Thursday, May 04, 2006

Dateline: Nowhere

Sat Post: NowhereMost often we news crews can be found at the very center of the latest, breaking development. Other times we merely park the satellite truck on the edge of nowhere and pretend something is happening. (To be fair, a bustling new shopping center is a scant fifteen months away from this location. We were probably smart to get there early.) Not that I have any right to complain; I get paid regardless - whether shackled defendants are trying to body-check me in narrow hallways or bored earthworms are simply diggin’ me from afar. Either way, the check is appreciated, but today’s desolation plays nicely into the theme of tonight’s post, even if it did take half an hour of drawing dirt circles with my shoe to come up with it. File this one under Perception Vs. Reality.

Varner hears voicesWhen I was but a youngster, I assumed every news day was a frenzied footrace through uproar and controversy. It never occurred me that those clever people on the evening newscast ever loitered, paced about or fidgeted. When would they have time, what with all that truth to uncover? Little did I know then how agonizingly slow some news days could be. Problem is, there’s a still a newscast to produce - kerfluffle or not. So we dog a little deeper, run through stacks of press releases, reconsider subject matter we’d quickly ditch were Bigfoot to call and wanna hold a press conference. I have to admit I kept an eye out for the elusive beast as I wandered the perimeter of my logo’d exile. Like most news geeks I hate to wait. Just ask Jeff Varner. He knows a thing or two about waiting, having slept on the Outback floor during the second season of Survivor. These days the last thing he wants to do is cool his jets in some backwoods outpost. That, and talk about the second season of Survivor.

Spillane doubles downPerhaps we should consult the third member of our expedition party. As a grizzled sat truck operator and veteran photog, Danny Spillane knows how to chill at an odd locale. Be it a hurricane, manhunt, Nascar race or Presidential visit, Danny holds a Doctorate degree in extended satellite encampment. Who better than he to explain the mysteries of the wait, the nuances of the delay, the eternal implications surrounding the downtime before all those off-air cues. I tried to broach the subject as he stared intently into the on-sat truck’s board computer, but the outer space coordinates at his fingertip held his full attention. Either that, or the he’d gotten enough blinking amphibians across the virtual highway to earn himself an extra frog. Whatever the case, it took a moment or three for him to process my question: How does one best deal with those idle, endless moments preceding show-time?

"Chewing gum..." he said, "sensible shoes, and a belief in a higher satellite." Not grasping the full meaning of his words, I slowly backed out of the truck and waited for his cryptic wisdom to wash over me. It didn’t and after a few minutes I grew distracted by a nearby colony of ant hills as they ferried off a bent cigarette butt back to their subterranean kingdom. Maybe next time, I’ll just bring a book.

Objects in the Mirror...

Trusty Unit 4 is no longer the gleaming news steed of yesteryear. In fact, the 1999 Ford Explorer Sport now sports more than a hundred thousand miles. We’re not talkin’ milkman miles either, but interstate-tested, deadline-bled, into-the-wind engine attrition. It’s enough to make a news man wanna pop the hood and lay a wreath of press-passes over the engine block. But this pimped-out ride is far from over, even if its logos don’t shine quite the way they used to. The same could be said for its driver. With breaking news forever on the horizon, all I can do is grip the wheel and hold on, trying not to glimpse the rearview mirror- lest I grow distracted from the misadventures fading into the past.

A certain ice storm in late 2002 found me spinning loopy donuts in abandoned parking lots across the greater Piedmont Triad Googolplex. Despite a glaring lack of 4 wheel drive and a total absence of icy driving skills, I circumnavigated the sub-zero tundra of Central North Carolina in the name of news. Whether I was drafting behind the debris of a speeding salt truck on !-40 or cruising the frigid suburbs for that tell-tale generator hum, I figured out how to keep it between the slippery ditches the way I learned every other aspect of this silly gig - at full speed, with a deadline looming near. Now if I could only remember to turn into the skid.

“Watch out for the fog,” the old lady said between her plug of tobacco. I rolled my eyes as I pulled out of the gravel parking lot and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. Ten minutes later the woman’s words bounced around Unit 4’s interior as I held the steering wheel in a death grip and tried in vain to see past the hood. A few minutes earlier I’d been humming a tune and gawking at the incredible views just outside my window. But a slow turn up a mountain pass had sent my humble news unit into a blanket of clingy white goop. A flatlander at heart, it was all I could do to inch up the winding two lane and hope I wouldn’t plummet off into the valley below. Luckily the low-lying cloud eventually lifted, but not before I drove by sense of smell for a good twenty butt-clenching miles.

Come hurricane season, my modest Explorer transforms into a haven for rain-soaked storm-chasers. Countless are the times I’ve driven through hundred mile an hour winds, watching rain pellets race up the windshield as I traversed the empty streets of some abandoned coastal town. With sheet metal and debris bouncing off its logos, I’ve piloted my two door stallion between satellite truck encampment and wherever the cops and firefighters chose to hunker down. Usually there’s a cooler full of bottled water and granola bars sloshing in the floorboard as Stevie Ray Vaughan rips through Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile: Slight Return, my hurricane-chasing song of choice. Despite the abuse, Unit 4 usually recovers from the abuse though I’m not sure which is harder to remove: all those ingrained sand pellets or that ever do funky storm chaser smell.

Ever wonder how all those level-headed folk get their precious cars stuck in raging floodwaters? I used to - until I forged a few temporary rivers of my own. In the hours following last summer’s Hurricane Ophelia, I criss-crossed the debris-strewn corridors of Carolina Beach, gathering video, ferrying crew members and dodging jagged lumber in the swirling streets. One particular intersection proved especially treacherous, but with every other path blocked, I was forced to ply its rising waters time and time again. Of course I made it each and ever time but the roiling run-off lapping at my logos convinced me to try every method of high-water passage - from the slow hopeful creep to the pedal-standing stomp to the other side. Neither, I’d recommend.

But it doesn’t take a natural disaster to place me behind the wheel. Day in and day out, I steer my chariot from calamity to kerfluffle, heavily-equipped and often on time. A flat tire or two aside, she’s never left me stranded - though at times her flashy signage draws w-a-y too much attention. Inside, it’s a crowded office cubicle - one that brings to mind the paper-strewn pickup truck the Richard Dreyfuss character drove in ’Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. Now if only I could convince an alien mother ship to hover over my humble craft and cause the onboard electronics to go all hooey. With my luck though, it’s zip off before I got my lens trained on it and I’d be left with a broken down ride and half a laser-baked face to explain to the suits. I’m sure they’d understand...

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Stirring Ripples in the Primordial News

Cursed sweeps. Every time I build a cushion of soft news around me, another ratings period rolls around and rips me from my fluff-filled cocoon. Before I know it, I’m back on scene, dodging deadlines and hurling invectives as my erstwhile partner concocts another ninety second opera. Sound like I’m whining? You betcha, but it’s my blog after all - so settle down and pass the cheese, would ya? I’m just getting started.

It’s not that I disapprove of the daily chase, but general news is just that - general. Shattered bodies, charred foundations and half-cocked politicians…the first five minutes of your average newscast may be harmless enough from across the room, but stand too close to an open viewfinder and you’re sure to get burned out. Soon, you’ll start waking up before the sun does and watching all those flickering victims narrate their passion plays the still-dim abyss of your bedroom wall.

It happened to me. Somewhere around my 17th hundred cop car convention, I realized I’d bagged my limit. Strangely unable to raise my pulse over even the most salacious of subject matter, I learned how to step around the downtrodden with both eyes closed. As always, my one means of escape was my penchant for a good kicker and mastery of the slow dissolve. But news viewers can’t live on feel-good features alone and after an impressive run of show-ending set pieces, I somehow lost my full-time status as anchor package auteur.

Now I work both sides of the beast, crafting frothy filler one day and choking on crime scene live truck fumes the next. This, of course, makes me no different than any other news shooter but since I tend to vent out in the open like this, you get to hear about it. I’ll spare you the grisly details of a slow motion shift in news, but I hope you’ll consider what the cameraman thought the next time you lean into the set in disbelief. That way I’ll know someone’s watching with more than one eye and maybe all those squinted hours in the name of news won’t seem quite so soul-bleaching after all.

On second thought, it’ll still suck, but at least I know I’ll have something to blog about at the end of the day. And what could be more important than that?

Monday, May 01, 2006

NAB - The After Parties

Arrived (8)It occurs to me I should blog about the after-parties of NAB, before the scant details of that suds-soaked evening escape me completely. Truth is, travel fatigue has as much to do with my fuzzy memory as alcohol consumption (honest, Mom!). Monday had already been a long day when Weaver and I left the convention center floor, one filled with l-o-t-s of walking through throngs of zombified conference-goers. Throw in a little jet lag plus a few stolen hours of hotel mattress misery and you have every reason your lowly lenslinger was a little tapped out headed into the big evening. Even so, we hit the two soirees we'd originally intended to.

Vegas Stew Cam (12)The Lost Remote gathering was a classy affair. Held in one of the more posh hotel-casinos, this TV news industry website summit featured dark lighting, polite conversation and overpriced mixed drinks. I enjoyed chatting with site founder Cory Bergman, mind you - but the photog inside me insisted I knock back a quick bourbon or gin and mosey on. Weaver and I did just that, swilling the eight dollar drinks with hardly a slurp before excusing ourselves into the blazing Nevada sun. One herky-jerky cab ride later, we arrived at our primary destination, the Gordon Biersch brewery - home of this year's B-Roll Bash.

Vegas Stew Cam (5)Inside, the Pilsner Room was packed wall to wall with thirsty shooters, all enjoying free beer, good conversation and oh yeah, free beer. The host, Kevin Johnson, towered above most everyone else as he welcomed guests, made toasts and accepted congratulations. Doing my best to blend in, I secured a pilsner and headed for the light buffet, I'd barely made it halfway to the grub when a tall young photog blocked my path. "Dude, I just wanted to say I love your stuff!" the young man said with more than a hint of barley and hops on his breath. A warm feeling of flattery washed over me until he continued and ruined it all, "That thing you wrote about understanding filters was brilliant," he gushed, describing a landmark primer on understanding light sources penned by a rather clever fellow who calls himself 'Shaky and Blue' - not yours truly. Oh well, so much for fame...

Vegas Stew Cam (8)But I wasn't there strictly for an ego-stroke. Rather I wanted to pay my respects to the Photog Nation. That, and score some free food. With that accomplished, I worked the room until I ran up with someone I really wanted to meet: JL Watkins, author of the quixotical weblog, Little Lost Robot. Far more subdued in person than on his site (how could he not be?), JL entertained my curiosity with a few questions of his own. Meeting someone you think you know from on-line is always rife with surprise. In this case I was taken aback by JL's unexpected height, while he didn't know I had a southern accent (neither did I!) Throughout the evening we enjoyed a geekly exchange of photog habits and blogging tendencies, along with a couple of more designer brews from our gracious hosts.

Vegas Stew Cam (18)But this being Vegas, it was soon time to hit the open strip. Thus, we all promptly piled into one mother pf a stretch limo and cruised the neon corridors of what can truly be called Sin City. Las Vegas wasn't my favorite destination of all time. Something about the gambling halls and all that debauchery on demand just didn't appeal to me the way it did when I was surfing caribbean casinos back in my Naval days. Still, getting a chance to meet people I read every day was indeed a kick. But next year, can't we all do it in, say...Aspen?

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Feeling the Impact of Flight 93

DSCF0130Until Friday, I didn’t really know I felt about the new film United 93. Like every other American, the scant details of that heroic flight had seared themselves into my imagination, even as the wreckage still smoldered in that Pennsylvania field. But a movie? It all seemed so…exploitive, even if the filmmakers were treating it with the utmost respect. Did we really need to see this on the wide screen? Isn’t it awfully soon? I wasn’t sure, so I headed out for a charity golf tournament and filtered the plight of Flight 93 through the memory of one of its crewmembers, Sandy Bradshaw. A local woman, a mother of two and a part-time flight attendant, Sandy was simply doing her job the day terrorists took over her plane. Her family and friends have been reeling from the impact ever since. Take her sister Tracy Peele, who helps organize the Sandy Bradshaw Memorial Golf Tournament every year. A beaming woman of considerable charm, her face still slackens when she speaks of her lost sibling. It’s a look I’ve seen before.

DSCF0129Just days after 9-11, I hunkered down behind a camera in Sandy’s comfortable home while her husband Phil numbly answered Neill McNeill’s quiet questions. A airline pilot himself, Phil recounted parts of the cell phone call from his wife that awful day. Sandy was a fighter, he said. After a desperate discussion of her children’s future, she hurried off the phone to gather boiling water so she could join the others as they rushed the cockpit. She never called back of course, and the abrupt end to that anguished transmission haunted the father of two as he stared past my lens and into his own private abyss. I couldn’t help but think of my own headstrong wife and two young daughters as Phil Bradshaw surveyed the remains of his newly broken world. When all other words failed him, he motioned my lens to a pile of family photos - all featuring a radiant blonde with a visible verve and an intoxicating smile. As I swept the camera over the pictures, I dropped more than a few tears in its wake.

DSCF0127But a sadly predictable thing happened in the near five years since. The images of that day faded; those heart-wrenching photo albums now merely misplaced keepsakes of a conflict unresolved. Now, a feature film promises to drag out every anguishing cinematic moment. That’s not necessarily a good thing, I thought - but those far closer to this still open wound disagree. As a shiny fleet of golf carts zipped off into the distance, Tracey Peele and her mother Pat Waugh sipped ice from plastic cups and spoke to the local news crews. “It’s not too soon,” they both agreed. Put it off fifty more years or so and the pain of that day is still easily within reach for the two ladies within my lens. If a celluloid treatment reminds others of what none of us should ever forget, then cue up the reel and show some respect. At least that’s the impression I left with, after spending a few minutes with Mrs. Waugh, whose voice still tragically cracks whenever she speaks of a daughter lost.