Friday, November 05, 2004

Chasing Strangers

The Jug-Eared Driver Zigged When I Was Sure He'd Zag...

I was pursuing a freshly-convicted NASCAR rookie down a darkened Courthouse stairwell the other day and it just wasn't going well. For starters, the jug-eared driver zigged when I thought sure he'd zag - ducking into a side stairwell exit the moment he left the courtroom. Of course I dashed after him, but only to give him a chance to talk about his brand new DUI - and maybe give him one of our nifty station fridge magnets.

But it seems the freshly-scrubbed race car driver didn't want to talk shop (or anything else) and he fled down the stairs with great haste. Before I could get to the doorway, his posse of litigators and hangers-on drafted in behind him and blocked my path. As we jostled in unison down the winding stairs, the driver's entourage spread out into an impenetrable flank. The young racer pulled away and the only thing I caught on tape was a jarring series of well-tailored elbows.

Quickly we descended, four steps and to the left, four steps and to the left. Which each step my frustration mounted. By the time we'd made it past the second floor landing, I'd given up on any interior shots and was trying to recall the layout of the parking lot I would soon be bounding across. Below me, the race car driver within inches of the outside exit...

That's when I heard the sweet sound of a heavy metal door NOT giving way, followed by muffled cursing of a southern variety. Trouble in Turn Two, I thought as I rounded the final four stairs.

On the ground floor, the lanky NASCAR driver in his Sunday best stood rather meekly, surrounded by his lawyers, trophy girl, and gas man. They all looked up at me sourly as I paused on the landing. Slowly reaching up and turning on my camera‘s top light, I could barely suppress a smug grin. I rolled tape, slow-motion back-pedaled up the stairwell and bathed the reluctant racer and his crew in bright spotlight. Two flights up, I let them brush past. After all, rubbin's racin'...

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Becoming Me

His Main Concern Was That His Cheek-Bone Implants Be In Focus...

I began my TV career cranking out commercials for fat lady dress shops and used car lots, until fate placed me on scene at a hostage situation with a betacam and a bad hangover. After that, I was hooked on Electronic News Gathering and soon found myself accompanying reporters to events both scintillating and dull. That went on for awhile and I learned alot. It was the dawning of the age of 'COPS' and I followed more drawn pistols into more drug-infested hovels than I could keep track of. But the most hazardous duty I ever pulled was babysitting a certain reporter we'll call 'Blayne'.

Blayne was a pretty boy wannabe from the monied enclaves of the Old South. Never one to be bothered with natural sound and sequenced video, he was only concerned with making sure I got his cheek-bone impants in focus. Here I was learning to be a spot-news lenslinger and day after day all this gentrified pansy cared about was where his overstuffed make-up case was.

So, in an effort to rid myself of this life-sized Ken doll, I made a deal with the devil and became a one-man-band. I bought a few suitcoats, a few ties and trimmed my mullet into something more suitable for broadcast. More importantly, I learned to shoot in the can, frame my own stand-ups and write under deadline. Everything I put on air wasn't perfect but I learned lessons during my time as a solo artist that pay off to this very day.

But after jumping ship to a rival station and becoming a 'one-man-band bureau chief' (ugh!), I started getting a little crispy. Though my newsgathering skills were honed to a razor sharp edge, I still cringed whenever I saw myself on-air. Truth be told, my on-camera schtick was the weakest part of my skill set, and while my bosses never complained, they didn't exactly shower me with the cushiest of gigs. Instead, they relied on me to fill their newscasts with enough crime and grime to choke a vice cop. So when an unlikely chance to take over my station's promotions department came up, I jumped on it - even though I knew I'd soon regret it.

Boy, did I. Two years of cranking out schlock for the world's most unsavory GM left me thinking about climbing the tower out back and picking off co-workers with my paint-ball gun. Instead, I thought long and hard about what it was I wanted to do in TV. I wasn't dying to get back on air, having never felt entirely comfortable with it in the first place. No, what I wanted to do was take pictures, capture sound, and mold it all into a cohesive story by each day's end. So I slapped together an escape tape, scored a photog gig in a larger market and told the GM where to stuff his promos.

Career-wise, it was the best thing I ever did. Free of small-market limitations and with the help of some truly kick-ass shooters, I took my skills to a whole new level. Whatsmore, I used what I'd learned as a one-man-band to perfect my own brand of the anchor package. Now, whenever staffing shortages don't tie me to a reporter, I operate solo - shooting writing and editing packages that our anchors voice. For me, it's great: I get to put the stories together the way I want to, never having to worry about reporter two-shots, unwatched shoot tapes, or being written into a hole.

Yes, my time in front of the lens and behind the pen has made me a better photojournalist. I even dabble in some on-air voodoo once in awhile in the form of the occasional morning live shot substitute gig. Why do I punish myself (and the viewers at large) with visions of my ugly mug over their morning coffee? Ego, perhaps. But more importantly, to slay that dragon I once only wounded - and to show that dry-cleaned blowhard Blayne that even an under-groomed, under-educated photog can make good TV.

Loitering With The Enemy

A Little Company at the Crime Tape Can Be a Good Thing...

Long ago a friend outside the business asked me how I reacted when a competing news crew pulled up on whatever 'news scene' I was covering.

When I told him that nine times out of ten I was grateful for the company, he seemed disappointed. He'd seen too many made-for-TV movies, I'm guessing - the kind where competing news crews treat each other like comic book super villains. I explained to him that when you're the poor schmuck picked to baby-sit the courthouse / train wreck / body search all day, a little company can be a good thing.

In fact, I've had some of the most bizarre and enjoyable field encounters with employees of rival TV stations... be it poker games in the drowning-scene sat truck, practical jokes at the tornado-strewn trailer park or hushed information swaps at the triple-homicide crime tape. Hey, I'm all for eating the other guy's lunch - but in the field, collusion with the enemy is sometimes useful.

That is of course, barring any and all personality disputes. Our business is rife with pompous fools and over-groomed blowhards, and it doesn't take very long for members of the local media to recognize who the righteous jerks are. Some bone-head pulling up late to a gang-bang interview brandishing a microphone flag and an attitude are a natural occurrence in the news gathering wildlife. Natural selection is a wonderful thing.

However, most news people I come into contact with are clever, astute and interesting. We are, as a breed, wary observers of life with a low threshold for bullshit and a penchant for cynicism. I like that. And unless the person at the tripod beside me is a total worm, I'm prone to converse. I've made far more friends than enemies doing so, and I've learned lots in the process.

Is that so wrong?

Monday, November 01, 2004

Dreading the Election

By the Time the Candidate Emerges from Seclusion, I'll No Longer Care...

Ahhh, Election Day! There's no other twelve hour shift I'd rather spend making widgets than the day we put Democracy to the test. No matter where my news camera and I end up, it's usually an exercise in slow-motion.

There's the early morning polling place live shots where the only thing more annoying than the anchor banter in my earpiece are the steely-eyed Election Grannies clocking my every move - fearing I'll knock over one of the booths with my tripod and spill the popular vote all over the gymnasium floor.

A little later there's all the free-for-all stalk-fest of the local Congressman/Dog Catcher candidate casting his vote, when suddenly the guy in all those scathing campaign spots DOESN'T want to talk on camera. Instead, he just wants to look Presidential as he emerges from behind the voting curtain, hoping no cameras caught him fumbling with the 'Vote For Me' thingy seconds earlier.

Don't forget the noon live shot, a totally useless broadcast moment staged outside of the polling place in which well-coiffed reporters judge local turn-out by the number of people they spotted in their three minutes of being on-scene. Minus the ninety seconds they spent checking their look in the camera's lens reflection. Take that, Zogby!

It's much the same scene for the five and six o clock newscast, except by now the production staff back at the station is in full campaign swing, gorging on free pizza while the field crews spread Chap-Stick on a cracker and call it Dinner. Expect the cheesy anchor chick to add to the overall indigestion by recanting a cute story from her own polling place during cross-talk. Hey, it's not an election until the Anchor Queen votes!

Things really start popping when the polls begin closing around 7 pm, and all the live trucks break camp from the local gyms and churches to head straight for the posh ballrooms, where glassy-eyed constituents wear funny hats and huddle around TV screens. If you're lucky they want even notice you scarfing a few rubber chicken plates from the back tables.

Before the internet there was more to shoot at these overdressed gatherings, but the days of dry-erase boards and frantic bag-phone calls are long gone. Now there's little more to accomplish than check out the opposite sex and of course, go alive every fifteen minutes with continuing team smotherage of "Slogan Wars '04".

This being a Presidential Election, most of the focus will be on the ubiquitous wide-screen TV at campaign headquarters. At least try and switch the channel to that of your employer. The suits back at the shop will appreciate it and you may just start a turf war among the reporter-types. That's always good for a few laughs.

If you're unlucky enough to be camped out with a local candidate (as most of my breed will be), you don't even have to check the tally to see how your guy is doing. If all is well the assembled movers and shakers will meet you with warmth and revelry, but if your candidate's falling behind, expect accusatory stares and the occasional rude hand gesture. Before you know it, those who welcomed you in earlier with a hardy backslap will be eyeing you with icy disdain - as you document their last great hope's utter downfall. Not the time to get caught swiping a chicken plate.

Win or lose, it'll be a long evening. By the time the local candidate emerges from seclusion to accept his mandate or merely thank all his supporters, I'll no longer care - knowing only a half dozen more live shots and three morning show re-cuts stand between me and bedtime.

Did I mention I hate Election Day?

Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Legend of 'LIVE 3'

The Lumbering Beast Drove Like a Runaway Stagecoach...

Until a couple of years ago, my station had an old school live truck - a mid-80's Chevrolet Suburban forever designated as "LIVE 3."

LIVE 3 was a beast, one with more than a few battle scars. In some ways it was a rolling history lesson. A quick glance over the bleached-out white paint job revealed at least four generations of faded logos. To open the side doors and peek inside was to look back in time: an outdated tape deck that whizzed and hummed like a printing press, dials and levers from the golden age of radio, ancient cell phones the size of lava lamps.

But to really experience LIVE 3, one had to crawl behind the wheel and crank its sputtering, wheezed-out engine. After a few puffs of black smoke, you were ready to roll, but it could be an awful lonesome ride - for Live 3 offered few amenities. No A/C, no speedometer, no fuel gauge, no power steering...the radio was so ancient it only picked up static and oldies stations.

But that wasn't the worst of it, the great lumbering beast handled like an runaway stagecoach. In fact, one didn't drive Live 3, one held on for dear life and hoped for the best. It had two speeds - stopped and fully floored, touching it's accelerator was like tipping over a brick. The steering wheel shook so violently, photogs couldn't shoot handheld for days after driving it. I'm telling you, it was bad.

Despite it's legendary status among the shooter set as a rolling deathtrap, the suits insisted it remain in service. Once they vowed only to use it in cases of emergencies, or spot news. But soon after, flower-shows and bloodmobiles were considered reason enough to kick-start the sleeping giant. And when we did, it usually kicked back. I'll never forget the time I was breaking down after a crime-tape live shot. When I killed the engine it issued two sharp backfires, sending officers and citizen scrambling for drive-by cover. Making the SWAT team piss themselves is no way to win friends on the force.

As for LIVE 3, it took an army of photogs to kill it. Though it lurched along on it's last legs for far too long, it eventually expired of natural causes: Death by E.N.G. (Electronic News Gathering). Mercifully, a shiny new WolfCoach model rolled in soon after, and the bosses held off on a much discussed engine overhaul exorcism of LIVE 3. A naive production grunt actually bought the damn thing from the station, incurring the ridicule of anyone ever held hostage behind its wheel. Not surprisingly, the grunt's big plans for LIVE 3 didn't pan out and he quickly unloaded it on a local grease-monkey. Occasionally I'll catch sight of it in the overgrown lot, and wonder of the stories it could tell.

Just don't make me drive the bloody thing.

Another Day at the Office

On the Job
Originally uploaded by Lenslinger.
Morning Drive to the Mountains = 2 hours

Drive-thru Lunch = $5.97

Digging Your Job = Priceless