Saturday, May 07, 2005

Desk On A Dashboard

I’m lucky enough to have a desk in the news room, but I spend a lot more time behind the wheel of my mobile office, a 2000 Ford Explorer with bright shiny logos and a permanent impression of my butt in the driver’s seat. Though I sleep at home every night I often travel hundreds of miles to get from dusk to dusk. At times I feel like a trucker, a cabbie, a cop - cruising a beat from one jurisdiction to the next as I ping-pong back and forth across the Piedmont Triad. Friday it was Rockingham County - Wentworth, Eden, and Reidsville passed under my tires before ending up back in High Point. The day before I ricocheted between Greensboro and Winston-Salem more times than a Dell rumor. On Wednesday I navigated new terrain in lower Alamance County, before rolling homewards along the rolling rural hills of Highway 62. In between all the traveling, I shot a little news.

Since I log so many hours in the news unit cockpit, I’ve made some modifications. Most of my colleagues fill their floorboards with scanners and such, but I am far less enamored with being constantly interrupted. Thus, I’ve replaced all that static and blather with a mixed bag of aggression rock, from Johnny Cash to Jane’s Addiction, punctuated by a diverse diet of local and national talk radio. I’ve yet to buy one of those Audio Books but I probably have a half dozen Stevie Ray Vaughan CD’s in my center console at all times. A man’s got to have his medicine after all. Along with all that aural input I pack the usual number of press passes, county maps and mini phone books. Bent business cards and dead nine volts litter the floorboard, along with the finest in fast food ketchup packets. But don't worry. Every six months I clean out my trusty ride, whether it needs it or not.

But life behind the news wheel is more than a never-ending road rally - its also a parade! With all those multi-colored logos screaming your station’s merits, you’re bound to get your share of your attention. All this can make for the most delightful stoplight encounters, if you don’t mind the occasional hand gesture. Most often though, people just do a double-take looking for a locally famous face. When they see a bearded fellow in a tropical print yelling into a cell phone while wolfing down a burrito, they usually lay on the gas a little. After all, the best defense is a good offense. So if I blow by you in the breakdown lane, don’t take it personal. Chances are I’m late for a groundbreaking, a train wreck, or like yesterday, a Repo Man with an ass full of lead. Whatever the destination, know that there’s a cell phone full of unanswered message on my hip and much of tonight’s newscast under the visor. If I stop to dawdle, I’ll pay for it in the edit bay. Now get out of my way; somewhere there’s a keynote speaker clearing his throat and waiting for his close-up.

The Big Link

This week on The Big Link, a local blogger whose name and attitude covers all the bases....

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Anatomy of a Live Shot

I sometimes wonder if viewers even notice the LIVE bug in the corner of their TV screens. Even if they do, there’s no way a viewer on his couch can fathom the planning, anguish and occasional panic that goes into these remote broadcasts. Take Wednesday afternoon for example. Those who tuned in at 5:30 saw intrepid reporter Eric White strolling by a farmland fence - the perfect spot to introduce his scintillating report on increased fertilizer prices and what it means to you. What viewers didn’t see was the mad dash required to make that languid set-piece happen in the first place.

Fifteen minutes earlier, this quiet spot along Highway 62 became an instant broadcast studio when we pulled our lumbering live truck onto the shoulder and decided to make some television. Long enamored with the rolling farmland south of High Point, I knew the area would make the perfect pastoral backdrop for our report. Once safely off the road, I threw the switch to raise the mast. While it poked slowly upward, Eric and I scrambled like madmen - pulling cable, setting up equipment and trying not to step in the many piles of horse shit that pockmarked our temporary home. Motorists along Highway 62 must have gotten a chuckle at the two idiots running circles around the TV truck, one dressed in slacks and a tie, the other clad in a bad Hawaiian shirt. For us though, it’s just another day at the office.

By the time the mast had reached its full height of fifty-four feet, much of what needed to happen already had. The camera sat atop the tripod, a/v cables firmly attached and running back to the truck, where I stood flipping switches and punching buttons. A few yards away, Eric took his position in front of the camera and flashed his trademark thumbs-up. That Whitey’s a happy cat, and a real pro to boot. I, by nature, am no quite so chipper, but I find he brings me up more than I bring him down. Either way, I come out the winner, because who wants to be around a continual crab-ass in a job like this? Now back to our live shot…

Before I could grace the airwaves with Eric’s visage, I had to line up my shot. As I steered the transmitter dish atop the mast via an ancient toggle switch deep inside the truck, I tried the guess the direction of the station’s tower. I’ll spare you the science, mainly because it spared me. Let’s just say I’m one of those souls born without a sense of direction. I have a heightened sense of irony but it rarely comes in handy on live shots. Still I was fairly certain the tower and its receive dish lay just over those trees a mile or five away. No problem, a shot like that is the proverbial side of the barn that no one could miss. Or so I hoped.

In the end, it was less like hitting a barn in space and more like parking a golf cart by remote control while blind-folded and beaten my angry monkeys. That may be pouring it on a little thick, but when the only thing that stands in the way of you ending a very long day of labor, sweat and thought is this improbable ping-pong match...well for once words fail me. Let's just say its enough to make this aging slacker wish he hadn’t cheated on his Orienteering Merit Badge all those years ago. Now if you'll excuse me I have to check in for another day of misadventure...

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Phantom of the Midway

He’s a familiar figure on the Carnival‘s edge, a lone figure tethered by cable and hunched over an upturned lens. Locked in a lover’s embrace with his viewfinder, he seems oblivious to the cotton candy, carnies and chaos around him. His casual attire denotes a life of leisure, days spent wandering from one sunny vista to the next, pointing his camera at whatever strikes his fancy. But before you dismiss his vocation as frivolous and climb on the Tilt-A-Whirl, consider this:

He’s not alone. Chances are there’s a wacky weatherman hovering aloft and babbling into a wireless microphone about low pressure systems and local charity events. The weatherman’s giddy with excitement, simply jazzed to be out of the studio and amid his viewers. He spent the last half hour lobbing basketballs at impossibly angled rims, hugging old ladies in housecoats and signing autographs. Meanwhile our friend behind the lens pulled cable, assembled gadgets and tuned in the signal, all while fending off curious twelve year old jacked up on sugar. And that’s just his latest stop.

If he’s a day-shifter, he’s already televised a talking head or two, shot a reporter standup by the City Landfill, zeroed in on a few trash-diving seagulls before melding all three together in a darkened edit suite. If he’s nightside, a whole shift of adventure awaits: city council meetings, inner city crime tape and dinner in a bag. If he’s lucky he’ll wolf it down over a timeline as he pounds In-Points into a laptop. But don’t feel sorry for him, for this photog is truly free. He loves the open road as much as the open iris and he’ll take that big camera ANYWHERE.

I just want you to see more than a gizmo-laden schlub when you look his way, for he is most likely a expert on your area, a handyman of legendary status and an artist at heart. For every time you’ve leaned into your screen in wide-eyed wonder, he’s recoiled from his viewfinder and smelled the news hours before it made air. So forgive him if he seems distracted, pardon him if he’s acting like he’s waiting on a bus amid all this fun. He’s merely at work, lost in thought the way you probably were over the copier this morning. If it makes you feel any better, buy the guy a hotdog. Tell him Lenslinger sent ya.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Blog TV Wrap Up

Thanks to all in the Piedmont Triad Blogosphere who have lauded me with undue praise concerning Monday night's Buckley Report on local blogging. To be fair, Bob deserves credit too, as he wrote the script. I merely came up with the idea, pitched it for months, suggested the approach, shared the theory of The Long Tail, shot the interviews, accumulated footage, locked myself in an edit suite until my eyes bled and finally made sure the producers had all the graphics, info and re-cuts that their strange breed so requires. But, since I DO get a weekly stipend for all my efforts, this is the last you'll hear of it from me.

As for the story itself, I was somewhat pleased with the end results, if for no other reason it brought just a smidge of coverage to a subject I feel is worthy of far more. Still, I watched the newscast through splayed fingers - ready to recoil at each minor glitch the average viewer would probably never spot. Ask my wife, I'm NO FUN to watch TV news with. But this particular post isn't about me; it's about the blog, so bear with me as I sort through a few concerns.

The Buckley Report on Blogging will NOT appear on the station website or here at Viewfinder BLUES. Currently El OCho has no plans to post video on-line, though that may change someday. As for airing it here, it's technically possible, but as with most everything else I turn out in the name of news, it ain't mine to share. However, all is not lost. We put the story on our national feeds and while it's near impossible to determine where it else it may air, rest assured there are people with strange regional dialects currently viewing the report and wondering where in the hell the Piedmont Triad is. While I wouldn't base the purchase of a summer home on this resulting coverage, it is nice to know others outside our reach are hearing about the bloggy goodness available here in God's Country. For that, I thank you all.

But where do we go from here? To bed, you morons - it's half past midnight here at the Pittman household. But before I climb into my Winnie the Pooh pajamas, let me issue this challenge: Help me come up with the NEXT blogging story. Now that the b-word is sinking into the national conscience, it is time to stop explaining what a blog is and time to start exploring the medium's many new roles in modern communication and community. I have several ideas myself, but welcome all counsel - as the rich and dense blogosphere that's settled over the middle of our state is far wiser than this burned-out camera jockey. SO if you have news of a push-button publisher who is finding new ways to get their blog on, call me! Unless Bigfoot is holding a press conference across town, I'll grab my gear and come running. Until then, keep your hands on the keyboard and keep reaching for that PayPal account.

We now return you to your regular blog-fodder...

Live Truck Stress Edit

In this, the latest in a series of unflattering photographs, your friendly neighborhood lenslinger shaves minutes off his life while furiously editing in the back of a TV news live truck. Note the tense finger position, the slack jawed anguish, the overly-hairy forearms...Wait a minute! How’d my DAD get in this picture?

No, on second thought it IS me - looking quite a bit older than I did when I started in this silly business. But maybe that’s because of all the stress-laden edit sessions I’ve endured over the years. In the film industry, editors gather around their computers and suffer over every frame. When they’re in doubt they call in the director and his coterie of latte-swilling assistants to discuss at length the proposed cuts and how they may affect the overall picture.

Not so in TV news. Quite regularly, we photog/editor/stevedores have less than an hour to pound out our product. While we all pride ourselves on our editing acumen, finely tweaked sequences and seat-of-the-pants pacing often takes a backseat to making deadline. That’s not to say we don’t care about our work ; our dedication to our craft is downright pathological at times. But when you’re racing the clock on your third minute-fifteen report of the day, intensive editorial procedures can quickly devolve into meatball surgery.

Especially in a live truck. Through the wonders of modern technology, we can park a rolling edit suite just about anywhere, from the icy overpass to the sweltering train wreck to the heated city council meeting. All this gadgetry allows the modern news crew to turn a finished piece LIVE(!) from the scene, but not before a photog squeezes into the back and gives birth to his masterpiece of the moment. It ain’t always an easy delivery. Countless are the times I’ve shrieked in fury while slicing and dicing in one of these rolling billboards. Be it finicky equipment, arctic air/sweltering heat, or a well-meaning den mother with sixteen curious nine year olds who ‘just wants to watch the TV people work’ -- there are perils to Live Truck Editing just not found back at the studio.

But alas, TV stations continue to purchase Live Trucks and outfit them with the latest in laptop editing. That’s all well and good, but as someone who regularly holds up in one of these top-heavy monstrosities, I gotta say - it ain’t the only way to fly. I’d much prefer putting my piece together back at the shop, where the air conditioning works, the snack machine is a few steps away, and a flock of fellow photogs is around to offer advice, question my techniques and let fly the occasional spitball. Still, TV news is greatly enamored with live shots and I know I have plenty in my future. As always I’ll give the next impromptu field report my finest effort, but I do reserve the right to gripe and moan once in awhile.

Oh, before I leave you - there is one scenario worse than editing in a remotely perched live truck: doing it in a moving one. While we try to avoid it, there are time when deadlines and distance force us shooters to chop tape while the reporter drives to the next location, It may not sound so bad, but until you’ve reeled through images on a small monitor just inches from your face while hurtling backwards at sixty miles an hour, you haven’t lived. It’s enough to make a seasoned jet pilot toss his cookies - or a veteran TV goob bitch about it on his blog. I'm not sure which one is worse...

Monday, May 02, 2005

American Idol 101

“Okay, what do we think of Bo’s commitment to his performance?"

The bald man’s query sparked movement to my left and I whipped the camera in that direction. Through my lens the young and the pierced jockeyed for position, furiously jabbing remote controls at the front of the room and arguing amongst themselves about the pop-rocker’s musical merit. By the podium, two digits numbers flashed on screen as the computer tabulated the student’s votes. When the numbers came to a halt, a mild scuffle broke out in back as a rather large young lady whispered angrily at an underfed fellow in a Hoobastank t-shirt. After a few tense seconds of finger pointing and neck rolling, the professor regained the floor.

“Talk to me about Vonzell‘s song selection versus her stage presence…”

As the UNC-Charlotte students dissected last night’s episode, I leaned on my tripod and rolled on a wide shot. It was only my second session of ‘Examining American Idol Through Musical Critique‘ and I found my mind wandering. But the mottled group of twenty-somethings around me bobbed and weaved in their seats, eager to dish on their over-emoting songbird of choice. When the screen full of numbers turned to a clip from last night’s show. Randy Paula and Simon held the assemebled student body in enraptured thrall.

Meanwhile, I flipped through memories of American Idols past. There was that whirlwind jaunt to Raleigh for an audience with an ascending Clay Aiken, the mass delusion of Fantasia’s crowning moment, and the thousands of warbling hopefuls clamoring for microphone time at the D.C. Auditions. For a show I can barely sit through, I sure have spent lots of lens-energy, man-hours and edit-sweat exploring every facet of it. Oh well. Beats another day at the crime tape cafe. Now if you’ll excuse me they’re discussing Fedorov’s chances of making a sweep and I’m pretty sure it’s gonna be on the test.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Tar Heel Tavern (#10)

The 10th edition of the Tar Heel Tavern is up and running at the always welcoming Pratie Place. Drop by and see web writers from across the state muse their way from the mountains to the coast. Then decide what seething rant/loving ode/quiet thinkpiece you want to submit for next week's Tavern, scheduled to appear at Circadiana. You'll be a better blogger for it.