Friday, February 11, 2005

The Extraordinary Madness of Crowds

A fellow photog’s remarks about covering Mardi Gras brought to mind several instances of broadcast cameras and popular delusion...

I first came to grips with the weird effects of a zoom lens on pack mentality back in the early nineties, when I wandered into the Emerald Isle Beach Music Festival with a camera on my shoulder and trouble on my mind. Not big trouble, mind you - just a young man’s desire to witness the legendary gathering firsthand. Boy, did I. Between the drunken Marines, shirtless rednecks, and bikini-clad beach bunnies; I got more than my fill of images - most not suitable for the Six o Clock news. After skirting the crowd for a bit (and turning down countless offers of alcohol and other enticements), I foolishly strolled up to the lip of the stage, where North Carolina’s most popular beach music band was laying down the finest in watered-down Motown, all to the enjoyment of a sold-out, sunburned thoroughly sloshed crowd.

A bit intoxicated myself from all the attention my lens brought, I climbed onstage and recorded close-ups of the band. When the station logo on my camera flashed in the sun, the throng of badly dancing revelers cheered at the arrival of their local news dude. Hunkering down by the stage’s edge, I panned from the performers in matching pantsuits to the crowd in assorted cut-offs and halter-tops. Everywhere I pointed the camera, cheers rang out, causing me to swell with pride at the power of my chosen weapon. With thousands of raucous partygoers clamoring for my lens’ attention, I almost felt like a rock star myself, though on stage with the Kings of Southernized White Boy Doo-Wop. Either way, I tried to look casual behind the viewfinder as my senses overloaded with swirling vistas of the adoring masses.

That’s when the beer bombs started. One at first, then a second and a third - plastic cups half-full of keg rot landed all around me at first, before a fourth sudsy projectile found its target - my head. The audience squealed with delight upon the first solid splashdown, and to a man, each rhythm-deprived imbiber launched his own salvo of Budweiser and backwash. I’d like to be able to say I dodged each and every cup, then grabbed the microphone and led the band through a scorching rendition of ’Peace Frog’, but it wasn’t meant to be. No, I merely shielded my camera as best I could while incoming alcohol reigned down from above. With every soaking, the crowd responded with glee, bringing to mind visions of Christian Cameramen bring ripped to shreds by lions as a coliseum of the Great Unwashed roared their approval. Eventually, I managed to escape stage left, but not before my station golf shirt, overgrown mullet and personal dignity were soaked in hops, barley and embarrassment. Slinking past a giggling gaggle of Budweiser Girls, I retreated to my news unit with a new appreciation safe for safe distances from alcohol-engorged audiences.

It’s a rule I would strictly adhere to until a few years later, when a new camera and too much testosterone placed me on top of an ice machine during a drunken Halloween brawl, where the crowd soon decided to turn on me once again.

But that’s a story for another time...

Thursday, February 10, 2005

From Crisis to Commodity

I’m pretty adept at avoiding lead stories. But every so often forces outside my control drag me kicking and screaming back to the front lines of the newsgathering war. Today was one of those days. Before I could even get to work, the pager on my belt began convulsing, letting me know I’d better skip the drive-thru window and report to my TV station ASAP. Rolling my eyes, I dialed my cell phone and submitted to my fate.

It all started when some thug in East Greensboro stole a Mitsubishi from a convenience store parking lot. The owner of the car had left it idling while she went inside to pay for gas. When she realized it was gone, all she could think about was her two year old son in the backseat. As she began to rightfully freak out, the Spot News Circus began. City police turned out in droves, their scanners percolated and overflowed with tantalizing details and assignment editors started to hyperventilate. Before long, I was behind the wheel of a wheezed-out Live truck, passing traffic and cursing under my breath as my reporter for the day scribbled details of the carjack turned kidnapping.

It was all over by the time we arrived. Cops had spotted the stolen car and chased it through less than stellar neighborhoods. After a respectable pursuit, the car thief crashed his purloined vehicle into a passing SUV, causing quite the dust-up off Market street. In the immediate moments following impact, the bad guy somehow managed to escape on foot, leaving the unharmed toddler safe in his car seat. Classy! But though the action was over, my job had just begun. Parking my logo’d stagecoach near the crunched up Mitsubishi, I raised the mast and began processing tape my fellow staffers had shot on scene. My photog brethren had done their jobs well. Shots of the wrecked car, search dogs, and an interview with a much-relieved mother told me I’d have plenty of images to tell the story. Good thing, since every newscast producer I knew was now clamoring for a piece of the action. As each individual show-stacker rang my cell phone, I leaned in to the editor and mused about the news.

When I was new to the business, there was nothing I enjoyed more than breaking news. But after years of covering murders, drive-bys and armed robberies, I found myself monumentally bored with televising the daily carnage. So I began to specialize in features. You know - those inconsequential stories that wrap up the newscast, the ones that give the anchor team something to chortle about as the houselights fade. Call them frivolous, but were it not for the warm and fuzzy feature piece, I would have found another way to make a living a long time ago. It’s not something I think about a lot, until I’m stuck on the roadside, getting dizzy off Live Truck fumes and wondering how normal people spend their workday.

But there wasn’t alot of time for critical thinking. I had far too much tape to cut. Between our many Live(!) shots, I sliced and diced the footage into every form and shape possible. Full blown reports, quickly-paced summaries and a bevy of teases poured forth from my fingertips. Before I knew it, I’d helped process this fleeting crisis into a daylong newsroom commodity. In the big picture, a twenty minute kidnap joyride doesn’t really amount to much, but for a TV station in the thralls of a Ratings period, it is televised gold. Given just a nugget of on-air emotion from the relieved mother holding her son, we stretched it across a full day of news programming, spicing up our many newscast with the tersely worded tale of “A Mother’s Worst Nightmare“! Okay, maybe we didn’t dust off that old cliché (we’re saving it for the next school bus wreck), but we did showcase the drama in a way that only TV can - in full living color with sound, immediacy and a few bromides to boot.

Is that so wrong?

Monday, February 07, 2005

Return of the Nutbags

I'm STILL trying to figure out how I feel exactly about the Newsbreakers. Just last week this merry band of idiots contaminated yet another Live(!) shot by working the world's happiest Grim Reaper into the backdrop of a couple of Columbus, Ohio TV news remotes. When contacted by phone the Reaper himself riffed on his relationship with the Sinclair Broadcasting group...

"I'm tight with organizations like Sinclair. I try to respect their deadlines as my own," the Reaper said. "I strive to preserve the synergy that exists between us."

Okay, THAT'S funny. Look, I'm all for stinging social satire and I'll give this group props for highlighting the electronic media's fascination with the fast and easy bleed, but I'd feel a whole lot better about these clowns if I better understood their agenda. Surely they don't think interrupting live shots with silly masks is going to change anything? If they're a bunch of drunken frat pukes, I say more power to them, If they're serious media critics, I gotta question their tactics (and their wardrobe choices.)

Of course that's the midnight analyst in me talking. The weathered photog in me says 'screw their motive, get 'em out of my shot!" I know more than a few lenslingers will even less patience than me who wouldn't think twice about physically removing said invader, regardless of WHAT satirical bent he's pursuing. I hope this doesn't happen, otherwise the Grinning Reaper may get a camera battery to the rubber-masked temple and worse yet, a photog may lose his job.

So, in an effort to head this thing off at the pass, or at least get a better understanding of this broadcast buffoonery, I'm reaching out to the Newsbreakers. I'm moments away from dispatching a query to the Live(!) Shot Liberators, in hopes they'll answer a few terse if not turgid questions. Stay tuned...

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Edit Bay Deja Vu

I suffer the weirdest sensations sometimes; episodes that make me wonder what this job is doing to my brain. I'll be out and about somewhere, not thinking about TV News at all, when a strangely familiar face appears in the crowd. I'm never sure of their name or profession, But I'm suddenly certain I've framed their countenance in a talking head shot sometime in the past...

It happened to me this weekend, when I was shuffling the kids through a supermarket check-out line. A stout, rather plain looking woman two aisles over was unloading her own grocery cart, and I couldn't take my eyes off her. I had nary a clue as to who the woman was, but the more I looked at her, the stronger I became convinced that I had processed her image from viewfinder to living room.

Curiosity got the better of me, and I approached her outside the store. Yes, she replied, she had been interviewed by my station five years earlier - as part of a story on school lunches. She didn't remember me of course - but she did recall the reporter I was with that day and asked about him. I smiled and nodded, choosing not to tell her what a righteous schmuck the guy was.

It was a momentary encounter, one devoid of any real intrigue. But it got me to thinking about the power of memory and the weird nature of what our brains decide to hold onto. For example I'd have a hard time naming the thirteen original colonies, but I can close my eyes and envision the beads of sweat rolling down the face of a dogcatcher I interviewed ten years ago.

Is it because we're such visual creatures? Perhaps, but the same deja vu feelings can also apply to audio. Who here cannot quote verbatim a memorable soundbite from eons ago? I myself got a miilion of them, but without proper context, they're meaningless - like the punchline of a joke you don't understand.

I'm guessing the selected recall comes from the edit bay; the simple repetition of certain sights and sounds finds its way into our deepest memory reserves and refuses to let go. Which is particularly infuriating to an absent-minded goob like myself. For the love of God, I spend ten minutes a day looking for my car keys! You're telling me I'm gonna go to my grave with snippets of monotone police chiefs and frazzled fire victims bouncing around my head? Will I lay on my deathbed quoting public information officers and stunned neighbors? Will my grown kids look at each other in confusion as I describe the feathered back-light on a live shot from twenty years ago?

Chances are I will. It's just a shame I collect musty film strips in my brain - instead of more lucrative data like scientific theories, square roots and other money-making formulas. Yes, if I could have held on to all that crap I ignored in school, I coulda been somebody - instead of the Walter Mitty of southern TV news photogs.

Spotlight: beFrank

Trusty Weaver alerted me to another photog’s blog recently and I’ve been in awe ever since.

Meet beFrank. This smooth sat truck operator plies his trade in sunny L.A., where vapid faces mug for midnight flashbulbs and the crime tape comes down at dawn. Celebrity-drenched and photo-intense, his site chronicles the endless parade of tripe and tragedy that is life behind the TV lens. But you’ll find little bitterness here, for this cat has a State of Zen and sense of style rarely found in most camera scrums. Visit his voluminous site and you'll see what I mean.