Saturday, February 26, 2005

Photogs in Cinema

Like alot of misunderstood trades, the TV news photographer never fares too well on the silver screen. Be it a lighthearted romantic comedy or a political thriller, the guy (or gal) behind the big lens usually comes off as some socially awkard ruffian more comfortable with his camera than other people. Okay, so that's not so far off the mark, but still, movie-makers seem to go out of their way to deride the role of the television news videographer.

Sometimes it's the technical things that gets the photog nation's goat. In the widely-panned 'Up Close and Personal' (a horrid defiling of the Jessica Savitch story), Michelle Pfieffer and her news photographer go Live(!) from inside a lockdowned prison WITH NO CABLES ATTACHING THEIR CAMERA TO THE LIVE TRUCK. This may seem like a little thing to the viewing public, but one would think camera-knowledgeable cinematographers might notice this type of thing. And it's not just the lack of cables, carboard cameras, phtogs who narrate as they shoot and laughable shooting posture mars most cinematic potrayals of the lens-toting set.

In fact, only two portrayals are widely embraced by the photog nation. The first is pretty marginal but worth mention. Hank Azaria plays 'Animal', a daring news shooter chasing the planet's most buffed-up lizard in the inane remake of 'Godzilla'. Far from a multi-layered portrait, Azaria does nail the scene in the rain, behaving exactly the way I'd expect most of my friends to if ever assigned to pursue a giant reptile through Gotham City. He even has deck troubles.

Sadly, the patron saint of on-screen photogs is still Chris Elliot's cameraman character in 'Groundhog Day'. I liked the film, as well as Elliot's scene-stealing performance of an ancillary role. Something about his character's sardonic defensiveness and skeevy attitude endears him to most every photog I've quizzed on the subject. But come on - we're still talking Chris Elliot here as the absolute pinnacle. I mean, did you SEE 'Cabin Boy'?

Someday Hollywood will get it right. Hell, maybe the first realistic take on us lenslingers could be the biopic of a certain mid-market fluff meister, a seasoned hack who squints through a dusty lens by day and bloviates about it on his blog by night...Hey, it could happen!

Friday, February 25, 2005

She Were Soldiers

Having slogged through every page of the expansive book “We Were Soldiers Once…and Young”, I was eager for the long-awaited release of the Mel Gibson film adaptation. A week before it hit theaters a few years ago, I found a way to pay my respects to the men who died in the fight for Landing Zone X-Ray. Well, one of them, anyway.

One night I pulled the dog-eared copy off a shelf of favorites and spent the better part of the evening pouring over it for names of fallen soldiers with North Carolina hometowns. The next morning, ensconced in my TV station cubicle, I hit the internet phone directories with unparalleled zeal.

Within an hour I hit pay-dirt, locating the elderly mother of a Greensboro youngster who perished on that awful day in the Ia Drang Valley. The old voice on the other end of the voice sounded reluctant at first, but after I convinced her my intentions were pure, she allowed me to come visit.
On the drive over, I drummed happy beats on the steering wheel, excited at the chance to memorialize a fallen hero from such a landmark Vietnam battle.

Outside the mother's modest Greensboro home, I sat in my news unit and tried to calm myself. However stoked I was at the great television possibilities awaiting me inside, I wasn't about to trample on an old lady's painful memories. Grabbing my worn copy of the book that started it all, I left my camera in the car and knocked on the door.

The sweet black lady that quietly welcomed me inside her modest home was a national treasure. A bit leery at first, she listened silently as I pointed out her son's name in the famous book she'd never even heard of. After a few minutes of my awkward babbling, she agreed to let me bring my TV equipment inside, though she forewarned me she really didn't want to talk about wars and battle.

Instead, she showed me her faded mementos from her only son, a proud young man who died at the ripe old age of nineteen, half a world away from his once bucolic Greensboro neighborhood. As I sat on her couch and sipped iced tea, she brought out an old box full of her son's childhood: high school awards, family photos - even the hand-drawn floor plans of a house he'd never live to build.

I have to admit I shed more than one tear in that silent living room. Something about the old lady's quiet dignity, dated furniture and painful laugh reminded me of my own dear grandmother. Hoping she wouldn't notice my wet eyes, I looked around the room and focused on the walls. That's when I noticed an old stopped clock on the wall, it's stiff electrical cord dangling in space. Glancing at my rolling time code, I asked her about the frozen clock face.

"Junior gave me that clock shortly before he went off to war," she said as she started into oblivion, "but the night I heard he died, I unplugged it. Just didn't want to hear it tick no more..."

As touched as I was at the woman's pain, I also knew I'd gotten what I came for. I popped off a few shots of the dusty clock hands, thanked the woman for allowing me inside her home, and left my tattered copy of the book with her as an insignificant token of our short visit. She seemed genuinely happy as I gathered up my tools, but never bothered to ask when my report might air. She didn't need a minute-thirty movie tie-in to remind her of the past. She lived it everyday.

When I got back to the station, I plopped down in front of the computer and watched the story write itself. A half hour later I was in the edit bay, slicing and dicing while thoughts of young men bleeding to death on jungle floors filled my mind. When I emerged from the darkened room, I held in my hands one of the most personally meaningful stories I've ever produced.

Others who saw it agreed. The old lady sitting on the old-fashioned couch in silent dignity, the close-ups of her wrinkled hand unfolding the musty dreams of her long-dead son, the slow zoom of a clock that would never tick was powerful stuff. I even considered entering the piece in a contest or two, but since I've decried the chase for shiny mantle-ware all these years, I thought better of it. Instead I added it to my short list of all time favorite stories and dubbed off a copy for home viewing. Though I’ve yet to watch it again, I’ve kept in loose contact with the soldier’s mother, calling her up every six months or so for an awkward chat about anything but war.

I don’t know if the kind old lady who lost her son so long ago understands my interest in his case, but she entertains my queries whenever that inexplicable feeling of guilt forces me to dial her number. Maybe I’m trying to establish a connection to a war that ravaged the decade I was born in. Perhaps I’m channeling the love for my elderly Grandmother on a nearby surrogate, or maybe I’m just trying to make up for stalking the downtrodden during their moments of pain all these many years. Whatever the case, it feels awful nice to use my camera’s power for good and not evil.

If only the film had been better...

Weaver's Cam-Phone Follies

For the television news photog, the average day consists of marathon driving, tasting the elements and fighting with cranky electronics. Occcasionally you even get to shoot something. All of this spectacular drudgery is expertly chronicled by my in-house colleague and fellow blogging photog Chris Weaver, who's having more fun with a camera phone than should probably be allowed. Check it.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Morning Show Misery

Morning Show Photogs - they do more before the sun comes up than most people do all week. I know - I use to work the cursed early bird shift. In fact, I’m a better photog for it. Come to think of it, my ten months running live truck and camera for our colossal 4-hour morning news show was like some kind of wretched broadcast boot camp - minus the push-ups and bunk-beds, of course. Monster cable-pulls, extended handheld, brackish light...the a.m live shot has many perils. Not the least of which is the often bizarre subject matter you encounter as the pendulum swings from unmitigated fluff to stripped-down spot news - often in the same shift.

I remember one cold drizzly pitch-black morning, scrunched up underneath the crawlspace of a house and cramping badly while some home expert prattled on about protecting your pipes during freezing weather. To my right, our perky morning reporter held the microphone and feigned fascination. It was all I could do to maintain consciousness from my accordion position as one live segment bled into another. By the third such hit, I forgot all about shot composition an signal strength, instead focusing on regaining feeling in my legs. To make matters worse, my reporter and the home expert were passing the time between broadcasts by seeing who could be the biggest jackass, and somehow, I was losing.

After three such extended squat-and-talks, I unfolded my aching bones and jelly-legged it back to the truck. The rain had stregthened since I’d entered the crawlspace and as I traced the heavy black cable snaking back to the truck, I could feel cold rain water seep into my shoes. Thinking about the change of socks and dry duck boots stashed in my pick-up miles away, I stared at my soaked shoes in blank denial.

Oh well, I thought as I pulled my rain hood tight around my drenched face, two more of these train wrecks and we'll hit the diner for omelets, coffee and a few morning newspapers...

That's when my cell phone rang.

"Guys! We're ditching your last two lives. There's two big rigs jack-knifed on the interstate and it's backing up traffic for MILES! We need to roll on it so we can go live at the top of the hour!"

Cursing to myself but saying nothing I hung up, grabbed a handful of muddy cable and began heaving it forward. At that moment, Miss Perky emerged from the square hole at the base of the house and stomped through the mud toward me, muttering under her breath all the way. Watching her approach, I knew the news of our impending bug-out was about to un-make her day, and I dreaded the tantrum she’d throw on the way to the interstate. It's not the kid of thing a guy wants to hear when he's barrelling past traffic in the breakdown lane, but what are ya gonna do?

Only half-listening to my voice break the news to her, a rather obvious point suddenly crystallized in my head.

'I HAVE got to get off this wretched morning shift...'

And I did. But not before completing my masters degree in live shot field production. From underground gold mines, to triple-fatal house fires to hot-air balloons in flight, my perky partner and I went LIVE(!) from every spot in the Greater Piedmont Triad Googolplex - twice. In the process, I learned more about pre-dawn lighting, mini-diva management and the limitations of wireless microphones than I can possibly ever summarize here.

Just don't make me do it again...

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Time to Wallow in the Mire

From the spotlight’s glare to the edge of calamity, the camera on my shoulder drags me to the most exotic locales. But not everyday ends in a cross county manhunt, visiting VIP or Bigfoot sighting. More often than not I’m stuck in the muck of daily news, rushing from one forgettable setting to another with a lens that remembers and a desk that never forgets.

Take Wednesday for instance. I began my hump-day pacing around a country club ballroom, watching the blue hair set knock down enough chow to choke a busload of county inmates. Though it smelled delightful, but I wasn’t there to eat. I was there to bag enough shots to support a forty second on-air blurb, footage which takes far longer to procure than it does to watch on the six o clock news.

But this wasn’t my first time at the Snooty Buffet. With considerable aplomb, I strode in early and approached an elder statesman. If the captain of industry was put off by my less than formal appearance, the big lens I wielded made him keep it to himself. Minutes later I pulled the tiny microphone off his lapel and thanked him for his time and (less than) stellar comments. With the sound-bite I needed now simmering on my disc, I retreated to the room’s edge and waited for the inevitable oversized check to appear.

Twenty minutes later I was still waiting. Moneyed widows in too much mascara poked at their cantaloupe in slow motion as Chamber of Commerce types chewed overcooked eggs at half-speed. In the back of the room, I stifled a belch and tasted the coffee I had gunned down an hour earlier. ‘For a bunch of movers and shakers these old farts sure do eat slow,’ I thought for the not the first time since my arrival. If they didn’t hurry, I’d be late for my next few stops, probably end up missing my own lunch because Granny Moneybags’ designer dentures made her chew each bite a hundred times. Standing there, I wanted to jump on top of a table and scream at the top of my lungs...


Instead I flagged down a busboy, handed him my digital camera and smiled for a picture.

It’s a living.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Running Down Dubya

“There he comes now, gentlemen.”

I glanced over at the news photog beside me as a stretch limousine with the familiar seal swooped up to the curb. Before it could even park, a burly man in a no nonsense suit jumped out of the front passenger seat and ran around back. When he opened the rear door, the leader of the free world popped out. Except it wasn’t the 43rd president, but just some out of work actor lucky enough to heavily favor him. But that was of no concern. All that mattered was his image on my tape, a tricky feat since he was already striding down the crowded sidewalk flanked by fake handlers and assorted well-wishers. The chase was on.

October 2001. Still reeling from the attacks of 9/11, America was locked in patriotic fever and for a brief honeymoon, madly in love with his awkward new leader. Jingoism aside, it was an especially savvy time for a publicity firm to put a “W” Impersonator to work, especially when a furniture making client wanted to draw cameras to the ir new Presidential line of recliners at the International Home Furnishings Market. As I sprinted through the crowd-choked streets I could hear the P.R. flacks high-fiving each other in my head.

Catching up with not-President Bush and his growing entourage, I ran ahead of them before turning around for a little one-eyed back-pedal. On the tiny screen jostling an inch from my eye, I studied the man’s features. Damn if he didn’t look like President Bush, at least in a sketch-artist kind of way. To sharpen the effect, the glad-handing actor had apparently studied “W”, for he loped along with the same stiff-armed shuffle already familiar to millions. Outside the viewfinder, I caught a glimpse of countless Market goers doing double-takes at the two cameramen orbiting the fast-moving Presidential party. Fact was, I wasn’t giving my competitor much room to bag his shots. Trailing just to my left side, I could hear his own feet shuffling backwards as he cursed under his breath.

‘Too bad’, I thought as I pulled out to a wide shot. I considered the other TV news photog a brother-in-arms, but all is fair in love and camera combat. Besides, I’d give up my sweet spot as soon as I got one more close-up. That’s when the man himself looked straight into my lens and began talking. ’Sweet’, I thought - a little voice work to sweeten the effect. But as he spoke, I couldn’t help but notice he sounded nothing like the former Governor of Texas.

“Hey buddy, you may wanna--”


Every neck on the packed sidewalk swung in my direction as thousands of out-of-town eyeballs poured over the stupid cameraman who’d backed into a light pole. Shaking off the blow, I could hear snickers as my vision slowly returned. Luckily, everything in my viewfinder still appeared operational. Not so luckily, I’d lost my place in front of President Clone. Of course my camera-swinging colleague had taken my place and as I watched him back up heel to toe, I thought I saw him chuckling behind his eyepiece. This was WAR.

The next few moments passed in a blur. Summoning strength I hadn’t planned on even bringing, I dashed ahead of the crowd, brushing past a clutch of visiting retail weasels before almost body checking a stooped over lady in horn rimmed glasses. The expression on their faces revealed their thoughts. ’What’s up with this crazy cameraman, and hey - is THAT President Bush?’ But I had no time to answer as the flank of furniture lackeys ushered the actor towards the entrance of the International Home Furnishings Center. Inside that behemoth, the better part of 70 thousand furniture salesmen stood shoulder to shoulder, exchanging business cards and call girls’ phone numbers. I’d fought that crowd just hours earlier and wasn’t about to re-enter the fray, so I did what any self-respecting photog would do, I bagged my losses, resigning myself to whatever footage I could obtain over the next few seconds. Spinning on my heels like the most agile of quarterbacks, I framed up a half dozen shots at five seconds at pop.

Too bad a flood of distributors, buyers ad exhibitors chose that exact moment to exit the building en masse. As a sea of shoulder padded suits and over-priced perfume swallowed me and my camera, I hoisted my toy above my head to get one last shot of all the President’s men. When I did, the exiting crowd looked in the directions of my lens and cries of excitement filled the air. Pushing past the overdressed strangers, I caught one last image of the actor as he waved to the crowd before entering the building’s double doors. Ahead of him, I saw my fellow cameraman being involuntarily sucked into the vortex of thousands of Furniture Market salesmen and women. The poor guy never bailed in time, now he was at one with The Sea of Sleazeballs.

With the Presidential Impersonator safely out of sight, I dropped my camera to my side and began weaving a thread through the crowed streets. Though I tried to avoid eye contact, I did catch a few questioning glances from the crowd I‘d just barreled through moments earlier. ‘Wasn’t that the guy who just ran down three old ladies chasing the President?, they all seemed to ask themselves.

“Not me’ I tried to project as I transformed from wild-eyed cameraman to ordinary citizen. Tucking my shirt back in and running a finger through my hair, I couldn’t help but snicker at the absurdity of it all. ‘The things I do for thirty seconds of television‘, I thought, ‘the things I do...’

Monday, February 21, 2005

A Master Passes

HSTA hero of mine is dead, apparently by his own hand. It's a sad end to a whirlwind life, an abrupt halt to a twisted, tortured existence spanning several decades of decadence and delusion that changed the face of journalism in the process. To some he was just a drug-fueled, gun obsessed iconoclast, a hold-over from the sixties who never let go of that era's freedom. But to me, he's always been a literary role model, the Father of Gonzo Journalism who long ago scrambled my brains and ignited my soul.

I discovered Thompson at age thirteen, when one of my more subversive older buddies slipped me a tattered copy of 'Hell's Angels'. Inside those well-worn pages, I found the most unlikely of role models - an unbalanced outlaw scribe who fascinated me as much as his salacious subject matter. That a journalist could interject himself into the action in such an incredibly entertaining way was nothing less than a revelation to me. It made me want to WRITE more than ever. Why not? This deranged wordsmith from the decade I was born in had cleared the way, blazed intoxicating skid marks through the hallowed halls of American Journalism. Soon I immersed myself in the H.S.T. canon, from 'Fear and Loathing' to 'Songs of the Doomed' to 'Generation of Swine'. Whiel other kids my age were busy idolizing sports figures, I was falling under the influence of a drunken Master, a dangerous uncle who could lay down incendiary narratives and broken prose like no one else before or after him. I was hooked, and still am. Not far from my computer, his many works fill my bookshelves, timeless testaments to the power of the caustically written word.

And now he's gone, the apparent victim of his own violent psyche. That part saddens me the most, as it will cast a shadow over his legacy for awhile, givign others ample proof that the Father of Gonzo Journalism was in fact, still crazy after all these years. Perhaps. But throughout his life, Dr. Thompson inspired as much as he instigated, delivered as much as he derided, and lifted a workaday medium to dizzying new heights. Of course, Hunter's life and work wasn't for everyone. Some view his work with middle-of-the-road disdain, dismissing his infectious wordplay and laser-beam wit as the drug-addled ramblings of a madman. Fair enough - but if you're reading this, then count yourself a fan. If you like what it is I've been attempting to pull off at this humble site, then you too are a Disciple of the Duke, for my hollow words are a mere echo of what Hunter S. Thompson has been shouting about all these years...
"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."
Indeed...Rest in Peace, H.S.T.