Thursday, March 02, 2006

Vistas of Demolition

Pink Floyd Album CoverHaving lurked in the shadows of an edit bay for the better part of a week, I was delighted today to bathe in the rays of a glorious Piedmont morning. It was no walk in the park. Rather, it was a pleasant enough schlep through the dismantled wastelands of what used to be one mother of a textile plant. I'll get to the details in a minute, but first check out the trippy landscape in the picture to the right. If that doesn't bring to mind a certain Pink Floyd album cover, we must not have traveled in the same rusty Camaro circles back in the day. But with enough with the flashbacks, I'm here to talk hard hats.

Makin' RubbleI hate 'em. Not the look so much, but the way the strangely perched headgear bumps into the side of the camera when I shoot. It's a trivial enough matter I suppose, but ask any cameraman to list the most impeding shooting garb and the lowly construction helmet ranks right up there with the frozen-stiff winter mitten. Nonetheless, I was more than happy to don the molded chapeau today - if not for the fashion, at least for the access. You see, David Griffin wouldn't let me on the multi-acre remains of the Kannapolis Pillowtex Plant without the damn thing. A real stickler, that guy.

David GriffinBut then again , what would you expect from a man whose family business oversaw the clean-up of the World Trade Center? These cats didn't become a globally-known demolition giant by cutting photogs slack in the safety department. Besides, who'd wanna catch a flying rivet to the forehead on a pretty day like this? Not this camera dork. I gladly made like Barney Rubble to Griffin's Fred Flinstone as the demolition bigwig took time out of his busy schedule to give me a personal tour. Not bad for a guy who could level my house in seven seconds. But Dave (I'm sorry ... Mr. Griffin) would never do that. He knows me far too well from stalking him at the semi-recent Burlington Industries Implosion.

Rockin' the Hard HatThat structure drop was quite impressive but it pales in comparison to the methodical take-down he's staging at this old textile fortress just north of Charlotte. For 18 months he and a crew of 80 tough guys will spend six days a week carefully dismantling six million square feet of former factory floor space. Along the way, they'll recycle 75 percent of what they recover - from hundred year old brick to steel beams to giant maple planks, these guys throw precious little away. My one hour excursion was a videographer's dream: unfettered access, repetitive action, staccato sound. To top things off, Griffin even insisted I keep the hard hat at the end of the tour - a bean pod I'll proudly sport at the next rubble pile, or maybe even around the house, now that my hairline's receding. I figure the kids'll dig it more than the mullet.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Right to Play Dumb

Shiny station logos provoke a variety of responses from the public at large and most of them I'm more than prepared for. Take the other day for instance: Idol Expert Shannon Smith and I were enjoying the most glamorous of sandwiches in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant when a young man with nothing much to do poked his head into the driver's side window of Unit Four.

"Hey, what'chall think of ole Van der Sloot?", he asked, revealing a mouth that may very well have never hosted a real-life toothbrush.

"Huh?" I asked, not knowing what the hell the man with the scary mouth was talking about.

"Van der Sloot..." he said, looking past me to the pretty news lady sitting in the passenger seat.

"You mean the guy in the Natalee Holloway case?", Shannon asked.

Indeed he did, for when Shannon locked eyes with him, he leaned in even further into my lunch-zone and layed out a rambling theory as to why the jetsetting teenager was clearly innocent of all charges in the salacious Aruban murder case. Throughout his dissertation I never looked up; instead I cradled my four dollar cheeseburger and hoped Mr. Yuck-Mouth simply wouldn't breathe on it too much. Shannon wasn't so lucky, though. Ever the professional, she humored our skeevy inquirer until he finished his nonsensical rant and wandered off to weird out some other hapless lunch-eater.

"Way to hang me out to dry back there," Shannon said a little later. "You got an opinion on EVERYTHING, but when Mr. Stranger Man walks up, you slip into 'dumb photog mode'."

"Aw, c'mon Shan," I said through a guilty grin. "It's not like I was gonna let him drag you out of the car or anything..."

We both chuckled and soon forgot the incident, but Mrs. Smith's insightful accusation stuck with me. For the record, photogs AREN'T dumb - but the viewing public often assumes our intellect pales in comparison to that of our far-better-groomed partners. I, of course, enjoy dispelling this myth on this very webspace, but come at me with an off-the-wall question and I'm gonna play lugnut so fast it'll make your head spin. Is it right? Probably not, but it sure beats spending my lunch-break trapped in a protracted discussion of cable news fodder with someone who has little regard for my time and even less concern for proper dental hygiene. Is that so wrong?

Man in the Box

Man in the BoxNormally I use this space to tell you of my day's adventures - surreal episodes of lens-tripping in the great wide open. Lately however, I've spent an awful lot of time sitting in a small box, mumbling incoherently and brooding over timelines. No, I haven't embarked on some ghastly scientific experiment; I'm merely editing American Idol. Not the show, mind you. Somewhere in Hollywood a team of cappuccino swilling Californians are taking care of that. As for me, I'm busy assembling in-depth profiles of the four North Carolinians still vying for the title. Bucky, Heather, Kellie and Chris... I've come to know these hopeful vocalists quite well, and not just because I jetted to Cali a couple of weeks ago for breathless, one-on-one interviews.

Idol Edit BinSince returning to the Old North State, I've spent most of my time interviewing their friends, families, co-workers - even a mailman or two. From Jonesville to Rockingham to Albemarle to Haw River, I've visited parts of North Carolina I'd only heard about - all in the name of the world's cheesiest talent search. But I'm not complaining - though I'm sure it sounds like I am. No, I did this to myself. I walked in to the suit's corner office and declared myself 'Idol Boy'. A few fellow photogs raised their unkempt eyebrows at my plans, but they may be reconsidering their derision now that I've spent weeks avoiding the never-ending parade of ribbon-cuttings, murder scenes and contentious school board meetings. The only downside...I spend alot of time in The Box.

Fingers McGeeOkay, so it's a fancy-schmancy non-linear edit suite, but log enough hours in it and it feels like the most torturous of prison yard sweat-boxes. When I'm not staring into the abyss of a blank monitor, I'm whittling down soundbites, scavenging bits and pieces from the show tapes and stretching dissolves until they render just the right tearful response. If none of that made sense to you, don't sweat it, it's merely TV geek talk for editing - that tedious yet highly rewarding process that goes into each and every frame of vapid television you watch. I'll spare you the technical details, but understand this: few things on-screen happen by accident. A two minute profile of a giddy singer contains more (visually) editorial decisions than a three-column newspaper article. Of course, if the viewer at home thinks about the editing, then we as timeline jockeys have failed. (Personally, when that happens to me, I go home and watch my 'Jaws' DVD for slice and dice inspiration.)

Lenslinger broodingSo while I filet footage of starry-eyed ingenues, know that this won't last forever. Before either you or I know it, I'll be back out on the general news hunt, zooming in on defendants and grumbling under my breath at the stupidity of it all. So please, bear with me through this difficult time. At least you haven't got it as bad as my fellow photogs, who visibly cringe every time they hear some soaring, overwrought vocals emanating from my booth. 'Turn that crap down!', they hiss as I stare back at them behind droopy eyelids. I try to explain that I've grown impervious to the screeching show tunes, immune to the over-blown vocal emotion on display, invulnerable to the treacly disco hits contained within. So just HOW have I achieved such aural bliss while drowing in syrupy, doe-eyed ditties, you ask? I can explain it all away in two simple words...

Beastie Boys.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Mad Skills of a Master Photog

Sure, anybody can point and shoot, but to excel as a television news photographer, you gotta have SKILLS. Knowing which end of the camera to point at the action helps, but if you want to make it behind the lens (and why, frankly, would you?), you'll need to master a discipline of ingenuity not found in textbooks. Since I know a thing or two about not finding things in textbooks, I'm especially equipped to list a few job qualifications of the modern day photog, in exceedingly random order:

SNIPER - Chances are you won't kill anybody, but you will line up your sights on the powerful and the pathetic. If you hope to do so without being harrassed by vagabonds or tackled by Security, you'd better sharpen your crosshairs. A veteran 'tog can track a drunk shriner from across a crowded convention floor and tell whether he just polished off the chicken or the fish - all from the discomfort of an ancient tripod half-hidden behind a plastic fern. Hey, they don't call us shooters for nothing.

AMBASSADOR - That overpayed anchor may be the face of your station, but it's you in the station windbreaker that spends the most time in the public. But with that the free jacket comes great responsibility, as both housewives and district judges will see you for more than you really are. If you want to add to your collection, you'll act like you got some smarts when sportin' the logo - even if that means chewing your food with your closed while the waitress with the moustache yammers on about how your most reviled co-worker is their absolute favorite. I didn't say it would be easy.

CONTORTIONIST - So what does body-bending have to do with baggin' good shots, you ask? Obviously, you've never taken part in a police car ride-along, courthouse camera-scrum or chopper ride to the floodzone. If you had, you'd know how often it pays to be limber. Mastery of the moving image (along with lots of entry fees) will line your mantle with shiny trophies, but if you want MY respect you'll learn how to fold yourself backwards into an unmarked surveillance van for hours on stretch. It's almost as important as knowing how to sleep on command.

Lenslinger at the WheelSTUNT-DRIVER - Sure, careless and wreckless is frowned upon by management far and wide, but you cannot expect to meet the usual litany of unreasonable deadlines if you drive like Mr. Magoo. Thus, I recommend every young photog master the finer points of aggressive driving, then learn to rarely use them. I mean, really - do we need to run grandmothers off the road just so we can be the first person to pin a wireless microphone on the top cookie seller at girl scout camp? Not unless she has a roadmap to Osama's spider-hole. Then, the breakdown lane is MINE!

TROUBLESHOOTER - I don't give a fig how many student films you watched in college; if you've never rescued a day's worth of newsgathering with duct tape and a hair-dryer, you ain't welcome at my crime-tape. I got pals who can field-strip a shoot tape in a sandstorm, fix a bad edit in the back of a bouncing live truck, and re-wire a light-kit in the pouring rain - all with only a rusty Leatherman and a modicum of obscenity. You'd curse too if the entire newscast threatened to crash and burn because of a single, neglected nine-volt battery.

SURVIVALIST - Five Star hotels and all access passes are nice, but any photog worth the weight of his tripod must be an expert at hunkering in the muck for extended periods of time. Be it a Class 3 Hurricane or a just a rainy-ass train wreck, be prepared to be prepared. That means packin' the right gear, from the best bug-spray to bring to a pot-pull to drying lenses with your 1K light to pawnin' off those highly-constipative sat truck granola bars on the competition...a photog has to know his or her limitiations. God knows the desk won't give it a second thought.

There's alot more things to know if you're going to cut it as a news shooter - some that even has to do with lenses and such. But that's the easy stuff! What comes harder is knowing when to roll, when to speed and when to simply nap in the ole news unit. Join us next time as we list other incarnations of lens-longevity, including ACROBAT, GRIEF COUNSELOR and of course, PUPPET MASTER. Remember, this WILL be on the test. That is all.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Based on a Thousand True Stories

Garrett knew he was screwed the moment he spotted the Channel 6 truck. For of all the haphazardly parked news units outside the Sheriff’s Office, it was that striped minivan with the UPN seal that bothered him the most. ‘If they’re here,’ Garrett thought as he steered his own logo-mobile into a parking space not reserved for him, ‘I AM late…’

For once, no uniformed good ole boys were loitering on the second story landing. As Garrett quickly trudged up the staircase with state-of-the-art camera, antique tripod and middle-aged accessories, the silence above told him he was tardy indeed. The only time that area cleared out was when the Sheriff held court down in the Impound Room. With a curse and a reverse, Garrett changed direction, his overstuffed fanny pack bouncing uncomfortably at his crotch as he descended the stairway.

Down in Impound, the sheriff was in his element. A tall man with a bushy moustache and oversized ears, he clutched both sides of the pressboard podium with hands big enough to crush it. Spread out between his imposing form and a half dozen members of the local media, stood a table filled with enough dope, weapons and mug-shots to film the closing scene from Scarface.

“Once the suspects refused consent to search the vehicle, K-9 was called in…” the Sheriff paused to grin for the TV cameras, “Cujo went nuts ’for we got could get him out of the squad car.”

Two deputies chuckled as the newspaper reporters blinked, scratched and scribbled. A few more heads turned to the rear of the room as a heavy door opened and Garrett schlepped in, head shaking in mock disgust, calloused hands busily twisting the tripod’s battered legs. The Sheriff barely gave Garrett a glance, though he must have smiled inside at the missing affiliate’s final arrival. Clearing his throat, the county’s top lawman stalled a little while the scruffy photog set up his rig.

“You late, G. Lee..” Doyle muttered, never looking up from his own glowing eyepiece. A veteran photog for the local CBS station, the laconic Yankee was a fixture at local camera clusters. Garrett knew him from more ditch-bank rendezvous than he could count and wasn’t at all surprised when his highly-competitive opponent slid over to make more room. Garrett took advantage of the space, clicking his Sony XDCam into the heavily-scratched tripod plate and hitting the ’Record’ button on his lens pistol-grip. With the red light glowing, he stepped away from the camera, reached past a stack of heavily duct-taped bricks of marijuana and set his wireless microphone on the podium’s lip. Without breaking the camera’s gaze, the Sheriff picked up the mic and sat it next to the others in front of him.

“...being that the individuals are all illegal aliens, Immigration has been notified. ’Course you’d never know they’s illegal, cause they all carry valid No’th Carolina drivers license...”

Garrett loosened a knob on the tripod’s shoulder and panned his lens over to the card in the Sheriff’s clutch. As he read the name in his viewfinder’s blue haze, he heard the tell-tale click of cameras being removed from the three legged perches. Looking up, he saw the NBC and FOX photogs shouldering their beasts, letting Garrett know that either news was breaking elsewhere, or a contraband swarm was about to ensue. Doyle still had his face buried in his upturned eye-cup, but a subtle twitch in his left shoulder told Garrett a firefight was imminent indeed...

-- To Be Continued?