Freeflyer: Alex Buono

With his new filmmaking workshop and a TV show on the way, we sat down with cinematographer Alex Buono to find out how he keeps busy in between seasons of Saturday Night Live.

With Visual Storytelling 2 starting this week, what do you see as your biggest takeaway when looking back on your first tour?

What really struck me about the workshop was how much I enjoyed the one-on-one interaction and the sort of actual hands on of “let’s light a scene together” and then there was the “let’s chat over lunch, let’s connect at the break, let’s connect afterwards.” I had a lot of interaction with attendees where they had brought clips showing me their filmmaking, we were having conversations about what their next steps might be in their careers and it was really gratifying for me. I’ll see them at different events and say “Oh man, I know you, what city did we meet in?” and it’s like striking up a conversation with an old friend you haven’t seen in a while. I’m really looking forward to reconnecting with people who came to the first workshop.

Going into the new tour, it sounds like you’ve really listened to the attendees of the first one and have made some big changes to your overall workshop approach. How have these changes manifested themselves?

In my first workshop, there was a balance of really technical explanation of “how this camera works, what is bit depth, what is color sampling…” I felt like that was useful, like “hey this is really important, I think you should know this.” It felt like what was more valuable to the attendees was “let’s light some scenes.” My focus is doing a lot more of that. I’ve got so many demos planned that I know we probably don’t have time for all of them so it’ll be fascinating to see how many we can get through. Making sure that things are practical and accessible is really important to me.

A lot people got to check out the MōVI for the first time on your tour two years ago. How has the MōVI influenced the way you approach film production and your style of storytelling?

Well the MōVI is kind of the perfect example of this kind of new era of filmmaking tools that are so innovative, so much faster, so much more approachable to everybody. What’s so freeing about the MōVI is that it does allow you to keep your creative ideas completely open because you know that, in a very simple setup, you can grab the camera and move it the way that your imagination is driving.

You just don’t even think about it anymore. It just becomes this seamless part of your process. We don’t have to hit this roadblock when we’re imagining what we want to do, which is phenomenal for us.

Freefly seems to be approaching this technology from the camera operator’s point-of-view. Everything functions intuitively and you can feel that there’s a strong sense that the Freefly team understands what it means to be on set. It’s very hard to try to explain to a team of engineers what the environment of film production is like, really to anybody actually. There’s so much chaos and then there’s so much artistry and both of those things are really hard to articulate in terms of analytics and metrics and numbers. It’s more like “This has to feel like this” or “I have to be able to move my body in this way” and you guys have done such a great job of what appears to be listening to camera operators and then also just getting your own feet wet, making films and realizing “Oh I get it, that’s why it has to be like that.”

I think that kind of relates to your latest tour. The words “practical” and “accessible” come up a lot when talking about Visual Storytelling 2 and your goals with this summer’s workshop.

For this tour, it plays right into it. I’m really adamant on this tour to be showing people tools that they have accessible to them and that they can do themselves. I feel like it must be a frustrating experience going to a workshop, even my last workshop, where I showed a few tools that were pretty expensive for a lot of my attendees, pretty expensive for me. What I really am focused on are tools that you can do yourself. Tools that you can afford, and you can do yourself. I’m not showing you a technique that requires 15 people to help you with, you know? The MōVI plays right into that because I know so many owner/operators whose entire workflow is “I’ve got a MōVI, a Canon C100 with Dual Pixel Autofocus, I’m tracking all day long by myself and I don’t have a camera assistant pulling focus.” These guys walk away from their projects with incredible shots.

Your new series Documentary Now! premieres on IFC next month. How have your experiences on that show impacted your upcoming tour?

Documentary Now! Has been the greatest job I’ve ever had. It’s the perfect synthesis of what I do with SNL and my background in documentary filmmaking. In many ways, it’s a long form version of what I do at SNL. Where at SNL we’re doing these things that last three minutes, now we’ve got half an hour and we’ve got a whole narrative arc and more time, which has been amazing. The show comes out about midway through the tour so I’ll be really excited to see if people are watching it and enjoying it. I just love it, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

It was cool to see that you co-directed the show with your director at SNL, Rhys Thomas. How have your experiences as a cinematographer informed your perspective as a director?

People have all kinds of different experiences with filmmaking and with directing. There’s a lot of dialing in the performances and “let’s try an alternate take” but I believe your job as a director, which is similar to your job as a cinematographer, is to just bring the right people to the show.

It’s making decisions so that everybody is making the same project. You know, so that the production designer understands what the cinematographer is doing. So that the wardrobe department understands how the gaffer is lighting the set.

The director becomes the top of that funnel and for me as a director, it’s important to keep in mind that I’m co-directing with Rhys Thomas who I’ve been working with at SNL for 10 years. He’s been my director for 10 years. There was already a very comfortable relationship; we had a way of working together that has been very well established.

My mantra, my approach to cinematography has always been very prep-heavy, it’s “be ready for that shoot.” You know, I’m prepared, I have my overhead diagrams, I have my shot list, I know what I want the lighting to be, I know my crew. For me, stepping up into the role of directing has just expanded those departments that I have to be prepared for and those decisions I have to be prepared for. I like the feeling of “Let me help you get all the way across the finish line.”

Learn more about Alex’s latest tour at VisualStorytelling.com.