How ‘SNL’ Pulled Off Jenna Ortega’s Exorcism Sketch Without VFX

What does it take for the Emmy-nominated crew behind “Saturday Night Live” to build sets from start to finish? Thirty-six hours, plus “dedication and expertise,” according to production designer Andrea Purcigliotti.

By the time Purcigliotti and fellow production designers Leo Yoshimura and Keith Raywood receive their script, it’s often late on a Wednesday night after the cast has gone through a table read. Then it’s off to the races. The sets need to be ready for shooting by 8 a.m. on Friday.

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For a spoof on the famous levitation scene in “The Exorcist,” the team had to figure out how to get Jenna Ortega to rise from a bed without special effects. The solution was hydraulics, but they had little time to properly outfit the bed.

“We built the lift with hydraulic motors that went under the bed and lifted up a small portion,” says Yoshimura. “So, it’s a little platform for her to be laying on.”

They sent it to a studio, where it was built and then brought in for the Friday run-through. It was the first time they had seen the set, and Raywood says, “We weren’t really aware of whether anything was going to work.”

Fortunately, it did. As for Kenan Thompson, whose head spins in the scene, that was done via special effects. A life-size puppet of the comedian was made. The moment when his head spins around was pre-taped and added in after the fact.

The show’s take on the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol,” with Steve Martin and Martin Short, was an idea that had been floating around as a sketch for several seasons, but script complexities and tight turn-around times meant it never quite took off. However, Purcigliotti had created an elaborate 3D model of a Dickensian market square two years prior.

Fast forward to 2022, when the script idea resurfaced, and the sketch had become streamlined. Purcigliotti was able to repurpose her existing design, but it had to work with the gag of Short as Scrooge, waking up on Christmas morning a changed man and toss- ing coins to the needy on the street below from his second-story window alongside the ghost of Christmas Present (Martin); things then go horribly wrong.

“We needed the Martin and Steve bedroom window set to be elevated enough so that the POVs and eyelines made this believable,” she says. “The Scrooge bedroom set was built on only four-feet-high decking and the bedroom shared a double-sided exterior brick wall with a large, hinged window, complete with multiple FX icicles and breakaway glass.”

The tossed coins create gory eye and head wounds, and lead to other “Monty Python”-esque moments that include a decapitation, an icicle impalement, spurting blood and Tiny Tim falling down a sewer hole (the whole sketch is on YouTube and worth a look). “We relied on the craft of our VFX department, and props rigged a child-sized dummy to fall on cue,” Purcigliotti says. Cast member “Mikey Day then has his head kicked off by a horse, so our lead FX makeup team created a life model head, which was rigged to a headless dummy with squibs and air cannons filled with FX blood. We could only shoot this scene once, because of the literal bloodbath.”

So it came together in post.

The show’s success comes down to the crew and their expertise, but also compromise, says director Liz Patrick.

“Keith and Leo have been there so long. They know the ins and outs of that stage,” she says, noting that the creative team has mastered the skill of pivoting at the last minute. “One thing I had to learn is that there are anywhere from eight to 10 other live sketches. And so sometimes you can’t do the giant set that you were wanting to do and you have to scale down because you have to make sure we can fit everything else in.”

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