Saturday, December 03, 2005

Sleepwalking at Center Court

Tree LensBored this holiday season? Drag your TV station's fancycam and tripod to the top of a busy mall escalator. Place yourself far enough back so that you're invisible to the ascending shopper until the very last moment, just when they're about to step off the moving steps. This can humor the average news shooter for the better part of a morning, as the reactions vary from immediate giddiness to angry befuddlement to quiet revulsion. I know I must have chewed up a good thirty minutes the other day, until an old lady with too many bags and not enough balance teetered dangerously at the precipice. Seeing how this would have caused a chain reaction of tumbling mall walkers, rent-a-cops and overpriced merchandise, I broke down my gear and slunk off to the Food Court.

Kid Hates SantaBut that's the life of a soft news specialist in December. Be it the Hottest New Gadgets! to the Ways To Save! to Great Gifts under $20.00!, there's plenty of easy TV to make at The Mall. Take the kid in the blue over there, the one yearning to break free of Kris Kringle's icy grip. I could do twenty minutes on him alone! Truth is, I would have never spotted the hysterical tyke had it not been for his most impressive lung capacity. I was lounging peacefully in a Chick-Fil-A haze when a terrifying shriek rang out from Santa's lair three floors below. Looking down, I took in a performance worthy of a pro wrestling contract. Little Boy Blue writhed, wiggled and even went boneless as Mom tried to manufacture a Kodak moment. Why she insisted he join his brothers lapside is beyond me, as the resulting photo will probably place them all in long-term therapy.

Two Old CatsAs Blue Boy feigned convulsions, I ran my lens across the farthest reaches of the retail labyrinth, pausing to gander at these two cats Clad in polyester, plaid and jackets, they were going nowhere fast. But they weren't letting their idle state belittle them in the least. Impervious to the cacophony around them, they struck up a conversation of covenience while their better halves hunted and gathered and gossiped and shopped. I was w-a-y out of earshot but I'm pretty sure their exchange featured fishing lures, World War II and grandchildren. But what do I know? They may very have been dissing on the new 50 cent CD. You know how old school dudes in Members Only jackets can be...

Santa & BodyguardSpeaking of retro-wear, check out the Man in Red himself. Having apparently shaken off Blue Boy long enough to go grab a smoke, Old Saint Nick sauntered by with undercover escort in tow - lest he be accosted by a wandering tribe of hyperventilating pre-schoolers. But who could blame the old elf for not wanting to take on the little buggers mano a mano? Have you seen the way some of them kick when you get them in a headlock? I once got my little brother in a sleeping bag figure four and he damn near levitated. But that's not important now. What is vital is that Santa's egress awoke me from my flourescent-triggered haze, making me realize that if Elvis was leaving the building, it was high time I beat feet as well - as soon as I hit that Cinnabon down by The Baby Gap...

In Memory of Bam

Astute readers of Viewfinder BLUES may remember the story of Bam, the homely half-breed who saved his owner, Beth Hanlin, from perishing in a house fire by barking incessantly until she woke up. Three months before, Hanlin had rescued him from the grim reality of an animal shelter. Paying back the favor almost cost Bam his life; firefighters used a whole bottle of oxygen to revive the smoke-induced pooch. When I interviewed him the morning after, he struck me as an exhausted yet most agreeable hero. Sadly, this uncommon dog met an all too common fate on Thursday. While chasing a cat into the street, a passing car struck him down. From Jim Schlosser of the Greensboro News Record:

'He was still breathing when Hanlin carried him to the yard. As she hugged him, he gasped a final breath and died. Hanlin held him in her arms for a half hour, wailing with grief.'

Beth Hanlin is a nice lady and Bam, was obviously, a very good dog. He will be missed, by many more than ever met him.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Adventures of Tree Weaver

While I was lost in the exploits of the long-dead, my colleague Weaver was having his own high-flying adventure. The nerve of that guy. With the help of a recreational tree-climbing expert, Mr. TV Photogblog ascended into the canopy of a 250 year old White Oak in Greensboro. But he wasn't hunting lost housecats. Instead, he was profiling a burgeoning pastime that has roots right here in the Piedmont. Roots...get it? Ahem, sorry - just a little jealous of my co-worker and friend, who etched a notch on his photog belt that I ain't earned yet. But all hope isn't lost, as Weave says Tobe Sherrill of Sherrill's Tree Climbing and Supply is up for taking a couple of early to middle-age news geeks back up into the leafy heights of boyhood glory. Look for it - meanwhile check out Weaver's blog for all the details...

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Skeletons on the Zahara

Skeletons in the ZaharaMy body spent the morning babysitting a live truck outside Winston-Salem's Sawtooth Center, but my mind stumbled across the scorching desert floor of northwest Africa, flanked by 19th century sailors who'd survived a shipwreck only to be enslaved by the nomadic Sahrawi tribes. The fate of the Connecticut merchant ship Commerce and its crew has always loomed large in the true adventure canon. Now, author Dean King has combined the two firsthand accounts of the Commerce sailors' horrific plight in a book that's currently thrusting a scabbard under my imagination's bone-dry throat. Skeletons on the Zahara tells the story of Captain James Riley and his men, who after wandering in delirium in a hostile land, are dragged 800 miles across the unforgiving Sahara desert by a seemingly sadistic group of natives they barely consider to even be human. I'm only a hundred pages in, but already I'm enthralled in this true life tale of astonishing misfortune, unthinkable deprivation and ultimately, the unlikeliest of survivals.

But then again, I've always been a sucker for expeditions gone awry. From deep sea divers entangling themselves in watery tombs, to parched Europeans dying on ice floes adrift, I'm always up for a chronicle of distress. Besides, all that hunger, doom and torment almost makes pulling a torturous morning shift not seem so bad. Almost.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Another Day, Another Deadline

It's a subject I've touched on before, the relentless pursuit of the 'live bug'. That's the corner graphic on your screen that tells you what you're watching is being transmitted as it happens. If the magic of that escapes you, well then you'd get along well the fellas in the photogs lounge. But the suits down the hall, they dig 'em some live shots. Trouble is, all that running around and mast-raising can really chew into your day. Precious time the journalist would rather spend on the storytelling is often compromised, truncated or outright forfeited for the sake of presentation. Still, I don't expect TV stations will sell their fleets of microwave trucks any time soon, so we behind the lens had better get used to it. Fact is, we already have. Today's shooters not only have to be street-level cinematographers and edit-bay specialists, but they have to be masters of time-management. Take the latter part of my day for example, a frantic if not exceedingly average late-day ramp-up:

4:30 PM - Jeff Varner hands me a script, a disc and a large-mouth file tape. I score a bag of M&M's and head to the edit bays...where I find each individual booth swollen with its own surly photog. Over his shoulder, Weaver tells me he's almost through so I slump into a chair and turn my attention to the candy-coated chocolate at hand.

4:40 PM - Weave finally wraps and I take control of the keyboard. The seat is warm and that doesn't sit well with the taste of M&M's, but I forge ahead - knowing my next few series of hand motions will determine the success of my mission. Mouse in hand, I open timelines, highlight audio tracks and whittle away the edges. As I lean into the monitor, the four walls of the closet-sized room around me melt away.

4:48 PM - Obscenities ring out of my edit bay as noisy static one of the tiny black-and-white screens. Cursing the antiquated betadeck to my left, I employ my own unique percussive maintenance techniques before paging an engineer. Seconds later a shadow falls over the small room, issues a smart remark and twists a single knob. The static disappears, as does he.

5:03 PM - Mesmerized by the dancing pixels, I tap my foot to an unheard beat as keyboard shortcuts, mouse acrobatics and instinct reshuffle the audio and video into some semblance of coherency. I slice sound from a widow's voice, lay it over a shot of her dead husband's picture before dissolving into footage of rushing traffic. Scrolling deeper into the sequence, I search for a shot of the kids, find it and drop it into place.

5:23 PM - I hold down the control button and hit the 'S' key. Over my shoulder, Jeff appears, station jacket on, pen and paper in hand. As I play back the 110 second report, he scribbles on his pad, noting which portions will require identifying graphics to be superimposed over the lower third of the screen. Commenting on the widow's closing soundbite, he vanishes as I send the story to the servers down ther hall. Checking the clock, I repeat a word I first learned in the Navy and open three more timelines.

5:28 PM - Having sliced and diced our core material into bumps, teasers and 'hot opens', I drag the sequences to their respective icons and released the left button under my palm. As individual progress bars inch to completion, I stand on sleepy feet and gather my keys, scripts, disc and yellow M&M shroud. By the time the last progress bar turns solid gray, I am vapor.

5:31 PM - Crawling up into the Wolf-Coach, I slam the key home and fire up the engine. As it roars to life, I kill the radio, fish the cell-phone off my waist and back out of the parking space. Wrestling the wheel in the darkness, I maneuver the boxy van out of the station lot and head for Business-85. In the sideview mirror I catch sight of Unit Four coming up behind you. I can barely make out Jeff's silhouette in the driver's seat. I think he's chewing my Tic-Tacs.

5:47 PM - Having piloted the rolling billboard as swiftly as possible without incurring injuries or angry phone calls, I pull over to the grassy edge of the breakdown lane along the Groometown exit of Interstate 85. With cars and trucks screaming by only two lanes over, I make my way carefully through the pitch black and around the back of the truck. As I step up on the bumper to release the mast tether, Jeff pulls up in Unit Four, bathing me in the headlights' glare. This prompts several passing motorists to lay on their horns. Why, I don't know.

5:49 PM - I reach in to the open side door of Live One and grab the handheld spotlight. Pointing it upward, I check above the van to make sure no power lines have sprouted overhead in the minute that I've been on scene. When I'm satisfied the space above my mobile studio is completely unencumbered, I check again and hit the switch that fills the mast with air,extending it to its full height of fifty something feet. As it slowly rises in fits and hisses, I scramble around the immediate premises like a man deranged.

5:52 PM - As the pole growing out of my truck's roof slowly reaches upward, I erect a stripped-down studio. Jeff fishes my tripod and lights out of Unit Four and brings them to a spot directly in front of the live truck. Meanwhile, I spool heavy cable from the rear, flip a multitude of switches and plug in various attachments. Digging two battery-powered receivers out of a drawer, I toss one to Jeff and plug my earphones into the other. A few buttons later, El Ocho's on-air audio signal pours forth, The first sound I hear is Jeff's voice, delivering the pre-recorded tease I'd fed to the machine just minutes before.

5:55 PM - With the mast just inches away from it's zenith, I hit a button on my cell phone and reach into the truck. The phone rings twice and a familiar voice answers, the shadow from the edit bay with even more smart remarks. As the engineer twists a dial, the receive dish atop our High Point tower rotates in my direction. I do likewise, holding down a toggle switch that causes my dish to lurch on it axis in a clockwise direction. When the two dishes come into alignment, both the engineer and I slow our panning until the signal locks in. After some give and take, the engineer pronounces it 'good' and I hang up without saying goodbye. Nothing personal.

5:58 PM - Jeff steps in front of the camera, muttering his lines under his breath as an endless line of racing commuters flows past. I tweak my lights, placing them to the side and behind Jeff. When that's done I slide my tripod over a few feet, frame up my partner-for-the-day and compose a shot. With all the traffic I can't hear what Jeff is saying, but even through the viewfinder I can tell something is wrong. Looking up, I understand instantly as Jeff mouths the two words you don't want to hear this close to showtime: NO AUDIO!

6:00 PM - As the 6:00 News' opening theme music permeates my skull, I run back to Unit Four and grab my handheld microphone. Spinning on my heels, I realize the hand-mic is bereft of batteries. As I scramble back up to the camera, I twist open the barrel of the microphone, find it empty, jam a battery and close it back up, all while the producer, director and engineer shout broken sentence-fragments in my ear. Tossing the mic to Jeff, I tell him to talk while I re-compose my shot.

6:01 PM - The new microphone fails to solve the problem and the voices in my head increase in pitch. Looking down at my cable connections, I see nothing wrong, but the cries of anguish in my earphones convince me it's time to act anyway. With a few yanks on the connectors, I change the configuration in hopes that it will help. It doesn't. 'Still nothing!' I hear the producer shout as the story scheduled to precede ours winds to a close. Hopeless for a cure, I switch my audio cables to their original position and a wash of relief emanates from the control room back at the station. Beneath the din, I can hear our main anchor introducing Jeff...

6:02 - PM Jeff's somber face appears in homes across the Piedmont. As he calmly walks along the highway's edge, the camera zooms out to a wider shot, where Jeff points to the spot where the widow's husband died last month. More than half that watch the ten second introduction do so with only half their brains. Less than that listen to what the handsome reporter is saying, though a handful do marvel at his sculpted hair. Even fewer viewers notice the 'live bug' in the corner of their screens. Those that do still have no idea just what it took to put it there...But why should they have to?

Note to Self

Wiper WarsEver notice how you never find yourself guessing the particular vintage of your windshield wipers until you're hurtling down the interstate in 70 mile an hour sideways rain? If I'm not mistaken, these are Unit 4's inaugural pair - a factory set of streamlined squeegees from the turn of the 20th century. That's well over 100 thousand miles ago - not to mention 750 press conferences, umpteen wild goose-chases, a half-dozen mountain trips, a handful of hurricanes, at least a few blizzards and one v-e-r-y long drive to Chattanooga with Bob Buckley riding shotgun. By Jove, I think my chariot deserves some new blades, and I'm gonna get right on it...the very next time it rains.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Newsbreakers: On the Inside?

Just when I'd given up the Newsbreakers for dead and buried, my favorite gate-crashing iconoclasts are back, with a perplexing video that shows something of a change in tactic. No longer satisfied with ruining the canvas of Rochester N.Y. live shots, these irreverent media vigilantes have unmasked and assimilated. Watch the new clip to see how Buck "Lucky" Owens and his band of idiots massage and molest the media...from the inside. I don't understand all of it either, but I do know this. TV News is a wounded beast, one that's bleeding talent, relevance and coherency all over the fruited plains of the public airwaves. Rarely are the jackals that appear on the horizon this entertaining. Just don't let 'em rattle ya. They can smell fear...

Vlogger or Not

As one who already spends his every weekday crafting mundanity into bite-size television, vlogging ain't got too much appeal. Not that I have anything against citizen journalism of the video variety, I'd just rather not partake in it after a long hard day of shoving life through a tube. I'd much rather barricade myself in my upstairs lair, spin some Etta James and wait for that voice in my head to start talking. Once it does, the rest is dictation. But while I struggle with the muse in my fortress of solitude, the world is changing - and quickly.

Take vlogging. A year ago it was still a perplexing twist on a new buzzword; today it's a thriving grassroots communications platform with its own subculture, vernacular and deities. While I've been fullfilling my destiny as the 'Walter Mitty of TV news photographers', loners, geeks and hipsters have allowed their lenses and laptops to copulate, producing a nerdy offspring that threatens to render previous generations obsolete. Why, it's enough to make this uncloseted wordaholic feel a smidge behind the times. And just when I was about to order all those 'Viewfinder BLUES' virtual t-shirts...

Oh well. If I can't summon the energy to fire off a video-epistle every now and then, the least I can do is tell you what little I know of the burgeoning form. First of all, it's easy. No matter the vintage of your camcorder, it's surprisingly simple to shoot, edit and store your thoughts on-line. With free media archives like Ourmedia and Pix Party, you can upload edited footage without knowing much more than which box to click. But be prepared to share. Since Weaver parked the Maximum Overdrive video on Pix Party, it's been viewed a whopping 24,173 times! That's not due to an extensive ad campaign mind you, but rather to legions of internet surfers who think it's fun to watch pesky camera crews run for their very lives. Can't say I disagree, really.

Another thing you'll want to know about vlogging. It's making some otherwise mortal humans frightfully popular on-line. If that doesn't interest you in the least, turn in your narcissism card and leave the internet immediately - there's nothing for you here. For those of you still reading, I offer a newly-minted compound word that'll help explain everything. Rocketboom. I know, the sound of it makes about as much sense as 'google', but trust me. Or better yet, trust Weaver, as my partner in crime has been raving about this daily webcast ever since he began hitching rides on the information superthingamajingie. After some resistance, I myself tuned in and am now inexorably hooked on this quirky dispatch, and not just because host Amanda Congdon is the most fetching cybergeek this side of the digital divide.

So let's review. Vlogging is on the verge of hitting critical mass, thanks to user-friendly software, free sites, a few viewfinder pioneers and a little invention callled the video iPod. You may not want to watch stale TV episodes on a handheld screen, but those college kids snickering behind you at Starbucks? That's no transistor radio they're staring at. Like alot of new media revolutions, it's got a funny know, like '8-track' 'VCR' and 'cell phone'. You'll get the hang of it - but by then, they'll be something else on the horizon, like flying cars, moving sidewalks and telephones with picture screens...

Just remember where you heard it first...