Monday, February 27, 2006

Mad Skills of a Master Photog

Sure, anybody can point and shoot, but to excel as a television news photographer, you gotta have SKILLS. Knowing which end of the camera to point at the action helps, but if you want to make it behind the lens (and why, frankly, would you?), you'll need to master a discipline of ingenuity not found in textbooks. Since I know a thing or two about not finding things in textbooks, I'm especially equipped to list a few job qualifications of the modern day photog, in exceedingly random order:

SNIPER - Chances are you won't kill anybody, but you will line up your sights on the powerful and the pathetic. If you hope to do so without being harrassed by vagabonds or tackled by Security, you'd better sharpen your crosshairs. A veteran 'tog can track a drunk shriner from across a crowded convention floor and tell whether he just polished off the chicken or the fish - all from the discomfort of an ancient tripod half-hidden behind a plastic fern. Hey, they don't call us shooters for nothing.

AMBASSADOR - That overpayed anchor may be the face of your station, but it's you in the station windbreaker that spends the most time in the public. But with that the free jacket comes great responsibility, as both housewives and district judges will see you for more than you really are. If you want to add to your collection, you'll act like you got some smarts when sportin' the logo - even if that means chewing your food with your closed while the waitress with the moustache yammers on about how your most reviled co-worker is their absolute favorite. I didn't say it would be easy.

CONTORTIONIST - So what does body-bending have to do with baggin' good shots, you ask? Obviously, you've never taken part in a police car ride-along, courthouse camera-scrum or chopper ride to the floodzone. If you had, you'd know how often it pays to be limber. Mastery of the moving image (along with lots of entry fees) will line your mantle with shiny trophies, but if you want MY respect you'll learn how to fold yourself backwards into an unmarked surveillance van for hours on stretch. It's almost as important as knowing how to sleep on command.

Lenslinger at the WheelSTUNT-DRIVER - Sure, careless and wreckless is frowned upon by management far and wide, but you cannot expect to meet the usual litany of unreasonable deadlines if you drive like Mr. Magoo. Thus, I recommend every young photog master the finer points of aggressive driving, then learn to rarely use them. I mean, really - do we need to run grandmothers off the road just so we can be the first person to pin a wireless microphone on the top cookie seller at girl scout camp? Not unless she has a roadmap to Osama's spider-hole. Then, the breakdown lane is MINE!

TROUBLESHOOTER - I don't give a fig how many student films you watched in college; if you've never rescued a day's worth of newsgathering with duct tape and a hair-dryer, you ain't welcome at my crime-tape. I got pals who can field-strip a shoot tape in a sandstorm, fix a bad edit in the back of a bouncing live truck, and re-wire a light-kit in the pouring rain - all with only a rusty Leatherman and a modicum of obscenity. You'd curse too if the entire newscast threatened to crash and burn because of a single, neglected nine-volt battery.

SURVIVALIST - Five Star hotels and all access passes are nice, but any photog worth the weight of his tripod must be an expert at hunkering in the muck for extended periods of time. Be it a Class 3 Hurricane or a just a rainy-ass train wreck, be prepared to be prepared. That means packin' the right gear, from the best bug-spray to bring to a pot-pull to drying lenses with your 1K light to pawnin' off those highly-constipative sat truck granola bars on the competition...a photog has to know his or her limitiations. God knows the desk won't give it a second thought.

There's alot more things to know if you're going to cut it as a news shooter - some that even has to do with lenses and such. But that's the easy stuff! What comes harder is knowing when to roll, when to speed and when to simply nap in the ole news unit. Join us next time as we list other incarnations of lens-longevity, including ACROBAT, GRIEF COUNSELOR and of course, PUPPET MASTER. Remember, this WILL be on the test. That is all.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Based on a Thousand True Stories

Garrett knew he was screwed the moment he spotted the Channel 6 truck. For of all the haphazardly parked news units outside the Sheriff’s Office, it was that striped minivan with the UPN seal that bothered him the most. ‘If they’re here,’ Garrett thought as he steered his own logo-mobile into a parking space not reserved for him, ‘I AM late…’

For once, no uniformed good ole boys were loitering on the second story landing. As Garrett quickly trudged up the staircase with state-of-the-art camera, antique tripod and middle-aged accessories, the silence above told him he was tardy indeed. The only time that area cleared out was when the Sheriff held court down in the Impound Room. With a curse and a reverse, Garrett changed direction, his overstuffed fanny pack bouncing uncomfortably at his crotch as he descended the stairway.

Down in Impound, the sheriff was in his element. A tall man with a bushy moustache and oversized ears, he clutched both sides of the pressboard podium with hands big enough to crush it. Spread out between his imposing form and a half dozen members of the local media, stood a table filled with enough dope, weapons and mug-shots to film the closing scene from Scarface.

“Once the suspects refused consent to search the vehicle, K-9 was called in…” the Sheriff paused to grin for the TV cameras, “Cujo went nuts ’for we got could get him out of the squad car.”

Two deputies chuckled as the newspaper reporters blinked, scratched and scribbled. A few more heads turned to the rear of the room as a heavy door opened and Garrett schlepped in, head shaking in mock disgust, calloused hands busily twisting the tripod’s battered legs. The Sheriff barely gave Garrett a glance, though he must have smiled inside at the missing affiliate’s final arrival. Clearing his throat, the county’s top lawman stalled a little while the scruffy photog set up his rig.

“You late, G. Lee..” Doyle muttered, never looking up from his own glowing eyepiece. A veteran photog for the local CBS station, the laconic Yankee was a fixture at local camera clusters. Garrett knew him from more ditch-bank rendezvous than he could count and wasn’t at all surprised when his highly-competitive opponent slid over to make more room. Garrett took advantage of the space, clicking his Sony XDCam into the heavily-scratched tripod plate and hitting the ’Record’ button on his lens pistol-grip. With the red light glowing, he stepped away from the camera, reached past a stack of heavily duct-taped bricks of marijuana and set his wireless microphone on the podium’s lip. Without breaking the camera’s gaze, the Sheriff picked up the mic and sat it next to the others in front of him.

“...being that the individuals are all illegal aliens, Immigration has been notified. ’Course you’d never know they’s illegal, cause they all carry valid No’th Carolina drivers license...”

Garrett loosened a knob on the tripod’s shoulder and panned his lens over to the card in the Sheriff’s clutch. As he read the name in his viewfinder’s blue haze, he heard the tell-tale click of cameras being removed from the three legged perches. Looking up, he saw the NBC and FOX photogs shouldering their beasts, letting Garrett know that either news was breaking elsewhere, or a contraband swarm was about to ensue. Doyle still had his face buried in his upturned eye-cup, but a subtle twitch in his left shoulder told Garrett a firefight was imminent indeed...

-- To Be Continued?

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Loss of Knotts

Where I come from, this man is a God. That's because, along with every other resident of the Tar Heel State, I grew up watching in awe as Jesse Donald Knotts embodied the greatest television character of all time, Deputy Barney Fife. Now Mayberry's finest is gone and I myself am ready to turn in my badge. Having interviewed Howard 'Ernest T. Bass' Morris and even Andy Griffith himself, I'd always hoped to meet the man at one of the Mayberry Day events I cover in Mt. Airy from time to time. Alas, it will never be, for we have lost a statesman. Don Knotts was born in West Virginia - but he'll always be a North Carolinian to me - a squirrely, nervous, bug-eyed deputy whose misplaced machismo is outmatched only by his comic timing and physical brilliance. If anyone needs me, I'll be in the den, watching my Mayberry DVD's and clutching a single, unspent bullet.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Engulfed in Idol

My partner-as-of-late Shannon Smith told of an encounter today that eerily illustrates how a certain hyperbolic talent show has engulfed both our lives. She was preparing for an early morning live shot at a local fire department when she overheard two burly guys in turn-out gear, chatting over coffee. It went, I'm told, a little something like this:

"Ya see the little bald dude sing 'Dead or Alive'?"

"Yeah, Chris Daughtry...he rocked it! How 'bout the skinny hillbilly doin' 'Simple Man'?"

"The one from Rockingham? Ain't he got a twin brother?"

"Yeah yeah, looks just like him. Sings too, right now he's working at the family body shop, hopin' brother Bucky makes it big..."

"I hear ya - hangin' out in Hollywood sure beats banging out dents for a livin'..."

From the corner, Shannon stared slack-jawed as the two firefighters gabbed about the news story they'd seen the night before - a local feature she'd written 18 hours earlier. 'You people are talking about MY WORLD,' she thought as the morning photog cued her from behind his lens.

Ever the pro, Shannon nailed her morning live shot. But she has good reason to feel a little punch-drunk. Since returning from our press encampment in Beverly Hills, we've both been busy doling out the bounty in bite-size chunks. You'd be surprised how much material you can pull from two 90 minute discs. As it stands, I could produce a nightly tie-in on each of the 24 contestants well after many of their burgeoning careers are long finished. Whirlwind showbiz junkets will do that. Shannon tells me it's just getting started and she should know. Having tracked Fantasia from the second before she walked into her first audition to the moment America coronated her a temporary sensation, our lovely morning reporter knows a thing or two about the juggernaut in question. I too, have have multiple close encounters with the beast, from chasing Clay through a crowded rotundra to fending off crazed Fantasiacs in the bowels of Greensboro Coliseum to parting a sea of hopeful vocalists in our nation's capitol and here at home...When will this silly show stop haunting me? WHEN?!?

Not for awhile, apparently - which leaves me a little torn when it comes to my humble little shelf here in cyberspace. I do NOT want this to become an Idol blog, no matter how much the subject matter swells my site meter. But from the beginning, this living compendium has been a real-time reflection of my days behind the lens. Right now, that includes the world's dorkiest singing contest. While I don't want my association with the show spray-painted on my tombstone, it's providing a welcome detour from the never-ending onslaught of crime, grime and ribbon cuttings. If I weren't crafting this high-quality tripe, I'd be down at the courthouse with a finicky live truck, a frazzled reporter and a pissed-off defendant. That's a repeat I don't need. So bear while I slog through the pablum of American Idol. I promise not to post too much about it, as I simply don't want to attract too many Claymates, or Bucky-bots, or whatever moniker these eerily obsessive enthusiasts are using this season. Not that they don't bring their friends. More Than a Thousand Hits in One Day - not bad for a guy who used to get excited about breaking 100 in 24 hours...

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Fan Eats Lens

Much love to Fawn Roark of The Mountain Times for sending me this photo of a rabid Keith Urban fan attacking my lens last Friday. As I mentioned in last week's post, the female pandemonium outside the singer's fan appearance was nothing short of apocalyptic. The woman pictured above was the slobbering embodiment of this fervor, displaying a purse-swinging, teeth-gnashing style of idol worship that brings to mind certain Stephen King novels. Newly separated from her husband, the lady who called herself 'Susan' danced a veritable jig for my camera just seconds after she thrust her digits into the hands of one understandably uneasy Keith Urban. I, of course, locked on to the woman's mania from across the room and followed her outside for a post stalking interview, whereupon she gave me the kind of histrionic soundbites we news shooters play over and over and over for our photog friends... Trust me, you would too.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Food Court Theatrics

With a twist of the wrist, I shut off the engine and silenced the Man in Black. As silence flled the interior, I sat stock-still behind the wheel, not really wanting to move. When the windshield refused to turn into a magic looking glass, I let out one last heavy sigh and rolled out of Unit Four. Around back, I popped the tailgate and ran through a systems check ingrained in my DNA. Camera. Batteries. Disc. Tripod. Microphone. Light. After draping myself in the tools of the trade, I scowled at the heavy microphone stand that was mocking me from the jumbled cargo hold. Giving it a heave, I grabbed a stack of cardboard signs and flipped through them. 'What was your BEST Valentine's Day Gift?' the first one asked. I rolled my eyes and read through the rest, my lips moving in silent dictation. 'Of all the dorky assignments...' I thought as I tucked the cards under one arm and picked up the mic stand with my only free hand. Once I achieved the proper ballast, I trudged toward the Mall's front entrance. Overhead, a few bored parking lot seagulls made lazy circles, oblivious to my pain.

Inside, Center Court was fairly packed for a Tuesday morning. The crowd of shoppers, mostly women with strollers, bags and the occasional atittude didn't notice me as I made a beeline for the escalator. Those who noticed the logo on my low-slung camera did do a double-take, but only to look past the loaded-down roadie for that regionally familiar face. When their cursory search came up empty, they went back to their search for lunch break bargains. That was fine by me, as I was on the property to bag some sound, not any win fans. Grumpy and encumbered, I schlepped toward the promised relief of the mechanical staircase in the distance. When I finally reached the bottom step, I rested the mic stand's heavy round base on it and shifted my weight under the load. Up ahead, two heavily perfumed ladies stopped their conversation long enough to stare at the camera-leper. Behind me, a group of teenagers boarded the moving steps and began to giggle. Unmasked derision aside, I was beginning to feel better about the whole silly endeavor.

By the time the predicatable ride dispensed me on the Food Court level, I was bristling with determination. Scanning the assembled masses, I looked past the requisite Chik-Fil-A crowd and studied the traffic patterns. A few furtive glances later, I determiened the best place to set up shop was where I stood - right by the escalators. Avoiding the uncomfortable stares of a four-top table full of workmen, I busied myself with deploying my gear. First, I extended the microphone stand to chest-high altitude, sank the hand mic into its cuff and squatted beside my camera for a series of ritualistic flip-switching. Once all recording systems were go, I began the methodical process of tripod leg extension. As I pulled the sectioned legs to a man-sized height, I glanced down at the cardboard signs scribbled in red, I drifted back in time to the summer of 1991.

When Perry Farrell brought his inaugural Lollapalooza tour to Raleigh-wood, I was one of the thousands of would-be degenerates in attendance. But I didn't go alone. Instead, I traveled to the all-day music festival with Sam and Mar, a wonderfully Bohemian young couple known more for their odd-ball artistic abilities than their sound judgement. Along with the beer and blankets, Sam and Mar brought with them a large stash of what can only be described as hippie necklaces. Crafted from beads, hemp-rope and discount crystals, the counter-culture jewelry was always a big hit with those still raging at the machine. Sam and Mar had been up for days twisting the hideous neckwear into creation and together they harbored secret dreams of unloading them at the concert for twenty bucks a pop. Trouble was, neither knew much about sales. Thus, the crowd of nose-ring posers and tye-dye zombies ignored us as we set up shop between the Rock the Vote tent and body art display. Having quickly grown bored with our lack of retail success, I did something that day I'd never done before: I worked the crowd like a carnival barker. In a voice I didn't know I had, I challenged every subversive teenager that passed by our booth to stop and tell me how they could live withOUT one of these intensely mystical necklaces. My first sell came after I spotted a young girl in an orange hippie dress and matching orange mohawk.

"You there, sister!" I bellowed as I grabbed an orange necklace from the display,"that's quite the ensemble, but ya know - NO outfit's complete without one of these..."

To my utter shock. she seemed flattered at the sartorial attention and immediately bought the necklace I'd chosen at random. This, of course, only bolstered my confidence and I browbeat the crowd until they couldn't ignore me. Soon unwashed hands thrust twenty dollar bills in our direction, thanks mostly to my newfound ability to bullshit at will. Within an hour, Sam and Mar ran out of merchandise and we retreated from the tent to the open lawn, where we enjoyed Nine Inch Nails with overpriced beers and a few other hastily procured favorites. By the time Jane's Addiction took the stage, my spontaneous salesmanship was all but forgotten...

Until that very moment at the Food Court, when I spotted a rather hefty lady in a red sweater adorned in hearts and matching hair-bow about to step off the escalator.

"You there, Madam!" I bellowed as I reached over and hit the record button, "that's quite the ensemble, the kind of outfit that tells me you know a thing or two about affairs of ther heart! Step over here and tell my camera what your WORST Valentine's Day gift was, would ya?"

She did. Others followed and forty five minutes later I was back in Unit Four, singing along to 'Ring of Fire' and chewing my own Chik-Fil-A. Who says photogs can't sell?

Friday, February 17, 2006

Urban Cowboy, Rural Chaos

Keith Urban and II swear this isn't turning into some blithering celebrity blog, but as luck would have it, today's video target was also the object of adulation. Keith Urban (a country music singer of some acclaim, I'm told) brought a small town to a starstruck halt as he fullfilled an obligation borne of horsepower. Ya see, five years ago Keith bought a tricked-out Impala from a specialty car dealership in North Wilkesboro. Though he wasn't nearly the household name he is now, the savvy sales guys recognized a sensation in the making and offered to knock two grand off the price, if only he'd return one day for a fan appearance. Today he did, and the result was bedlam.

Urban GirlsAbout 500 people gathered outside the dealership, most of them female - all of them insane. Okay, that's unfair, but if you saw a parking lot full of grandmothers and pre-teens convulse uncontrollably at the sight of an approaching tour bus, you'd be shaken up too. I'm just thankful no one got hurt in the ensuing crush. That includes me; some of those older ladies pack a mean elbow. Once Urban got inside however, things leveled off a bit. The recent Grammy winner sat calmly at a table while a great rush of estrogen and flashbulbs flowed past. Through it all, Urban treated his frenzied fans with nothing but love - proving himself a class act. Even if his tour manager was a complete tool.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Final 24

From the RoofAlways one to tackle the tough issues, I stuffed my fancy-cam into an overhead compartment last weekend and choked down salty peanuts all the way to Hollywood. The mission: accompany the globe-trotting Shannon Smith on a brief yet grueling American Idol press junket. It wasn’t easy. You try dragging a camera, lights, tripod, batteries, discs, and a half dozen other gadgets through a post 9/11 airport. Jostle your gear too fast and the TSA agents start calling for back-up. Add to that a crowded flight and you got the makings of one very long airplane ride. For photogs however, it’s the only way to fly. Besides, the accommodations often outweigh the conveyance. The swanky Beverly Hills hotel the taxi driver dropped us off in front of sure did: valet parking, room service and enough giddy American Idol finalists to out-pace any number of high-end ice machines.

Idol GirlsThere were 24 finalists to be exact, all hand-picked by Simon, Paula and Randy to face a nation of voting viewers for a once in a lifetime chance at global stardom. Twenty-three of the hopeful vocalists are guaranteed to lose, of course. But that didn’t stop a single one of the two dozen young men and women from beaming on cue as they waded into their very first full-fledged media circus. Almost as many camera crews waited in the top-floor ballroom; scores of swarthy lenslingers and their photogenic partners from around the country, all poised to poke and prod the nervous singers on their very public quest to become a household name. I didn’t have to understand everything about the Idol phenomenon, but I did have to keep it all in focus. And in color...

Chris and StewartI’m ready to get on stage and sing...”, said Chris Daughtry as he settled into our interview chair. The last time Shannon and I saw him, the McLeansville resident almost shattered the glass on my lens with his accelerated vocals. That was back in August, when American Idol was a just vague ambition of the Crown Honda service writer. Since that hot afternoon, Chris has wowed the celebrity judges, survived an exhausting elimination week and become the subject of countless adoring websites. So far the sudden acclaim hasn’t gone to his shaven head. In fact, he seemed genuinely glad to talk to someone from the Greater Piedmont Googolplex, where his wife and two kids are awaiting the outcome of his most unlikely journey. Unassuming to a fault in person, Chris’ blistering pipes take center stage whenever he takes the microphone. I can’t wait ’til the rest of the planet sees what this little dude can do. Hands down, your lenslinger's favorite.

DSCF0012I guess you can tell from my accent, I’m definitely country...”, said Kellie Pickler - in a tone of voice that warms the hearts of mothers while sending heterosexual men into cardiac arrest. Soaring vocals aside, Kellie is absolutely stunning - as anyone who has seen her now famous audition segment can attest. In person, the 19 year old radiates na├»ve vulnerability - and with good reason. Abandoned by her mom as a toddler and continually let down by her incarcerated father, young Miss Pickler has a persona, a look and a back-story that makes reality show producers hyperventilate. As for how she’s handling all the attention, Kellie’s in something of denial. When I told her how much excitement her appearance had already generated on-air, on-line and by the nation’s water cooler, she looked looked at me with the innocence of a southern sweetheart and said “Ree-uh-lee?” Really, Kellie. Really.

DSCF0023I tell ya, ya just ain’t been nowhere til you been to Rockingham...” With that, Bucky Covington cracked himself up, as he often does. So far, the ex-body shop worker from the Sandhills hasn’t gotten the Idol airtime that Chris and Kellie have received, but that will surely change when the show goes live next week. Lanky, quick-witted and intoxicatingly Southern, Bucky kept Shannon and me in giggles and tears the entire time we hung out with him. Whether he’s answering silly interview questions or lounging on the roof of his temporary Beverly Hills digs, Bucky is at home. But the lanky cat can’t open his mouth without some showbiz schmuck shooting bottled water out of his nose at his Richmond County twang. Not me. I recognize his accent as that of a certified North Carolina good ole boy - the kind of hillbilly I've made a habit of partying with all my life. Wait until American hears him rip through some Skynyrd, or - as Bucky promises - some southern fried Neil Diamond.

N.C Idol HopefulsI wanna build my mansion on our goat hill”, Heather Cox declared. The Jonesville native and recent graduate of Surry Community College is the fourth of the North Carolina hopefuls. Like Bucky, most of her Idol moments have ended up on the cutting room floor. But quick review of her Denver audition tape reveals a clear and confident voice, coupled with a personality that makes even the grumpiest of cameramen smile. At first glance, Heather appears to be just another hottie (nothing wrong with that!), but on closer inspection you soon realize she’s a small town girl, a minister’s daughter and a sincere fan of her family’s goat farm. You also get the feeling that, unlike Kellie, she grasps the signifigance of the vortex she finds herself in . Hip to the fact that it could all end next week, Heather knows her life is already, inexorably altered. But don't write her off. This chick’s got moxie.

DSCF0002Before the l-o-n-g day was over, Shannon and I interviewed every one of the 24 finalists. From the eerily composed Gedeon McKinney to the incredibly photogenic Ace to the gray haired and delightfully soulful Taylor Hicks. I liked them all, a strange reaction from someone as jaded as I. But I’d be lying of course if I pretended to be rooting for anyone other than our four North Carolinians, all of whom stand a damn good chance of moving many a unit. Before that happens however, they - along with the other 20 finalists - have to convince a fickle public they’re worthy of the coveted title. Meanwhile I’ll be watching closely, and pretending I’m tuning in merely for the psychological study of it all. See ya couch-side.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

You Stay Classy, Birmingham...

Here's a big dip of the lens to Jeh Jeh Pruitt (right) and Greg Long (left, behind his ubiquitous camera), two classy cats who saved my bacon in L.A. this past weekend. Known far and wide as two totally righteous dudes, this reporter-photog team from WRBC let Shannon Smith and I stow-away in their rental car for a last minute photo expedition into the Hollywood Hills. Nice guys in a business not known for gentlemanly behavior, they get MY vote for dynamic duo of the year...

Monday, February 13, 2006

Early Bird

I'm quite reasonable behind the wheel these days, but as a fledgling TV geek I was more than a little reckless. Once, while gunning a marked production van down a narrow side street, a brown sedan poked its nose out of a driveway and into my lane. All laws of physics insisted I t-bone the ill-placed vehicle, but somehow I averted collision. As I yanked the wheel to the left and shot by the shocked driver, I instinctively threw her the bird. 'Crazy women drivers', I thought, as I drove on toward the station. When the new Guns-n-Roses song came on the radio, I cranked the knob and pretty much forgot about the one-fingered salute.

A few minutes later I pulled into the lot and eased the van into its reserved parking space. Hopping out, I noticed my General Manager standing out by the front door. He was smoking one of his thin cigars and gave me his usual grin when I approached.

"Hey Ed, how' ya doin?' I asked as I lit up a smoke.

"Good, good..." he said as I jammed my hands in my pockets and took a long drag.

While I inhaled, Ed reached up, took his cigar out of his mouth and in the most casual, friendly way said, "Tell me Stewart, did you just flip off one of our biggest client's Aunt Louise?"

I nearly swallowed the cigarette.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Temples of Emptiness

The SignJet-lagged and far from unpacked, I'm glad to be home from my whirlwind weekend on the West Coast. Hey, how 'bout that red-eye flight? I'm pretty sure I left an IQ point or two scattered across each time zone. But that's not important now. What IS important is that I get a few thoughts on-screen and update my humble blog in the process. That could be tricky though, as a confidentiality agreement prevents me from divulging the exact mission of my trip for a few more days. So bear with me while I cover a few ancillary moments - moments that, not surprisingly, deal with celebrity.

I am by nature and trade unimpressed with celebrities. Having worked with many a delusional anchor-wannabe in my formulative years, manufactured acclaim of any kind leaves me summarily underwhelmed. It ain't a very popular attitude in this town. Ground zero for America's fascination with famous people, every corner boasts posters of pre-fabricated prophets, over-hyped hollow heroes and temples of emptiness. I'm sure it sounds bitter, but I just can't seem to gaze lovingly at the building sized billboards of perfect grins and chiseled cheekbones without thinking about all those technicians behind the curtain. Having said all that, I did enjoy:
...discussing the merits of the much underrated movie "True Romance" with one of its stars, Michael Rappaport. We both agreed the treacly title ultimately did the Tarantino-penned shoot-em-up something of a disservice. Having settled that issue, Rappaport moved on to the next media crew, no doubt forgetting the encounter before he got three feet away from me.

...settling a heated billiards dispute between the members of D4L. I'd assumed they were merely blinged-out pool enthusiasts in need of an impartial judge. When their mountain-sized bodyguard informed they were the the authors of the Laffy Taffy song, I nodded enthusiastically, afraid to tell them I was a suburban father of two whose collection of hip-hop consisted of one badly aging 'Arrested Development' CD.

...pretending I knew who the quixotical lady in my viewfinder was as my partner in crime Shannon Smith peppered her with incisive questions. I've yet to watch a single frame of "24", never heard of Mary Lynn Rajskub, let alone her much celebrated character 'Chloe'. I'm told 'Chloe' is a lady of considerable quirk. If so, I got a news-flash: Mary Lynn ain't acting.
There were other surreal celebrity run-ins, interludes we'll discuss in the coming days. For me however, the highlight of my all-too-brief stay came within an hour of landing at LAX. Much to my delight, my long lost cousin Brian Wagoner, known to many as Monk Siddiq, rolled up in his van and whisked me away to Venice Beach. There we wandered among the vagabonds and philosophers, listening to his mercurial music, discussing my literary ambitions, and examining his mystical quest for inner divinity. I don't claim to understand everything about my Mother's sister's son's lifelong search, but I always treasure our time together and would suffer a dozen red-eye flights and lengthy lay-overs to once again share his air. But I could do without the turbulence.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Westward Ho!

Details to follow...

Sitting Out the Weather Woody

I woke up on the phone again this morning, the red numbers on the nightstand blaring 5:03.

"Stew, you got gear?"

"Um, no. I'm off today...flying out tomorrow."

At that point, the voice began snorting like Yosemite Sam did when he realized Bugs Bunny had outsmarted him. Leaving him to spin self-destructive circles in the newsroom, I dropped the phone and sank back in the covers, not the least bit curious as to why the early morning producer had called in the first place.

Hannah wishing she were home-schooledNinety minutes later, I stumbled out of bed and plopped down into my office chair. As I reached up to check my e-mail, a strange white glow caught my attention. Snow!...ish. Sure, grass blades were poking through the light dusting, but that's more than enough to send my fellow Southerners into an uncontrollable frenzy of closing schools, buying bread and wrecking cars. Of course, that's precisely the kind of chaos I make a living documenting. Thus I couldn't help but grin as I made a pot of coffee and watched my youngest child salivate at the window. For as long as I can remember, I have spent every snowy morning on the hunt for the freezing shut-in, the idling salt truck and the icy overpass. Not having to do so today is an unexpected pleasure I'm struggling to put into words.

Snow Berries Now if you'll excuse me I have to wrap an eight year old in seven layers of insulated clothing so she can brave a quarter inch of snowdust to get a morning newspaper I'll spend thirty seconds perusing. But why do the math?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Have Mullet, Will Travel

First Press PassI was foraging through the Viewfinder BLUES studios earlier when I actually found something to blog about: my inaugural Media ID. I remember the day my very first news director pulled me aside and told me with a gruff I'd be covering the Presidential visit to Eastern Carolina. "K-e-w-l", I thought, envisioning a one-on-one sit down with George Herbert Walker Bush. Little did I know then I'd be sucking tarmac fumes while Air Force One taxied to a stop a half mile away. No, as I sauntered down the hall to get my photo taken, I conjured up small talk for the Prez and I to share while the Secret Service guys yammered into their cufflinks.

Rusty Camaro Not Included..."Get my good side," I told the production manager as she fumbled with her Polaroid, "this one's for Herbert." The manager rolled her eyes and lined up the shot while I gave her camera my best thousand yard stare. The next day, I picked up my shiny new I.D. and admired it all the way to my afternoon ribbon-cutting. I'd arrived, I decided. No longer some nameless studio schlub, I was an official member of the Fourth Estate, a swaggering interloper welcomed at crime scenes and fancy ballrooms, as long as I flashed that most prized possession from my velcro wallet. Strangely, the fact that I looked like a roadie from a .38 Special cover band didn't seem to bother me. Since then however, my kids have more than made up for it with their own special brand of shame.

Can't say I blame them...

Monday, February 06, 2006

Doppelgangers in Motion

You ever look up from your workspace and see an exact replica of yourself toiling away for the competition? I do all the time, but only today did it weird me out. I was staring through the viewfinder when it happened. More accurately, I was admiring the dustmotes swirling in the background while the Principal in my lens spoke of car crashes and crisis counselors. With my camera perched on its tripod and my reporter locked intently on the educator's words, I was free to daydream and did. In fact, I ws near catatonic when the heavy door to the gymnasium lobby opened and caused my head to swing to the left. When my eyes gained focus, I could have sworn I was looking back in time.

The reporter held the door while the photog squeezed through the space with his camera and bulky tripod. As they did, the school's basketball coach, a man whose DNA still lingered in my lens, greeted them. Respectful of our own ensuing interview and the subject matter at hand, the coach and reporter spoke in hushed tones while the photog set up his gear. Strangely, I was enraptured with this workaday scene. It certainly wasn't the first time rival news crews shared the news. Heck, I see some of my competitors more than I do extendede family members. Buy something about their 'Groundhog Day' appearance intrigued me. Perhaps it was the overwhelming similarities: Like mine, the other crew's reporter was compact, groomed and vaguely Latino. Like me, the other photog was scruffy, Caucasian and more than a little bored.

When News Crew X interviewed the coach, I could almost read the reporter's lips as she asked the Coach the same questions we had a few minutes earlier. Nothing wrong with that; it was after all a run of the mill story about high school kids badly injured in an overnight car crash. Neither crew was breaking any new journalistic ground and we all knew it. But staring at the four of us just going through the motions made me think and I realized why, to the people we interview on a daily basis, we all look the same for a very good reason.

Of course, I didn't let my lack of originality stop me from my appointed rounds. We soon left the gym lobby quietly, as not to interrupt the other crew as they took the microphone from the Coach and attached it to the Principal's lapel. In fact, I'd pretty much put the quiet interlude out of my mind, until about an hour later when I followed an impossibly vague set of directions to one of the injured boy's home. Who should be squeezing out of the humble trailer's door than our cross-town clones. We traded pleasantries as they packed up their gear and we unloaded ours, but I couldn't help but notice the other photog looking at me funny as they drove away and we climbed the mobile home's rickety stairs.

Bet I know what he was thinking...

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Robot Goes Global

Hey, I know those frames! Why it's JL Watkins, creator of Little Lost Robot, dorking up the place on his station's website. It seems someone at WYFF has figured out what a technically savvy spazmonaut he truly is and sent him packin' to Italy! With their Sports Director no less, just in time for NBC's smotherage of the Winter Olympics. Before they crawled into a pressurized tube, JL (he'll always be "Robot" to me) and the ever grinning Geoff Hart shot a trio of clever promos highlighting the photograblogger's inherently entertaining goofiness. Not bad for a guy who collects wind-up cyborgs. Check out his cutting-edge site or Geoff and JL's Torino blog, to see how everyone's favorite globe-trotting uber-doof spends his off-time in The Old Country. NBC should give him his own sitcom...

Friday, February 03, 2006

Open Up and Say Cheese

That's gotta hurtSome days my job is like pulling teeth. Other days it's merely like watching someone else get their teeth pulled. That was my Friday morning, stumbling through a crowded dental clinic like some two-headed cyclops bent on peering into every gaping mouth. Thanks to intern Stephen George for snapping this shot, though it doesn't really do justice to the crushing swell of humanity packed into the dozen dental chairs, or the stir Jeff Varner and I made while we were there. All I can say is, if you've never waded into a sea of giddy dental hygienists with a TV camera on your shoulder and a former Survivor contestant by your side...well then, you haven't walked even a half mile in my boots. Not that you'd want to.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Grand Revision

Today's lack of quality post brought to you by Unbridled Ambition, an exciting new fragrance that quite frankly has your friendly neighborhood lenslinger spinning in his office chair. What I'm trying to find a new way to say is I didn't blog last night. Rather, I broke open my collection of scribbled notebooks and launched a hard target search for meaning and clarity. When that quickly proved difficult, I lost interest and began staring at the lava lamp again. But a few minutes later I turned back to my tablets and scratched out a table of contents, columns and rows that represent an awful lot of work for yours truly. But I'm not whining. Instead I'm excited yet weary, grateful to those who've risen from the mist with offers of help and determined to make it worth their while. I probably won't blog about it much; if so, I'll never get it done. Just know that forces are colliding, and work on The Book has begun in earnest. Now if you don't mind, I have about a million words to rewrite. By the way, anybody got a quick synonym for 'delusional'?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Mojo Denied

As the old folks moved in determined unison, I tried desperately to get into the groove. Still, I couldn’t seem to get in synch with my viewfinder and it was beginning to piss me off. It certainly wasn’t due to a lack of visuals. Before me, everything a student of the moving image could want played out in slow motion: repetitive action, staccato sound, fat shafts of morning sunlight. The subjects of my lens were even ignoring me, lost in thought as the burly personal trainer guided them through movements they used to take for granted. Parkinson’s disease had robbed the dozen senior citizens of coordination and the broad shoulder man who looked like he should be pacing the sidelines of a football game was determined to recover their dignity. I was determined to capture it all with my camera, if only I could find my mojo somewhere in my fanny pack.

Electronic News Gathering is fraught with small complications. Spent batteries, dying bulbs, finicky lenses: tiny maladies that can bring the show to a crashing halt, despite the best of intentions. Very often the news shooter spends more time trouble shooting than composing magic. The trick is to never let the viewer know that things are going South, be it through quick thinking or slow editing. Thus, nothing’s more frustrating when every gadget is working but you. As a camera-malady, it’s impossible to predict. Be it a picturesque car wreck, a swirling blizzard, or solemn prayer vigil, everything you line up in your sights feels flat, off kilter, unworthy of broadcast. Worst of all, there is no cure, and show producers rarely grasp your sudden lack of photog feng shui

Sometimes, only a cinematic tragedy can snap you out of it. That’s what happened yesterday, as the trainer instructed the Parkinson’s patients to form two single-file lines. Turning into face each other, the seniors stood at stooped attention as the trainer walked down the center of the sunlit aisle. I leaned on a mirrored wall, cracked my knuckles and thought about the two cups of Guatemalan java I’d downed over my morning e-mail. As I did, two old fellows on the end broke rank and rubbed it in. Slowly, they raised their weathered arms and shook each other’s hand. The small, silent act illustrated their plight in a way words cannot. Worse yet, the backlit sun rendered them in perfect silhouette. In my corner, I fumed – irate with myself for missing what surely would have been my story’s piece de resistance. Grumbling under my breath, I shouldered my axe and waded into the fray, determined not to miss another visual touchstone…

Truth be told, I never did get my groove back. But I captured enough of the room’s atmosphere to properly portray it on screen. Now, every mistake I made on that pockmarked dance floor will come back to haunt me in the edit bay. Maybe that’s where I left my mojo.