Saturday Night Live (SNL) veteran Matt Yonks spoke about the show’s archival challenges at a special event hosted by Cloudian at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). Matt has been with SNL for 19 years and is their Post Production Supervisor, as well as being the Digital Archivist for all of the show’s content. It’s always nice to get a look behind the scenes, and it was a special treat for this longtime fan of SNL.
SNL has been putting on a live show for over 40 years. One familiar with the filmmaking process might be wondering why a live show needs a Post Production Supervisor. The “live” show is actually a combination of live performances intermixed with pre-recorded digital shorts and parody commercials. Any longtime fan of SNL knows parody commercials have always been a part of the show, going all the way back to such classics as the “Bass-O-Matic”. Digital shorts, on the other hand, are relatively new by comparison, having been around since 2005. The fact that they are edited allows the creators greater flexibility in the content they contain. For example, Matt’s team adds laser effects for the “Laser Cats!” shorts, and cuts together multiple location shoots from the streets of New York City for their music videos – like the famous “D*** in a box.”
The post production team also prepares for shows like the 40th anniversary special that aired last November, as these shows combine live skits with recordings of previous skits. Once the creative team has decided which clips will be used for the recorded parts of a special, Matt’s team — which has digitized all content from the show’s 40 year history — must secure the best available copies of each clip, and then combine the clips into a longer feature that will be used during the show.
Matt’s job as the digital archivist makes him responsible for finding all of the clips that the creative people want to use for a particular special. Since the show has been around for over 40 years and has used a variety of formats, this is not always an easy task. It is certainly easier now that everything is digital, but it still has its challenges.
Matt is in the process of moving all digital content onto a Cloudian object storage system, and said he believes this will be his last migration. All content created by the show since 1976 will be stored online in this object storage system. Every piece of content has a unique ID created by the object storage system, and that unique ID is tracked by their media asset manager (MAM). The Cloudian system and MAM should be able to scale to meet their needs, and its scale out architecture should allow Matt to replace aging hardware without having to manage a migration. He will simply need to retire a node and install a new one as nodes age.
One interesting thing that surprised me is that SNL does not yet fully use their MAM to its fullest capabilities. The MAM stores limited metadata, such as what show a given clip is from and the title of the skit. Other metadata, such as actors in the skit or topics covered in the skit, are actually tracked by a separate system. All metadata for an object is also stored with the object itself, which Matt cited as an insurance policy. Media can always be located using search tools, if needed. Like all companies, progress is a process.
There is no greater proof that object storage is finally taking hold and to see a show that values its content like this store all of it on such a system. They don’t need immediate, online access to all of their content all of the time, so tape storage could be appropriate and less expensive for some of the content. The fact that they’ve chosen to store all data online and on disk suggests that the Cloudian object storage system comes close enough to the cost of tape that any difference in cost is inconsequential to the SNL staff.
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