Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Fishing for Sound

“So why do you TV news people always interview the biggest goobs and losers you can find?” asked a new neighbor.

“Because,” I said “they’re the ones who seek us out. It’s a socio-economic thing. Or maybe it’s educational. Either way, folks with reasoned opinions and large vocabularies don’t flag down news crews quite the way guys with gravy stains on their t-shirt do.”

My new neighbor nodded as if my answer sufficed, but I could tell that it didn’t. Truth is, I’ve never figured out exactly why some people shun my lens while others sprint through heavy traffic to tell me and the audience how the tornado sounded ‘just like a freight train’. As far as I can tell, the decision to comment on camera correlates directly with how much authority you invest in said logo’d device. Let me explain. I can waltz into a thousand dollar a plate fundraiser with my fancy-cam in tow and feel they looks of disdain radiating from somewhere above the rubber-chicken entrees. That same day, I can roll into a public housing project full of curious crime-scene watchers and be treated like a visiting emissary. Why exactly, I don’t know - but being received as a conquering hero one moment and a filthy leper the next is a sensation anyone who’s shouldered a lens for very long can write a book on.

Like the time a woman turned away from the house fire that was swallowing everything she owned to repeatedly ask me that age old question, “What time will this be on?”

Or the time a group of disgruntled airline passengers demanded I use my aging betacam to get their cancelled flights immediately re-scheduled. I blamed my inability to do so on dying batteries and they seemed okay with it.

How about the hundreds of times I’ve used my gear to gain access to the freshly bereaved? I’m still amazed at how many people will talk to the press before their loved ones are even in the ground.

Even the happier times are just as perplexing. I still don’t know what that mob of drunken Halloween revelers wanted from me when they bum-rushed the ice machine I was standing on and began singing “You Can’t Touch This.”

Nope, no matter how long you heft a lens for a living, you never really know how some people will react when you stick a lens in their face. Hey, while I’m on the subject of close encounters, here’s a tip for the general populace:

Say you’re out in public and a telegenic young woman approaches you with a question about a current issue. Behind her, a scruffy enough chap climbs out of a brightly decorated SUV and opens the tailgate. While he scrounges around in this mysterious vehicle, the woman moves closer and engages you in conversation, all while holding a tubular device with a familiar symbol down by her side. As you answer the woman’s open ended queries, you notice the scruffy one moving in slowly behind her. As he grows closer, he lifts an awkward dark object and places it on your shoulder, its strange, reflective surface almost winking at you. At the same time, the well-coiffed female who’s been talking all the while raises her shiny pointy thingy at your face and raises her eyebrows in feigned consternation….

Are you ready? Here comes the clue….



P.S.) The above outburst has absolutely nothing to do with the hapless lady I spooked yesterday with my lens, microphone and highly-identifiable ride. Apparently she thought I was ‘with the paper’.

That is all.

Monday, May 29, 2006

First Responders to the Truth

We stateside photogs like to swagger all right, but none of us cranking out local tripe can hold a dying frezzi to the camera crews who embed themselves with our nation's military. Regardless of your politics, you've probably watched the war in Iraq from the comfort of your couch. Those pictures, whether they vindicate or enrage you, don't appear in your living room by magic. They're wrestled from the muck of war-torn strife with the blood, sweat and tears of the few broadcasters who choose to seek the ultimate access. That doesn't make them heroes; save that for the ones in uniform. They are however, the very best of my battered breed - state-of-the-art journalists, world-class adventurers and first responders to the truth.

From CNN

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Four people, including a U.S. soldier and two members of a CBS News crew, were killed Monday when a bomb ripped through the U.S. military convoy in which they were traveling. CBS said cameraman Paul Douglas, 48, and sound tech James Brolan, 42, were killed in the blast. Both were British and based in London, the network said.

The U.S. military said a U.S. soldier and an Iraqi contractor also were killed in the attack on their convoy.

Six U.S. soldiers and CBS correspondent Kimberly Dozier were wounded in the attack, the military said.

The attack came as the convoy passed through Tahariyat Square, just across the river from the Green Zone, around 10:30 a.m. Monday (3 a.m. ET).

The convoy victims were among at least 50 people killed in insurgent attacks in Iraq on Monday.

The CBS team -- which was embedded with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division -- was reporting from outside their Humvee and they were believed to have been wearing protective gear when the blast went off, according to CBS.

Dozier, 39, sustained serious injuries and underwent surgery at a U.S. military hospital in Baghdad.

Douglas had risked his life covering international conflicts for CBS since the early 1990s, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Rwanda and Bosnia, according to CBS News. He is survived by his wife, two daughters and three grandchildren.

Brolan was a freelancer who worked with CBS News in Baghdad and Afghanistan in the past year. He also shared an award with the network for its coverage of last year's deadly earthquake in Pakistan. He leaves a wife and two children

UPDATE - CBS News Statement...

Via TV Newser, Background on Paul Douglas:

"The CBS News family lost two gems today. Paul Douglas was one of the finest men I have ever known. He had a smile that could light up a room, a man who got the most out of every minute of life. He made us laugh every time we were with him. Paul started at CBS as a freelance soundman and quickly became one of our finest staff cameramen -- always willing to travel to the most horrible places on earth to do his work -- to shoot his pictures, record his sound and make live television work for all CBS News broadcasts. He was one of those heroes behind the camera -- never wanting the limelight -- only trying to make CBS's foreign news coverage better every day while providing for his wonderful family. And oh that smile!" -- CBS Public Eye

Via TV Newser a message from James Brolan's family:

"The Brolan family would like to thank everybody for their support and help at this time. James was the best dad, the best husband and the best mate to be with in a tight spot out in the field.

He leaves behind two children Sam, 18 and Agatha, 12 and his wife of 20 years Geri. James was born on April 7th 1964 in London where he has lived all his life. He met Geri in August 1984 on leave from the Royal Green Jackets (1983 to 1988) and knew instantly he'd met the woman he was going to marry.

James spent a couple of years after leaving the Army running his own painting and decorating business getting his break in TV as a sound recordist few years later. He travelled extensively round the world always fascinated by the places he visited. His unassuming nature and love of a practical joke often belied his well read, 'university of life intellect' - he always took great pleasure on the road beating his Harvard, Yale or Oxbridge educated correspondents at Scrabble and his knowledge of useless facts was unrivalled!

James had a natural way with people and was always in demand as the person to go with to the world's trouble spots; always putting the locals at ease, winning friends everywhere he went and always putting in his best effort. He will be greatly missed by his friends and family. --Geri, Sam and Agatha

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Idol Finale: CD Shout Out

It's no secret that I entered this season of American Idol a conflicted man. Though I've never counted myself a huge fan of the show, I know a soft news juggernaut when I see it. Thus, I signed up for another year of local Idol coverage with a fair amount of reticence. 'At least local fascination with the show won't last long', I thought. I mean, no way can this year come close to Fantasia's unlikely ascent two seasons ago. Was I ever wrong. Chris Daughtry's turbo-powered pipes, Kellie Pickler's intoxicating schtick and Bucky Covington's good ole boy charm sucked in a nation of viewers and yours truly.

CD ShoutoutNow, at the end of a most improbable season, I find myself signing off with a few more twisted vistas seared into my frontal lobe and a few more friends scribbled in my Rolodex. And quite unexpectedly, the appreciation has been reciprocrated. In the soon to be best selling American Idol Encores CD, Bucky Covington took the trouble to thank Shannon Smith and your lowly lenslinger by name in the liner notes. Thanks, Bucky - you've once again proven yourself a (country-fried) class act and, for a little while anyway, convinced my nine year old that Daddy's pretty cool. Now if you could just do something about the cat....

Idol Finale: The Adulation at Hand

DSCF0056As Ryan Seachrest anointed Taylor Hicks the new American Idol, I stood outside the Kodak Theater and braced for impact. I wasn’t alone. All around me, itchy lenslingers caressed their own ‘Record’ buttons, as visions of the previous evening’s melee ran through our collective consciousness. It was enough to give us all tunnel vision, a convenient enough condition when you’re trying to ignore a packed menagerie of drooling Idol fans, testy publicists and hysterical tourists. Shannon Smith didn’t have any trouble focusing. From across the courtyard I could see her standing in front of the live shot camera, calmly surveying the crowd as she prepared to lead off the ten o clock news back home. That live shot would be easy, a quick and narrated chunk of video, featuring the mostly famous faces we encountered earlier on the red carpet. No, the real challenge would come forty five minutes later, when our second live shot would demand the presence of a certain bald dude, a lanky good ole boy and a southern fried prom queen. I was weighing the real world possibilities of that on-camera coup when the crush of fans at my back went absolutely batshit.

DSCF0102One look up told why. Still dressed in their formal attire, the top ten America Idol finalists (minus Taylor and Katharine) poured out of the theater in a single file phalanx of newly appointed fame. Like gunfighters ready to draw, each of the hundred plus camera crews rotated around them. The rest, quite honestly, is a little fuzzy. Unable to hear over the roar of the crowd, I wormed my way around zoom lenses and hangers-on to grab the attention of the three North Carolina finalists, acutely aware the next few minutes would determine the success or failure of our whole trip, heck - our whole breathless season of Idol coverage. By the time I wiggled a position next to Rockingham’s favorite son, Shannon Smith was by my side.

DSCF0094“Bucky, we NEED you for a live shot at 10:45!” Shannon shouted over the din of excited civilians. Bucky nodded absentmindedly as he signed countless autographs, then looked up in befuddlement. “10:45?” he asked. Shannon thought about it for a split second, realized her mistake and half yelled over the crowd. “7:45! It’s for the 10:45 hit back home!” Realization washed over Bucky’s face, followed by the goofy grin Shannon and I have both grown to adore. As a group of frantic housewives screamed his name, he turned back to scribble his name on caps, posters and the occasional 8 by 10 glossy. Shannon and I retreated, knowing our righteous redneck friend would be there. Chris wouldn’t be so easy.

DSCF0105It’s not that he didn’t want to play ball. But with Taylor Hicks still inside, Chris was the biggest fish in a pond densely stocked with frenzied predators. Grinning reporters pulled him into their own live shots, young girls bounced uncontrollably as they thrust pictures and autograph books from behind the barricade and at least one old lady genuflected in his presence. Even the beefy bodyguard tasked with shadowing Chris seemed a little frazzled. He may not be the next American Idol, but the little bald dude who used to write up service orders at Crown Honda sparked the largest fervor outside the Kodak that evening. I was mulling over that improbable fact, when a handler grabbed Chris and pulled him to the farthest reaches of the courtyard. Realizing I was out of range, I settled for a twirling Kellie Pickler to my left, herself the object of incomprehensible adoration. Never one to question a good photo op, I horned in on someone else’s interview.

Chris Daughtry, Soul Patrol!The next thirty minutes unfurled quickly. Caught up in the frenzy of lenses, I shot video of the manufactured madness while Shannon worked the edges of the crowd. When I saw her whispering into Chris’ ear across the way, I knew we’d done all we could do. Kellie proved even less accessible; a clutch of cameramen and fawning entertainment reporters had her in their clutches, guffawing on cue at her continued disdain for upscale seafood. About that time the crowd’s screams pitched even higher, as Mr. Soul Patrol himself entered the fray under heavy escort. Bedlam ensued, but it wasn’t of my concern. Taylor Hicks’ image was being splayed over the heavens and living rooms below. Our viewers wanted to hear from the North Carolinian contestants who’d captured the nation’s imagination, and I was prepared to use any tactic shy of bloodshed to make that happen.

DSCF0104Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. When the clock struck quarter of eleven East Coast time, Shannon was positioned in front of the live shot camera with Bucky at her side. As our anchors back in the High Point studios read the lead-in, Chris shimmied next to Shannon and yelled my name just as the director took our shot. ‘Bingo’, I thought as Shannon, Bucky and Chris cut up for the camera. I noticed a certain red dress to my right. Kellie Pickler stood at attention for a neighboring crew’s live shot, aw-shucking on time at the reporter’s feigned admiration. If I could coerce Miss Pickler to join us, all would be complete and Shannon and I could go home heroes. But their was less than sixty seconds to do so, as our satellite window would slam shut regardless of who did or didn’t join us. It was with this thought that I edged closer to Kellie and prepared to yank her out of that live shot and into ours. Mercifully, she moved toward us on her own, joining Shannon and Bucky just as Chris’ publicist pulled him out of our frame and into another region’s living room.

As Kellie and Bucky laughed and joked with Shannon, I stood just off screen and for the first time in many days, breathed a sigh of relief. It had been a long nine months since Shannon and I began the 2006 Idol season with an unceremonious interview with then-unknown Chris Daughtry. Since then we’d jetted to Hollywood for three frenzied junkets, conducted countless interviews back home and spent endless hours in the edit suite whittling away at the resulting footage. Now, with the winner named and Kellie, Chris and Bucky giving him on-camera props, this most inherently weird season of freeze-fried adulation was almost completely behind us. ‘Maybe now I can blog about something else,’ I thought as Shannon began to wrap up the live shot. ‘Just as soon as I finish filling in my own fractured audience on the madness that was’.

And believe it or not, I'm not quite done yet...

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Idol Finale: Too Many Lenses

Daughtry and Deanna
Hey, check out this fantastic shot of Chris Daughtry and his wife Deanna moments before they rushed into the American Idol finale ... What? Okay, so the framing's a little off, but that's what you get when you blindly pop off shots with your left hand as your right hand holds a 18 pound viewfinder to your face. The entrance to the finale was strictly a handheld event, making it virtually impossible to score solid stills, lest the moving pictures suffer in the process. That's a shame since a series of Idol used-to-be's and B-List stars strode past my slice of the crush. Bo Derek, Cameron Manheim and Kevin Nealon stopped to chat while Kathy Griffin, Carrie Underwood and others I could not identify swaggered past. At one point Bucky Covington's twin brother Rocky paused for a few high-fives, ignoring the reporters around us who kept insisting he was his far more famous brother. When Bucky did come by he laughed at the idea before loping into the Kodak Theater. It was almost showtime when Chris' publicist pulled him from the clutches of clamoring zombies. That's when his wife Deanna spotted us and steered Chris and company toward our perch.

"I think I'm gonna be a singer when I grow up." he joked before the publicist yanked the guy we met down at Natty Greene's last August past an adoring press and hundreds of rabid fans.

Idol Finale: The Accidental Tourist

Tip me or I'll chop yer head off.“I know the trip’s gonna be stressful,” my wiser-than-I bride said before I left, “but try and have some fun.” With a newscast every few hours to somehow Idolize, there wasn’t a lot of time for horseplay. But around noon on Thursday I ran across a few minutes to kill, so I grabbed my digital and left my workstation, knowing that once I returned it would be ‘Game On’ until the fat man sang. Climbing the rickety steps of the affiliate dungeon, I grabbed a handful of free Cheese Nips and squinted as I materialized into daylight. I cupped the snapshot camera in one palm and melded into the crowded streets, feeling more like a tourist with every step.

Outside the Kodak TheaterThe new home to the Oscars Ceremony, the Kodak Theater sits nestled in the massive Hollywood & Highland Center, a multi-level shopping mall slash upscale hotel slash showbiz Meca. It is at the very epicenter of Tinsel Town tourism. The Hollywood sign is a neck crane away, Grauman’s Chinese Theater is just next door and famous footprints sunk in shallow cement tattoo every square of available sidewalk. Cross the street and those etched scribbles turn to glossy stars emblazoned with the names of just about every pop culture icon imaginable. I’d visited this less than holy site briefly in 1996, during a boozy week of supposed convention attending with my dear bud Dustin Miller. I wish I remembered more...

Moniker TouchstoneThis time however I had a clearer head, so I took a moment to stroll around in search of some meaningful names. I only found a few; William Shatner, an underrated raconteur I admire more for his recent recordings than his T.J. Hooker years. Then there was the star that simply said ‘Godzilla’, a movie monster whose name always takes me back to the days of The Attic, when some righteous dudes known as ‘The Stegmonds’ ripped through many a version of the jokey Blue Oyster Cult dirge. Finally I paused over the footprints of old school legend Jimmy Stewart, the man my mother points to whenever I asked her where my name came from.

Nancy O Dell (?)Of course I didn’t visit these many shrines by myself. All around me, a sea of slack-jawed tourists, costumed characters and showbiz technicians heaved and swelled. With the Idol finale just hours away, the red carpet leading into the Kodak Theater was being readied with lighting rigs, camera platforms and mini-tents to keep all that lathered talent dry and shaded. Entertainment Tonight’s Nancy O’Dell, a vision of loveliness, stepped from her shelter long enough to shoot a frothy intro segment, sending a small herd of Korean Girl Scouts into uncontrollable spasms of joy. Weird thing, celebrity.

Joe PhotogAmid the throng of grips and visitors, fellow lenslingers stalked the target rich environment. In town for Idol’s fifth coronation, they wandered the streets with professional farsightedness and earned detachment. I made note of each one without really think about it, my attention ramping up each time I caught a betacam’s profile. Idol CrewLenses tilted, earphones dangling, each and every shooter sported the kind of thousand yard stare you only get from looking at life through a tube. Either that or they were all highly bored and a little constipated. You be the judge.

Lex Luthor Went That-a-WayPeppered throughout the unwashed masses, a crack squad of costumed mercenaries worked the fevered crowd for tips. There was the schmuck with the “S” on his chest who looked a lot more like Clark Kent than Superman. His partner Supergirl loitered nearby, and according to her accent the folks on Krypton sound a lot like they’re from Sweden. Who knew? Kneel Before MeI especially enjoyed the axe murderers - a Jason and Freddy pair who strutted through the packed avenue with no small amount of menace. More disturbing to me was the sight of Darth Vader proposing to one of his Stormtroopers. Whatever happened to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’?

Me and the Real American IdolAfter a few more mind-bending moments, I decided to head back to the hype factory. Nancy O Del l had wrapped up her stand-ups and now a pale family of Goth Kids was snapping shots of a chain-smoking John Wayne. Walking slowly along the red carpet, I spotted El Ocho’s call letters on a white card about midway down. It would be my position in a few hours, a 12 inch swath of space requiring pop culture knowledge, a sharp eye and various feats of contortion. Wanting to triple-check my gear splayed out back in the hovel, I picked up the pace a little. That’s when I saw him and knew I had to stop for one last picture … Fat Elvis: The Original American Idol.

Idol Finale: The Cyclone Effect

Idol MeleeDO NOT SWARM the judges or contestants,” yelled the affiliate coordinator, after setting up a scenario that virtually guaranteed just such a melee. It was Wednesday evening and American Idol’s final performance episode was drawing to a close inside the Kodak Theater. As it did, about a hundred weary media teams loitered just outside the complex and rolled our eyes at each other. Most of us had flown in from around the country to document the coronation this year’s Idol; nothing less than a live Elvis sighting was going to stop this electronic herd from stampeding once the right targets emerged from the theater. Surrounding this idling scrum of photogs, sound techs and reporters, an excited throng of fans and tourists rubbernecked for a better look at the lights, cameras and action that was about to follow.

Rabid Fans AwaitThirty minutes passed and the grumbling built to a crescendo. With only a half hour left until the pre-arranged live shots were about to begin, any chance of peace and order was slipping away with every sweep of the clock’s second hand. In fact, the satellite windows had already opened. All around me, glossy entertainment reporters spoke into brightly-decorated microphones - their booming voices and over-coiffed images ping-ponging across the heavens and into living rooms across the globe. All I could do was eye the grand entrance leading into the Kodak Theater. If Paula, Randy, Simon or Bigfoot didn’t soon emerge and consent to individual interviews, bedlam would ensue. When a few handlers did come out, I tightened the grip on my camera - only to have to readjust the weight when the cell phone hanging off my hip began vibrating.

Katharine Under Seige“Can’t talk, call back…” I said and pressed the End button before the voice could protest. Little did I know the caller was a curious assignment editor back at my station, who’d been watching me pace and seethe in the background of a Fox News reporter’s lengthy live shot. With seven satellite paths feeding out of the Kodak Theater complex, the pre-coverage was quite continuous and fairly breathless. Still, nothing of import had happened, as neither Taylor Hicks, Katharine McPhee, or any of the celebrity judges had exited stage left to greet the pack of toothy reporters and squinty lenslingers. So…we waited and gossiped and bitched. Crews from across the country asked each other about fellow co-workers, photogs admired each others rigs and more than one correspondent checked their looks in hand held mirrors. It was about that time the fans and tourists began screaming.

Chicken Little RulesWhat followed was by far the largest camera crush I’ve ever been a sweaty part of. First to exit the theater were the celebrity judges, Paula, Randy and Simon joined at the hip and walking lock-step into the fray. This in itself was cause for concern, as they were supposed to break off and pause for one-on-one interviews. Instead they emerged as a triple-headed monster - smiling widely but vacantly at the hungry pack of now highly-agitated news crews. Shouldering my lens and surging forward, I instantly found myself hovering inches away from Paula Abdul but unable to hear the delusional sentence fragments she’s come to be known for. Simon and Randy were also within reach, but with a dozen fellow photogs in my personal space, all I could hear was the fans’ roar of approval and all I could smell was what the guy from Cleveland had for lunch. Something with onions...

Though it only lasted a few minutes, the feeding frenzy felt much longer from the inside. At one point I found myself stretched to my full height of five feet nine, camera teetering on extended palms as I peered up into a down-turned viewfinder. Trying desperately not to drop my rig on Taylor Hick’s famous gray head, I trembled and perspired as he cocked his head and yelled “Soul Patrol” for the gazillionth time. At the moment, I felt as if I could lift my feet and remain standing, my weight supported by the horde of cameraman and women around me. To make matters worse, irate handlers kept grabbing our targets by the hand and pulling them to different camera positions. We of course followed, like unwanted debris swirling around the eye of a newborn-celebrity cyclone. ‘Do not swarm’, I thought as my back and shoulders screamed in silent protest. PFFFT! I didn’t fly cross-country only to be kicked to the curb by unorganized lackeys. I just worried what it might be like the following day, when the real madness would begin in earnest...

Friday, May 26, 2006

Idol Finale: Enter the Dungeon

Enter the DungeonIt is through this threshold Shannon Smith and I re-entered the American Idol vortex late Wednesday. An innocuous yet guarded doorway, it’s the gritty entrance to a subterranean hive teeming with shrill electronics, intense journeymen and an ample supply of brand name snack foods. Welcome to the hyping floor. At least that’s what I thought as I found the table with El Ocho’s call letters on it, a dimly lit corner featuring graffiti spackled concrete walls. Though it was just around the corner from the glittering Mecca surrounding the Kodak Theater, our little rat-hole felt far from Hollywood. But Shannon and I hadn’t wedged our way onto two jam-packed, smelly airliners to sight-see. We had a job to do.

The Hyping FloorStep one was to establish a workspace. As Shannon talked up the harried feed coordinator, I unlatched the pockmarked camera case I’d drug in from the rent-a-car. Inside the battered container, a late model optical disc recording deck, mounds of tangled cables and a monitor dating back to the Nixon administration sat covered in bubbled plastic wrap. Ripping open the plastic, I extracted the hardware and began setting up shop. Video Out, Fire-wire In, Timeline Open. In the course of a few minutes I’d erected my very own hyperbole terminal, a feature laden laptop editing system unthinkable on the day I first stumbled into this silly business. Ain’t technology grand?

Spaghetti, Anyone?Once I broke my gaze from the flickering screens, I glanced around at the crackling industrial space around me. Every where my eyeballs lingered they fell upon the huddled forms of visiting news crew, dynamic duos consisting of distracted technophiles and their far more attractive on-air partners. Once my eyes adjusted to the lack of light, I began recognizing certain photogs and reporters, fellow Fox affiliate employees I’d done battle with at earlier Idol shoots. Chief among them were Jeh Jeh Pruitt and Greg Long - the ever affable Birmingham crew, currently laser focused on their local shoo-in Taylor Hicks. Over the embroiling three days that followed, I took every opportunity to rib them over their hoofing, hammy home-boy. Soul patrol, my ass!

What IS her name?There were other faces in the cavernous space I identified, some from intimate camera scrums, others from distant satellite feeds. Most of their names escaped me. Blame part of that on my absentminded nature but the electronic assemblage before me didn’t help either. I am far from a techno-wizard. I tend to think in flowery prose, foggy long-shots and ironic imagery. In other words I can wrap my noodle around the most esoteric of notions, but the simplest of linear schematics can cause me to scratch my whiskers in befuddlement. Thankfully, a phone call or three to Weaver backed up my hypothesis and I quickly worked through a series of systemic glitches. Soon after, I was lounging with a free can of Pringles and chatting up my fellow members of the Fourth Estate, blissfully unaware we were about to lock elbows in full-on mortal camera combat...

Monday, May 22, 2006

Off to the Finale...

The SignChances are posting will be light over the coming days, as I'm about to wing my way to Hollywood for the American Idol finale. Though I'm leery of the madness at hand, I am eager to witness this global juggernaut's glitzy crescendo up close. I'm also looking forward to chatting with Chris, Bucky and a few other contestants - when I'm not shoving my lens in their faces, that is. If Idol coronations of years past are any indications, there'll be a calvacade of weirdly familiar faces striding past my camera to get into the show. Here's hoping I haven't got to elbow too many frothing entertainment reporters to clear my shot. While I'll be far too busy body-checking my fellow broadcasters to file regular blog reports, know that when I return on Friday - the debriefing will commence. You can expect photos, interviews and one beat-down lenslinger who's positively giddy that this season of American Idol is finally in the can. Seachrest...OUT!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Mellifluous Eviscerator

Count me among the millions of news enthusiasts who will miss the Sunday night stylings of one Mike Wallace. For as long as I can literally remember, this master of the mellifluous evisceration has been refining the form he helped to create: the contentious TV interview. Crooked bureaucrats, mob bosses and movie stars; they've all fallen prey to Wallace's erudite inquiries and debonair stare. Now this irascible communicator is stepping away from his Sixty Minute duties, bringing to end his incredible career as the prototype newsman. At 88, he's more than earned it.

Still, I cannot help but think that with Wallace goes the very best of his breed; old school scribes and irascible broadcasters whose biggest thrills came from simply exposing wanton chicanery, not the overnight rating surges all those televised takedowns produced. Those are days l-o-n-g gone. A show like Sixty Minutes in its prime would have dominate even today's 500 channel line up. To think that Wallace took most of his victims in a three network world is mind boggling. No wonder he was the most dreaded man to be found loitering outside your office park, chop shop or Hollywood mansion.

These days, the carefully lit two shots and sweating brow close-ups that Sixty Minutes virtually invented are the intellectual properties of a generation bent on mock irony and stilted satire. As a result, the deadpan interrogators of The Daily Show owe Wallace and his gravitas rat-pack just as much respect as all those comedy albums they listened to back in the day. As for me, I'll be here behind the camera, listening to the windbag factory of cookie-cutter Kent Brockmans and real life Ron Burgundys clear their throats and grasp for that Mike Wallace menace, even though the lot of them aren't worthy to touch the great man's coat.

At least that's how it feels through the viewfinder...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Strung Out on the Access

Fox 8 Gang 024The grueling pace, the shrieking desk, that empty feeling at the end of the day ... there’s a lot to loathe about the newsgathering process. Of course it didn’t seem that way in 1989, when every other assignment was a lid-tripping exercise in self discovery, time management and electronic field surgery. Those breathless days of constant epiphany are gone forever, I’m afraid - leaving only the thunderous march of a thousand deadlines to fill the void. Most days I can still hack it, occasionally I can’t, but so far it hasn’t stopped me from saddling up every day for another crack at the fruitless pursuit. Why? The easy answer is the paycheck of course, but I’m pretty sure I could find a less soul-jarring way to make the same pile of escudos every week. No, its not the pay that draws me to the newscast factory every weekday morning and it damn sure ain’t the glory. It’s the access, plain and simple - the ability to enter other people’s lives in times of times of triumph or downfall and quiz them on just how they feel about it. It ain’t the classic approach to an education, but it will litter your subconscious with a million prophetic impressions:

I remember knocking on the front door of an inner city home and asking the red-eyed giant who shuffled forward for a picture of the daughter he’d lost the night before. The Polaroid he thrust forward was wrinkled, tear-stained and to him, priceless.

I remember reaching down out of a hot air balloon to snatch a few leaves from the top of a Randolph County oak tree. When the horses in the pasture below whinnied in protest I heard childlike laughter and realized it was me.

I remember slipping into a crowded courthouse just in time to hear a young woman drunk with distraught try to explain why she torched a couch outside her boyfriend’s apartment and accidentally killed four people in the process.

I remember gripping my camera tightly as an overdressed lackey pushed a golf cart to its absolute limit in hopes of catching up with the King of Nascar. We finally caught up with Richard Petty and after a bit of cajoling I stood in the shadow of the great man’s hat for the very first time.

I remember backpedaling in a bad part of town late at night as a female officer escorted a coughing, hand-cuffed homeless man away from a smoldering blaze. It was only upon playback that I realized the weird thing on the side of his head was the melted remains of his John Deere cap.

I remember walking into a Winston-Salem bar with my camera shouldered and turning every head in the standing-room only place. As I floated wordlessly around the room, tough guys stiffened, happy drunks tried to high-five me and inebriated college girls fought for my lens’ attention.

I remember sitting in silence in the back of a 500 pound woman’s Winnie-the-Pooh decorated bedroom as she explained how bad judgment, youthful abuse and poor metabolism has imprisoned her inside her tiny home for the better part of three years.

I remember sucking air though my teeth in hopes of maintaining my composure as hundreds of returning marines embraced their wives, girlfriends and children. It was my very first shift on the baby stroller and cleavage scene, but not my last.

I remember waiting for David Melvin’s head to explode as the silhouetted figure in my viewfinder chugged beer, put a pistol to his temple and flipped off me and the SWAT Team. David survived the stand-off but he changed many people’s lives that day, including mine.

No, with unfinished imagery like that still simmering in my brain pan, how could I even entertain the notion of finding other work? No other role could afford me such storytelling fodder, no other job could expose me to more delicious turmoil, no other gig could teach me so much about the human condition. Still, it would be nice to have all my holidays off...

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Dog Bites Man

If Comedy Central's new experimental offering Dog Bites Man nails the flavor of local news, I'll eat my press pass. Though it does sound promising: producers of Da Ali G Show combining narrative comedy and improv to follow 'an outrageously inept local news crew chases down the big stories, leaving innocent bystanders and journalistic integrity in their wake.' Hmmm. Sounds like a few high noon live shots back in the day, but I digress. Here's hoping the show at least delves into the inspired lunacy of local broadcasting and doesn't just squeeze the Mary Tyler Moore newsroom template for a few more boorish laughs.

Whatever the case, it's only a matter of time before some comedy team mines the fertile mirth of local news for laughs that ring true among the off-camera set. Broadcast News captured the insipid machinations at the network level. Anchorman delved into mid-seventies affilliate life, but in a fairly schizophrenic and cartoonish manner. (Still, can you a fault a film that features a street fight between rival news gangs? I think not.) Is it wrong to yearn for newsgathering goofs that are a bit more, I dunno - acerbic? Perhaps ... Hey, I got it! How about a series of film shorts based on the stylized prose of one blowhard photog? Cast some brooding hotshot and call it Viewfinder Bl-- Hmm? What's that?

You're right ... that would never fly.

Chasing Aiken

When American Idol viewers failed to place Chris Daughtry in the finals last week, they did more than crush the hopes of millions of couch-bound rockers. They put the kibosh on Chris' whirlwind hometown tour - a American Idol rite of passage reserved for the final three contestants. I was scheduled to ride point on Chris' swoop through the Piedmont, from his planned appearance on our morning news to the mini-concert scheduled for First Horizon Park. Though the 18 hour day would have been grueling, I was bummed not to be able to document Daughtry's triumphant return to central North Carolina - not just because I like the guy, but because an Idol homecoming is a media orgy of mind-boggling density.

I first learned this years ago, when my superiors hastily dispatched me to Raleigh to stalk some dork named Clay Aiken as he flittered his way through Capitol City. The ensuing camera cluster left me bruised, amused and positively agog at the power of this cheesy new show. It even landed my future bald spot in the shrieking pages of US Weekly. Read the long, frightening story behind the above shot here ... or don't. Either way, you have to admit: Chris was robbed.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Dr. Tom and the Chili Peppers

For the Red Hot Chili Peppers fan, Stadium Arcadium is a landmark work - a two disc collection of sonic merriment unimaginable at the wobbly outset of their recording career. I know - I’ve been listening to this impossibly unique California band since the early eighties, when a wise man turned me onto their slap-happy lyrics and infectious groove. It was just one of the ways Dr. Tom enriched my young life.

At 16, I was a mess. Never a great student, I’d figured out in junior high school how to eek out the minimum and not think about tomorrow. Whenever a new teacher would glance at my dismal student file and began the underachiever speech, I’d finish their sentences for them. School work was never that hard, just damn uninteresting. I’d much rather lose myself in Stephen King novels, David Bowie albums and WKRP in Cincinnati reruns. As for team sports, such physical coordination and feigned camaraderie was simply beyond my scope. I was much more at ease hanging with my juvenile delinquent friends, an endearingly ragtag group of outcasts and thinkers who spoke my own language of thwarted potential. Was it any wonder I went absolutely batshit at the first possible chance?

Well, I did. As soon as I passed driver‘s ed, I purchased my grandmother’s old jalopy for 500 dollars and promptly began skipping school. At first it was only a class or two - a math period here, a science session there. But soon my penchant for truancy grew into full blown dedication to the craft. I’d arrive at school a little early, hang out in the smoking area until I rustled up a group of aspiring hoodlums and hit the open road. The beach, the tobacco path, the vacant lot - I went everywhere that year. Everywhere but the tenth grade classes I was supposed to be attending. Through treachery and deceit, I snowed my parents into thinking all was well at school. In reality, I was running from shadows, projecting inherent rebellion among my buddies but cringing every time the phone rang at home. Near the end of the school year, that bell tolled for me. To make a difficult story short, I got busted. Hard. My poor mother, agog at her once promising son’s academic descent called an immediate conference with all my teachers. After the longest 30 minutes of my life, I left the school library for summer vacation with the unfathomable news that I would be returning to the tenth grade in the fall.

Aside from removing every semblance of fun from my 16 year old world, my Mother did something I’m eternally grateful for. She sent me to a therapist, a child psychologist of sorts who helped crack open my skull and sift around inside. Tall, animated and Midwestern, Doctor Tom first struck me as an insufferable doofus. Between his goofy grin and flat accent, I just couldn’t take the guy seriously. For the first two sessions, I sat in an easy chair in his office and rolled my eyes behind mirrored sunglasses while he spoke seemingly at random. After a while I began to talk back, mostly lies at first but then the occasional glimmer of truth slipped through my punk-ass fa├žade. Dr. Tom seized on the details and in one ten minute period broke down my complicated web of excuses, delusions and alibis. I maintained my neo-gruff exterior, but inside I was amazed at the man’s mental dexterity.

It’s difficult to express just how Tom helped me. Never once did he produce a magic elixir or mulit-colored pill to ease my clouded mind. Mostly he just listened, chewing his lip and nodding at the ceiling as I struggled to explain how miscast and ill-equipped I felt to deal with the perils of high school society. You know - the same crap teenagers have been struggling with since the first cave kid popped his inaugural zit. Though he’d no doubt heard variations of my plight a thousand times before, Dr. Tom leaned in and listened. Whenever I’d run out of words, he’d encourage me to continue, like a late night deejay milking a distraught caller for every sordid detail. Just as I was spent, Tom would lean back in his worn brown recliner and walk me back through my diatribe, gently pointing out all the bad judgments and escalating foolishness along the way. Never once did Tom make me feel stupid, or childish or anything less than worthy of his admiration. Turns out, that was all I really needed.

Toward the end of our visits and my summer of exile, Tom presented me with a token of his esteem, two carefully labeled mix tapes of the new music he was listening to. Later, when I popped the cassettes into my beat-up player at home, the strange sounds that emanated from within seized my imagination. Weird bands I’ve never heard of before with names like the Talking Heads, the B-52’s and the Red Hot Chili Peppers blasted my ears and libido like only revolutionary music can. The Chili Peppers especially ran roughshod over my limited concept of rock and roll. Their staccato delivery, thump-bass funk and surf-frat bombast grabbed me by the t-shirt collar and shook every vestige of Classic Rawk fan out of my system. By the time I re-entered the tenth grade, my head was far from unscrambled. But thanks to Tom, I approached high school life with a bit more realism and a lot better taste in tunes.


Fast forward six years. Fresh from the Navy but still lacking any real direction, I took a job at the local hospital’s radiology department while I weighed my lack of options. At first my duties consisted of mind-numbing darkroom work, passing undeveloped x-ray film from one dimly-lit bin to another. When that quickly proved boring, I stuck my head out to flirt with all the pretty x-ray techs and nurses - a move that quickly brought me the female attention I yearned for all those many months out to sea. Pretty soon, I was one of the gang, pitching in with clerical duties and eventually patient transportation. I found I liked donning a white coat and ferrying patients back and forth to Radiology. It was in the hallways of Wayne Memorial Hospital that I refined some of the confidence I’d cultivated in the military. Who knows what the female staff really thought of the scruffy new orderly who liked the sound of his own voice. I was too busy talking smack to ever ask.

Hospital work was never anything I wanted to do long term, but it was awfully good for me. The wreck victims, AIDS patients and psychiatric ward residents taught me more about life than I’d ever learned in uniform. Though I still possessed no idea of how I was going to spend the rest of my life, I was growing more and more comfortable with the person inside me. I was feeling particularly good about myself the day I looked down at the patient card in my hand and saw a familiar name. When I knocked lightly outside the room, a voice from my past answered and I pushed open the heavy door to see Dr. Tom sitting up in bed wearing a hospital gown and his trademark goofy grin.

“Can you believe it? I was having dinner and just doubled over in pain. Someone called an ambulance and the next thing I know I’m here,” he said with no small amount of astonishment. “the doctors said my something ruptured in my gut and dumped toxins in my system. Dude ... I could have died!”

Tom chuckled as he said this and I couldn’t help but join him. He looked great despite the lack of color in his cheeks and tassled hair. Not quite forty years old, he was quite surprised to be sitting in a hospital room, staring at an old client who was starring back at him. Within seconds, we fell into deep conservation - something he was especially gifted at. I told him of my misadventures in the Navy, my stint as an on-board radio deejay and the girl named Michelle I found myself infatuated with. Tom nodded and laughed at the appropriate times, telling me about his own growing kids and flourishing psychiatric practice. Despite our sudden reversal of roles, we chatted emphatically until I had to get back to my appointed rounds. Though I didn’t come out and say it, I yearned for a way to thank him for his positive influence. Not quite sure how to do it without jeopardizing any of my young man machismo, I held off and told him I’d see him tomorrow.

On the way home evening, it came to me. I could make a mix tape for Tom, go through my own growing CD collection and cull a few new favorites to share. When I got home I did just that, working a dilapidated cassette deck to the limits of its discount store ability. When I left for work the next day, I had an eclectic collection committed to audiotape, Metallica, Jethro Tull, XTC and of course, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I couldn’t wait to present to him along with a low key thanks for helping me grow into the man I was beginning to pretend to be. Dropping the 90 minute cassette in the pocket of my white lab coat, I stopped by the radiology desk to confirm Tom’s room number. Once I found the right patient card, I held it up in hopes of deciphering the physician’s chicken scratch.

“Oh, that card’s outdated,” said a well-meaning x-ray tech, “the patient died last night.”

When I could move again, I walked to a nearby trash bin and with trembling hands, threw the carefully-crafted cassette away. Too bad all of life's regrets aren't so easily disposed of.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Surly Attitude Not Included...

JL's got his robots, but here's what I want in my Christmas stocking: a 12 inch war journalist action figure. Decked out in blue jeans and a sensible plaid, this swarthy lenslinger comes complete with betacam, body armour, laptop, digital camera and GPS. Hell, this molded piece of dashing plastic is better equipped than I am! The next time a GI Joe takes hostile fire outside the Barbie Princess Compound, this guy is ALL OVER IT! Ahem. Sorry, but the idea of a photog doll (er - action figure) fills me with joy, as I've always thought the Accesorized Toy Kingdom was under-represented by its Fourth Estate. Best of all, this bearded lenser is available on eBay! Extra hands included. Honestly, the only thing that would make this mini-me more realistic would be a string in back that when pulled would unleash a torrent of gripes, complaints and highly opinionated lunch suggestions. Add that and I'll order a truckload...

Ode to the Cameraman

Former ABC News senior correspondent Jim Wooten files a report for the Columbia Journalism Review detailing the injuries his friend Doug Vogt received while covering the war in Iraq. Vogt, who Wooten describes as 'a modest, soft-spoken Canadian with a flat Alberta accent and the chutzpah of a jewel thief', was riding with newly-minted ABC anchor Bob Woodruff in an Iraqi armored personnel carrier when an IED exploded in the middle of the road and small arms fire erupted from three directions. Soon after, news of the dashing young anchor's life threatening injuries ricocheted across the globe, his veteran photog's slightly less serious wounds mentioned as barely an afterthought. Wooten's report rights that wrong by explaining what an accomplished adventurer Doug Vogt is. Then the veteran TV reporter does something unexpected. He turns his descriptive eye on the legion of cameramen and women he's accompanied to hostile lands and honors them all with an enlightening leer at those 'independent cusses' behind the lens:
There are liberals and conservatives among them; intellectuals, too, as well as plodders and diligent yeomen — and yet without exception, despite their distinct idiosyncrasies, what cameramen and women all have in common is that they know for an undisputed fact that whether anyone says so or not, they are not merely important, they are absolutely essential, and because they clearly understand that, there is about every single one I’ve ever known a muscular sense of self, of dignity and pride in themselves and their work. Individually, they’re very much like the seasoned platoon sergeant who knows that although the lieutenant is ostensibly in charge, he is indispensable. It is his skill and his experience, not the lieutenant’s, that will see the unit through the tough times.
Read the whole thing. Then go buy your favorite photog a drink.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Daughtry Gets the Door (?)

Color me stunned. Despite a full workday of industry gossip and insider guessing, I was certain Chris Daughtry would make it to the Final Three of American Idol. But unless my TV's on the fritz, a nation of fickle viewers just cast off him into exile. Well, not exile. Everyone who's heard Chris' chainsaw-soaked-in-whiskey voice agrees he will soon make powerful recordings. In fact, not being coronated America's latest pop sensation may very well help him in the rocker credibility department. But I was hoping the unassuming service rep who melted my microphone with his soaring pipes last summer would win the whole damn cheesy thing. I guess now he'll just have to settle for being a globally-known rock star. Not a bad fall-back plan certainly, but I'd be lying if I said the unexpected joy of this year's AI season didn't just come to a screeching, unceremonious halt.

No doubt I'll soon see Chris in person and become the gazillionth person to tell him how badly he was robbed. That sucks! Since he first sang for Shannon Smith and my lens in downtown Greensboro, I've greatly enjoyed covering his meteoric rise from caterwauling everyman to thunder-tongued Rock God in training. The same goes for his wife Deanna, a lovely lady whose infectious nature makes you want to invite her to your next backyard bar-be-cue. Let's review, shall we? Chris will NOT be the next American Idol. He will NOT be returning to Greensboro in two days for a whirlwind hometown tour. He will NOT be forced to take part in yet another dorky Ford commercial. He WILL go on to make more money and receive more acclaim than a thousand TV cameramen. And his almost ordained ascent will forever remind your humble lenslinger that storybook endings rarely happen as scheduled.

Oh yeah...Go Elliot!

The Roy Park School of Broadcasting

Over at b-roll.net, NoJobTog poses a riddle for the practicing camera jockey: Do you believe that the (TV news) market you grew up in has an affect on where you are now? Hmmm….interesting question, NoJobTog - enough to pull from my forecasted doldrums.

Having grown up outside the bustling metropolis of Goldsboro, North Carolina. I feasted on the edges of two TV news markets. To the West, the bustling Raleigh market boasted mid 80’s helicopters and flashy graphics, but to me Capitol City was a world away and I just couldn’t relate to the almost urban feel of the news emanating out of that region known as ‘the Triangle‘. I was far more entranced with the airwaves to the East. A drowsy yet competitive beginners market where the average news reporter still attended college keggers, the Greenville-New Bern-Washington area was and always will be a place to earn your broadcast bones. As a result, the nightly dispatch was downright rollicking; news stories pasted together by rookies with far more enthusiasm than acumen. Towering above this throng of perpetual rookies and former interns, a rat pack of slightly cornpone Cronkite types held fast to the spotlight they‘d helped create back in the fifties. The resulting newscasts were delicious non sequiturs - surreal episodes in which heavy-lidded Masters of Gravitas threw it to horn-rimmed young news nerds whose on-air delivery still crackled with nervousness and puberty. For a budding satirist, it was stimulating viewing - even if I didn’t exactly know why yet.

By the time I’d turned 14, cable television had burst on the scene, draping the nation’s living rooms in bulky, hard-wired cable boxes. Amid this potpourri of new offerings, a monster lurked - in the form of MTV. Nothing short of revolutionary, this 24 hour stream of newly invented music videos provided the soundtrack and shot-sheet of my repeated stabs at adolescence. Pretty soon, I was spiking my hair and flipping my jean jacket collar up, in hopes of channeling just some of the cool my new hero Sting seemed to exude . When that didn’t work out too well, I repaired to my parents’ den and dissected every intoxicating frame of this new age of music video. Lost in this day-glo parade of hammy camera techniques and quick cut editing, my love for the straight and narrow newscast faded into static.

But that interior signal came back loud and clear the day I conned my way into an interview at WNCT. Agog at the very latest in twenty year old broadcast gear, I almost swallowed my gum when the late great Jim Woods strolled by. I don’t remember what I said exactly to the local icon that day and I’m sure he forgot the moment he managed to shake me. (Who can blame him? I was probably the fifth young smart aleck to call him ’Dude’ that day.) Once I’d secured a minimum-wage spot on the morning show crew however, I went about paying my respects to the living legends that still populated that low-budget studio. In return, Jim Woods, John Spence, Slim Short and Roy Hardee served as my vocational professors, teaching me how the daily news machine worked, and explaining why it was so much better before all those gadgets got in the way. Did the TV news market I grew up in have an effect on where I am now? You betcha. Since my salad says at WNCT, I’ve practiced the craft the Masters taught me exclusively in my home state of North Carolina. No doubt I could go elsewhere, but this is after all, the world I know. If I’m carrying on a tradition of dedicated newsgathering in the Old North State, I’m honored - knowing that when I do fall short, it ain’t due to lack of proper training.

A Little Less Conversation

As much as it pains me to admit it, I’m running out of things to blog about. Sure, I’m still encountering enough news and nonsense on a daily basis to choke all manners of bandwidth, I’m just having a tough. time. getting. focused. Thus, my dilemma: Do I let the posts slow to a crawl and blog only when truly inspired? Or do I crank out empty paragraph after empty paragraph dissecting the fact that I got nothing’ to say? Both approaches are fraught with peril and the very conundrum raises some disturbing questions... Why am I blogging in the first place? Will I blog forever? Who reads this crap, anyway? Wait - don‘t answer that last one. Just know that your lowly lenslinger is rather flummoxed of late, wondering where his muse went and why it took his mojo along for the ride.

After much consternation, I’ve decided not to litter my humble website with filler. I’m quite capable of manufacturing post after post saying nothing, but that just doesn’t seem right. I’d much rather stay on target and let the posts grow on natural occurrence. That way I’ll be able to point to my URL with pride, knowing it only boasts that which belongs there. In the meantime, bear with my lack of inspiration, won’t you? Before you know it, I’ll be cranking out the tripe at my normal clip - be it a dispatch from the littered alleyways of general news or breathless reports from my upcoming return to Hollywood for the American Idol finale. Either way, I got your back - for the eyeballs that scan my words are important to me and the last thing I want to do is lose their gaze.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a news unit windshield to stare holes through...

Monday, May 08, 2006

Polyester News Gods

I don't know what I like most about the above photo - the once futuristic yet now antique video gear, that mid-seventies compact car or just the shooter's jaunty moustache. Either way, this old school news duo brings to mind a very special episode of Lou Grant - one in which a young Penn and Teller get their broadcast on ... Starsky and Hutch style. For the story surrounding the origin of this landmark shot, visit the latest dust-up in the photograblogosphere, Behind The News - courtesy of 'Widescreen' - a veteran news shooter way Down Under. After that, check your own photo album - then perhaps, your closet. Remember, the Members Only jacket you burn could be your own.

Vagaries of the Chase

Rig and RideSorry if the blog has bogged down a bit, but work has been pretty typical as of late … if you can ever call my silly gig typical. With the May ratings period in full effect, my fellow photogs have been busier than ever - crafting special reports and series pieces with unparalleled zeal. This, of course, clogs up the edit bays back at HQ and displaces special operators like myself. Before I know it, I’m back on patrol, slurping a Big Gulp behind the wheel of a wobbly live truck and making macabre small talk with the reporter du jour. It’s a living, but not as interesting a one as you may think. Maybe that would change if I paid more attention, but after a while all those breathless dispatches run together - until the victims and charlatans of a thousand unrelated dramas make small talk in my head. And you wonder why I blog...

Low Slung CellieIt’s therapy. Why else would I re-examine day after day of processing trivia into commotion? There are far better hobbies - ones that involve score cards, male bonding and scheduled revelry. Instead though, I retreat to my upper lair and rifle through the meaningless impressions of the day. Surely this behavior won’t get me voted Grand Poo-bah down at the lodge, but I’ve found there’s far more to life than clinking frosty mugs with guys in funny hats. No, I’d much rather talk to you; tell you a little bit about my day and hope that some of it sticks to your subconscious. Why that pleases me so, I can’t really say - but my insatiable desire to communicate leads me to bleed on screen most every evening, even on nights like tonight, when I ain’t got a lot to say. Don’t leave, though! Stick around and see if I can milk two more paragraphs out of this twaddle.

TV ScriptageNow where was I? Oh yeah - scenes from the news hunt. Like these random photos I took of Eric White during this evening’s live shots, the mental imprints of your average news day come fast and furious, often devoid of any caption or context. Take the other day, when I wandered the concrete catacombs of my umpteenth wastewater treatment plant, finding new and artistic ways of photographing streaming feces without focusing too much on all those sewer-lillies. If you have to ask - don’t. Just know that it wasn’t the first (or the last) time I’ve toured such a labyrinth of shit. Nor was it my first time getting ejected from an upscale parking lot this morning. Seems Channel X got the story wrong, forcing the owners of the snooty and under seige shopping center to expel all interlopers of the electronic variety. At least they smiled when they walked me to my car.

Whitey at WorkAn hour later, that strip mall exile was all but forgotten as I hunched over my lens and stared into the maw of a Tazer gun. “You ready?” asked the hulking sheriff as he fondled the trigger. On my signal, he contracted his index finger and chuckled under his breath as angry blue sparks erupted between the stun gun’s contact points. The sharp bark of the electrical charge sent my camera’s audio needles into syncopated spasms and I knew immediately this twenty seconds of disc space would air repeatedly in the afternoon newscasts teases. At once forgettable and indelible, that close-up shot of the stun gun’s arc will stick with me for quite some time, though in all fairness the image will be intermingled with that of raw sewage, drunk Shriners and a thousand unfettered live shots. Analyze that!

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Dateline: Nowhere

Sat Post: NowhereMost often we news crews can be found at the very center of the latest, breaking development. Other times we merely park the satellite truck on the edge of nowhere and pretend something is happening. (To be fair, a bustling new shopping center is a scant fifteen months away from this location. We were probably smart to get there early.) Not that I have any right to complain; I get paid regardless - whether shackled defendants are trying to body-check me in narrow hallways or bored earthworms are simply diggin’ me from afar. Either way, the check is appreciated, but today’s desolation plays nicely into the theme of tonight’s post, even if it did take half an hour of drawing dirt circles with my shoe to come up with it. File this one under Perception Vs. Reality.

Varner hears voicesWhen I was but a youngster, I assumed every news day was a frenzied footrace through uproar and controversy. It never occurred me that those clever people on the evening newscast ever loitered, paced about or fidgeted. When would they have time, what with all that truth to uncover? Little did I know then how agonizingly slow some news days could be. Problem is, there’s a still a newscast to produce - kerfluffle or not. So we dog a little deeper, run through stacks of press releases, reconsider subject matter we’d quickly ditch were Bigfoot to call and wanna hold a press conference. I have to admit I kept an eye out for the elusive beast as I wandered the perimeter of my logo’d exile. Like most news geeks I hate to wait. Just ask Jeff Varner. He knows a thing or two about waiting, having slept on the Outback floor during the second season of Survivor. These days the last thing he wants to do is cool his jets in some backwoods outpost. That, and talk about the second season of Survivor.

Spillane doubles downPerhaps we should consult the third member of our expedition party. As a grizzled sat truck operator and veteran photog, Danny Spillane knows how to chill at an odd locale. Be it a hurricane, manhunt, Nascar race or Presidential visit, Danny holds a Doctorate degree in extended satellite encampment. Who better than he to explain the mysteries of the wait, the nuances of the delay, the eternal implications surrounding the downtime before all those off-air cues. I tried to broach the subject as he stared intently into the on-sat truck’s board computer, but the outer space coordinates at his fingertip held his full attention. Either that, or the he’d gotten enough blinking amphibians across the virtual highway to earn himself an extra frog. Whatever the case, it took a moment or three for him to process my question: How does one best deal with those idle, endless moments preceding show-time?

"Chewing gum..." he said, "sensible shoes, and a belief in a higher satellite." Not grasping the full meaning of his words, I slowly backed out of the truck and waited for his cryptic wisdom to wash over me. It didn’t and after a few minutes I grew distracted by a nearby colony of ant hills as they ferried off a bent cigarette butt back to their subterranean kingdom. Maybe next time, I’ll just bring a book.

Objects in the Mirror...

Trusty Unit 4 is no longer the gleaming news steed of yesteryear. In fact, the 1999 Ford Explorer Sport now sports more than a hundred thousand miles. We’re not talkin’ milkman miles either, but interstate-tested, deadline-bled, into-the-wind engine attrition. It’s enough to make a news man wanna pop the hood and lay a wreath of press-passes over the engine block. But this pimped-out ride is far from over, even if its logos don’t shine quite the way they used to. The same could be said for its driver. With breaking news forever on the horizon, all I can do is grip the wheel and hold on, trying not to glimpse the rearview mirror- lest I grow distracted from the misadventures fading into the past.

A certain ice storm in late 2002 found me spinning loopy donuts in abandoned parking lots across the greater Piedmont Triad Googolplex. Despite a glaring lack of 4 wheel drive and a total absence of icy driving skills, I circumnavigated the sub-zero tundra of Central North Carolina in the name of news. Whether I was drafting behind the debris of a speeding salt truck on !-40 or cruising the frigid suburbs for that tell-tale generator hum, I figured out how to keep it between the slippery ditches the way I learned every other aspect of this silly gig - at full speed, with a deadline looming near. Now if I could only remember to turn into the skid.

“Watch out for the fog,” the old lady said between her plug of tobacco. I rolled my eyes as I pulled out of the gravel parking lot and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. Ten minutes later the woman’s words bounced around Unit 4’s interior as I held the steering wheel in a death grip and tried in vain to see past the hood. A few minutes earlier I’d been humming a tune and gawking at the incredible views just outside my window. But a slow turn up a mountain pass had sent my humble news unit into a blanket of clingy white goop. A flatlander at heart, it was all I could do to inch up the winding two lane and hope I wouldn’t plummet off into the valley below. Luckily the low-lying cloud eventually lifted, but not before I drove by sense of smell for a good twenty butt-clenching miles.

Come hurricane season, my modest Explorer transforms into a haven for rain-soaked storm-chasers. Countless are the times I’ve driven through hundred mile an hour winds, watching rain pellets race up the windshield as I traversed the empty streets of some abandoned coastal town. With sheet metal and debris bouncing off its logos, I’ve piloted my two door stallion between satellite truck encampment and wherever the cops and firefighters chose to hunker down. Usually there’s a cooler full of bottled water and granola bars sloshing in the floorboard as Stevie Ray Vaughan rips through Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile: Slight Return, my hurricane-chasing song of choice. Despite the abuse, Unit 4 usually recovers from the abuse though I’m not sure which is harder to remove: all those ingrained sand pellets or that ever do funky storm chaser smell.

Ever wonder how all those level-headed folk get their precious cars stuck in raging floodwaters? I used to - until I forged a few temporary rivers of my own. In the hours following last summer’s Hurricane Ophelia, I criss-crossed the debris-strewn corridors of Carolina Beach, gathering video, ferrying crew members and dodging jagged lumber in the swirling streets. One particular intersection proved especially treacherous, but with every other path blocked, I was forced to ply its rising waters time and time again. Of course I made it each and ever time but the roiling run-off lapping at my logos convinced me to try every method of high-water passage - from the slow hopeful creep to the pedal-standing stomp to the other side. Neither, I’d recommend.

But it doesn’t take a natural disaster to place me behind the wheel. Day in and day out, I steer my chariot from calamity to kerfluffle, heavily-equipped and often on time. A flat tire or two aside, she’s never left me stranded - though at times her flashy signage draws w-a-y too much attention. Inside, it’s a crowded office cubicle - one that brings to mind the paper-strewn pickup truck the Richard Dreyfuss character drove in ’Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. Now if only I could convince an alien mother ship to hover over my humble craft and cause the onboard electronics to go all hooey. With my luck though, it’s zip off before I got my lens trained on it and I’d be left with a broken down ride and half a laser-baked face to explain to the suits. I’m sure they’d understand...

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Stirring Ripples in the Primordial News

Cursed sweeps. Every time I build a cushion of soft news around me, another ratings period rolls around and rips me from my fluff-filled cocoon. Before I know it, I’m back on scene, dodging deadlines and hurling invectives as my erstwhile partner concocts another ninety second opera. Sound like I’m whining? You betcha, but it’s my blog after all - so settle down and pass the cheese, would ya? I’m just getting started.

It’s not that I disapprove of the daily chase, but general news is just that - general. Shattered bodies, charred foundations and half-cocked politicians…the first five minutes of your average newscast may be harmless enough from across the room, but stand too close to an open viewfinder and you’re sure to get burned out. Soon, you’ll start waking up before the sun does and watching all those flickering victims narrate their passion plays the still-dim abyss of your bedroom wall.

It happened to me. Somewhere around my 17th hundred cop car convention, I realized I’d bagged my limit. Strangely unable to raise my pulse over even the most salacious of subject matter, I learned how to step around the downtrodden with both eyes closed. As always, my one means of escape was my penchant for a good kicker and mastery of the slow dissolve. But news viewers can’t live on feel-good features alone and after an impressive run of show-ending set pieces, I somehow lost my full-time status as anchor package auteur.

Now I work both sides of the beast, crafting frothy filler one day and choking on crime scene live truck fumes the next. This, of course, makes me no different than any other news shooter but since I tend to vent out in the open like this, you get to hear about it. I’ll spare you the grisly details of a slow motion shift in news, but I hope you’ll consider what the cameraman thought the next time you lean into the set in disbelief. That way I’ll know someone’s watching with more than one eye and maybe all those squinted hours in the name of news won’t seem quite so soul-bleaching after all.

On second thought, it’ll still suck, but at least I know I’ll have something to blog about at the end of the day. And what could be more important than that?

Monday, May 01, 2006

NAB - The After Parties

Arrived (8)It occurs to me I should blog about the after-parties of NAB, before the scant details of that suds-soaked evening escape me completely. Truth is, travel fatigue has as much to do with my fuzzy memory as alcohol consumption (honest, Mom!). Monday had already been a long day when Weaver and I left the convention center floor, one filled with l-o-t-s of walking through throngs of zombified conference-goers. Throw in a little jet lag plus a few stolen hours of hotel mattress misery and you have every reason your lowly lenslinger was a little tapped out headed into the big evening. Even so, we hit the two soirees we'd originally intended to.

Vegas Stew Cam (12)The Lost Remote gathering was a classy affair. Held in one of the more posh hotel-casinos, this TV news industry website summit featured dark lighting, polite conversation and overpriced mixed drinks. I enjoyed chatting with site founder Cory Bergman, mind you - but the photog inside me insisted I knock back a quick bourbon or gin and mosey on. Weaver and I did just that, swilling the eight dollar drinks with hardly a slurp before excusing ourselves into the blazing Nevada sun. One herky-jerky cab ride later, we arrived at our primary destination, the Gordon Biersch brewery - home of this year's B-Roll Bash.

Vegas Stew Cam (5)Inside, the Pilsner Room was packed wall to wall with thirsty shooters, all enjoying free beer, good conversation and oh yeah, free beer. The host, Kevin Johnson, towered above most everyone else as he welcomed guests, made toasts and accepted congratulations. Doing my best to blend in, I secured a pilsner and headed for the light buffet, I'd barely made it halfway to the grub when a tall young photog blocked my path. "Dude, I just wanted to say I love your stuff!" the young man said with more than a hint of barley and hops on his breath. A warm feeling of flattery washed over me until he continued and ruined it all, "That thing you wrote about understanding filters was brilliant," he gushed, describing a landmark primer on understanding light sources penned by a rather clever fellow who calls himself 'Shaky and Blue' - not yours truly. Oh well, so much for fame...

Vegas Stew Cam (8)But I wasn't there strictly for an ego-stroke. Rather I wanted to pay my respects to the Photog Nation. That, and score some free food. With that accomplished, I worked the room until I ran up with someone I really wanted to meet: JL Watkins, author of the quixotical weblog, Little Lost Robot. Far more subdued in person than on his site (how could he not be?), JL entertained my curiosity with a few questions of his own. Meeting someone you think you know from on-line is always rife with surprise. In this case I was taken aback by JL's unexpected height, while he didn't know I had a southern accent (neither did I!) Throughout the evening we enjoyed a geekly exchange of photog habits and blogging tendencies, along with a couple of more designer brews from our gracious hosts.

Vegas Stew Cam (18)But this being Vegas, it was soon time to hit the open strip. Thus, we all promptly piled into one mother pf a stretch limo and cruised the neon corridors of what can truly be called Sin City. Las Vegas wasn't my favorite destination of all time. Something about the gambling halls and all that debauchery on demand just didn't appeal to me the way it did when I was surfing caribbean casinos back in my Naval days. Still, getting a chance to meet people I read every day was indeed a kick. But next year, can't we all do it in, say...Aspen?