Saturday, December 11, 2004

Dumpster Diving at the DMV

On a bone-cold February morning I took part in what’s long been a newsgathering tradition: dumpster diving. This time it was behind the DMV, where a year earlier my reporter for the day uncovered a soggy cache of decidedly un-shredded expired drivers licenses. Having milked that stash for a whole series of special reports, we were back for more, dressed like ninjas and poking our lens through a few more stout vessels of refuse. As I pierced the darkness with my camera’s top-light, a young lady who once sat in some lofty hall of Journalism and fantasized about a glamorous job in TV News squeezed herself through the smelly opening of a rusty dumpster. So much for dreams.

Before long we hit pay dirt: more intact licenses, sliced a little and nicked on the corners, but still clear bearers of easily-exploitable data. ‘Witness, the spoils of Garbalogy!’ I thought as I twisted the focal ring until the image was razor-sharp. People go to school for this? My partner sure did and she squealed with delight at her next discovery: processed speeding tickets, stacked and intact - chock full of easily viewable personal information. The reporter suppressed a chuckle as she fanned the familiar pink ticket slips in front of my lens and narrated her find. I squinted through the viewfinder and thought about breakfast. A few phone calls to this new list of lead-foots and we’d surely uncork someone to point a camera at. The rest would write itself. I love the smell of sweeps promos in the morning.

We could have stopped there, and probably should have. But as the pitch black of night melted into morning light we put off the breakfast bar for an impromptu strike on a certain cross-town waste container. Like junkies on the prowl, we soon loitered at the edges of a different DMV’s back parking lot, shifting from foot to foot and jonesing for another hit.

Trouble was dawn had turned to daylight and all elements of subterfuge were lost. Tough break, that. You try sifting through a DMV dumpster with a flashy TV camera while a dozen state troopers pass by on their way to morning muster. More than one of the high-and-tight haircut set crept by painfully slow in their unmarked Crown Vics, no doubt committing my face, logo and license plate to memory for future possible harassment. I’m still waiting to be pulled over for 36 in a 35 and immediately strip searched for having sunflower seeds in my ashtray and a half-opened RC Cola in the back.

I hate when that happens.

Spotlight: Kevin Sites

Here at Viewfinder BLUES, I humbly offer a portal to my world, a chance to ride shotgun as I skewer the mighty and trip on the downtrodden - all while juggling an expensive TV news camera. These dispatches may be the literary equivalent of toenail clippings, but its what comes out of my head late at night. I'm just tickled silly someone might actually be reading this, and would like to take this opportunity to thank the seven of you who've stopped by so far. Come back often, as I have alot to share over the coming year.

But I'd be remiss in launching this endeavour without acknowledging someone I've never met but unknowingly emulated. His name is Kevin Sites and he's a freelance solo journalist currently on assignment for NBC in Iraq. His blog is The Real Deal, with postings that are electric, funny and harrowing. I urge you to visit, for in my not so humble opinion, it's the very best of what a broadcaster's blog can be.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Making the MarVan

I haven't ALWAYS been a news man. At one point I joined the Dark Side. That's right...Station Promotions. For a couple of painful years I served as Chief Harbinger of In-House Tripe for a station ninety minutes East of Raleigh.

I answered straight to the GM, a man of towering smarm who's immense unlikability was matched only by his unbridled ambition . Evil as he was, the man was an idea machine, constantly spewing out elaborate promo campaigns and looking to me to bring them to the screen. I usually managed to do so, despite working with the very latest in twenty-five year old technology.

One day the unlikable hack walked in spewing hype and promises about the 'Pinpoint Weather System'...a series of weather data stations spread throughout our market sending back real time temperatures and conditions with 'pinpoint accuracy'.

To sex it all up, the plan called for one mobile weather station, a tricked out Ford Aerostar with our weatherman's picture plastered on the side and a high-dollar wind sock blowing in the breeze. We'd traverse our hyphenated market in this rolling billboard spewing forth weather data and soaking up the love from viewers dazzled by our high-tech brilliance.

But none of this could happen until I built a dozen or so thirty second spots from scratch, using nothing much more than cheesy in-house graphics and our goofy weather guy to hype the imminent arrival of 'Pinpoint Weather'. So I slogged ahead, chain-smoking over my Macintosh and conjuring up cliches until I had enough scripts for the new "PinPoint Mobile Weather Van".

Soon a non-descript stripped-down Ford Aerostar arrived at the station. Once the local stock car racing detailers completed their work, it sported flashy logos and an oversized picture of our chief meterologist's silly mug. It only took the 'Pinpoint' guys a few hours to install the funky weather antenna, after which I took our newly pimped-out ride to a curvy road for a series of beauty shots. With an assistant driving my pick-up, I sat in the bed with a betacam as we made endless loops around the damn thing. It was the middle of summer and I picked bugs out of my teeth for days afterward.

WIth scripts voiced, footage shot and graphics cut, I sequestered myself in an old match-frame edit suite for the better part of a week. When I emerged I had a series of flashy vignettes breathlessly extolling the virtues of our new 'Pinpoint' weather technology. With each spot, I showed a little more of The Van, the last of them featuring every trick shot of the cursed boxy vehicle I could come up with, most of which are still imprinted on my frontal lobe.

When the campaign hit the airwaves, it was deemed a big success, and I received much praise from the man I was quickly becoming convinced was the Spawn of Satan. Beelzebub even hired some flunky to drive the van around the region, making sure he theatrically polished it's fender at every stop. For quite some the van, its windsock and driver consumed my every waking moment. What fun!

Still, the 'Pinpoint Mobile Weather Van' didn't really register with our viewers until an anchor happened to rename it. One night she threw to Chief Meteorologist Marvin Daugherty with a poke at the new station vehicle that bore his likeliness.

"Hey, I saw you earlier in the Mar-Van!"

The words had no more left her lips when my GM seized on the marketing possibilities. Soon I was back at my Mac, cranking out cheesy new scripts that yucked it up about the "Mar-Van". We ran the new spots into the ground until the buzz took hold. Soon 'The Mar-Van' entered the local lexicon and we hoked it up for far more than it was ever worth.

Eventually I escaped the forces of Promo Darkness and landed in a newsroom hours away. But back home the Mar-Van still cruises the coastal plains and stops at every wombat festival along the way. I know this, because I see it in my dreams.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Into the Wild

I used to work alot of A.M. shifts, running camera and live truck for our four hour mega-morning never ending newscast. An admited coffee hound to begin with, I came to rely on the early morning bean for that much needed energy jolt.

On many a pre-dawn raid I packed a thermos the size of a warhead on board whatever TV live truck I happened to be flying. It was a must. Early morning live shots can be grueling -' rushing from one location to another, raising the mast, tuning in, pulling cable, setting up, lighting, and whatever else it takes to spice up the marathon of live remotes.

For me that spice was caffeinated java. I took on slow gallons of the store-bought bean, all while dragging cameras and cables around every riot, rodeo and Red Cross in our fair parcel.

Trouble was, all that coffee had ill effects on the body photog. It's not that it made me jittery - no matter how jacked to the gills I may have been, I put my live camera work up against anyone's - super-jacked-to-the-max or straight-up decaf. The camera comes first.

No, my jag with the juice was of a more...diarrhetic variety. A time or two, that ole quivery feeling in the back of the knees hit me while I was trying to hold a camera steady on a reporter, potted plant or both. Couple the gastro-gurgle with biting cold weather and you have the recipe for high-anxiety. OOF! I'll spare you the details, but let's just say it's not easy to do the one-eyed camera backpedal when you got a LAUNCH COMMIT! in the nether-regions. Know what I mean, Vern?

I could usually take care of business like a gentlemen, but overnite shootings and icy bypasses don't have porta-potties, ya know. You try to uphold your Mother's standards when you're stuck in the rural highlands with 800 CC's of high-dollar Starbucks onboard. Only twice have I had to set down the camera quickly and make an impromptu mad-dash for the treeline, venturing off on a lone walk with nature, a bivouac best left undocumented.

There was that one time, after spending hours alone in a live truck parked on the icy interstate. I was already dancing foot-to-foot when the last remote ended. As I scrambled to break down the truck the urge to go almost overwhelmed me. But all around, morning traffic zoomed past - making any clandestine bladder relief impossible.

All I could do was gather up my cables as fast as possible, and plot my desecration of the nearest gas station restroom I could find. Imagine my alarm when the live truck wouldn't drop. Having towered over my frosty perch all morning, the damn thing was encased in a thick layer of ice - the telescopic sections frozen in their fully-extended position.

"Yeah, no problem", said the engineer over my cell phone as I pressed my knees inward in a desperate attempt to hold back the impending gush, "see if you can get some hot water to pour over the mast. That should crack the ice and you'll be on your way."

Knowing the only warm liquid available was the eight gallons roiling in my mid-section, I fought the urge to climb the truck and let 'er rip. Instead I hopped lock-kneed circles around the truck, imagining the pile-up I'd cause if I did baptise the live truck in such an unceremonious fashion.

After much gnashing of the teeth I locked up my frozen vessel and hobbled toward the forest, like some staion-logo wearing Sasquatch scampering over the ice floe. Seconds after disappearing into the thicket several square feet of icy expanse were feverishly melted. Ahhh...sweet relief!

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Crimes of the Camcorder

Attending a child's school play can be hard on the photojournalist. Take tonite for instance. While at my daughter's latest acting venture, I literally had to sit on my hands while a sea of Soccer Moms and Nascar Dads mistreated an awful lot of consumer camera equipment. I only hunkered down in my folding chair though, flashing the random thumbs-up to my second grader and suppressing the urge to stand up and scream...

"You there, Ma'am - with the flip out screen and itchy zoom finger! Are you trying to give your whole family epilepsy? Get closer, widen out that shot and stop all the zooming and panning or I swear I'll break both your thumbs!"

"And you sir! That's a tripod, not a coat rack! Stick your camera on it and use your glass! You'll be way ahead of the rest of these clowns! Otherwise little Johnny's gonna burst into tears when he finds out he's one of fifteen blurry specks on your tape! He'll never go to college, move into the basement and mooch off you forever - all because you didn't use the very tools you spent his college money on!"

"Now listen up Grandma! Your batteries aren't dead and your camera's not broken. Listen to me very carefully 'cause I ain't gonna say this twice... YOU GOT THE LENS CAP ON! That little black circle covering up the shiny round thing! It's attached by string for a it can dangle! LET IT DANGLE! So help me I'll come over there and get us all arrested if you don't remove the bloody lens cap!


Ahem. With my lovely bride sitting beside me and digging her fingernails into my wrist, I knew better than to unleash my inner Speilberg. No, I just sat there - grinning like a buffoon at my beautiful daughter, chewing the inside of my cheek and wondering what tax accountants daydream about at times like these.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Danger Will Robinson!

Is that a TV camera or the robot from 'Lost In Space'? Decide for yourself, by visiting Tim Rutherford's on-line shrine to a place most TV stations have done away with these days, the Photog's Lounge.

Tell him Lenslinger sent ya!

The Year in E.N.G.

The camera on my shoulder takes me to the most unexpected places. It’s one the few reasons I still pick up the damn thing. But its always been that way back here, behind the big TV lens. This job won't fill your pockets with silver, but it will render you rich in unique life experiences (try sticking those in the ATM!). It’s a fact I’m faced with this time of year, when I flip through my day planner to decipher 52 weeks of quickly-jotted news notes. Join me, won’t you - as I hit the highs and lows of what so far, has been a pretty typical twelve months behind the lens. I give you 2004 - The Year In E.N.G. (that’s Electronic News Gathering, ya chuckleheads).


I kicked off the year in high style, huddling with the transients at the local shelter, collecting shots and coercing soundbites from a line of diners for a report on North Carolina’s homeless population. As always, my lens and demeanor was met with glee and rancor - depending on the blood alcohol level of the chow-line crowd. But I come in peace, realizing there is no ONE way to ending up in the homeless shelter. A thousand bad decisions and plain dumb luck can get you there. I learned that the first time an old acquaintance called my name from a top cot. Since then, I don't pass judgments; on my deadline I ain't got the time. As matter of personal policy my dealings with the downtrodden is polite, professional and perfunctory.
“Hi, Channel X - wanna talk on camera? No Sir, I don't have a cigarette, just the opportunity to have your opinion heard - What's that? No Sir, you don't HAVE to be on television. Okay Sir, put the fork DOWN...Medic!"
Days later I found myself trailing a 12 year old girl scout cookie selling champ as she prowled the selling floors of Greensboro’s much ballyhooed ‘Motor Mile’. With order form and green sash in tow the young lady moved from sales associate to parts manager to the F& I Guy, all with me shadowing her every move. We must have looked pretty silly. Still, the sales weasels we encountered seemed prepared; they coughed up an order or four with a barely a shuck and a grin. I’d have felt better about the whole enterprise had it not been for the dour look on the child’s face and the hovering Stage Mother just out of frame. Of course I couldn’t escape their clutches without puttin’ in for four boxes of Thin Mints. Mmm, Thin Mints.

The latter part of the month found me in Burlington, where I ran around a ‘walking tour’ of a Cold War era missile factory. Now shuttered and chained, the sprawling facility once cranked out miles of missiles and scores of warheads for Uncle Sam. That day a man with the company trying to sell the rundown plant led a roving clutch of journalist, unnamed suits and retirees up and down the factory floor. It was a time capsule of a tour. From the faded shag carpeting in the executive offices to the burnt orange linoleum in the employees lounge, the place screamed Mid Seventies Missile Factory - just don't ask about that weird glow coming from that back hallway.

But my silly trip through the next Austin Powers movie set was a savored stroll through the good ole days for the gentleman at the back of the pack. A trio of Grandfathers clad in ballcaps and Members Only jackets hobbled along slowly, mouthing words to another I could not hear. As soon as I had them in my sights, I grew entranced. My quick sprint through yesterday’s Industrial machine turned into their forced march through history. It explains why they all got misty at the faded letter board behind the lunch counter, I watched it all through the cross hairs and got a little misty too, But my tears could have been from that weird pool of chemicals seeping down that back hallway. Just a guess.
Next time on The Year In E.N.G...what else? February!

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Shallow Water in the Camera Pool

Camera Pool: When physical space or strict guidelines permit only ONE camera at a news story, forcing the rest of the media pack to make copies and gripe about it.

I've been in ALOT of pool camera situations - from V.I.P. funerals to high-profile court cases to presidential visits. It's always a headache, no matter what position you play. But when you're the one peering through the viewfinder, it's time to get it right.

I'd barely been shooting six months when I covered a local child molestation trial that was attracting national attention. After shooting walk-downs and throwing frisbees in the parking lot for a couple of days, it was my turn to man the pool cam.

Fraught with boredom, I spent much of my morning behind the court camera daydreaming, not really aware a room full of crusty news veterans two doors down were critiquing my work as I shot it. When I finally did duck my head in the crowded press room during the lunch break, a table full of journeymen photogs and reporters looked up from the field record-decks and gave me a collection of long sour looks.

"Dude, use your glass", said a portly shooter with a bad ponytail. "You can't just park it and nod off. Give us some cutaways."

Feeling like a complete rookie, I slunk back to my camera position for the rest of the lunchbreak and re-evaluated my latest career choice. I had just about decided to pursue professional bowling when I noticed the defendant scanning a newspaper someone had left on a bench. As she picked it up I quietly pointed the camera toward her and rolled tape.

The defendant, a female employee of a child care center caught in a firestorm of accusations, was facing charges following the sex-abuse conviction of her boss. His particular fate had consumed the media and when a jury found him guilty of multiple charges of child molestation, the headlines screamed the news.

Including the newspaper the female defendant was now leafing through. When she stopped to read the front page, the top of the sheet folded over into view, as if heavy from the bold face screaming details of the newly convicted child molester. Her forehead wrinkled with concern that she might soon join her boss in ther big house, and as she chewed on her lip nervously, I slowly zoomed in.

Suddenly camera flashes popped all around me as the still photogs got in on the act. The female defendant looked up and gave all us media jackals a glaring sneer for the ages. In the distance, a muffled whooping sound rang out from the pressroom.

It was only a fleeting moment but the shot of the defendant sneering at the camera graced the front of the state paper that day. We TV types preferred the footage of her grimacing at the headline, and it soon became an over-the-shoulder graphic for at least two stations' continuing team smotherage.

Of course my stock shot upward in the pressroom that afternoon and I learned a thing or two about staying focused when the Big Show's in town. In the years since, I've endured a myriad of other pool-cam histrionics, but I'm always hesitant to give some rookie grief for not meeting my lofty cinematic standards.

Unless they're a tool about it. Then I'm relentless.