Behind the Scenes and Green Screens of SING!
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SING! this year was more of a question (SING?) or an uncertainty (SING…) than its usual exclamation-pointed self. Fearing pandemic-related risks, the Stuyvesant administration opted for the safest approach to SING!: filming all actors within the sanitary sanctity of their own homes and then stitching the pieces together with some editing wizardry. The question was how students would manage to pull this feat off.
From late night Zoom rehearsals to countless editing glitches, SING! this year looked incredibly different from previous years. Each and every crew had to adapt to a virtual setting, changing the way the entire process, and final result, ended up looking.
By Isabella Jia, Nicole Itkin, and Eugene Yoo
This year, Soph-Frosh SING! had five to six months to prepare for the final performance, when it typically would have only had six weeks in-person. At the helm of these long-term operations was Soph-Frosh coordinator Lianne Ohayon. “We had a significantly longer timeframe to accomplish things. [This] year, we decided to spend more time on scriptwriting and prepping parts of the season and continue throughout the cast and dance crews, giving them a substantial amount of time to practice so that editing could piece it all together,” Ohayon said.
This longer timeframe drastically changed the nature of Soph-Frosh SING! as crews worked at different paces rather than collectively, as they would during in-person SING!. “Usually, you have everyone working together in unison and everything coming together at the same time,” Ohayon explained. “But this year, it was harder because each crew went at a different pace with everything filmed for editing. This idea of people heavily relying on each other is a bit different from how SING! usually [ran] prior to the pandemic.”
Other immense challenges of virtual SING! included the difficulty of socializing in a remote setting, Zoom fatigue, and budgeting issues. “There was less interaction between crews, and it was hard to create personal connections,” Ohayon said. “Also, Zoom fatigue was a problem when hosting meetings. We didn’t host as many meetings to combat that [issue],” Ohayon said. “As coordinator, I was working with the SU and other coordinators to budget the show since we weren’t taking dues this year. We were working for a source of money to reimburse the SING! expenses. Just figuring out how we were able to budget money was a challenge, and we eventually got it with help from the Alumni Association.”
Ohayon looks back upon her freshman SING! experience with nostalgia. “I really miss in-person SING!. I remember going to Whole Foods to have a meeting and eat dinner together. This idea of just being with everyone was something I kind of missed in this year’s SING!. I’m glad to be transitioning into in-person SING!, [but] virtual SING! was still a great experience to have, [as well as making] changes to this year’s charter that could be used for next year too,” Ohayon said.
For Ohayon, the end product of this year’s SING! is memorable given every member’s hard work and contributions. “Especially considering the circumstances, we made a really solid effort,” she said. “Especially in the beginning of the year, it was really unclear to me how SING! was even going to happen, so when it did and we were able to create a product that took so much time and effort and it was able to be premiered, it made me really happy and proud of all the hard work.”
Soph-Frosh SING! directors and sophomores Samantha Farrow, Lara Ongan, and Amelia Petry had a lot on their hands with a fully virtual production of SING!. Farrow described the casting process, a difficult process even in typical circumstances, as even more challenging because of the virtual environment. “Auditions and rehearsals were over Zoom, [so] we needed people who were expressive with their faces. Everyone was talented. It was just about [finding] who fit the roles the best. It was really hard to do with a script that wasn’t even finished though,” she explained.
The rehearsal process was convoluted and plagued with inefficiencies. This ordeal was exacerbated by the fact that the cast didn’t know each other very well. “Our first rehearsal was really awkward. It was a bunch of freshmen who didn’t know each other and sophomores who were in SING! together last year. The sophomores were talking, and the freshmen were just silent,” Farrow said. “Sometimes, it took a long time for people to join, and we started 30 minutes late. And then we [had] people read to make sure they’re saying things correctly with the right emotion and pronunciation. [Petry did] a previous STC show and knew more about placing people [and where they should look] and took charge of that. I would kinda go through facial expressions and how [they] should be standing and what words [they should put] stress on.”
Filming required an abundance of technology, including laptops, green screens, and earbuds. “Rehearsals were mostly just us rehearsing to record,” Farrow said. “We had a Zoom call going, and people would record on their phones [with] a green screen behind them. People would [listen to] other people speaking on the Zoom call to know when it was their turn to speak, and the editors would mute everyone [who wasn’t meant to be speaking]. ”
Just as important to the technological creation of the production was the creation of friendships among castmates, though, as Farrow explained, establishing relationships was not always easy. “I hope [the freshmen] made friends from SING!, but I feel like we could have had more bonding moments: maybe more chill Zoom calls that had nothing to do with SING!, some more joke calls, [or] maybe [...] movies. We did watch Soph-Frosh SING! from last year and it was [embarrassing], but I guess the freshmen found it funny,” she said.
Farrow is content with how the production turned out and the work that went into it. “[Ohayon] did a great job. All of the producers did great. Everyone was great. Could it have been better? I think so. I don’t understand why people’s heads were cut off. Why were people floating on screen? Why were people glitching? I have so many questions. Still, I love everybody who did SING!, and I am [so] thankful for the people whom I worked with,” she expressed.
Even with the abundance of Google images and virtual backgrounds available on Zoom, Soph-Frosh SING! maintained its originality with hand-designed graphics done through a drawing application. The creators behind these drawings were from none other than the art crew. This year, freshman Tina Siu was the director of the art crew, along with assistant directors and freshmen Eshaal Ubaid and Iris Lin.
Organization was successful––art crew members were each assigned a background to draw, and art directors used spreadsheets to keep track of members’ work. Sadly, crew bonding was reportedly less successful. “All artists worked independently and handed in their pieces at various stages according to deadlines the directors set,” Siu explained. “The pandemic took away the need for frequent meetings due to the independent nature of creating digital artworks, so the crew did not get as close as we would have normally.”
This description certainly matched the experience of sophomore Anisa Gao. “I feel like I didn’t bond as much with my fellow crewmates as I would’ve in person,” she said. Nevertheless, virtual SING! did have its boons for Gao, who would not have been able to join SING! in a normal year because of the time commitment. “I live quite far from the school and despise being caught up in rush hour, so if SING! was in person, I wouldn’t have joined. Virtual SING! permitted me to have a more flexible schedule and was overall more convenient,” Gao said.
Despite the challenges of making an online production, the band crew was able to put together numerous music performances. This year’s band, led by directors and sophomores Jeffrey Tan and Marion Rambler, was responsible for overseeing all musical aspects of the Soph-Frosh SING! production.
In order to successfully run SING! this year, the band directors had to adapt to their new circumstances. Some adjustments included reducing the number of people in each crew to help with managing and using meetings to check in with band members rather than rehearsing together.
These adjustments came with challenges. Perhaps the most prominent was the challenge of synchronizing various parts together. “The obvious solution to this problem was to have our members record their parts using a metronome, but this brought in a new challenge; music can't be so robotic that it follows the exact same beat for the whole piece,” Tan said. “Sometimes, musicians will speed up or slow down certain sections due to instinct, but that was just another challenge that came with virtual SING!.”
Rambler also mentioned that SING! being virtual made it much harder to communicate and coordinate with members. “We had limited space and time, so everything had to be perfect in order to send in a recording. […] We couldn’t give notes on the playing or any technique, and again, we lost bonding time through Zoom,” Rambler said.
Nevertheless, this year’s Soph-Frosh SING! also came with some boons. “One [benefit] was that each grade was given a much larger time frame to get everything together, which definitely brought down a lot of stress,” Tan explained. “Specifically with the band, conducting it virtually had a main benefit in that our musicians were able to film multiple recordings until everything was perfect, which reduced the amount of human error in the final output.”
While the past year has been very different from previous ones, Tan has a positive outlook on it. “Given the challenges that we faced, as well as the virtual setting, I was genuinely very impressed with how the final Soph-Frosh SING! performance turned out,” he said. “If everything had been in-person, it definitely would’ve turned out differently. I’d expect the music to be more synchronized, with an enhanced depth/range of dynamics, but that [aspect] isn’t really something you can control in a virtual setting. But props to the editing team for getting all the recordings together. The music sounded great in my opinion!”
Tan also mentioned that he is excited about next year’s SING! production. “[I’m looking] forward to doing SING! in person next year. Virtual SING! was already amazing, so I can’t wait until we get back in the building and bring back SING! stronger than ever,” he said.
By Isabelle Lam and Shivani Manimaran
Coordinator Alec Shafran was the mastermind behind this year’s Junior SING!––he coordinated various crews, handled budgeting, and worked to keep juniors motivated in the long months of preparation.
In terms of how the virtual and in-person responsibilities of coordinator contrast, Shafran didn’t find too many differences. “I think a lot of the basic parts of being coordinator were the same. It was still a lot of planning, meetings at 12 at night going like, ‘Okay, what song fits in here? How can we rearrange the plot so that this makes sense?’” Shafran explained.
However, one major problem was a lack of communication between crews and Shafran. “It was very difficult to make sure of where everyone was on every step of the way,” he explained. “I had a big picture idea of [what was going to happen], but when it came to ‘Betty Johnson’ in flow, I didn’t know how she was doing compared to what I [heard] from flow directors.” He also touched on the difficulty of communicating with people spread out across the country and the world. “Our entire SING! had three different time zones, [...] so consistent communication was a lot more difficult,” he explained.
Another challenge was how the screenwriting crew planned to build in the different dance crews. “It’s always a little hard to incorporate dance crews. Some crews end up getting pigeonholed: modern as emotions, flow as some display of fireworks, and step as police officers, but [...] we couldn’t have any fantastical elements, so all of our crews [...] were more so contributing to the setting than the plot,” Shafran said.
Overall, though, Shafran is happy with the end result. He recounted how, in the months and days leading up to SING!’s premiere, he felt disappointed and unhappy because of the circumstances around virtual SING!. He was sitting in his room alone, watching the editing crews as they put together the finishing touches. However, when SING! premiered, and he watched it with his family, he felt happy and proud of the result. “I don’t wanna say I had low hopes, but I came into it thinking, ‘You know what, we know it’s not our finest work, but we can go into next year with our heads held high. It’s gonna be okay.’ I think watching it alone in my room scene by scene when it’s all a work in progress and [hadn’t] been put together yet [was] a different experience than watching it with my family and texting the rest of Slate and other directors and being like ‘Oh my god guys, this is amazing! I don’t know why I had so many doubts,’” Shafran said.
Dancing across the green screened scenes of an ‘80s sitcom, the cast of Junior SING! made the virtual world they navigated look easy and natural. But the actions that showed up on the screen were often more difficult than they appeared, as cast member and editing director Michael Borczuk explained. “As an actor, it’s hard to record when there aren’t other people,” said Borczuk. “My least favorite part was doing the actual recording because putting up my green screen was really annoying, and we were standing for many hours.”
Borczuk also filled the role of editing director, a new position created specifically for virtual SING!. Armed with various editing softwares like Adobe Premiere Pro and Adobe After Effects, the six members of the editing crew were faced with hours of footage, to be edited in a shockingly short amount of time. “There’s a certain percentage of footage that we needed to start editing, and we reached that [amount] on Monday [June 14], so we started editing then,” Borczuk said. “Before we got enough footage, the rest of the crew, for the most part, wasn’t doing that much.” The difficulty and time crunch of the editing process were somewhat mirrored in Borczuk’s experience recording for the cast. “The biggest challenge for me as editing director was getting the footage because we [needed] the footage if we’re actually going to edit but also not being too harsh about getting the footage because I know how difficult it is to actually get all those recordings in,” he said.
The dance crews that interspersed the show faced their own challenges as well. Flow director Aaron Hsu noted that his crew did not have the same dynamics as they would have had in person, which he has directed as well. “It feels a lot more awkward to talk about anything other than flow in a meeting because you’re calling to practice flow or you’re calling to learn choreo, and it’s harder to talk about how your day went,” Hsu said. One of the largest challenges Hsu recalled facing was recreating the ambiance of Flow meetings. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh my God I have to go to this flow meeting because I have to learn flow,’ but I wanted to make it more like, ‘I’m going to this flow meeting so I can chill with other flow people and also learn on the side,’” he said.
Aside from Zoom woes, because flow entails the usage of props, Hsu and other directors across SING! had to coordinate a way to distribute equipment. They met at Rockefeller Park on the weekend to hand out equipment to members. “We sent out a form to determine who needed what equipment, and they’d just show up. If they couldn’t show up, we’d deliver it to their house, or they’d come to someone else’s house whenever they were free,” Hsu explained.
Hsu was proud that his crew was able to persevere in the face of virtual SING!’s difficulties. He also thinks that he got lucky in terms of who was in his crew: “I think flow had it easy, in the sense that everyone kinda already knew each other. I’m sure that there were other dance crews that had it a lot harder because [...] they had to teach people who were new and make sure that they weren’t super bored.”
Costume directors Cynthia Li and Aiko Shibata planned for a long time and extensively researched the fashion sensibilities of the ‘80s. Afterward, they consulted with the cast director and crew members to ask for their input. Communication was done through Zoom meetings. Li and Shibata held a crew meeting and discussed how the characters would be portrayed and what they’d wear, and the crew moved forward from there. “This year, everyone was assigned their own person, and they could just have free reign,” Li said.
Costumes had a smaller membership this year and relied more on pre-made clothing than other years. “We had to rely on thrifting clothes and getting them already pre-made. I think we made two skirts, and the jacket was embellished, but otherwise, costumes weren’t that complicated,” Li explained.
The main challenge for costumes this year was transporting the pieces necessary for various cast members. “We needed to figure out [...] how to get [different costumes] from each other, so there was a lot of driving and dropping things off at people’s houses,” Li said. Otherwise, Li feels that her crew went through SING! smoothly. “It was definitely a lot more difficult than last year though,” she concluded.
By Zifei Zhao and Christine Chang
The unity and flow of dancing in any SING! performance are a must, and seniors this year still did it all despite their Zoom lag and difficult video recordings. Senior SING! explored the digital world through six different dance crews: flow, hip-hop, Latin, modern, step, and tap. In a typical year, seniors would be found twirling and stomping throughout the 10 floors of Stuyvesant, but this year, all participants had to learn their choreography from their own rooms, bringing on an onslaught of new challenges.
Director of step and senior Falina Ongus found making choreography easier to handle, and she was excited for her new role. “It was something I had thought about even before the season started, so I felt it worked well, and it was one of the parts I really enjoyed,” Ongus said in an e-mail interview. But on the other hand, teaching the choreography was particularly hard in the virtual format, especially for a crew such as step, where each beat and movement has to be specifically synchronized. “We had to consider the way the video was mirrored on Zoom and try to distinguish between a Zoom lag and a wrong step or missed move, which was challenging,” Ongus explained.
As for learning and performing the final choreography, the process also changed. Instead of dancing on the stage, students practiced hard-to-film snippets of their choreography to send to editing. Senior Mimi Gillies performed for the Latin crew this year for the first time and found learning the choreography easier than expected due to her patient directors. “The directors were very slow [when] teaching, but in a good way, to make sure that we understood everything, and we sent them videos so they could be like ‘No, that's wrong’ or ‘Yes, that's right,’” Gillies explained. As for the time spent on learning her dance, Gillies found it manageable as a second-term senior. “We would just call for one hour [...] a couple of days a week and learn the choreo, and then we had to practice it on our own afterwards. And the last week before recording, we just had one call, and we did the dance twice, and then [...] that was the entire thing, and I was really surprised,” she said. But what frustrated her the most was recording her dance part in front of a green screen. “Latin took me forever. I spent like three hours recording it because I kept messing up or my arm would go off the green screen, and I would have to redo it because I couldn’t be visible anymore,” Gillies described.
Yet despite all the digital challenges, the seniors were still able to deliver on their dances while celebrating their senior year. “Thinking about it makes me really appreciate my co-directors for step and the entire crew, who really worked hard and did their best to take something that’s usually in person and translate it to online,” Ongus said.
The characters of senior SING! can only go through character development if their cast members play the part. This year, senior SING!’s “Virtually Impossible” game show was hosted within the green screen-plastered walls of cast members’ homes, vastly different from the Stuyvesant stage.
In this year’s SING!, Gillies played Maxine, a contestant on the game show. Gillies has participated in SING! each year and loves the supportive theater community. “I loved SING! because it was tailored to us since it was student-written and produced [...] so it felt like the characters could be changed depending on the way I was acting them and the way everybody else was acting them, and I always felt like sort of a community with my cast, and it was wonderful,” she described.
In the virtual setting, Gillies found cast rehearsals vastly different. During a regular year, Gillies found rehearsals to be much more tedious. “Basically all of the time would be spent going through it until the end, when it would just be running the show over and over again and [without] actual notes being given,” Gillies explained. But because this year’s show was recorded rather than live, there was more time and feedback to be given. “We would pretty much go on the recording calls, [and] they would tell us where to stand and where to look. We would read it through once, and they would either be like ‘Good, let’s record now,’ or they'd be like ‘Let’s do that one more time differently.’ We only actually had like three or four calls [in which] we read through the scenes together,” Gillies said.
As for the technical elements of recording, there were two sides to the story. For musical numbers, Gillies found it difficult to record with the school-lended microphones. “They actually sent us these really nice microphones, [...] but they’re very hard to use because sometimes they’ll buzz for no reason, or the gain will be really high,” she said. But when recording her spoken scenes, it was a lot easier through Zoom’s record function. She explained, “Recording for cast was kind of fine because we would record on Zoom together, so we would just do like one or two recordings and then be done.” But the most difficult part of virtual SING! was neither acting nor recording, but rather uploading her clips. “I had close to 100 videos on my phone that I needed to upload into a Google Drive folder, and it took me hours of time to do that. And I was just so done,” Gillies explained.
Nonetheless, through it all, the seniors were able to put on a brilliant show to showcase their many talents. “I thought Senior SING! came together really nicely when I watched it. I was pretty impressed with the editing, especially the music editing. It was very seamless for the most part, so I thought it was really good. I’m very happy with how it turned out,” Gillies concluded.
With a virtual SING! came the creation of a new crew to organize the bits and pieces into a fantastical showcase: editing. Editing directors Max Kahn, Joshua Kim, and Leo Xiao, along with the entirety of the editing crew, strung together individual recordings to bring alive the concept of “simulation.” However, the new setting brought upon uncertainties as both the editing team and other directors tried to navigate the new space. “Most people [weren’t] accustomed to doing this kind of stuff in film aesthetics,” Kahn said. “Everyone [wanted] the deets on what’s possible. We’re organizing with the dancing directors: what their dancers [could] do, how they [could] move around, [and] what kind of green screen [worked] best.”
Throughout the process, the list of uncertainties grew as the deadline loomed closer. “I think [a] part of senioritis kicked in as we were finishing,” Xiao laughed. “We’re here waiting for some parts, and we [needed] to get this done in a week now. Five days. Four days. Three days.” “When all of the crews are sending their stuff in [at the] last minute, it means you’re extra last minute with editing,” Kahn said.
While editing the clips, Kim, who focused primarily on audio editing, explained more challenges that appeared in the virtual space, saying, “Some parts are not very tempo based. Some parts are very communication-dependent, and I think those parts were kind of our weaknesses.” Another factor that slowed the process was the equipment that the editing teams was using. “Everything [loaded] because every computer sucks when it comes to editing, and you [spent] hours just watching things load over and over and over,” Kahn said. “We had multiple members of the crew edit their stuff, [and at the] last minute, their computers crashed, and they lost all their stuff, so [Xiao] and I had to edit a lot of those things at the very last minute, like the day before.”
Despite this challenge, the editing team produced a final product that they were happy with. “I think it kind of flowed together and […] just seeing it all connect and flow together and actually look like one production was something I was really proud of,” Kim said. Specifically, Kim was wowed by the collaboration between the editing crew and the dance crews: “I’m really proud of the people who did the dances because they’re definitely the most complicated numbers to edit. You have to move around a lot of different people, it was all really synced, and I thought it was really beautiful.”
As Senior SING! took its viewers from a fantasy world with knights and wizards to a film noir-esque black-and-white town to even hell itself, an integral part of bringing these worlds to life was the costumes. Director of costumes Catherine Dell’Olio took charge of the making, buying, finding, and assembling of the costumes for the show. “We worked on all of those costumes together. We didn’t want to limit the design and the ideas to just the directors, so we really made that more of a collaborative effort,” Dell’Olio said. Another thing the crew focused on was the making of distinct costumes, not just between each crew, but for the different members of the cast as well. “We had so much variety of cast costumes because each person in the cast was supposed to be so different from each other, but they came together,” she said.
Like other crews, the costumes department faced unique challenges this year because of the virtual nature of SING!. One specific aspect that was hindered was the process of measuring each on-stage member of the cast and crew, something that, in-person, would have been accomplished in the first few days. “We created a measurement form, and that was a little [difficult] for a couple reasons. It relied on every single person filling it in. It also meant that everybody had to take their own measurements, which isn’t as reliable as doing it all together and standardizing it because the same people are doing the measurements for everyone,” Dell’Olio said. To remedy this discrepancy, she had to change the way she approached the problem. “We included some questions that were different this year, such as clothing sizes in case we were buying costumes––we usually don’t,” she pointed out. Virtual SING! also meant that the various crews weren’t in the same location, which proved to be a challenge. “Usually for costumes, they’re right there, but [we had] to go to people’s houses, or we [had] to meet up at Stuy or something like that. It wasn’t a big deal, and everything got in on time, but that was something we didn’t expect,” said Dell’Olio.
Overall, the costuming crew, while it ran into challenges, managed to be an effective crew, something that Dell’Olio accredits to the weekly meetings that were set up. “We did make sure to have meetings every week. I think that [consistency in meeting] was super important because there was a lot of self-directedness when you’re doing this virtually. You have to make all the little decisions about how you’re going to sew things together or make things or buy things by yourself, and that can be a lot. It was really good to have meetings so we could check in,” Dell’Olio concluded.