What does it take to produce a San Francisco Giants major league baseball game? The same thing it takes to play it: nimble, fleet-footed professionals working as a team, expert handlers, access to top-tier equipment, and a certain, “let's play ball!” attitude.
SFG Productions is the in-house production company behind the team's live-streaming webcasts, commercials, Emmy award-winning Inside the Clubhouse television series and AT&T Park's in-game, 3 million LED-powered video board and 28-ton scoreboard displays. If there's a platform for pumping up fans or peering up-close and personal at a player, SFG Productions is on it.
To accomplish the ever-expanding task is a team that operates out of an end-suite on the ballpark's third floor, packed floor-to-ceiling with equipment.
“I'm telling the story of the SF Giants,” says Chris Gargano, Senior Director of Marketing and Entertainment. “My job evolves daily, sometimes by the minute.”
During a pre-season exhibition game on March 28 against the Oakland A's, every moment counts. Each inning break, corporate or team promo, singalong rally and orange-and-black-attack T-shirt toss is anchored in a tight scrip noting its exact time and duration in hundredths of a second. “We have to be unbelievably prepared,” Gargano says.
Preparation means Videoboard Operations Manager Colby Frank races between enormous video playback screens, a monitor wall displaying the work of numerous camera operators, and a back room jammed with server equipment. “This is Elvis,” he says, introducing the looping machine technically known as EVS. “Elvis” looks like a chunky, 1950's adding machine, but it enables constant recording, instant replay, tape archiving, and what Colby calls “the melt”: SDG production relies on the machine's storage capacity to meld history, high-definition output, precise editing, and the human touch into compelling storytelling.
Digital Media Coordinator Brad Martens often dives into Elvis-generated archives to produce the team's video promotions, but he's most excited about “Live U,” a non-satellite technology they've added this season. “It's a backpack with cellphone antennas,” Martens explains. “It takes work that was once done in a satellite truck — using a live stream RF [radio frequency] camera with only the range of a 30-foot cable — and lets us peek in on the whole world, go anywhere in the park, and output video with a high-def signal that looks amazing. We had to have it.” Untethered, the roving camera interacts directly with fans, which results in unexpected moments.
“Whoa, whoa,” director Kevin Skillings says, when an exuberant fan decides that mooning is legitimate self-expression. Instantly, the clip is caught, fielded, and tossed into non-broadcast annihilation. It's Skillings' job to call the camera shots and seamlessly mesh all the input into the show fans watch on the 103-foot by 32-foot high definition video board — and, increasingly, on mobile devices.
The Giants have installed iBeacons throughout the ballpark, allowing any fan with an Apple iOS7 device and the “At the Ballpark” app to receive communications from the team. Wander by a food stand? Get a hotdog text or watch Giants staff sample a new food. Need to know a player's walk-up music or connect to Giants' social media? It's in your hand. “We were one of the first teams to do live streams during batting practice. We have programming that emulates television networks,” Gargano says.
Frank says that, for all the “smarts” of the Avid Airspeed (a multi-channel interface that seamlessly provides video playback and game records), Chyron Lyric (the main graphics computer used to create text-driven graphics), and other technology used to produce a game, without the right operator behind it, it's useless. “I have seen amazing pieces of technology crumble in the hands of unskilled operators,” he says.
“If you have great shooters, interviewers, and audio people, you're gonna tell a great story,” Gargano agrees. Add a strong editorial angle and the package is complete. Inside the Clubhouse: The Journey, the Northern California Emmy award-winning show chronicling the Giants' run up to their first World Championship, trimmed 92 hours of footage down to 45 minutes. Gargano says the team was working with a lot more footage than it used for the eight other Inside the Clubhouse episodes they've produced since the series began in 2009. Asked if he's constrained more by budgets or imagination, he says, “Neither.”
To find the talent, Gargano says he and his team work like scouts. “We're a full fledged production company, with people we've nurtured as interns or people we've gone out to find. It's a little trial and error,” he says. “When we hit it, it's like an orchestra.”
Or rather, like a jazz band, because, for all the planning, it's handling the many unknowns that makes any team — in baseball or broadcasting — sing. The ability to improvise is necessary for every game. “Sometimes fans act differently because of the weather. Sometimes it's how the team is playing or if a call goes against us. If a pitcher pitches consecutive, shut out innings, we go off the cuff,” Garbano says. MLB's new instant replay rules during this season's launch required meetings to educate staff, and last-minute, technical upgrades to insure rep officials' headphones operate in sync.
Ballpark DJ Lee Merritt juggles the sweeping demands of evolving MLB initiatives with pleasing the musical tastes of what equals the population of a small town every game day with confidence. “It's not so hard,” he says during the game, answering questions about “feeds” and “channels” as he drops a tune into the park. It sounds great, no matter where you're sitting, he says.
If that's true, it's largely because engineer Michael Uchacz has run “pink noise” through the speakers. He plays “really bad ska” and techno music to tune the stadium, testing for “the squawky factor” and fine-tuning the vocals with special software. He also has to contend with finding a radio frequency. “The FCC is auctioning off the white space,” he says. “During post-season especially, more people are cramming into the same space. Open frequencies are like a natural resource and we have to consider how they're being allocated.”
Gargano played baseball all through his childhood in Novato and at Saint Mary's College in Moraga in the late 1980's. With the Giants since 2008, his storytelling days are often double-headers, with a live-stream afternoon show wrapping just one hour before “Big Show” prep commences. Still, nearly 12 hours after his day began, when he charges forward out of his seat after pitcher Tim Lincecum's shin makes an unfortunate meeting with an opposing batter's ground ball, he's not, for a second, thinking about video board side panels or Elvises or Emmy-winning television shows. He's simply a guy who loves the game.