NBC’s legendary sketch comedy show “Saturday Night Live” kicks off its 40th anniversary season this fall with a new identity and title sequence designed by Pentagram’s Emily Oberman and team.
From its groundbreaking roots, Saturday Night Live has grown into a New York institution, and like the city, endlessly reinvents itself. The new identity and opening titles marry the SNL graphics with the architecture of the city. At the same time, the sequence playfully looks back to the show’s lo-fi days, with flickering graphics inspired by analog technology.
“For this season we wanted the open to be a love letter to New York,” says Oberman. “The city is such an important part of the show we wanted to find a way to get the logo to be part of the city.”
“When this version of the logo was selected by Lorne, we were thrilled because it is so flexible,” says Oberman. “I love that you can reconfigure it in so many ways and it still looks like the logo.”
Most successfully, the logo doesn’t resurrect the look of any previous identities, but still carries on and evolves the show’s particular graphic DNA. “We just wanted it to feel like SNL, which is a mixture of boldness and simplicity and classiness, with a little bit of quirk,” says Oberman.
The logo is set in a custom version of Druk, a strong sans serif designed by Berton Hasebe at Commercial Type and owned exclusively by SNL. (The font’s final name is still in flux; it may be called Druk Saturday Night Shift, or just Druk SNL.)
The open was directed for the first time by Rhys Thomas, who wanted to do something texturally different with the city, to show it in a different way. At the same time, the team wanted to the titles to have the immediate, spontaneous feel the show has had since the beginning.
“We all felt it would be great to channel 1975 and keep everything as analogue as possible,” says Oberman. “And we all wanted it to feel grand and glamorous for the 40th anniversary.”
The big answer for the open was aerial shots of the city, a departure from previous sequences. Rhys and his crew rented a helicopter and flew around the city for a night, taking in dramatic panoramic views that capture the magic of the lights. The designers then tucked the logo into the skyline, marrying the show’s iconic title with the architecture.
Every year the SNL titles are developed at a typically breakneck pace, and one of Oberman’s favorite moments of the titles came together at literally the last minute. In a coup for the show, SNL got Yankee Stadium to agree to put the logo up on the Jumbotron as the helicopter flew over.
The structure of the new logo lends itself well to animation, and after doing several initial animation tests and concepts in-house, Oberman and her team found that it looked good when it moved and flickered. The initials remain in place when the rest of the logo flickers off, an approach that was used for the cast names as well, leaving just their initials before cutting away. RGB “artifacts” inspired by early VHS taping technology were added around the graphics, a throwback to the first seasons of the show. Additional camera light effects like lens leaks were laid into the footage to give the whole sequence a dreamy, light-filled version of New York at night.
“Because we wanted the open and all the elements to feel very organic and analogue, we discussed a lot of ways to put the logo into the city using different camera tricks,” says Oberman. For one bumper, Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, the cinematographer, shot the city using a Bouket on the lens, a cut-out that turns all the points of light into whatever the template is—in this case, the SNL logo. In the final bumper, the lights of a city street scene come into focus as hundreds of SNLs.
The team expanded on the idea of placing typography into the cityscape in a series of bumpers. Oberman’s favorites incorporate various versions of the logo in scenes of famous New York City landmarks. The designers worked with the team at Pixelstick to place animated versions of the logos into timelapse video of the locations, so the graphics appear to interact with their surroundings.
One bumper utilizes an alternate logo that Oberman and her designers based on a graffiti version they found in an early title sequence. A mix of graffiti and neon, the redrawn logo appears against a backdrop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is a fun nod to the show’s roots. The graphic will also be used on merchandise tied to the anniversary.
In another mix of contemporary craftsmanship and throwback technique, Thomas also had the idea to make a 3-D printed version of the logo that they could shoot around the city and even on set. Sequences were filmed with the logo on the pavement of the streets, on escalator and in an elevator and in a phone booth. “I was very into this idea, as it seemed a little like a combo of old school MTV and the Stonehenge scene in Spinal Tap,” says Oberman.
Oberman is currently putting the finishing touches on a commemorative 40th anniversary book, designed in collaboration with Pentagram’s Abbott Miller and set to be published by Taschen this winter.
Read more about how SNL Film Unit Director Rhys Thomas and Cinematography Alex Buono produced the title sequence.