Sunday, November 28, 2004

Taking the Tower 3


The SWAT team leader barked orders to his men, but his gas mask muffled the words. The team seemed to understand tough, for their heads moved in different directions all at once - each member surveying a different quadrant of the heavy metal stairwell. I trailed behind, lens up and riding the iris as we all shuffled up the stairs. Trying to ignore the pain in my shoulder, I dropped the camera low and got a shot of the their chemical suit booties taking a grunt-filled step at a time.
Is this any way for a grown man to make a living? - I thought for not the first time. This crap was a blast when I was twenty two, but at thirty-seven, I’m beginning to feel a little silly. I got friends ascending corporate ladders, and I’m here chasing these goons up a tower. Country boys playin’ Cops and Robbers, and me still playin’ Tee Vee. Wonder if that little hillbilly diner down the road has chicken pastry today?

The needles on my camera’s audio meter danced crazily and jarred me out of my daydream haze. The clang of the oxygen tanks punctuated the cadence of the men's mechanized breathing and my on-board microphone recorded it all. Watching the needles dance, I judged the nat sound’s quality.

“What about Newark? Say I come back on Monday?” -- Erik’s voice crackled on the other channel, a distant conversation about a distant place. Shaking off the sound, I pulled out to a wide shot. As the men rounded the corner and out of sight, I stopped a moment in the stairwell, flipping switches on my camera and trying to think sequentially.

That’s important when you’re gathering news images. Uncle Jesse may wear out his camcorder’s zoom button every Thanksgiving, but the TV News photog opts for rock steady shots that will fit into tightly-edited sequences. Wide. Medium. Tight. It’s like storyboarding comic book panels in your head, blocking action scenes as they happen, mentally editing the footage as you shoot it -- a tricky feat when you’re chasing a SWAT Team up a winding stairwell and your back hurts.

Up on the second floor, the SWAT team fanned out, leaving the bright sunshine of the stairwell for the dusty shadows of the cavernous space. Through the viewfinder I spotted a mannequin on the floor, strapped to a stretcher that looked broken. A jumble of cardboard boxes took up one wall, but it was hard to see. With all the dust in the air, I started to worry about vulnerable electronics of my brand new camera. But there was nothing I could do now, so I checked the battery strength indicator in my viewfinder’s reassuring haze.

In front of me, the SWAT team medic advanced cautiously on the department store dummy on the stretcher. Through my viewfinder , I tracked him as he squatted over the mannequin and checked for the unlikeliest of pulses. Once he determined the victim would never again model fine fall fashions at JC Penney’s, he moved on.


The voice from the PA speaker before now rang down from two flights up. It sounded even closer. I even flinched a little at the sound, though I knew it was only an out of town deputy holding a room full of mannequins hostage. The SWAT team shared my feelings, and picked up their surveillance sweep of the dusty space. As the dust cleared, the room grew bigger and I noticed the training sergeant standing in the far corner, a no-nonsense toothpick jutting from his bushy moustache. A look that told me not to point my camera his way.

Turning back to the SWAT team I readjusted my shot. A team member was poking through the wall of boxes while the others took a moment to check each other’s oxygen tank. I put one knee to the ground and my camera on the other. I was trying to decide which shot to go for next when I heard what sounded like a spoon bouncing on the cement floor.

That’s when all the air, sound and color left the room.

Next time, the conclusion...

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