Thursday, July 14, 2005

In Appreciation of Borat

As a grateful employee of a fine TV station, I simply cannot condone the actions of the gifted yet troubling chameleon Sacha Cohen. But I can talk about it! Posing as Kazakhstan journalist Borat Sagdiyev, Cohen recently commandeered more than three minutes of live air time at a Jackson, Mississippi affiliate. Borat is well known to pay-cable viewers as one of Cohen’s several incarnations featured on his Emmy-award winning Da Ali G Show. Apparently, they don’t get HBO in Jackson.

"We were gotten," said Stuart Kellogg, WAPT's general manager. The interview was recorded by a cameraman working for HBO and will be shown on an upcoming episode of Da Ali G Show.

Posing as Sagdiyev, Cohen has copped interviews with the likes of Vice President Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, newsman Sam Donaldson and more. "Hey, McMullan is in good company," Kellogg said, referring to morning anchor Brad McMullan, who interviewed Cohen live about his travels across America.

At some point in the 3- or 4-minute segment, "Sagdiyev" began talking "nonsense," Kellogg said. "It got out of hand, so Brad was able to wrap it up and go. He handled it extremely well. But it was tough to shut (Cohen) up."

As he was being escorted out of the studio, Cohen/Sagdiyev ambled in front of the camera twice during Ken Johnson's live weather report.

"It seemed plausible that he was who he said he was," Kellogg said. "Who knows what an accent from Kazakhstan sounds like? (Gary Pettus

A cameraman accompanied Cohen to the studio, capturing what sounds like signature Borat, a bumbling, strangely-accented correspondent who says the most awful things to incredibly unsuspecting tight-asses. No doubt the footage will air on Da Ali G Show, hopefully in the fall. I’m still amazed no one recognized him, as this show has legion of fans - especially amid the media-drenched denizens of your average TV station. It’s almost enough to make this aging camera monkey renew his subscription to HBO. Booyakasha!

Thoughts on the Phonarazzi

Apparently some of those phone-cam wielding Londoners documenting last week’s bombings were downright rude, a report few professional news photogs will find very surprising. Still, sketchy details from a survivor’s blog have prompted an incisive article by Mark Glaser (it seems to be the week for incisive articles) on the more Orwellian aspects of a plugged-in citizenry. Being a fan of emerging technologies as well as a student of the moving image, I feel compelled to add my own three and a half cents, even if the wife would rather I stop pecking on the laptop and come to bed. In a moment dear, first I have to explain some things to these nice people. I’ll start with the basics:

I’m no paparazzi. Sure, I make my living with a camera and yes - I once chased Nikki Sixx through an underground parking garage, but that doesn’t make me one of those skeevy bottom-feeders who get paid by the pixel to chase low-end proclivities of the super rich. I’d just as soon French-kiss a chainsaw before joining the great unwashed for a round of chase the TomKat, Qua-Lo or whatever celebrity duo is selling units this week. I simply have better things to point a camera at - like ribbon-cuttings, house fires and county commissioner meetings. You know, important things.

Still, I know a little bit about lens detachment. Whether it’s a grainy image at the end of a long black tube or a Technicolor flip-screen one inch from your eye, its easier than you think to keep your emotions beneath the surface. I’ve written about this internal struggle before. From the very first time I framed up a hysterical mourner to the day an unexpected tragedy made me want to leave my fancy-cam by the side of the road, it hasn’t always been easy to stay human and stay employed. But time in the saddle and a long, strong lens has taught me how to hunt images without preying on the innocent. These days I have a harder time feigning interest than respecting the personal space of the dead and dying. Yeah, I still tend to wince when zooming in for the kill. Most of by lens-swinging pals do, too.

But now Joe Pedestrian is joining the hunt, shoving cell-phone lenses in the faces of the dirty and dead and uploading the visceral images to a global audience. In doing so, these erstwhile journalists are discovering the Dark Side of the Photog Force. In London, some victims and bystanders were aghast at the behavior of fellow commuters when they whipped out their picture phones and did what comes natural to the curious and the camera-ready. I guess we should have seen that coming, huh? Tackiness behind the lens first occurred at the very dawn of field-photography, when Civil War photogs didn’t think twice about re-arranging dead soldiers, weapons and props to heighten the drama of their primitive shots. Is it any real wonder jaded victims in the 21st century might survive regular suicide attacks only to fall victims to a vicious citizen press? Is that what the future is...a jacked-in, uploaded world where your image and dignity can instantly be processed into global chat-room fodder, not by just by the rabid camera crews clamoring outside, but by that little old lady two rows over who’s fumbling with the shiny Nokia the kids just bought her?

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

News Crew Performance Art

This just in: Little Lost Robot is goin' dayside. But before he joins the land of morning meetings and noon live shots, he's bidding adieu to his beloved nightside partner Marla, with a giggle-inducing video that's both a warm look back and a stone cold jam. I've yet to meet either of these two newsgatherers, but judging from this photo alone, I'd happily share a train wreck with 'em anytime.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

We Now Go Live On Scene...Sort of.

From a TV news shooter who's been publishing on the web before most of us could even spell 'blog', Tim Rutherford of Photog's Lounge brings us an enlightening article about live shots in the age of a ravenous FCC.

Penned by Allison Romano of Broadcasting & Cable magazine, the piece examines the Catch-22 station managers find themselves faced with these days. On one hand, they have millions of dollars invested in live shot technology as well as a long-held belief that these remote broadcasts are of utmost import. On the other hand, the suits in the newsroom are terrified that any untoward actions broadcast live will result in paralyzing fines from the FCC. These fears were crystallized recently when a group of female bikers with a penchant for nudity breezed through a San Francisco live remote. No mammaries made a cameo that day, but it goes to show that even in an environment steeped in live coverage, money talks and unauthorized genitalia walks. From the article:

'Such vigilance may sound paranoid, but around the country, local stations are installing expensive new tape-delay equipment, scouting locations in advance and warning camera crews about the potential for indecent shots due to the FCC's recent crackdown on indecency offensives. While no stations have delayed news broadcasts yet, much of what small markets consider news—parades, sporting events, town hall meetings—is being altered.'

Perhaps, but I have a hard time believing the local newscasts will ever be regularly tape-delayed. Technically, doing so would be frightfully easy, but the very idea of news in the can flies in the face of what we broadcast journalists work so very hard to do. Locally, we live and die by the live shot - to deprive viewers of this venerable (if not often needless) show component would send certain senior staffers into dangerous convulsions, while at the same time sparking fits of joy among many in the photog set. No, our live shots aren't going anywhere. If anything they'll multiply as the stifling humidity of a Piedmont summer breaks and hurricanes, high school football and early blizzards beckon news crews to roadside ruts and washed-out overpasses far and wide.

With little guidance from the mercurial enforcers of the FCC, broadcast outlets will no doubt continue to keep going live with their collective fingers crossed. As a result, your friendly neighborhood lenslinger will have one more thing to worry about while juggling all the gadgets that make up your average live shot: the constant threat that a malicious passerby will drop an F-bomb or worse yet, expose a renegade breast. So thanks alot, Janet Jackson - you show off your million dollar nipple bling and I end up with a whole new checklist to contend with come showtime. I'm beginning to think I'm on the wrong end of this business.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Camera Phone Calamity

Many thanks to Mark on Media for leading the Lenslinger Committee to the remarkable findings of one Dennis Dunleavy, Ph.D.

In his intriguing dissertation ‘Camera Phones Prevail: Citizen Shutterbugs and the London Bombings‘, the good professor explores a theme I touched on in my own recent epistle, ‘Birth of the Personal Journalist‘, albeit on a more global and tragic scale. But whether it’s a building implosion or a subway bombing, the hurtling pace and galactic scope of shared imagery is finally reaching the levels predicted in all those great Science Fiction novels I read as a boy. Of all the wondrous gadgets to come into critical mass as of late, I have to agree with Mr. Dunleavy, the camera phone alone has the potential to change the world. Or at least how we swap gossip about it.

Fact is, I been luggin’ a lens for fifteen years, jumping in ice cream trucks with poles on the top and racing them up and down the countryside, looking for that perfect spot to shoot primitive signals to a rickety towers, all so I can feed some shoplifter mug shot back to a station full of slouchy co-workers. Now with the flip of one pudgy wrist, a housewife in the Frozen Foods aisle can capture a shot of the guy with the chops in his socks and instantly zap it to a global information network before she ever hit’s the check-out lane, giving her time to count her coupons and easily out-broadcast my sorry ass in the process. I may be just a greasy photog, but even I know, THAT’S news.

Though I don’t yet own one, I do believe the advent of digital camera phones will be viewed by historians as a touchstone event in the Information Age - a landmark development that first harnessed hi-fi imagery with wi-fi dissemination; sleek, marvelous machines that fit in your palm and plug into the world. These ever-evolving tools may well prove to be the great equalizer in the new media frontier; hand-held, high-tech devices capable of generating new streams of information where not so long ago there was noisy static, and once, only silence. Consider Dunleavy’s evidence:
In modern times, society has come to depend primarily on trained professionals to report what constitutes the news. News, in this configuration, however, has values which reporters, editors and photojournalists learn to prioritize, classify and categorize. Information is placed in a hierarchical order based on values such as relevancy, consequence, proximity, prominence, novelty and other values.

Washington Post staff writer Yuki Noguchi, in a story entitled, "Eyewitness Journalism: Camera Phones Lend Immediacy to Images of Disaster," reports that "camera phones, once a novelty, now outsell digital cameras by about 4 to 1, according to analyst data. As more sophisticated phones and higher-speed networks have become available, wireless companies have recently started offering video camcorders on their phones that can nearly instantly transmit moving pictures over e-mail or onto the Internet."

Of course I would be remiss in my own duties as Doctor of Cinematology if I didn’t bemoan the loss of lensmanship inherent in this merging of citizen journalism and mainstream media. It appears the lowly tripod isn’t invited to the Media Revolution. My advice: Buckle up! If you thought ‘Blair Witch Project’ was a bumpy ride, strap on your crash helmet - here comes the evening news! You grab the protective eyewear, I’ll grab the popcorn!

So can you see how we who make our living seeking artistry in the everyday image can’t help but grimace at the sea of bobbing lenses and glistening cell phones staring back at us. Production values we consider cornerstones of our craft are being distilled into top five suggestions for better video, sacred truths of the viewfinder once known only by the pros now pop up as refrigerator magnets bearing over-sized exclamation points. That sound you hear is the cracking of plastic, haphazard surface fractures of our beloved craft being stretched and cheapened into something new and far less valuable.

At least that’s the view from Tripod Row.

Can I Park Here?

I don't know HOW Dan Thomas of WEAR-TV managed to get the satellite truck quite so cock-eyed on this beach in Florida, but I feel for him nonetheless. Hurricane coverage is full of surprises; here's hoping his bosses understand. It can't help matters that this picture is on the front page of Why, it all reminds me of my own time in the national disaster spotlight. Better days ahead, Dan, better days ahead.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Attack of the Camcorder Zombies

(2005, Horror) The Live Shot isn't the only thing that gets killed in this gore-fest about a Nashville news crew's encounter with a growing scrum of auto-focus brain-eaters. Connie Stevens and Flava Flav co-star. **1/2

Okay, it's not a late night horror flick, but it is a nightmare scenario for most photogs. Curious viewers with prosumer gear stop by live trucks all the time, usually when you're busy editing, setting-up and cursing. Let's face it - minutes from AIR and way behind sucks no matter where you park the live truck; add a cross-eyed troop leader with a Sony of his owny and you got trouble, Mister.

Instead of a slasher movie still, this shocking scene is photographic evidence of an even more alarming occurrence: Broadcasters and bloggers sharing ideas, stating views and trading tips. Say what you will about WKRN's other endeavors, any station that opens the doors other emerging media has my respect. Via Terry Heaton, we learn the Nashville station recently held their first ever video training session for area bloggers. Twenty local push-button publishers signed up for the event, which included classroom and field work.

Cool, this breakdown of barrier between town-crier and passersby intrigues me greatly. Many in the camera community shriek at the loss of lenscraft inevitable in this transfer of tools to amateur hands. They have a point, but that ship has sailed. It left port around the time tiny lenses hit the markets, which makes all those dusty old Betamax and VHS Cameras pioneering vessels in a shifting seascape, stalwart galleons tossed about in The Age of Convergence...

But I digress, as usual. Far more tangible than my overblown anecdotes are the rapid changes taking place in the real world media landscape. This latest twist in the process is one with real merit. They even have a cool t-shirt.