How that crazy HBO Mario Kart trailer on SNL was made

‘I’ll get you to Rainbow Road.’

In one of the most popular and viral SNL skits in recent times, the NBC show turned The Last of Us star Pedro Pascal into the famous plumber from Super Mario Bros to create a fake trailer for a Mario Kart/Last of Us cross-over called ‘HBO Mario Kart’.

The trailer sees the characters wind their way through extensive and familiar Nintendo-esque environments, a stunning visual effects achievement that was also realized on an incredibly short deadline.

One of the artists behind the trailer was Fenner Rockliffe, a visual effects artist and supervisor, known for his work on Thor: Love and Thunder, Peacemaker, and at Corridor Digital.

Here he tells befores & afters about what was involved in helping to bring the trailer to life, including where ProductionCrate assets were utilized in the process.

b&a: The SNL Mario Kart Trailer broke 13M views on YouTube, sent waves through the internet and was submitted by NBC for Emmy voting. Can you tell us about your role in this project?

Fenner Rockliffe: I came on to work with the team on the project after the incredibly talented director/amazing human being Mike Diva reached out to see if I’d be interested. The moment he mentioned The Last of Us and Mario Kart in the same sentence I was sold.

Mike and the rest of the team knew it would be a super ambitious project to tackle on such a tight deadline so they brought on some outside help including myself and my good buddy Peter France to get the project across the finish line (pardon the pun).

b&a: Which effects are you particularly proud of and why?

Fenner Rockliffe: I think the shot I’m most proud of in the piece was the wide reveal shot of the apocalyptic Mushroom Kingdom. The team shot the foreground plate on a super impressive practical set with a blue screen in place to allow for the massive set extension.

Shots that blend a great practical plate with a CG environment are some of my favorite types of things to work on and I was really happy with how the shot turned out.

b&a: To pull off something so creative and chaotic, I can imagine a wide skill set was required. Which softwares and tools were you using?

Fenner Rockliffe: For VFX work these days my tools of choice are Blender and Nuke. Blender has been something I’ve really been diving into the last couple years and I’ve been blown away by the program. The fact that it’s available for free is insane, it makes collaboration so approachable and perfect for a project like the Mario Kart short.

Nuke is my compositing program of choice and really helps to give that final level of polish on top of the renders outputted from Blender.

b&a: Are there any hidden Easter eggs or features that nobody noticed?

Fenner Rockliffe: I can’t think of any specific Easter eggs we snuck into the piece but fans of Mario will definitely notice little homages to that world sprinkled throughout the CG Mushroom Kingdom environment.

b&a: How were you able to blend the actors into the 3D driving scenes so seamlessly? 

Fenner Rockliffe: For the opening wide shot blending the practical environment with the CG environment meant camera tracking the practical on-set camera move and importing that 3D tracked camera into the CG environment scene in Blender. After that was done it was a matter of matching up the lighting in the scene to what was done practically on set and kicking off the render.

From there I take the Blender render into Nuke and begin to composite the bluescreen plate with the CG render. Seamlessly blending them meant taking aspects of the practical plate and painting them over portions of the CG render.

The best example of this was probably the road leading towards Princess Peach’s castle. It had a digital matte painting created from the practical set projected over top of the 3D geometry. By using the actual imagery from the set layered on top of the CG render it really helped to bridge that gap between practical and digital.

The majority of the driving comps were shot with the actors on bluescreen with the backgrounds art directed in 3D space to play up the idea that the karts were racing around all through the city. After the backgrounds were rendered it was just a lot of brute force compositing from the team to get as many shots rendered out as possible for Saturday night.

b&a: SNL is known to work on a tight deadline, what was the pipeline like? Is there any advice you would give other artists in a hurry?

Fenner Rockliffe: It was definitely one of the tightest turn-arounds I’ve ever seen on a project, but the whole SNL team is just incredible. I was really blown away by everyone’s ability to stay calm, considerate and collaborative under pressure.

The advice I’d give to any artist in a similar situation is to just try to maintain that positive attitude. It’s a lot easier to make something great when you’re working with great people.

b&a: We were excited to see ProductionCrate assets used in this! What role does ProductionCrate have in your projects?

Fenner Rockliffe: ProductionCrate has really become one of my go to asset libraries, it’s been awesome to be able to find great 3D assets and 2D VFX elements for so many different projects and download them at the click of a button.

b&a: What was the most enjoyable part of this project?

Fenner Rockliffe: The most enjoyable part of the project was definitely watching the episode airing live on the zoom call with the rest of the VFX team. Getting to hear the live audience reaction was super surreal. Like so many people I’ve grown up watching SNL and it’s such a staple of pop culture. Being able to work on this project was really a bucket list experience for me.

b&a: The vast landscape with hundreds of buildings, spiraling highways and mushrooms is very impressive! What was the process to build and render this?

Fenner Rockliffe: The whole project was genuinely so collaborative from the first moment I hopped on to talk with the VFX team.

On my first day working on the project Leigh McGrath showed us his designs and concept boards for the full Mushroom Kingdom city scape and Peter France and I jumped on to start the 360 degree build out for the CG environment with the dilapidated city and roadways using specific assets created from different members of the SNL team and some excellent assets from the team at ProductionCrate.

b&a: Was rendering a challenge?

Fenner Rockliffe: Rendering out large scale environments like the ones in this piece is always time intensive so there were definitely a few moments of just hitting render and praying it would finish in time for the live show airing. Luckily the awesome team at Puget Systems built out a super powerful PC I was able to cook a few of the more intensive renders on. Having a reliable machine definitely helped reduce some of the stress that comes with these sort of high output, tight time frame projects.

b&a: When you’re working on such a tight deadline, what is the pipeline like?

Fenner Rockliffe: With a turnaround time of only a few days the pipeline sort of becomes ‘whatever gets the job done on time’. The VFX work was done in a wide-breadth of programs including Maya, Photoshop, 3ds max, Blender, SynthEyes, After Effects, Nuke, DaVinci Resolve, Premiere and probably even MS Paint at some point. Whatever got the job done on time was the best tool for the job.

The most important thing was just the team staying organized and on top of their tasks to make sure everything got done and assets could be efficiently handed off and shared between various members of the team. David Torres Eber was leading the VFX team making sure everything got done. It was my first time ever meeting David on this project but, the dude is truly as cool as they come under pressure and it was awesome getting to work with him.

b&a: How would your past self from 10 years ago react if you showed them what you’ve created?

Fenner Rockliffe: My past self from 10 years ago would absolutely freak out. SNL has such a special place in my heart; just seeing that credit scroll by at the end of the episode, that alone would be enough but the fact that the piece was so well received made it feel extra special.

I truly can’t say enough good things about the whole team at SNL and it was a genuine honor to just be a small part of the massive team effort it took to make this short.

Be sure to follow Fenner on Instagram at @f_e_n_n_e_r to see more of his work!

Brought to you by ProductionCrate:
This article is part of the befores & afters VFX Insight series. If you’d like to promote your VFX/animation/CG tech or service, you can find out more about the VFX Insight series here.

Need After Effects and other VFX plugins? Find them at Toolfarm.

Leave a Reply