Saturday, January 08, 2005

Moon Rock Madness (2)

The next afternoon I walked by an assignment meeting and into a raging debate. Loosely huddled around a long conference table, my co-workers ignored the bank of TV monitors behind them. Instead they all stared at the starfish-shaped speakerphone in the middle of the table and argued their point.

“No one cares about some school that’s not even built yet. The moon rock’s our talker”, a shaggy young producer said. “You see last night’s numbers?”

“Sure, but unless you got men in white suits crawling all over the place I’m not putting a reporter on it”. The assistant news director poured over his Wall Street Journal with a sniper’s eye. When he found what he wanted he looked up from his fifth morning paper of the day and looked for a certain sculpted hairstyle,

“Erik, go do the school story. Stewart, go see the moon rock family. And someone get those phones!”

With my camera hung low on the shoulder strap, I rang the doorbell and counted the cars in the driveway. Five, about three too many. But at least none boasted bright TV station logos. That was my job.

The door opened and a weary looking woman in a beautician’s pant suit stared back at me.

“Mrs. Klumpf, hi - I’m Stewart from the TV station - we just wanted to follow up on the rock….”

“Yes, well we already have…” The woman’s voice trailed off as she looked over her shoulder, a confused look in her tired eyes. I followed her gaze and saw why, two middle-aged men were wrestling with a step-ladder in her living room, upsetting knickknacks and arguing astrophysics.

'Aw Geez', I thought, Not Frick and Frack from the Astronomy Club. The same two very two excitable old telescope geeks had chewed up hours of my time six months ago. I should have known they’d be here, taking measurements and complicating matters. At least they’d be good for a few sound bites, I thought as I pushed past the Moon Rock Mom.

“Not another damn ghostbuster!”, the man sitting at the kitchen table in his ball-cap sliced his pork chop and gave me the once over. Beside him, a boy of twelve or so stared over his glass of iced tea at the camera hanging off my shoulder. I hoisted my toy and powered up, recorded a shot of the he-man dinner club. A few seconds later I panned over to the the living room, where one skinny silhouette helped the fat one up the ladder. I smiled inside the viewfinder, knowing I’d just bagged my Opening Shot.

Moving on the living room, I hovered around Frick and Frack as they shined flashlights up the hole in the ceiling. To my delight, the barely acknowledged me, instead they babbled back and forth to each other in a stream of consciousness code.

"From the steep trajectory, we know it came from above!", Frick the Thin spat. "Yer darn tootin', snapped the fatter Frack, I'm a go get my scopes, W'ere puttin' this rock under the glass!"

With that Frack almost ripped the hinges off the door, caught up in a scientific frenzy I recognized from before. When the door slammed shut, I was surprised to see a tall young fellow amid the curtains. I’d never seen him before, but something about his wily afro and workman-like dress clothes screamed newspaper reporter, even before I spotted the tell-tale skinny notebook in his hand.

‘This place is getting crowded‘, I thought as the cell phone on my belt started ringing.

Next Time: Wood Chipper?

Friday, January 07, 2005

Invasion of the Idiots

A group of masked morons are 'liberating live television events' by donning absurd costumes and dancing around in the background of live shots. So far they've perpertrated their idiocy in only two live remotes, both in Rochester, New York, but their 'new chapter of media criticism' is sending ripples of outrage among the broadcasting community. WROC even went so far as to do a story on the infantile group, thus granting them some of the credibility they so apparently crave.

At the on-line watering holes, some photographers are even threatening violence, promising body-checks and paint-ball gunfights should these assinine protesters invade their canvas. Let's hope it doesn't come to that, as the photogs would no doubt lose their shirt in this age of unbridled litigation.

Me, I'm torn. No one dislikes the pointless live shots that run rampant in our trade more than I, (We call them 'dog-lick Lives'. You figure out why) but once committed to the remote, I'm not about to let some buffoon in tights ruin a day's worth of newsgathering blood sweat and tears. That said, I don't know that I'd exactly tackle these clowns either. After all it's a live shot - not open heart surgery.

Still, we folks behind the camera take what finds it way into the viewfinder very seriously. I know many a hopped-up photog who wouldn't think twice about cleaning the clock of anyone who decides to get happy feet behind a reporter, however ill-advise such a strong-arm tactic may be. One thing is for sure, we (I) here at Viewfinder BLUES will be monitoring these electronic jesters very closely, and will bring you the latest news of their most absurd theatre. I just hope we incensed broadcasters aren't playing into this group's strategy, whatever the hell that may exactly be.

Stay tuned...

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Surliest of Journalists

Long ago, someone on an NPPA tape said the TV news photographer was ’part plumber, part poet'. Try as I might, I can’t come up with a better description, for in the course of a single day, that person behind the big lens must be equal parts Magellan, MacGyver, and Mozart. From racing to an impossibly remote location to field-stripping a defective shoot tape to feathering just enough backlight on a reporter’s live shot, the photog must do it ALL. It can be a thankless job, but the lenslingers I know aren’t in it for the glory (and God knows it certainly ain’t the money). No, they put up with the grueling pace and the rotten conditions because the idea of riding a desk or assembling widgets for a daily wage robs them of their very will to live. It does me.

Sure, the public is far more impressed with the over-groomed reporter, but very often the real storyteller is that guy or gal squinting through the viewfinder. Strike up a conversation and you’ll most likely meet someone with a encyclopedic knowledge of the region, from the most exclusive enclaves to the seediest street corners to where to find that perfect shot of the local skyline. Prod a little deeper and you’ll find someone with a real affection for the area and its people, even if he does use obscure crime scenes as everyday landmarks. Just be careful with the questions, for the image of the crusty photog is no myth. Ride along with enough cops, witness enough ribbon-cuttings, and you’ll develop a thick shell too. It can come in quite handy when waiting on the body bags. Or the Governor. Especially the Governor.

I count myself fortunate to have met plenty of TV news photogs, though I know far more by face than by name. That’s just how it is on the street, where the rules of engagement demand a certain amount of interaction with the enemy. Countless are the times I’ve exchanged silent nods with logo’d strangers while loitering on the edge of some midnight tragedy. Be they unknown foes or familiar allies, the vision of another news warrior emerging from the mist is almost always a welcome sight. If for no other reason, such an encounter affords a little conversation, a chance to talk shop while babysitting the crime tape. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never even met before, for we all share a common language based on the most uncommon of perspectives, that of a career outsider with an eternal insiders pass.

Surely we’re not alone in our unspoken fraternity. Stereo salesmen and the like probably share a similar bond with their cross-town colleagues. But retail weasels don’t run into each other at plane crashes, they don’t yawn and stretch while the sirens blare, they don’t crack macabre jokes while motorists slow down to rubberneck. Even if they did, it’s hard to believe their stories are as darkly entertaining as what you might hear in the average camera scrum. It's one of the many reasons I'm proud to be a photog, and why I'd much rather break bread and share spirits with a pack of weary camera-rats than a busload of smarmy correspondents.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Moon Rock Madness (1)

It was a painfully slow news week when a perfectly good story fell from the sky. Soon after it rolled to a stop, the first of many phone calls came into the newsroom. When it did, the nighttime assignment editor barely looked up from his crossword puzzle.


Scanners crackled in the background as the goateed desk jockey’s eyebrows twitched.

“You got a WHAT in your living room?”

Sitting up, the night guy let his newspaper fall to the floor as he scanned the edges of the cavernous room. To a left, a well-coiffed reporter lounged in her cubicle with a phone to her ear. A few desks over, a photographer sat hunched over a keyboard, trying his best to melt into the screen. Behind his goatee, the assignment editor smiled. Minutes later he was back at his crossword.

In the car, the newly dispatched news crew bemoaned their new luck. ‘There’s NO WAY this is gonna turn’ they told each other as the city streets streamed by. Yet another wild goose chase. But much to their surprise the object in question lived up to its advertising, for the Klumpf family of 2240 Huff Lane did indeed have a hole in their roof, a dent in their floor and a mysterious hunk of smoldering metal to show for it.

Soon the guys from the local station house showed up at the two-bedroom ranch and started pawing over the metallic object, all while the grateful news crew rolled tape. To a man, the firefighters pawed over the cylindrical rock before passing it along. Halfway through the game of hot potato, someone mentioned those scary flying guys from the second Superman movie. That’s when a junior firefighter was sent to the truck for the Geiger counter. It read negative, everyone felt better and they all went back to sniffing at the burnished can-shape glob . What could it be? A meteorite? A hunk of space junk? The cam shaft off a late-model UFO? What ever it was, it descended on the fifteen year old home with considerable force, piercing shingle, puncturing plywood and drilling through dry board before shattering the glass top to one hideous coffee table. The mystery had begun.

Later, at the end of the ten o clock newscast, our trusted anchor team traded in their death masks for complimentary looks of wry bemusement. Between them a flat screen monitor screamed the words ‘What IS it?”. Halfway onto the second anchor’s sentence, the words on that screen turned into the nightside reporter, looking radiant in a burgundy power-suit. A lower--third graphic - ‘LIVE North High Point’ lay claim to the patch of darkness behind the her shapely form. I was at home, staring at my computer screen and only watching the ten o clock show with only one eye when the reporter’s voice caught my attention. As she hit every nuance of a well-crafted intro, I noticed the backlight feathering her shoulders.

When she finished her intro, the director back at the station punched up her pre-recorded piece and a close-up of the mysterious gray rock filled screen. The report moved quickly, with lots of angles of hands pawing over the rock in bewilderment. The mother of the family worried out loud about her damaged property, the firefighters scratched their helmets, looking out of place as they stood around the modest living room in full turn-out gear. Next a stranger in a FAA jacket said whatever it was, the lump of mysterious metal was NOT part of any known aircraft. The piece ended with the reporter leading the viewers through the projectile’s angles of impact. In a four part on-camera stand-up the attractive nightside reporter traced every angle of the rock’s trajectory, breaking down its path like Jim Garrison dissecting the Zapruder film.

Before the reporter could wrap up her live shot with a few words of wisdom on the mysterious object, the phones in the newsroom erupted one by one. They wouldn't stop ringing for quite some time.

Next Time: The Quickening...

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Handcuffed Hippie

“Over here, Tee-Vee Man!”

Shouldering my camera, I ran over to the ancient Toyota. When I did, the owner of the voice turned on his heavy policeman flashlight and lit up the interior. He trained the beam on the opened glove compartment and I followed it with my lens. Crumpled tens and twenties spilled out of the opened lid, forming a trail of currency all the way down to the grimy floorboard, where a shiny revolver glimmered in the handheld spotlight.

“He’s gonna have a hard time denying THAT!” the cop voice said.

Minutes earlier I’d been sitting in a drive-thru line, trying to decide between chicken nuggets and a hamburger. That’s when the police scanner in my news unit went nuts, spewing distant sirens and out of breath voices. The local cops were most definitely chasing someone and from the tone of their voices, it was the convenience store robber that had been eluding them all month.

Emergency dashboard lights swung wildly, bathing Memorial Drive in a swirling canvas of blue light. All around me cops high-fived each other as the mobile crime lab guys swarmed the battered hatchback. The beefy sergeant who’d just shown me the cash spilling from the glove compartment beckoned me over again with a flick of his thick forearm.

“Follow me. We got somebody needs to be on Tee-Vee!”

With that he motioned me to a unmarked Crown Victoria. Opening the back door and reaching in, he pulled out a weasely looking hippie in handcuffs. Through the viewfinder, I pulled out to a wide shot, popped my toplight and began backpedaling in front of the two men. The sergeant’s hand totally encircled the long-haired man’s bicep and as he walked in front of my camera’s gaze.

“Smile, asshole. We gon' put you in the movies.”

The long-hair shot me a sour look as the cop walked him past several squad cars. Once he figured I'd goten my viewfinder's worth, the sergeant stuffed the dirty young man in the back seat of yet another Crown Vic.

“You got enough?” asked the sergeant. I nodded, thankful for the extra help and newly determined to obey the law on this officer’s shift.

That evening, my footage led the eleven o clock newscast. Starting with a recap of the string of armed robberies, the tightly edited segment showed the money, the gun and the impromptu hippie walk down. Most viewers probably forgot about the story the moment our anchor moved on to something else. But for me, it was a significant notch in my belt; one more surreal episode that further convinced me I was in the right business.

That was more than a dozen years ago, and though I don’t chase a lot of cops anymore, I still remember that night like it was just hours ago. I bet the hippie does too.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Nat Sound Junkies

Nat(ural) Sound. It’s something TV news viewers probably never even consider, but it’s a storytelling ingredient we editor types spend a lot of time thinking about. Here’s why:

Imagine you’re watching a television news report about a tuba player convention. Chances are between the blustery reporter voice-over and on-camera interviews, you’ll hear quick audio samples of the tubas themselves. If the editor’s any good, the mighty horns will “oom-pa” all throughout the report, striking a subtle rhythm that you’d never even notice - unless it were missing. Is it any wonder we broadcasters so enjoy weaving this background noise in and out of focus? Doing so can bring more clarity and flavor to a news story than the smarmiest of on-air correspondents.

But there is a dark side. Like wide-angle lenses, canted angles and psychedelic mushrooms, nat sound can easily be overused. I once worked with a reporter who proved this beyond the shadow of a doubt. He was a talented storyteller, but his obsession with a certain camera fraternity convinced him there should be five nat sound breaks per sentence. That’s fine if you’re profiling a sound-effects factory, but otherwise this method can send a perfectly good news story into eye-rolling parody.

In the field, the reporter (who we’ll call Frank) would trail behind my lens with a wireless microphone he’d rigged to a home-made pole. He’d stick that silly thing anywhere he could think of: underneath an idling ambulance, over a group of curious bystanders, in the face of a impatient fire chef (who once memorably told him where to stick his pole). Most people who saw the big lug with the giant microphone pole figured he was a sound tech who knew what he was doing. They were half right.

Back at the station, Frank would huddle in the audio booth with his script and voice his words in a halting over-affected voice, often sounding like Captain Kirk on a bad prison phone. Afterward, he’d sit with me in the edit suite and gleefully orchestrate the placement of his precious captured sound. I went along with it for awhile, thinking this was the ‘new way’ of TV storytelling.

It wasn't. Too often (WHICKA-WHICKA-WHICKA!!) his otherwise (BRA-A-A-ACK!!) well-written stories (THUCKA-THUD!!) were (SCREECH!) just (GIZZA-GIZZA-GIZZA) too (FLARF!!) damn (WHEEEEEZLE) hard (KA-WACKA-LACK!) to (SNORK!) follow.

Finally, after confusing viewers, irking management, and sending a few audio board operators into cardiac arrest, Frank laid off the nat sound. A little. Soon after his epiphany he left our station, went to the big leagues, and eventually abandoned TV news altogether. Last I heard he was working on a fishing show up North, where he presumably found better uses for that homemade microphone pole.

I hope this story serves as a cautionary tale to any and all reporters, photographers and editors out there, who may have mistakenly stumbled across my humble site. Don’t let this happen to you! (Oh, and sorry, fellas - is a few clicks over.)

Of course if you’re not in TV news, you can still benefit from this little nat sound parable. The next time you’re watching a story on your local news, THINK ABOUT all that background noise you are and aren’t hearing. I guarantee you someone else has.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

The Finite Faces of Photogs

Sure, not ALL TV News photogs are alike. People from all walks of life are drawn to the lens, and with them they bring a wide spectrum of tastes, preferences and outlooks. But a few personality-types can be found in EVERY shop:

THE SCANNER HOUND - You know the guy - he can recite infinite frequency listings but doesn’t know any girls’ phone numbers. The inside of his heavily marked Dodge Minivan looks like the cockpit of a Black Hawk helicopter. When not wolfing down chili-dogs behind the wheel, this shooter can be found buying cop buddies a dozen sprinkled donuts, or trolling the occasional adult bookstore. This photog-prototype may not do well in mixed company - but he can tell the difference between individual agencies emergency sirens from a 20 block radius.

THE FILM GEEK - A far different breed than the scanner hound , this Photogus Newsicus is something of a failed filmmaker. They’re easy to spot in the wild; just look for the guy setting up six point lighting at the mayor’s press conference. You know, the pale dude dressed all in black with the eyebrow ring. He may not know his own main-anchor’s first name, but he can reel off what kind of film stock your promo guys shoot on. Expect arcane movie references, a devotion to all things animation, and a penchant for sour facial expressions.. When not amassing illegal downloads off the internet, this classification of lensman can be found searching for a mate at local sci-fi conventions, or in his ratty apartment working on his homemade robot.

THE SPORTS GOOB - You don’t have to wander back to the Sports Department to run across the Film Geek‘s natural enemy. He’s probably in the hallway giving the squirrelly little graphics guy an atomic-wedgie. Usually suffering from spoiled athletic ambitions and an overload of testosterone, this is thick-necked shooter can be found cadging free grub at the local college’s pressroom, talking up cheerleaders on the sidelines, or holding court at the nearest sports bar. Look for his collection of press passes hanging from his rear-view mirror, and his wide array of free logo wear. But tread lightly - this bloke think news is for wimps, eats Taco Bell for breakfast and can’t seem to find his tripod. Use caution - they can smell fear..

THE GADGET NUT - A relative of the Scanner Hound , this shooter is far more concerned with collecting gizmos than obtaining pretty pictures. Be it the latest in Leatherman tools, collapsible step-ladders or black-market laptops that make acres of French-fries, this is THE GUY to have around at the prolonged stake-out. Never one to stray too far from his beloved toolbox collection, this lenser has also has a strange affinity for Happy Meal toys. He’s pretty easy to spot too, just look for the guy with more things hanging off his waist than Batman at a utility belt outlet.

THE IDIOT SAVANT - Ah yes, the category I fall in. This lens-swinging citizen stumbled into TV News only after failing at every other pursuit in life. Totally bereft of any official training, the idiot savant succeeds at the craft only because he’s WATCHED a lot of television as a kid. Painfully clueless as to how the boat-anchor on his shoulder works, he operates on instinct alone, mysteriously making TV magic and beguiling his better-versed colleagues in the process. Don’t even bother asking him what kind of camera he uses, as he’ll only stare blindly before meekly offering “S-S-Sony?” Despite (or because of) his lack of technical comprehension, this shooter is the biggest hit at cocktail parties. But I could be a bit biased.