to take the basic tools and now we are going to shoot a car spot, and now we’re going to shoot a music video, and now we are going shoot a rock concert, and approach it like that. Now we’re going to shoot a documentary interview. Now it’s going to be a corporate-type video. Then we’ll do a trailer for a young adult fantasy movie using these same tools.

I want to show them: (A) how to achieve different visual styles and (B) convey to them that they can do it with the tools they have right now, and try to empower them to not find limitations in their budget or in their region.

One of the things that I took away from the last workshop was … the first time around, I brought along some tools like a couple of lights, and things that I later got feedback on like, “Hey, that was really cool, but I can’t find that light anywhere in the state of Louisiana. I live in Shreveport. My rental house doesn’t have it. Nobody in my region has it. That was a neat lesson, but I don’t know what I am supposed to do with that.”

I realized that must be really frustrating for this class to be shown a demonstration then have no way to actually access the tools to ever do that lesson. So I am very consciously making sure that anything I bring on the road this time around will be the most common gear in the industry. Lights like the Mole Richardson when you can find that anywhere in the world. Kino-Flo, you can find that anywhere in the world. That’s the approach.

VS_1W4F:  Technology is constantly changing, and I know that you kind of audition cameras and lenses based on whatever you are shooting. But, do you have a preference for a camera that’s your current “go to” like the Canon 5D was at one time?

ALEX:  I’m not the first person who has said this by any means, but I definitely separate the camera from the lens. The lens I’m probably a little more selective about because I’m conscious of how much character the lens will bring to your project. One of the things that is happening in contemporary television today is that so many projects are using the exact same tools. I would say, on the higher end, the most common combination of gear that you will find is an Arri Alexa with an Angénieux Optimo lens.

That’s how 90 percent of television is shot and it’s a great combination. We do it all the time at SNL but what you notice is that all of these cinematographers shooting with the same camera in the same shooting format in the same Arri Log Format using the same LUT to convert it to REC 709, using the same basic color corrector, using the same lens. And you kind of find this homogeneity to the look of television—everything is kind of looking the same.

All of it is that we are using the same image sensor and the same lens.  In order to distinguish yourself, certainly you can move the camera and there’s all kinds of tools, but at base level, we’re all capturing the same-looking image. By varying the lenses, I am trying to create more character.

With the camera, I’m almost thinking of it as a sensor. There’s a lot of functionality surrounding it, but I find that there are so many great modern cameras these days, that all kind of have competitive functionality. So, at a certain level, I am looking at the sensor.  O.K., I really like the low light capability of the Canon Sensor or I really like the color palette of the Arri Sensor. Or, I really like the high resolution of the RED Dragon Sensor. Or I like the small form factor of the DSLR camera.

It really doesn’t matter which project we are talking about. On this documentary series, I am shooting with so many different cameras. One episode, I was shooting with a RED Dragon. One or two episodes, I shot with the Canon C300. We shot footage with an i-Phone. We shot a lot of it, because it’s a documentary, we shot a lot of it with still photographs that were used to sort of create graphics. Then we shot with 5D mark III’s and I have a 5D mark II that I shot the 2009 SNL title sequence with. I shot a lot of the new title sequence with—and I bought the iPhone and shot all this new stuff with – and it’s been my workhorse for almost seven years—and I know I need to upgrade. It’s 5D Mark II and Canon has put out so many better cameras at this point, I feel like it has a sentimental aspect to it.

W4F:  Now with all the shooting you are doing all over the world, then when you come home and you’ve got a birthday party or something like that, do you ever bring out a camera?

ALEX:  (Laughter) I do! It’s funny because the cameras that I’m actually using in the workshop, the C100 Mark II, and I’m a bit conscious of trying to use a camera that is affordable and that is not intimidating. I want something that is intuitive for someone who is moving from DSLR into Cine-style cameras. I feel like the 200 is such a natural leap, and it’s also a camera that I have recommended to so many of my friends who are documentary filmmakers who are independent filmmakers who have started shooting with DSLR or they started shooting with more Prosumer style camcorders, and they’re like, “I really want to get more of a professional camera. What do you recommend?” I find that the 200 is such an easy transition for them. I like it as sort of a base-level, if you are just getting into this, it’s a great camera.

The truth is that if you are already a working cinematographer, and you are taking my workshop to pick up a few tips or techniques that you haven’t used before, but you are already shooting with much more expensive cameras, then this isn’t going to screw you that I’m doing a demo with a 200. It’s got a beautiful image sensor. It’s got all the functionality of the higher end cameras. It’s really small and it’s totally affordable. Anybody who is out there buying a new DSLR can afford to buy a 200. I want the barrier for entry to becoming a filmmaker to be as low and as inviting as possible.

So, I am bringing that up because the camera that I actually run around with and chase my kids around with is also a 200. I just think that it is a really simple little camera to use. It’s also the camera that I would grab if I wanted to go to shoot an improvised documentary. It’s such a simple and innocuous camera.

I’ve certainly shot a lot of stuff with much more expensive cameras, and the truth is that there’s a lot of advantages to having an Alexa or Dragon or C500, but with those better cameras, you are talking about more gear and sometimes you need a camera assistant. If it’s that kind of a project, that’s fine, but if it’s a run and gun thing, I don’t want to pretend like you couldn’t just run and gun with an Arri Alexa because you can’t.

W4F:  When you have your L.A. seminar coming up in the middle of August, that’s pretty much your home crowd, right? That and New York. Is that intimidating at all to do a film seminar in Los Angeles?

ALEX:  Ha! It’s funny – yeah, a little bit. The audience in L.A. – I think it was our biggest audience last time. I suppose if I’m nervous about any city, it’s probably New York and that’s probably because I work so much more in New York. I will know a lot more people in that audience. Also, I am presenting a lot of examples from the work that I do with my friends in New York, and so I just want to make sure that I am doing them proud and representing what we do accurately, so I’ll be a little nervous.

Visual storytelling tour

W4F:  I’m looking forward to it. I’m signed up for the L.A. seminar. I’m glad you are doing it again.

ALEX:  I want to point out really quick, just in case you feel like including this, the one thing I haven’t spoken about at all is that in the evening—whereas last time I talked about visual structure–this time around, I’m sort of picking up where I left off, doing a visual subtext lecture. I feel like that will be a really fascinating lecture for a lot of even non-cinematographers, just in terms of visual filmmakers and visual project makers. It’s all about understanding how to deepen the meaning of your stories through the images that you are showing people and, it sounds clichéd, but the power of images and the power of symbolism.

The main thing that I want to convey to the crowd is how ubiquitous this is, how common this technique is in the films that we all cherish. This is how our national treasured filmmakers are creating stories that are so powerful. They are doing it in ways that you don’t immediately recognize, but then when you analyze the film, you realize what they are actually doing.

Some of it is just mind blowing, the degree to which they are injecting deeper subtextual meaning in their images, in a subtle and almost invisible way. It’s affecting you on this deeper level that you might not even be aware of. I am really excited to share with the audience how that works.

It’s very academic to look at the film, and find out what Bertolucci is doing in The Conformist, look at all this visual symbolism, look at what’s going on. Even something as popular as the color design of Breaking Bad, it’s fine to say “That’s a good observation. It’s feels like a real academic conversation.” The transition I really want to make is “Now, how can you do it?  What exactly can we do to add that meaning? What are the tools that we can use? How can we do it through art direction, through camera action, or literally through hair design?”

I am really looking forward to that – that might be the part I am most looking forward to just because it’s a little bit heavy, it’s theoretical, it’s a little abstract. Attendees will probably have witnessed a lighting demonstration before. Hopefully, my lighting demonstrations are different and educational. But this stuff is going to be reaching people that never even thought about this subject before, so I am really excited about sharing that.

W4F:  I love that it’s not just how we light, but it’s also the why— of why we light, why we stage things a certain way and it’s so important like you said to get into the zen of that.

ALEX:  Exactly! It’s a layer of film-making that is beyond all the gear and the tricks and how do you create that effect. There’s a deeper meaning to film-making. In a way, what I am trying to do is embrace, and help the audience to embrace, and empower the audience to recognize that, “Hey, you know what? On some level, film-making is an art form. It’s OK for film-making to be an art form.”  It’s OK for you as a filmmaker, some place in your psyche, to say, “You know what? You are an artist. You are participating in an art form, not just commerce. You are not just creating marketing tools for some company.”

As an art form, there is a technique to it and there is a beauty to it. It’s not just all about what lens are you shooting with? What is the image sensor? How much dynamic range is that? There is a deeper level of life. How are you communicating with an audience through your artistry? I feel like that is what we are doing, so I am excited to share that as well.

W4F:  My last question… in a Hunger Games Thunderdome, who is walking away alive? You, Vincent Laforet or Philip Bloom?

ALEX:  (Laughing) I don’t think I could survive! Those guys are animals!

W4F: Well, good luck on the tour!


Kicking off July 22 in Detroit, you can still register for Alex Buono’s Visual Storytelling 2! 


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About the Author:

S. David Acuff currently resides in Los Angeles, CA.

Visionary. Filmmaker. Screenwriter. Lip Trumpeter. Character voices. Blogateer. All for one and one for all and 3 for a dollar!


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The Art of Visual Storytelling TOUR

I first met Alex Buono when he came through Living Arts College where I was teaching at the time. He had come to razzle-dazzle us with a Canon Filmmaker Workshop for our Film Students. He even brought some DSLR toys and some Zacuto toys and let everyone drool all over them. And by everyone, I mean me! I may have actually licked a Zacuto Viewfinder. The restraining order was SO worth it!

Screen Shot 2013-05-08 at 9.27.34 AMAnyway, I judge Workshops the same way I judge Sermons — by how many notes I’m able to take during the lectures. And how many LOLs there are. But mostly the notes thing. Now, Alex Buono is no Pastor, but he is a filmmaking evangelist. And I filled notebooks with info from his 3 hour presentation.

Classic Buono.

Alex is a Director of Photography, see. He sat at the feet of other Cinematographers like the inimitable Conrad Hall. (using “inimitable” just got me 170 points in this ‘WordPress with Friends’ game I just made up. You’re losing.) So, having sat at the feet of some masters, he values the hands-on, mentor jedi-padawan methodology! He doesn’t hoarde knowledge. He plays well with others. You might say he’s our own Phillip Bloom: Americano Style. And in keeping with the Starbucks analogy, his ideas are Venti. Very Venti.

Why should you care? Because he’s going on Tour. Not as much a Taylor Swift-y kinda tour as maybe Cirque de Soleil. Possibly less clowns. And less girls that fold in half and fit inside of teacups.

What will you be learning at this hands-on extravaganza?

The Daytime Cinematography Workshop provides an on-set learning experience, giving you a behind-the scenes look at the process I use in my filmmaking.  I’ll show you how I deal with working in a fast turn-around environment like Saturday Night Live while still delivering my best work, so that you can do the same no matter what you shoot— from commercials, movies and documentaries to weddings, corporate videos and live events.

We’ll start the day with a short film script and totally break it down; I’ll show you how I scout locations, design shots, put together my lighting plans, and select my gear package.  Then we’ll actually shoot a few of the scenes. I’ll pull my crew from the audience and demonstrate exactly how I set up camera moves, light a master shot with matching coverage, and work with audio.  We’ll take the footage all the way through my normal on-set workflow, from the camera all the way to the edit using the latest footage management tools.  Finally, we’ll end with a look to visual storytelling tourthe future of 4K delivery, discussing vital 4K considerations both on set and in post.

And look what he’ll be showing off during the dinner break…

Between the Daytime Workshop and the Evening Seminar,  we’ll have a hands-on hour to give you interactive time with the gear.  We’re assembling some of the most buzzed-about new technology from NAB, including the new MōVI stabilized camera gimbal(!) along with the incredibly efficient Hive plasma-lights,  the latest rigs from Kessler Crane and the entire lineup of Canon Cinema-EOS cameras.  We will also have a 4K media management station setup so that you can walk through my workflow process for yourself.  This is the same gear that I use in my own work and that I will be using throughout the workshop so you’ll see how I work with it,  and then you’ll have the opportunity to try everything out for yourself.


And then there’s the evening session…

The Evening Visual Structure Seminar starts with anoverview of all the tools and techniques that I’ve learned by shooting with both DSLRs and Cine-Style cameras at the SNL Film Unit.

Next up is Visual Structure—to me, this is what cinematography is all about.  Inspired by the ground-breaking work of visual consultant Bruce Block, you will learn how to identify and control the seven core visual components of any image:  SPACE, LINE, SHAPE, COLOR, TONE, MOVEMENT and RHYTHM.  Using examples from my own work as well as from my filmmaking heroes, you will learn how the visual masters of filmmaking use these techniques to create their signature styles: from Stanley Kubrick (one-point perspective), to David Fincher (control of tonal range); from the Coen Brothers (shape motifs) to Wes Anderson (flat space and limited color palette).

If these concepts affect you even a fraction of how they affected me, it will completely change the way you shoot and watch films.  With these principles, you will know how to enhance any visual storytelling experience – be that a movie, a commercial, a documentary, a wedding video—you name it.

And if all that weren’t enough, look again at that picture above at how well he stands next to expensive cameras!

But, BE WARNED! There are only a select number of seats available for these Workshops. The price of the full workshop is somewhere around $295.

Right now, Alex is running a special deal for the CHARLOTTE, NC workshop! As a favor to me, he’s offering the Full-Day Charlotte session for $249 instead of $295! 

All you have to do is email me for the Discount Code at editor@wired4film.com.  Again, Charlotte, only!

And by the way, the other cool thing you need to know about Alex is that he’s comfortable with guerrilla style documentary DSLR run and gun as well as large union crew feature film Red-Alexa-4K+ setups. Your notebook will be filled with film goodness and digital trickery.

For more information on the Visual Storytelling Tour with Alex Buono check out their website.

Then make sure you check on the closest location for you to partake. It just so happens that he’s coming to Charlotte, NC so I have to travel all of 14 minutes to get a day-full of world class film knowledge dropped into my skull meat. What’s not to love?

So go check it out, sign up, and comment below or email us here and let us know if you’re going. And after the event, let us know your thoughts. At Wired4Film we’re huge into building better filmmakers. Craftsman. Not Crap-man. Let’s make a movie!


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