It's a subject I've touched on before, the relentless pursuit of the 'live bug'. That's the corner graphic on your screen that tells you what you're watching is being transmitted as it happens. If the magic of that escapes you, well then you'd get along well the fellas in the photogs lounge. But the suits down the hall, they dig 'em some live shots. Trouble is, all that running around and mast-raising can really chew into your day. Precious time the journalist would rather spend on the storytelling is often compromised, truncated or outright forfeited for the sake of presentation. Still, I don't expect TV stations will sell their fleets of microwave trucks any time soon, so we behind the lens had better get used to it. Fact is, we already have. Today's shooters not only have to be street-level cinematographers and edit-bay specialists, but they have to be masters of time-management. Take the latter part of my day for example, a frantic if not exceedingly average late-day ramp-up:
4:30 PM - Jeff Varner hands me a script, a disc and a large-mouth file tape. I score a bag of M&M's and head to the edit bays...where I find each individual booth swollen with its own surly photog. Over his shoulder, Weaver tells me he's almost through so I slump into a chair and turn my attention to the candy-coated chocolate at hand.
4:40 PM - Weave finally wraps and I take control of the keyboard. The seat is warm and that doesn't sit well with the taste of M&M's, but I forge ahead - knowing my next few series of hand motions will determine the success of my mission. Mouse in hand, I open timelines, highlight audio tracks and whittle away the edges. As I lean into the monitor, the four walls of the closet-sized room around me melt away.
4:48 PM - Obscenities ring out of my edit bay as noisy static one of the tiny black-and-white screens. Cursing the antiquated betadeck to my left, I employ my own unique percussive maintenance techniques before paging an engineer. Seconds later a shadow falls over the small room, issues a smart remark and twists a single knob. The static disappears, as does he.
5:03 PM - Mesmerized by the dancing pixels, I tap my foot to an unheard beat as keyboard shortcuts, mouse acrobatics and instinct reshuffle the audio and video into some semblance of coherency. I slice sound from a widow's voice, lay it over a shot of her dead husband's picture before dissolving into footage of rushing traffic. Scrolling deeper into the sequence, I search for a shot of the kids, find it and drop it into place.
5:23 PM - I hold down the control button and hit the 'S' key. Over my shoulder, Jeff appears, station jacket on, pen and paper in hand. As I play back the 110 second report, he scribbles on his pad, noting which portions will require identifying graphics to be superimposed over the lower third of the screen. Commenting on the widow's closing soundbite, he vanishes as I send the story to the servers down ther hall. Checking the clock, I repeat a word I first learned in the Navy and open three more timelines.
5:28 PM - Having sliced and diced our core material into bumps, teasers and 'hot opens', I drag the sequences to their respective icons and released the left button under my palm. As individual progress bars inch to completion, I stand on sleepy feet and gather my keys, scripts, disc and yellow M&M shroud. By the time the last progress bar turns solid gray, I am vapor.
5:31 PM - Crawling up into the Wolf-Coach, I slam the key home and fire up the engine. As it roars to life, I kill the radio, fish the cell-phone off my waist and back out of the parking space. Wrestling the wheel in the darkness, I maneuver the boxy van out of the station lot and head for Business-85. In the sideview mirror I catch sight of Unit Four coming up behind you. I can barely make out Jeff's silhouette in the driver's seat. I think he's chewing my Tic-Tacs.
5:47 PM - Having piloted the rolling billboard as swiftly as possible without incurring injuries or angry phone calls, I pull over to the grassy edge of the breakdown lane along the Groometown exit of Interstate 85. With cars and trucks screaming by only two lanes over, I make my way carefully through the pitch black and around the back of the truck. As I step up on the bumper to release the mast tether, Jeff pulls up in Unit Four, bathing me in the headlights' glare. This prompts several passing motorists to lay on their horns. Why, I don't know.
5:49 PM - I reach in to the open side door of Live One and grab the handheld spotlight. Pointing it upward, I check above the van to make sure no power lines have sprouted overhead in the minute that I've been on scene. When I'm satisfied the space above my mobile studio is completely unencumbered, I check again and hit the switch that fills the mast with air,extending it to its full height of fifty something feet. As it slowly rises in fits and hisses, I scramble around the immediate premises like a man deranged.
5:52 PM - As the pole growing out of my truck's roof slowly reaches upward, I erect a stripped-down studio. Jeff fishes my tripod and lights out of Unit Four and brings them to a spot directly in front of the live truck. Meanwhile, I spool heavy cable from the rear, flip a multitude of switches and plug in various attachments. Digging two battery-powered receivers out of a drawer, I toss one to Jeff and plug my earphones into the other. A few buttons later, El Ocho's on-air audio signal pours forth, The first sound I hear is Jeff's voice, delivering the pre-recorded tease I'd fed to the machine just minutes before.
5:55 PM - With the mast just inches away from it's zenith, I hit a button on my cell phone and reach into the truck. The phone rings twice and a familiar voice answers, the shadow from the edit bay with even more smart remarks. As the engineer twists a dial, the receive dish atop our High Point tower rotates in my direction. I do likewise, holding down a toggle switch that causes my dish to lurch on it axis in a clockwise direction. When the two dishes come into alignment, both the engineer and I slow our panning until the signal locks in. After some give and take, the engineer pronounces it 'good' and I hang up without saying goodbye. Nothing personal.
5:58 PM - Jeff steps in front of the camera, muttering his lines under his breath as an endless line of racing commuters flows past. I tweak my lights, placing them to the side and behind Jeff. When that's done I slide my tripod over a few feet, frame up my partner-for-the-day and compose a shot. With all the traffic I can't hear what Jeff is saying, but even through the viewfinder I can tell something is wrong. Looking up, I understand instantly as Jeff mouths the two words you don't want to hear this close to showtime: NO AUDIO!
6:00 PM - As the 6:00 News' opening theme music permeates my skull, I run back to Unit Four and grab my handheld microphone. Spinning on my heels, I realize the hand-mic is bereft of batteries. As I scramble back up to the camera, I twist open the barrel of the microphone, find it empty, jam a battery and close it back up, all while the producer, director and engineer shout broken sentence-fragments in my ear. Tossing the mic to Jeff, I tell him to talk while I re-compose my shot.
6:01 PM - The new microphone fails to solve the problem and the voices in my head increase in pitch. Looking down at my cable connections, I see nothing wrong, but the cries of anguish in my earphones convince me it's time to act anyway. With a few yanks on the connectors, I change the configuration in hopes that it will help. It doesn't. 'Still nothing!' I hear the producer shout as the story scheduled to precede ours winds to a close. Hopeless for a cure, I switch my audio cables to their original position and a wash of relief emanates from the control room back at the station. Beneath the din, I can hear our main anchor introducing Jeff...
6:02 - PM Jeff's somber face appears in homes across the Piedmont. As he calmly walks along the highway's edge, the camera zooms out to a wider shot, where Jeff points to the spot where the widow's husband died last month. More than half that watch the ten second introduction do so with only half their brains. Less than that listen to what the handsome reporter is saying, though a handful do marvel at his sculpted hair. Even fewer viewers notice the 'live bug' in the corner of their screens. Those that do still have no idea just what it took to put it there...But why should they have to?