Mission Control

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By Micah Standley (Media Team Score Reader)

Friday, June 17, 2011

As a kid growing up near Houston, I got to tour NASA several times. On school trips we crawled around inside a lunar module, walked through the flight simulator, and even saw the actual mission control with its rows of desks and screens. I remembered all the movies I saw with the stressed out people running around and, of course, “Houston, we have a problem.” Little did I know that I would actually be in a similar situation as an adult. [Micah and his colleagues in the Media Suite. Photo by Cory Weaver]
I wear several hats here at San Francisco Opera. The main one is as publications editor, which means I’m responsible for producing the program magazines. A few years ago, some of the music staff found out I went to music school and could read a score. Since then I’ve also worked as a supertitle caller—which means I advance the supertitles projected above the stage during a performance—and as a score reader in the Koret-Taube Media Suite.
As the score reader, I’m responsible for helping the video director keep his place in the music. 
In the media suite, we capture and record the opera performances on multiple HD cameras so they can be used for OperaVision—the live feed of the cameras projected to screens in the balcony—as well as simulcasts and live recordings for our Grand Opera Cinema Series. The Koret-Taube Media Suite is the first facility of its kind installed in an American opera house, and the innovative ways we’re using this technology to reach out to audiences is really incredible.
I’m often asked about the specifics of how the process works. During the rehearsal period, the director and assistant director “block” the score. This means that they watch the recordings of the rehearsals and mark the spots that they wish to capture (called “shots”), the camera that needs to be used, and how the shot should be framed. [Right: A Ring score marked up and ready to go]
Here are the basics of a shot:
Approximately ten seconds before a shot, the assistant director preps one of the five camera operators with the shot specifics. This is usually done in code. For example, “Shot 67, camera three, two-shot waist, Wotan and Fricka” means that shot 67 is coming up and camera three needs to frame Wotan and Fricka together from the waist up.
 Then it’s my turn. I’m following the performance in the score and watching the monitor that is recording the conductor. Immediately before the shot I say “and” to the director. This lets him know that he has about one second or less to call the shot.
The director then says “take three!” to the technical director, who pushes the button to cut to and capture from camera three.
Now multiply that process by about 1,500 to 2,000 and you’ve got yourself a recording of one of the four Ring operas. It’s a lot of intense work, particularly when you’re in a room surrounded by monitors and trying to keep your ears on the performance, one eye on your place in the score, and one eye on the conductor. But it’s interesting and rewarding to be a part of the process and, dare I say, a lot of fun. I wonder if that’s what the mission control guys would say about their work…
[Above: The media department hard at work during a performance. Photo by Cory Weaver]