Friday, May 27, 2005

It's What I Do

Shoot. Write. Edit. No matter where the assignment desk sends me, it is this trinity of skills that I employ to get through my day. Take Thursday for instance…


I began my shift with a quick jaunt to Mayodan, one of many Rockingham County towns crippled by the loss of the textile industry. As I toured the weed-choked grounds of yet another manufacturing cadaver, I couldn’t help but think of the recently razed Burlington Industries building. But this case is a little different. Shut down in 1999, the old Washington Mill sits on the Mayo River - a winding waterway that the leaders of Greensboro would kill to have in THEIR downtown. But Mayodan’s river walk is overrun with neglect - as is the cavernous mill that many say started the town in the first place.

Now a group of local developers wants to transform the Mill’s rotting carcass into a glitzy showcase. Their 35 million dollar proposal is impressive: a theater, condos, restaurants, banquet halls, spas and more - all built into the sprawling brick structure that anchors downtown. At the center of their plans, the piece de resistance: a North Carolina Gospel Music Hall of Honor. I don’t know a lot about gospel music, but if such a place would help bring this part of Rockingham County back to life, well - somebody pass me a tambourine. Dennis Sparks, one of the developers, showed me around the old mill, answering my questions and carrying my tripod. He didn’t even flinch when I handed my digital camera to his assistant and asked her to take a picture. Nice guy, that Mr. Sparks.


After an hour and a half on site, I had what I needed to file my report. But I couldn’t just stick my raw footage on air and go get a sandwich. No, my raw material requires intense examination, thoughtful contemplation, and one heck of an edit session before it can invade living rooms around the Piedmont. This I bid Mr. Sparks and company a fond adieu and made a beeline to High Point. I’d like to tell you I thought about my assigned story al the way back to the station, but in reality I jammed out to William Shatner’s incredible CD, ‘Has Been’ while wolfing down a drive-thru window burger. Hey - a guy’s gotta eat…

Once back at the shop, I found every one of our tricked-out edit bays filled with swarthy photogs, antsy reporters and over-dressed interns. Knowing better than to cross this hostile crowd, I grabbed my camera and my headphones and plopped down at my desk. Sitting there, I rifled through the footage on my disc, transcribing sound-bites, making notes and trying to ignore the producers who were challenging each other’s movie trivia knowledge from opposite sides of the newsroom. Forget exhausting shoots and unforgiving deadlines, the hardest part of my day is staying focused on my story at hand while the night-siders play grab-ass all around me. The headphones help. Perhaps I should have brought in my Shat...


In the third act of my day, I move to the edit bay. Once fully hunkered, I create a timeline on the non-linear editor and begin ingesting footage into a virtual bin. With a click and a drag, I can access the audio narration - words I wrote only minutes before handing the script over to an anchor to voice. Once those dulcet tones are fully loaded, I use them to frame up my ninety second sound structure. Of course there is the inevitable audio tweaking, understandable, since audio is the very lifeblood of all broadcasting. After slicing and dicing anchor track and sound-bites, I had a NPR-worthy aural masterpiece. But this ain’t radio. Scrolling through my footage, I searched for just the right shot to back up each spoken moment. If I’ve done my job right, it all falls together like per-cut pieces to a perfect puzzle.

I love to edit - and not just because it involves sitting down. Sometimes it’s like conducting the world’s most perfect orchestra. Other times, it’s like crash-landing a wounded helicopter. Either way, each edit session is a lesson in good and bad decisions in the field. With the advent of computer editing, a whole new realm of visual storytelling is at hand. Difficult effects that used to require bribing the control room gang down the hall is now just a click or two away. I’m far less articulate than other editors in my shop. Friends of mine can recite 17 level edit-moves backwards and forwards and their work shows it. But me - I’m more of a Zen Master than dry technician. I feel the focus should be on storytelling, not technique. Of course that doesn’t stop me from screaming for for a Edit-Master’s council when the need arises.

Is that so wrong?

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Television IS Furniture

There’s an old saying in Broadcasting…

"Film is art, Theater is Life, Television is Furniture."

It has to be true; Weaver has a t-shirt that says so. The other day he pulled me into a darkened booth and whispered conspiratorially,

“Stew, check it out - If Television is furniture, and I am a TV Photog, then what kind of furniture am I?”

Sensing my colleague was undergoing another twisted epiphany, I raised an eyebrow and slowly backed out of the edit bay, scanning the small room for sharp objects to remove. Not finding any, I closed the door and abandoned him, as he repeated the question to the bank of monitors inches from his face. No need to encourage him. If I wanted to throw backlight on the Moon, I’d tell Weaver he couldn’t do it and wait for the celestial halo to appear. A good man to have around on a live shot.

So it shouldn’t have surprised me when he clung to the idea, quickly turning it into the latest installment of ‘Photog Bloggers Unite’. Before I knew it, every shooter with a web-blog fetish I knew was weighing in with esoteric riffs on why they were a burnt ornage couch from the swinging 70’s. The philosophical quandary even caught on at b-roll, where a lengthening thread on the very matter stretches into cyberspace. Me - I’m coming up empty. I couldn’t tell you if I’m a velvet ottoman, a tricked-out floor lamp or a rhinestone-encrusted dentist’s chair. I’ll go with Weaver’s call:

Lenslinger - A huge wall-mounted bookshelf full of insightful and enjoyable books of all different flavors.

I’ll take that, as I am a great lover of books. Here’s just one of my many shelves now, stacked to the rafters with tomes, accounts and chronicles. Tattered copies of science-fiction classics and lurid paperback novels rescued me from a childhood filled with playmates who only wanted to ‘play ball‘. With adolescence came Stephen King. For years I counted my hardbacks of ‘The Dead Zone’ and ’The Stand’ as items I’d like to be buried with. Still do, come to think of it. As I got older, my literary tastes changed but voracious appetite for titles stayed the same. Never one to follow a plan, I chased my distractions from one guilty pleasure to another, reading purely for the joy of the written word.

By the time I reached my full towering height of five foot ten, I’d sworn off the novel for the true-life narrative. Something about the recording of events - both the somber and salacious - has always appealed to me. Perhaps it was the budding newsman inside me, maybe I was trying to make up for my lack of education by gobbling up real-world facts, however tawdry. Several phases followed: During my stint in the Navy, I devoured deranged killer tell-alls, starting with ’The Stranger Beside Me’ and ending with ’Bitter Blood’. By the time I staggered into my first TV station I was under the influence of authors from a generation past - Kesey, Thompson, Kerouac and Wolfe, dangerous uncles who left me raw, dazed and blistered. A friend named Pat McKemie sobered me up, turning me on to countless accounts of trials and triumphs past long before the History Channel made it cool. Taking to the high seas of my imagination, I spent the next few years ensconced in nautical lore, with a special interest in the Age of Discovery. After witnessing many a European die on an ice floe, I started thinking about the mark I wanted to leave on this heartless orb.

So I built a library of How-To books, all centering around the art and science of narrative and viewpoint. Though I wasn’t writing so much as a grocery list at the time I spent a solid year racing from cover to cover on a quest to learn how to become an author of sorts. I’ve long since stopped swallowing smarmy instructional guides, though I think they taught me a thing or three. Thinking about the kind of book I’d like to write myself, I sough out street level accounts of interesting gigs and different worlds, from ‘Kitchen Confidential’ to Blue Blood’ to ‘NewJack’ to ‘The Corner’. Someday I’d like to add ‘Viewfinder BLUES’ to that particular canon. For now though, it’s a blog - and a damned fulfilling one.

Sorry for the tangent guys. Now go check out all the other photog-bloggers who answered Weaver’s call. I’ll be here, deciding which favorites to re-read at the beach.

tv photog blog

newshutr's views

jason plank



colonel corn

To Live and Eye in L.A.

Photog-blogger extraordinaire beFrank checks in from L.A. with a scintillating post that illustrates the delicious randomness and the unthinkable mileage of a news shooter‘s typical shift. But this being Hollyweird, beFrank’s day is doubly surreal. Before he punches out he’ll spend hours behind the wheel, minutes at a freaky church fire and a few twisted seconds in Ozzy Osbourne’s living room. How's that for variety?

Birth of the Personal Journalist

With Monday’s staged implosion of the Burlington Industries building, the shell of a giant was summarily destroyed. But as the first of the staccato booms rattled windows around Friendly Center, a new breed of onlooker rose up to record it. I speak not of the swarthy camera pirate with his heavy lens and professional press pass, but of the mild mannered college professor with the brand new camera-phone, the smiley housewife with the shiny Sure-Shot, the cocksure columnist with a thesis already brewing in the laptop. They are more than erstwhile tourists. They are the rabid bloggers, the plugged-in pundits, the citizen press corps - whip-smart individuals whose very nature drives them to post pictures, links and commentary on the sudden collapse before the dust even finishes settling over once fertile ground.

From Tripod Row, the view’s indeed a little scary. Squinting civilians peering into tiny lenses, breaking bedrock principles of camera-handling with every unnecessary sweep and pan. No one expected the democratization of media to be pretty, but the attendant lens abuse is enough to break this cinematographer’s heart. But that ship has sailed, a nautical phrase as apparently outdated as Wide-Medium-Tight and Steady Sequenced Video. What use are lofty production values to the herky-jerky nature of today’s internet footage? Does proper composition really matter when the end product is viewed on a one inch screen? Of course it does - but only to us broadcast dinosaurs. This new hybrid breed of digital scribe gives little thought to such matters, instead relying on quick image uploads and push-button publishing to make up for his lack of camera acumen.

It’s enough to make those of us in the media scrum to talk of the End Times. Years of shoulder mounted betacam security are grinding to an unceremonious halt and crashing onto the shores of shrinking technology. With phone companies morphing into video portals and infidel consultants preaching the power of the One-Man-Band, it is simply not a good time to be a TV news photographer. One hasn’t got to look far into the cameraman’s past to recognize a similar shift. In the early Eighties, videotape quickly surpassed film as Television’s medium of choice. Suddenly journeyman photogs found their hard-earned tenure as film-processing auteur simply didn’t matter. Videotape was cheap, instantaneous, and far easier to use. Though the gear was bulky, there were plenty of underpaid young upstarts willing to take up the new dumb-downed format. As they did, thousands of veteran film crews laid down their lenses and for a long while afterwards, the evening newscast suffered.

Now, a new revolution is about to be televised. Tiny lenses are popping in the most unlikely of devices, powerful editing is just a laptop away and personal websites are racing towards critical mass. How long before my oversized fancy-cam looks like an early 80’s bag phone? About the same time the six o clock news begins looking like it was shot by a hopped-up junkie with a twitchy digital, I‘m guessing. The next ten years promise to feature a rapid breakdown of my chosen craft. Whatever new paradigm takes hold, it’s a safe bet the two-person news crew is an endangered species, driven to oblivion by technology and methods that are faster and cheaper, but not necessarily better. Hopefully by that time, I’ll have found more fulfilling ways to make a difference and a paycheck. Until then, I’ll be here in the media pack, one eye buried in a viewfinder, the other one keeping steady watch over a nation of digital interlopers. Now tell the accountant with the handy-cam to get the #&%% out of my shot...

NOTE: The above two photos of the Burlington Indutries building collapse - the best I could find on the Internet - are from the lens of the Blogfather himself, Ed Cone. How's that for personal journalism?

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Mad Props from YES! Weekly

YES! Weekly, my newly favorite alternative weekly newspaper, unleashes a great cover story on the Greensboro Blogosphere! Reporter Editor Brian Clarey certainly did his homework, tracing the roots of the movement and guessing where it may go from here. Clarey even spent time with a Master or two before hanging out with the rest of us rabble. He and photographer Lee Adams captured with flair a scene that is neither simple to explain or particularly lens friendly. I know. Pffft - the very idea of an upstart free-weekly newspaper publishing a list of competing news sources in the first place? Ruh-SPECT! Hell, they even cited Viewfinder BLUES as one of the Ten Best Greensboro Blogs.
"There are hundreds of bloggers in Greensboro, but this guy’s site is in a class by itself. Lenslinger’s been a camera jockey for television news since 1989 and currently shoots for FOX 8, but he’s a writer at heart and he uses this blog to feed that particular jones. He posts media critiques, reflections on entering middle age (with pictures) and inside tales from his very specialized gig."
How cool is THAT? Now go read the whole thing. You'll better understand the communication revolution I find myself embroiled in, discover a world of gifted web-writers and peruse a potent publication in the process.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Leveling a Landmark

I intended to tell you about the scheduled implosion of the Burlington Industries headquarters in Greensboro, but a host of other area bloggers have long since weighed in with impressive pics and commentary. With Cone, Chewie and Wharton filing reports before the dust even settled, at least I know I’m getting beat by the best. But take it from an aging deadline junkie, the local blogosphere is already a highly competitive news market. So stand-by as I drop some first hand knowledge of the incident at hand. Just remember, I had a face full of viewfinder while compiling this report...

Leveling a Landmark’, as my station called it, wasn’t so much a planned structure implosion as it was a cameraman convention. With all four affiliates turning out in force, a silent army of still photogs playing shoulder-hockey and a hyped-up throng of curious onlookers wielding camera phones and digi-lens, you would have thought Osama Bin Laden himself had holed up in the old Burlington Industries building. But who am I to talk? Surfing the crowd with lens at the ready, I was a willing practitioner of the continuing team smotherage. Hey, a man’s gotta eat.

Besides, I love this kind of spectacle. Some lament this loss of living history while others merely marvel at the technology of the take-down. Me - I leave my opinions at home. I bring my wireless microphones, blank discs and extra batteries to every assignment, but my true thoughts on the matter stay in the dresser drawer at home. It’s a little thing I call journalism.

Broadcast journalism, to be exact - the kind using cameras, cables and capable colleagues. I’m lucky in that department, as everywhere I looked this morning, I saw a weathered co-worker on the prowl for highlights. Apex predators all, the veteran news-gatherers with El Ocho logos slunk through the crowd, bagging shots and capturing sound as the demolition experts prepared to turn a piece of Greensboro’s past into the site of yet another upscale strip mall.

As the implosion crew took souvenir snapshots, stooped men in ball caps thumbed through yellowed photos of Textile’s past. Mothers pointed children to the hulking structure in the distance and radio deejays babbled into handheld microphones. Nervous Rent-A-Cops paced about while the real sworn officers gossiped by the barricade. I wandered through the teeming masses with one eye hidden, sizing up shots and hitting ‘Record’. Every couple of minutes I’d glance at Danny Spillane, able captain of the ‘Santa Maria’ - his derisive nickname for our aging satellite truck. The half-worried, fully-annoyed look on his face told me things were right on schedule - at least as on schedule as live TV can be.

With only minutes left until detonation, I closed in on my quarry. David Griffin, vice president of the D.H Griffin Demolition, wore my wireless microphone along with four such others. Framing him up in my one inch screen, I kept worrying he’d sneeze, set off a set off a ripple of RF signal and bring the abandoned landmark down before everyone could get clear. That didn’t happen, thankfully.

Instead, Griffin answered questions and hugged friends, working the crowd like a master politician turned conquering astronaut. I got the impression this particular takedown was something of a victory lap for the local company - a high-profile, relatively easy drop for a homegrown organization gone big-time. Their set-up looked complex to me, but this job had to be a cakewalk for the demolition crew that tore down the ruins of the World Trade Center. At least that’s the impression I got after stalking him all morning. Whatever the case, I have to say the Griffins are awful nice people. Just don’t park a building in their way. They’ll get all Wile E. Coyote on your ass…

Finally, after much double-checking and constant warnings to the eager crowd, the demolition crew was ready to get down to the business of structural takedowns. As warning sirens wailed in the distance I leaned into the eyepiece, filling the screen with Griffin and his mother as they hunched over the detonator. I would hold that position until the countdown ended and wait for the all-important reaction shot. No matter that dynamite and wires were about to erase history just over my shoulder, I was honed in on the candy-like button that would bring it all down.

Such is the life of a lowly camera-slug. You get to go to every show, as long as you watch everything through a glassy tube. At least others had my back; from the roof of the Grande Theater to the corner of Hobbs and Friendly, fellow Fox 8 lenslingers zoomed in, focused and rolled on the skeletal remains of a textile giant. As the sirens faded, the countdown began…

“10, 9,8,7...”

When the numbers ran out, Mrs. Griffin jammed a bejeweled finger into the industrial button. Her son reached over and reinforced her grip, setting off a series of carefully-placed bundles of dynamite. Over my right shoulder, staccato booms rang out from within the distant edifice. I wanted to look toward the sound but held my shot, a tight frame of Mother Griffin’s upturned face. When a boom twice as loud as the proceeding ones caused the back of my shirt to ripple, a smile broke across the matriarch’s countenance. Pumping his fists in the air, her son David whooped and cheered - as did the crush of spectators all around us. As a slow motion cloud of ash and dust rolled toward us, I framed a shot of a female security guard jumping up and down like she’s just scored a new living room on The Price is Right. Glancing over my shoulder, I was mildly surprised the building in question was actually gone, a jumbled stack of concrete girders barely visible in the haze. My eras still ringing, I swept the crowd with my lens. As the hard hats high-fived each other and the preservationists wept, I bagged one surreal image after another, mulling over which ones I might pass on to the masses and wondering if the wife would meet me for lunch.

It’s a paycheck.

UPDATE: Weaver files his own report with pictures and video, while Chewie adds her perspective and even more images. Ooh - the synergy!