SNL's Sean McIlraith on editing 'Three Sad Virgins'


Tended to:

Sean is a director and editor from Northern New Jersey who, along with his brother Ryan, is working as an editor at Saturday Night Live cutting pre-taped digital shorts.
Sean is a director and editor from Northern New Jersey who, along with his brother Ryan, is working as an editor at Saturday Night Live cutting pre-taped digital shorts.

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webmaster's note:
This is 1 of 2 interviews I conducted for an abandoned (surprise surprise) Substack blog called Timeline Tuesday. I still really like the idea of having editors just break down their timelines in detail. But for now, since the wisdom shared by Sean & Ryan is so valueable, I wanted to move these spotlights over to here to make sure they get properly showcased still.
In this piece, we hear from Sean McIlraith about cutting the "Three Sad Virgins" music vdeo featuring Please Don't Destroy and Taylor Swift for SNL, along with some insights about his journey as an editor.

We delivered our first cut to Dress rehearsal at 8:18pm with a 4:18 runtime. It aired at Dress at 8:26pm and did really well with the audience, which was a relief. But we had to make a fair amount of changes between Dress and Air, so almost immediately after Dress, I got the notes from Lorne, Paul, the writers and Producers and started making changes. Simultaneously, there was a decent amount of color and VFX work that still had to be done, so while I am making the changes to the piece, Chris Salerno is in the background not only tracking my changes and relaying them to color and VFX, but he is also taking my sequences and laying in all of the color and VFX as it comes in. Due to the insane production schedule at SNL, finishing basically works parallel to the actual editing, which is very stressful when we are getting the final cut ready for Live Air.

We finally exported for Air at 11:40pm and delivered to the Control Room to play into the live show at 11:41pm with a 4:01 runtime, so we ended up cutting out 17 seconds between Dress and Air. It was live on the air at 11:49pm. We then had to make some final tweaks and changes that we just couldn’t get to before the live show, so we made some fixes for the Web and Repeat airing until finally finishing at 12:45am.

My biggest challenge on this piece was the blending of the really slick, stylized editing of the music video beats, with the frenetic energy of the dialogue scenes that is so essential to Please Don’t Destroy’s comedy. I think we pulled it off, but it definitely was like two different mindsets when editing the piece. Obviously the schedule at SNL is nuts, but this piece in particular I’m proud of how well it ended up coming out being that it was such a big script and production wrapped around 11:30pm on Friday night.

My favorite thing about this project was honestly seeing the Please Don’t Destroy guys in such a big, high-budgeted music video with Pete and Taylor. Prior to this short, I had only worked with them on one other piece which was called “Calling Angie” and it had aired on the show the week before this one. That piece was a lot of fun and it was good to get comfortable with those guys in the edit room and get acquainted with their fast-paced style of comedy, which is so reliant on editing. I think the most successful thing about this piece and the genius of how it was structured by those guys was that it starts out like all of their other shorts: a quick dialogue scene in their office at SNL. But after that quick 30-second scene, it launches right into a big, expansive music video world we more associate with Pete and the audience was immediately on board when it cut to black and transitioned into music video world. So to see the guys in that context and out of their office and the piece just crushing with the live audience was really special. I love Ben, John and Martin so to see them kill like that and to be a small part of it was really awesome. Obviously, it was also just great to see Taylor Swift rip them apart one by one.

If I could go back, one thing I would change is toward the back half of the piece, when the PDD dudes are suspended in the air in harnesses, there is a reveal to Ben dressed as Wendy from Wendy’s. It was shot as a pan from John to reveal Ben as Wendy, but a note we got between Dress and Air was to tighten that moment. A speed ramp wasn’t going to work because of the hand-held camerawork. In the final edit, it cuts during the pan, which irritates the hell out of me because to me it’s a sloppy edit. But I honestly ran out of time and there were just 1,000 other things to do, so I never got a chance to smooth it out. The only thing that makes me feel at peace with that cut is it got a huge laugh from the audience, so even though the edit itself is less than pleasing, the joke still landed, which is more important then the editing being slick.

One new technique I tried with this edit was putting my music video flourishes like thumps and quick zoom punch-ins on Adjustment Layers above the footage and keyframe the scale and position properties using the transform effect. Maybe because I am an idiot, I used to keyframe these flourishes on the actual video media, which always was a pain when conforming with final picture because me and my assists would have to make sure these attributes were copied over correctly to final color and VFX renders. By doing them on Adjustment Layers, it’s both easier to see where these keyframes/flourishes are as well as way smoother on the finalization/conforming process.

What’s your general approach for going from a mountain of material to a final edit?

Start slow. I am a HUGE procrastinator who ideally likes to start from the beginning of the script and edit sequentially according to the script, so that I get a good feel for the tone and pace of the piece. But unfortunately at SNL, the schedule makes it hard to do this because they are always shooting based off of the cast and hosts’s schedules with the live studio rehearsals that happen simultaneously with the film shoots on Fridays. So I usually try and pick a scene that encapsulates the piece or is exciting/visually stimulating so I feel both energized for the edit and in case a writer or producer swings by the edit, I can show them something pretty dialed in so they feel good heading into Saturday. I also think it’s healthy to take breaks because again, I am a HUGE procrastinator. So if you’re stuck in a rut, take a walk, go grab a coffee, read the news, this way when you come back to the scene you’re cutting, you can watch it again with fresh eyes and new perspective.

What advice would you give for someone wanting to do similar work?

I think my biggest piece of advice to someone who wants to edit is to work as an Assistant Editor first. I was an Assistant Editor at SNL for almost 4 seasons before I got to start editing pre-taped shorts. I think Editors who were previously Assistant Editors and work their way up truthfully make the best Editors because they understand the process from start to finish and are usually way more organized and efficient than editors who never AE’d. At SNL, it is essential to be organized and work with neat timelines because our post schedule is so razor-thin and fast, multiple people from the Assistant Editors to the VFX artists need access to my project to grab sequences and shots out of my cuts to work with.

What kind of work do you still want to do in your future?

My brother and I would like to move more into long form as we progress in our careers. SNL is honestly the coolest job in the world and I feel so lucky to have spent my 20’s working in the Film Unit. It’s like boot camp for filmmakers. And the best part of working at SNL is every week, you work on something new, whether it’s a music video, a short film, or commercial parody. So even if you end up getting cut from the show one week, you get to start all over again the next week rather than working on the same thing for weeks or months at a time. But Ryan and I would definitely like to branch out and hone our skills in longer form content like narrative TV or films.

When do you know if your project is ready to put out there?

Before SNL, when Ryan and I were budding filmmakers right out of school, we would tinker forever. It would be so hard for us to walk away from a project and feel like it was complete. SNL taught us to be more disciplined. You give it your best shot, you get very little sleep, and you work as hard as you possibly can, but once it’s 11:30 on Saturday night, it’s pencils down and you have to walk away. It gave us more confidence as both filmmakers and editors and honestly sharpened our skills where we now trust our instincts and sensibilities more. We no longer feel like we have to tortuously obsess over every decision and try every option of a cut before moving on.

Thanks to Sean for taking the time to do this.

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