Saturday, May 27, 2006

Idol Finale: Too Many Lenses

Daughtry and Deanna
Hey, check out this fantastic shot of Chris Daughtry and his wife Deanna moments before they rushed into the American Idol finale ... What? Okay, so the framing's a little off, but that's what you get when you blindly pop off shots with your left hand as your right hand holds a 18 pound viewfinder to your face. The entrance to the finale was strictly a handheld event, making it virtually impossible to score solid stills, lest the moving pictures suffer in the process. That's a shame since a series of Idol used-to-be's and B-List stars strode past my slice of the crush. Bo Derek, Cameron Manheim and Kevin Nealon stopped to chat while Kathy Griffin, Carrie Underwood and others I could not identify swaggered past. At one point Bucky Covington's twin brother Rocky paused for a few high-fives, ignoring the reporters around us who kept insisting he was his far more famous brother. When Bucky did come by he laughed at the idea before loping into the Kodak Theater. It was almost showtime when Chris' publicist pulled him from the clutches of clamoring zombies. That's when his wife Deanna spotted us and steered Chris and company toward our perch.

"I think I'm gonna be a singer when I grow up." he joked before the publicist yanked the guy we met down at Natty Greene's last August past an adoring press and hundreds of rabid fans.

Idol Finale: The Accidental Tourist

Tip me or I'll chop yer head off.“I know the trip’s gonna be stressful,” my wiser-than-I bride said before I left, “but try and have some fun.” With a newscast every few hours to somehow Idolize, there wasn’t a lot of time for horseplay. But around noon on Thursday I ran across a few minutes to kill, so I grabbed my digital and left my workstation, knowing that once I returned it would be ‘Game On’ until the fat man sang. Climbing the rickety steps of the affiliate dungeon, I grabbed a handful of free Cheese Nips and squinted as I materialized into daylight. I cupped the snapshot camera in one palm and melded into the crowded streets, feeling more like a tourist with every step.

Outside the Kodak TheaterThe new home to the Oscars Ceremony, the Kodak Theater sits nestled in the massive Hollywood & Highland Center, a multi-level shopping mall slash upscale hotel slash showbiz Meca. It is at the very epicenter of Tinsel Town tourism. The Hollywood sign is a neck crane away, Grauman’s Chinese Theater is just next door and famous footprints sunk in shallow cement tattoo every square of available sidewalk. Cross the street and those etched scribbles turn to glossy stars emblazoned with the names of just about every pop culture icon imaginable. I’d visited this less than holy site briefly in 1996, during a boozy week of supposed convention attending with my dear bud Dustin Miller. I wish I remembered more...

Moniker TouchstoneThis time however I had a clearer head, so I took a moment to stroll around in search of some meaningful names. I only found a few; William Shatner, an underrated raconteur I admire more for his recent recordings than his T.J. Hooker years. Then there was the star that simply said ‘Godzilla’, a movie monster whose name always takes me back to the days of The Attic, when some righteous dudes known as ‘The Stegmonds’ ripped through many a version of the jokey Blue Oyster Cult dirge. Finally I paused over the footprints of old school legend Jimmy Stewart, the man my mother points to whenever I asked her where my name came from.

Nancy O Dell (?)Of course I didn’t visit these many shrines by myself. All around me, a sea of slack-jawed tourists, costumed characters and showbiz technicians heaved and swelled. With the Idol finale just hours away, the red carpet leading into the Kodak Theater was being readied with lighting rigs, camera platforms and mini-tents to keep all that lathered talent dry and shaded. Entertainment Tonight’s Nancy O’Dell, a vision of loveliness, stepped from her shelter long enough to shoot a frothy intro segment, sending a small herd of Korean Girl Scouts into uncontrollable spasms of joy. Weird thing, celebrity.

Joe PhotogAmid the throng of grips and visitors, fellow lenslingers stalked the target rich environment. In town for Idol’s fifth coronation, they wandered the streets with professional farsightedness and earned detachment. I made note of each one without really think about it, my attention ramping up each time I caught a betacam’s profile. Idol CrewLenses tilted, earphones dangling, each and every shooter sported the kind of thousand yard stare you only get from looking at life through a tube. Either that or they were all highly bored and a little constipated. You be the judge.

Lex Luthor Went That-a-WayPeppered throughout the unwashed masses, a crack squad of costumed mercenaries worked the fevered crowd for tips. There was the schmuck with the “S” on his chest who looked a lot more like Clark Kent than Superman. His partner Supergirl loitered nearby, and according to her accent the folks on Krypton sound a lot like they’re from Sweden. Who knew? Kneel Before MeI especially enjoyed the axe murderers - a Jason and Freddy pair who strutted through the packed avenue with no small amount of menace. More disturbing to me was the sight of Darth Vader proposing to one of his Stormtroopers. Whatever happened to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’?

Me and the Real American IdolAfter a few more mind-bending moments, I decided to head back to the hype factory. Nancy O Del l had wrapped up her stand-ups and now a pale family of Goth Kids was snapping shots of a chain-smoking John Wayne. Walking slowly along the red carpet, I spotted El Ocho’s call letters on a white card about midway down. It would be my position in a few hours, a 12 inch swath of space requiring pop culture knowledge, a sharp eye and various feats of contortion. Wanting to triple-check my gear splayed out back in the hovel, I picked up the pace a little. That’s when I saw him and knew I had to stop for one last picture … Fat Elvis: The Original American Idol.

Idol Finale: The Cyclone Effect

Idol MeleeDO NOT SWARM the judges or contestants,” yelled the affiliate coordinator, after setting up a scenario that virtually guaranteed just such a melee. It was Wednesday evening and American Idol’s final performance episode was drawing to a close inside the Kodak Theater. As it did, about a hundred weary media teams loitered just outside the complex and rolled our eyes at each other. Most of us had flown in from around the country to document the coronation this year’s Idol; nothing less than a live Elvis sighting was going to stop this electronic herd from stampeding once the right targets emerged from the theater. Surrounding this idling scrum of photogs, sound techs and reporters, an excited throng of fans and tourists rubbernecked for a better look at the lights, cameras and action that was about to follow.

Rabid Fans AwaitThirty minutes passed and the grumbling built to a crescendo. With only a half hour left until the pre-arranged live shots were about to begin, any chance of peace and order was slipping away with every sweep of the clock’s second hand. In fact, the satellite windows had already opened. All around me, glossy entertainment reporters spoke into brightly-decorated microphones - their booming voices and over-coiffed images ping-ponging across the heavens and into living rooms across the globe. All I could do was eye the grand entrance leading into the Kodak Theater. If Paula, Randy, Simon or Bigfoot didn’t soon emerge and consent to individual interviews, bedlam would ensue. When a few handlers did come out, I tightened the grip on my camera - only to have to readjust the weight when the cell phone hanging off my hip began vibrating.

Katharine Under Seige“Can’t talk, call back…” I said and pressed the End button before the voice could protest. Little did I know the caller was a curious assignment editor back at my station, who’d been watching me pace and seethe in the background of a Fox News reporter’s lengthy live shot. With seven satellite paths feeding out of the Kodak Theater complex, the pre-coverage was quite continuous and fairly breathless. Still, nothing of import had happened, as neither Taylor Hicks, Katharine McPhee, or any of the celebrity judges had exited stage left to greet the pack of toothy reporters and squinty lenslingers. So…we waited and gossiped and bitched. Crews from across the country asked each other about fellow co-workers, photogs admired each others rigs and more than one correspondent checked their looks in hand held mirrors. It was about that time the fans and tourists began screaming.

Chicken Little RulesWhat followed was by far the largest camera crush I’ve ever been a sweaty part of. First to exit the theater were the celebrity judges, Paula, Randy and Simon joined at the hip and walking lock-step into the fray. This in itself was cause for concern, as they were supposed to break off and pause for one-on-one interviews. Instead they emerged as a triple-headed monster - smiling widely but vacantly at the hungry pack of now highly-agitated news crews. Shouldering my lens and surging forward, I instantly found myself hovering inches away from Paula Abdul but unable to hear the delusional sentence fragments she’s come to be known for. Simon and Randy were also within reach, but with a dozen fellow photogs in my personal space, all I could hear was the fans’ roar of approval and all I could smell was what the guy from Cleveland had for lunch. Something with onions...

Though it only lasted a few minutes, the feeding frenzy felt much longer from the inside. At one point I found myself stretched to my full height of five feet nine, camera teetering on extended palms as I peered up into a down-turned viewfinder. Trying desperately not to drop my rig on Taylor Hick’s famous gray head, I trembled and perspired as he cocked his head and yelled “Soul Patrol” for the gazillionth time. At the moment, I felt as if I could lift my feet and remain standing, my weight supported by the horde of cameraman and women around me. To make matters worse, irate handlers kept grabbing our targets by the hand and pulling them to different camera positions. We of course followed, like unwanted debris swirling around the eye of a newborn-celebrity cyclone. ‘Do not swarm’, I thought as my back and shoulders screamed in silent protest. PFFFT! I didn’t fly cross-country only to be kicked to the curb by unorganized lackeys. I just worried what it might be like the following day, when the real madness would begin in earnest...

Friday, May 26, 2006

Idol Finale: Enter the Dungeon

Enter the DungeonIt is through this threshold Shannon Smith and I re-entered the American Idol vortex late Wednesday. An innocuous yet guarded doorway, it’s the gritty entrance to a subterranean hive teeming with shrill electronics, intense journeymen and an ample supply of brand name snack foods. Welcome to the hyping floor. At least that’s what I thought as I found the table with El Ocho’s call letters on it, a dimly lit corner featuring graffiti spackled concrete walls. Though it was just around the corner from the glittering Mecca surrounding the Kodak Theater, our little rat-hole felt far from Hollywood. But Shannon and I hadn’t wedged our way onto two jam-packed, smelly airliners to sight-see. We had a job to do.

The Hyping FloorStep one was to establish a workspace. As Shannon talked up the harried feed coordinator, I unlatched the pockmarked camera case I’d drug in from the rent-a-car. Inside the battered container, a late model optical disc recording deck, mounds of tangled cables and a monitor dating back to the Nixon administration sat covered in bubbled plastic wrap. Ripping open the plastic, I extracted the hardware and began setting up shop. Video Out, Fire-wire In, Timeline Open. In the course of a few minutes I’d erected my very own hyperbole terminal, a feature laden laptop editing system unthinkable on the day I first stumbled into this silly business. Ain’t technology grand?

Spaghetti, Anyone?Once I broke my gaze from the flickering screens, I glanced around at the crackling industrial space around me. Every where my eyeballs lingered they fell upon the huddled forms of visiting news crew, dynamic duos consisting of distracted technophiles and their far more attractive on-air partners. Once my eyes adjusted to the lack of light, I began recognizing certain photogs and reporters, fellow Fox affiliate employees I’d done battle with at earlier Idol shoots. Chief among them were Jeh Jeh Pruitt and Greg Long - the ever affable Birmingham crew, currently laser focused on their local shoo-in Taylor Hicks. Over the embroiling three days that followed, I took every opportunity to rib them over their hoofing, hammy home-boy. Soul patrol, my ass!

What IS her name?There were other faces in the cavernous space I identified, some from intimate camera scrums, others from distant satellite feeds. Most of their names escaped me. Blame part of that on my absentminded nature but the electronic assemblage before me didn’t help either. I am far from a techno-wizard. I tend to think in flowery prose, foggy long-shots and ironic imagery. In other words I can wrap my noodle around the most esoteric of notions, but the simplest of linear schematics can cause me to scratch my whiskers in befuddlement. Thankfully, a phone call or three to Weaver backed up my hypothesis and I quickly worked through a series of systemic glitches. Soon after, I was lounging with a free can of Pringles and chatting up my fellow members of the Fourth Estate, blissfully unaware we were about to lock elbows in full-on mortal camera combat...

Monday, May 22, 2006

Off to the Finale...

The SignChances are posting will be light over the coming days, as I'm about to wing my way to Hollywood for the American Idol finale. Though I'm leery of the madness at hand, I am eager to witness this global juggernaut's glitzy crescendo up close. I'm also looking forward to chatting with Chris, Bucky and a few other contestants - when I'm not shoving my lens in their faces, that is. If Idol coronations of years past are any indications, there'll be a calvacade of weirdly familiar faces striding past my camera to get into the show. Here's hoping I haven't got to elbow too many frothing entertainment reporters to clear my shot. While I'll be far too busy body-checking my fellow broadcasters to file regular blog reports, know that when I return on Friday - the debriefing will commence. You can expect photos, interviews and one beat-down lenslinger who's positively giddy that this season of American Idol is finally in the can. Seachrest...OUT!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Mellifluous Eviscerator

Count me among the millions of news enthusiasts who will miss the Sunday night stylings of one Mike Wallace. For as long as I can literally remember, this master of the mellifluous evisceration has been refining the form he helped to create: the contentious TV interview. Crooked bureaucrats, mob bosses and movie stars; they've all fallen prey to Wallace's erudite inquiries and debonair stare. Now this irascible communicator is stepping away from his Sixty Minute duties, bringing to end his incredible career as the prototype newsman. At 88, he's more than earned it.

Still, I cannot help but think that with Wallace goes the very best of his breed; old school scribes and irascible broadcasters whose biggest thrills came from simply exposing wanton chicanery, not the overnight rating surges all those televised takedowns produced. Those are days l-o-n-g gone. A show like Sixty Minutes in its prime would have dominate even today's 500 channel line up. To think that Wallace took most of his victims in a three network world is mind boggling. No wonder he was the most dreaded man to be found loitering outside your office park, chop shop or Hollywood mansion.

These days, the carefully lit two shots and sweating brow close-ups that Sixty Minutes virtually invented are the intellectual properties of a generation bent on mock irony and stilted satire. As a result, the deadpan interrogators of The Daily Show owe Wallace and his gravitas rat-pack just as much respect as all those comedy albums they listened to back in the day. As for me, I'll be here behind the camera, listening to the windbag factory of cookie-cutter Kent Brockmans and real life Ron Burgundys clear their throats and grasp for that Mike Wallace menace, even though the lot of them aren't worthy to touch the great man's coat.

At least that's how it feels through the viewfinder...