Saturday, December 04, 2004

Kickin' it Old School

I love shots from the early days of TV News. The vintage technology, the unbridled hubris, the fact that everyone's dressed like the villians from 'The Matrix'. It's far cry from today, when many of the shooters look like a Hoobastank roadie on a three day bender.
Check out Big 13 for Mike Clark's most impressive look at the formulative years of Florida powerhouse affiliate, WTVT. Even if you don't know a film-chain from a vectorscope, you'll dig this trippy visit to a TV station from another time.

Friday, December 03, 2004

The Art of the Grab

I grimaced at the live truck masts. Through the windshield I saw them poking up above the houses , two thin metal poles wrapped in heavy cable and topped with transmitter dishes. Great. I’d hoped the Habitat for Humanity groundbreaking would be an intimate affair, but those leaning poles in the distance told me I was heading into a multiple morning show live shot circus. Did I mention I was running late?

Not only that, my trusty news unit was currently sucking fumes, threatening to strand me in this out-of-the-way, rundown neighborhood. Parking by a row of porta-potties, I killed the engine and put the matter of buried gas needles out of my mind. A fairly good feature story was happening down the street and if I didn’t hurry I was going to miss it. Grabbing my camera and sticks, I double-timed it down the pavement, extending the tripod’s battered legs as I loped awkwardly down the road.

I jogged past my competitors’ live trucks, following their cable through a thicket of contractors, volunteers and the professionally curious. At the center of the ball cap-wearing pack, a swarthy construction foreman stood in the center of cement pad and drawled into a bullhorn.

“Ah wanna thank ya’ll for comin’ out t’day…”

Skirting the inner edges of the assembled tool smiths. I held my camera high and let the station logo help part the crowd. When I found a suitable spot near a stack of lumber, I planted my tripod and framed up a shot of the foreman. As the ‘Record’ light shone in my viewfinder, I scanned the crowd for the faces I needed.

To my left a fellow photog from the local NBC shop returned my gaze, rolling his eyes at the speaker’s cornpone delivery. Beyond him I could see the CBS shooter staring into his own lens. Sweeping the crowd, I locked eyes with a pretty blonde woman I vaguely recognized. When she noticed my temporary stare, she broke into a perfect grin and waved a press release in my direction, ‘PR flak’, I thought as I looked around slowly, searching stranger’s faces for my primary target.

Ten people down, I spotted her. A plump black woman in an ill-fitting work-shirt, she clasped her hands under her chin and chewed her bottom lip, trying to contain her smile. I had no idea what the woman who’s home was being rebuilt today looked like, but judging from the quivering joy radiating from this careworn looking woman, I’d found my quarry. Reaching over and panning the camera her way, I leaned into the eyepiece and punched in. Through the blue haze of the viewfinder, I rode the focus until the woman’s face appeared on the one inch screen. As the swarthy foreman credited a higher power for the crowd’s generosity, the woman mouthed ‘Amen’. ‘Amen’, I agreed as I made note of the camera’s time code so I could quickly access the shot that would be used to tease her story later, ‘Amen, indeed’.

But there was no time to pause. I still needed many, many other shots to make up the story I’d been assigned to tell. Back at the station, my producer was banking on yet another feel-good piece from me to round out his five o clock show. Actually he was probably watching a Blind Date marathon on the small cable set that sat on his desk, but he’d pitch a first class fit if I came back with anything less than the ninety-second masterpiece he envisioned. Besides, he’s already ordered an over the shoulder graphic from the Art Department down the hall. I was still shooting establishing shots, but the subject matter was already being shaped into commodity back at the ranch.

Which is why I leapt into action the moment the foreman wrapped up his speech by declaring the building blitz underway. As plumbers, carpenters and electricians grabbed their tools, I shouldered mine and waded into the Carhartt-wearing crowd. For the next half-hour I shot furiously, operating on a kind of auto-pilot honed over years of crafting reality into buck-thirty time capsules. Though I’d not taken part in the previous week’s coverage of the suspicious fire that destroyed the newly-constructed Habitat home, this was not my FIRST building blitz. Hammers, saws and pre-fab walls, they’re all hallmarks of your garden variety construction piece. I trudged forward and collected the iconic shots one-by-one, using the early morning sun to my advantage and thinking how I’d weave all the natural sound I was capturing around whatever script I came up with for the anchors to read.

But I wasn’t the only digital interloper on the scene. With the other two TV photogs tethered to their live trucks by the long stretch of cable, it was relatively easy to stay out of their way. A pesky newspaper photographer was another story. The tall lensman from the local daily seemed to be attached to my side, more the product of sound picture judgment than any desire to emulate me. Still, as I squatted by a corner of the cement pad, waiting for the men in flannel to raise the first skeletal wall, he loitered as well, no doubt waiting for the same silhouette shot I was hoping for. When the men raised the wall, their backlit forms punched nicely against the Carolina Blue sky. As I rolled on the action, I could hear the still photog’s shutter clicking rapid-fire. From the number of shots he was firing, I guess he thought this might be ‘The Shot’ - the one frame culled from dozens of others that would appear on my morning paper tomorrow. I still got a kick whenever I unroll the local rag to see the still-life version of a shot I’d broadcast a day before.

After bagging the obligatory close-ups, the much-needed medium frames, and the all important wide-shots, I went hunting for my thankful new homeowner, I found her by the table of Krispy Kremes, handing out donuts and thanking every worker who‘d stop to listen. With a practiced casualness, I introduced myself and attached a wireless microphone to her dingy lapel. Soon I had my camera trained on the woman named Lillian, a soft-spoken sort who only sounded sure of herself when quoting scripture - which she did a lot. Of course I might do the same if an army of strangers was working furiously to build ME a new home by Christmas. As she answered my last question with another bit of biblical wisdom, the PR flak materialized over my shoulder and urged me to interview her boss on camera. I obliged, firing off several questions, even though I didn’t plan on using but a few seconds of the well-meaning but dry-as-toast bureaucrat.

After the interviews I delved back into the scrum of good ole boys as they pounded, cut and wrenched Miss Lillian’s new home into existence. The images came easy, and after documenting a few too many hammers and drills in action, I focused on the lined faces of the volunteer workers. Funky close-ups of tools at work were great but nothing told a story like a few sincere expressions. It’s the same rule of thumb that forces the news photog to look away from the house fire and back at the stunned spectators taking it all in.

For a few more minutes I wandered around, dragging my tripod from vantage point to vantage point, changing up my shots while making small talk with the smiley reporter chick from across the street. When she and her shooter walked away to shoot a stand-up, I looked around for something else to record. It was then I got ‘The Feeling’ - that unmistakable voice inside the veteran photog’s head that tells him he’s got ‘enough’. Based more on instinct than anything scientific, it’s a sensation I’ve learned not to ignore. Grabbing my sticks, I turned away from the construction fracas and trudged back toward my news unit, wondering where in the heck the nearest gas station might be.

It’s a living.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Pot Shack

"What was the worst job you ever had?", asked a favorite website message board. I pondered over it, and for once the answer had nothing to do with TV News.Remember the part of the Guns and Roses song "Welcome To The Jungle", where Axl Rose screams "YOU'RE IN THE JUNGLE BABEEEEE!"? Hearing that always takes me back to the worst job I've ever had.

It was aboard my first ship during my far from illustrious naval career. Fresh from tech school, I was eager to show my newly-learned radar reading prowess in the cushy confines of Combat Information Center. No such luck. A burly Chief with a bad tattoo soon informed me ALL junior enlisted had to serve three months 'mess crankin' - the U.S. Navy's indentured servant program designed to staff their many kitchens.

It wasn't so bad at first - pushing a mop on the messdecks was something I'd done plenty of in boot camp. Ever the schemer, I soon weaseled my way into a cooking gig in the Chief's Mess. For about a week I had it made - cooking up burgers to order for senior enlisted, and eating every third jumbo shrimp that passed my way. The food was GREAT, a far cry from the dogfood they fed us on the messdecks. Soon I was trying to figure out how to smuggle this top-shelf chow out of the kitchen
to sell belowdecks.

I never got a chance to perfect my plan, though. To make a long story only a little shorter, something I said to a humourless Master chief was misconstrued as a smart aleck remark (I know, I was as shocked as you are). Before I could swipe another jumbo shrimp for the road I was being escorted several decks below to a terrifying place I'd only heard about...

The Pot Shack, a 12 by 12 foot closet with large industrial sinks lining every wall. Just off the junior enlisted mess decks, it was where our fellow slaves brought every dirty pot, pitcher and baking pan used in feeding the troops. But there was no automatic washing machine. No, that was my job.

For two solid months I, along with a guy from Coco Beach, Florida whom everyone called 'Maggot', manned the two, wildly whipping oversized hot water sprayers that hung from the overhead. We'd pull ten hour shifts, scrubbing, spraying and cussing as ceiling-high stacks of food-encrusted cookware backed up outside. With steam rising from the dish-filled sinks, visibility was pretty nil inside the Pot Shack.

Not that there was anything to see. From morning to night, we were soaking wet as we reached into three foot deep sinks of scalding water with two feet of protective gloves (you do the math). No matter how hard we busted those suds, we never, ever, ever got caught up. The two losers who relieved us every evening never failed to bitch about the leftover dirty dishes and they'd always pay us back in return the following mornings.

There was also no love for the Pot Shack Warriors. As our fellow shipmates walked by, they always paused to mock and sneer - laughing at our slumped, soaking wet forms. If it weren't for the battered waterproof cassette player strapped to the bulkhead blaring late eighties metal, I may have lost my mind inside that scalding hot prison.

Instead I hunkered down and did my time, banging my head to Maggot's musical selection while I scraped burnt cheese off of three foot wide baking pans and asking myself why in the heck I'd ever joined the Navy in the first place. However, Maggot was less troubled by our plight, seeming content to scrub the days away. He loved his tunes and played the then new "Appetite For Destruction" cassette about forty times a shift. Every time "Welcome to The Jungle" came to that certain part of the song, when Axl Rose asked, "Do you know where you are?!?...Maggot would lift his head and scream, "YOU'RE IN THE POT SHACK BABEEEE!!!" And then he would bang his head with glee as he scrubbed at abaking pan that had been used ten thousand times.

These days I only think about The Pot Shack whenenever I hear that song, or when some well-groomed reporter, who's never done a minute of hard labor in his life, is complaining about his job.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Taking the Tower 4


Every muscle in my body flexed as the white hot blast consumed everything around me. In the sliver of a second that it took the concussion grenade to detonate, sound eclipsed sight, dust motes became projectiles and I just about dropped a very expensive camera. As the echos of the blast bounced from wall to ceiling to floor and back again, I remained very still, trying to wrap my brain around what had just happened.

Flash Bang. A SWAT team's favorite tool of diversion. I'd seen (and felt) them used before in training but never so unexpectedly, and never inside such a small enclosure. The very volume of the explosion was painful. Though only a fraction of a wartime ordinance, the flash bang rendered everything instantly irrelevant when it erupted from the corner of the room. The force blew the helmet off the SWAT team member closest to it, the unmistakable sound of it's thin plastic shell skittering across the concrete floor providing a delicate filligree against the blasts painfully bass echo.

When my vision DID return, I froze like a statue, absorbing the sound and wind and light as it slowly evaporated into shadowy daylight, my eyes darting around the room for signs of injury and finding none. The SWAT team were milling about and looking at the floor, already piecing together how they'd set off the booby trap. Everyone looked pretty casual but the rapid breathing sounds coming from behind their face masks told me even they weren't expecting a concussion grenade to be stashed amid all those cardboard boxes.

Only then did I think to look at my camera. As I turned my head toward the viewfinder, the red 'Record' light stared back, a beacon in the dark that told me I'd be able to relive the proceeding moments ad infinitum.

Through the ringing in my ears, I heard the sounds of Erik's voice coming through the headphones around my neck.

"Hey Stew - you need to come outside and change pants?"

My drawers were fine, but I stumbled down the stairwell anyway. Nothing else I captured on camera would top what I'd just recorded and I was anxious to watch the footage. Over lunch. In a hillbilly diner down the road. As I stumbled out of the training tower, still a bit punch drunk from absorbing the blast, I realized that, for better or worse, I still liked my job - deadlines, flash bangs and all.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Passion Play Interruptus

I was trailing a group of enthusiastic ac-TORS on foot across the campus of Wake Forest University as they led a roving audience through an impassioned performance of "The Life Of Christ".

Several times I caught nasty looks from all involved as I inadvertently got in between the audience and the performers, my brightly-logo'd gear-laden form apparently upsetting the authenticity of their wandering outdoor drama.

It all came to a head just as Christ was about to be betrayed by his apostles. As the actor playing The Messiah gathered his flock around a tree, he paused for dramatic effect - the band of thespians and spectators hanging on his every word…


From it's low-slung position on my hip, my newly-issued pager erupted in a fit of high-pitched screams. Worse yet, with my hands full of camera it me took several prolonged seconds to lay hands on it and silence the bloody thing.

By that time, the Messiah, the Twelve Apostles and the gang of angry patrons were boring holes in my skulls with evil death-ray eyes. Forgoing my plans of sticking around for a sound-bite, I immediately slunk off like a modern-day leper - grateful not to have been stoned to death by the overzealous crowd.

Soon after I figured how to set my pager to vibrate, but to this day, I hate theatre people.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Sidewalk Karaoke

My Monday started on the steps of the County Courthouse, making small talk with familiar faces while complete strangers set up microphones and a podium. The topic at hand: a last minute clemency plea from supporters of a death row inmate. The awaiting media crush consisted of three: myself, another TV photog whose name I've never known (even though we've loitered for hours outside various scenes of tragedy together), and a newspaper photographer with the poetic moniker of H. Scott Hoffman.

Together we stood under the morning sun, commenting as lensmen will that the light is never quite right. A passing homicide detective I haven't seen in years stopped by to chat, telling me he had a new baby and asking me if I remembered that long summer afternoon in the barrio. But before I could answer, Daryl Hunt walked by and I had to get to work.

Not quite a year ago, the state of North Carolina released inmate Daryl Hunt after DNA evidence pointed to another suspect in the murder of a Winston-Salem woman. Hunt walked, but not before serving 18 years of a life sentence. Today he stood on the edge of the small crowd, his trademark skull cap and blissful glint giving him away, Within seconds my colleague and I swooped in, attaching lapel microphones and rolling tape on the affable exoneree.

Ten questions and eight answers later, Hunt melted back into the crowd and the promised rally began. I'm not sure what it says under 'rally' in the dictionary, but if there's a picture of a half dozen senior citizens staring into space while a portly legal wonk mumbles into an badly-overmodulated microphone, then yes Virginia, this was a 'rally'.

Behind the viewfinder, I rolled my eyes and watched the 'Record' light glow. On stage, the morning sun threw harsh shadows on the speaker's back, through my expensive lens, he was nothing more than a pudgy black silhouette. I wrestled with my iris and wondered for the millionth time who, if anyone, coordinates these events.

No one apparently, because the cheesy karaoke microphone sounded like just that, making the quickly-aging crowd to lean in a little and tap their earpieces. Those who turned up their hearing aids quickly regretted it, as a city worker's unbridled leaf blower soon drowned out any hope of public discourse. Thus, the deperate pleas of a death row inmate's family were swallowed up by the sounds of city sidewalk maintenance.

I love a good rally.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Pricey Mudhole

"I don't think we're gonna make the live shot..."

Taking the Tower 3


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Next time, the conclusion...