Friday, June 02, 2006

Meeting Hugh Morton

I have to admit I didn't really know who Hugh Morton was when "Roy's Folks" producer David Weatherly introduced me to him eight years ago. At the time I was marveling at a magnificent sunrise over Grandfather Mountain, unaware the kindly gentleman beside me was the man behind the majestic view. He certainly didn't give it away. Instead, he nodded happily as I gushed about the breath-taking blue ridge vista that was, literally, his backyard. With a producer squawking in my earpiece, I soon turned my attention back to my upturned viewfinder, while the rumpled old guy wandered back down the rocky pass - apparenly satsfied the young photog fella manning the live shot camera wasn't going to topple off the mountain.

Later that morning, I ambled through the Grandfather Mountain museum and found myself humbled by what I saw. All along the walls, jaw-dropping photographs hung in testament to the power of the still image. A viaduct winding across a rugged landscape, hummingbirds frozen in flight, a backlit deer posing in a sun-dappled stream - incredibly iconic imagery, all bearing the name of the white haired grandfather I'd barely given the time of day hours before. As one who spends alot of time squinting through a lens, my silent stroll through Hugh Morton's portfolio was an awful lot like going to church. Later, I learned what an effective statesman Hugh Morton was; how he turned a land inheritance into N.C.'s loftiest tourist mecca, how he helped save the USS North Carolina from becoming an artificial reef, how he'd been key in establishing Wilmington's enduring Azalea Festival. In short, Hugh Morton enriched every inch of North Carolina he visited and he created lid-tripping photographs of it all along the way.

Now he's gone, dead at 85 from cancer. What a loss for the state I love. Though his spirit will always drift over the austere blue peaks of Grandfather Mountain, I'm guessing he's now somewhere even higher. Here's hoping he's got his camera with him...

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Waiting on the Avians

Casing the JointIn the movies, TV news crews are always dashing from one late-breaking locale to the next. In reality, things don't always move so fast. Take today. Stymied by unanswered phone messages and a 'No Trespassing' sign, our quick-turn bird-disturbed story turned into a sweltering, slow motion stakeout. Not to worry, I told Jeff Varner, if sixteen years of meeting deadlines has taught me anything, it's that 85 percent of electronic image acquisition is being in the right place at the right time. Vaguely aware I was talking again, our weekend anchor rifled through his phone's text messages and willed the thing to ring. Eventually it did, resurrecting our inconvenienced avian storyline from the ash heap of yesterday's newspaper article.

Hawk WatchFifteen minutes later Jeff, a rather eloquent land-owner and I craned our necks upward. Far above, a smattering of wildlife stared down at the news crew and nice lady, no doubt wondering what all the fuss was down below. I hardly knew myself, only knowing the empty hawk's nest at the top of the tree stood in between me and lunch. Properly motivated, I zoomed in, locked down and pressed 'Record'. In my earpiece I could hear the steady patter of Mrs. Landowner as she unspooled a saga involving her own personal wildlife preserve, the city's aim to bulldoze it down and a catch-phrase known to strike dread in the hearts of property holders everywhere: eminent domain. Of course none of that mattered if we didn't capture a glimpse of the cursed birds above.

Hawk at RiskFor the longest time, we didn't. Apparently Mr. and Mrs. Hawk didn't receive our fax and were unaware we wished to interview them. So, we were forced to wait, to hurt our necks, to make whispery small talk while scanning the canopy for furtive movement. A veteran of stalking the many North Carolina Zoo exhibits, I knew just what to do. I let my camera battery run out, sent Jeff back to the car for a fresh one and counted to ten under my breath. Sure enough the hawk couple swooped in on cue, fed their babies the back half of a woodchuck and posed defiantly for my lack of lens. Mercifully, Jeff returned with a fresh battery just in time for me to center up and roll. Fifteen seconds into my viewfinder the large hawk smirked at the terrestrials, stepped off the limb and vanished - leaving me with just enough feathered footage to limp across our afternoon deadline.

I love it when a plan comes together...

Dull Day Dissected

In an effort to make the insatiably dull seem somehow intriguing, I offer you the weird-but-true present tense timeline:

9:30 AM Stroll into morning editorial meeting only to be told you’re on ‘VoSot Patrol’ (like ‘Soul Patrol’ - but even worse). Spend next hour and fifteen minutes working the phones, chatting up co-workers and casing the last two Payday bars in the break-room’s rather persnickety snack machine.

11:15 PM Pull up to nearby convenience store, where two lottery wonks are busy fastening ‘Powerball Today’ placards to their state-owned vans. Pull out camera and wait for ensuing bum-rush. Enjoy the high-decibel stylings of incredibly loud gangsta rap group emanating from idling low-rider.

11:28 PM Cell phone begins vibrating, followed by a familiar voice telling you there’s a ‘working apartment fire’ on the other side of High Point.. Jump in Unit 4 and drive ever so safely across town, scanning the horizon for tell-tale smoke plume and wondering what a ‘working apartment’ may look like.

11:35 PM Pull up to address and park behind a small fleet of hastily-parked fire engines. Judge from lack of flames and firefighter body language that little rush is needed. Schlep gear to perimeter. Frame various shots from sole position and press ‘RECORD’ sporadically. Reflect on 1, 673 previous apartment fires you’ve attended.

12:20 PM Return to convenience store and mingle amid lunch hour crowd as lottery wonks whip them into Powerball frenzy. Gather shots of free t-shirts, carnival-barking pitchmen and downtrodden clientele. Answer ’When will this be on?’ a dozen times. Retreat as loitering prostitute offers unprintable services in exchange for close-up.

12: 45 PM Return to station to find out you’ve inherited three more assignments, all of them in neighboring Greensboro. Bite tongue as other colleagues hold up pesky air conditioned walls as you grab two fresh batteries and hit the door. Spend next few minutes convincing yourself a studio job would drive you nuts Good luck with that.

1:00 PM Take shelter in favorite diner with the last chapter of “A Death in Belmont”, Sebastian Junger’s highly satisfying tale of a youthful interlude outside Boston, when an old white lady neighbor was murdered, a local black man went to prison for the crime and a drifter soon to be known as ‘The Boston Strangler’ did odd jobs around his house.

2:00 PM Enter Sam’s Club and explain to greeter the manager is expecting you. Pin lapel microphone on manager and interview about the collection they’re taking up for co-worker’s son who was killed in Iraq. Stare through viewfinder at Adam Lucas’ picture and wonder if the young Marine ever saw it coming.

2:40 PM Arrive at Elon University’s new law school building in downtown Greensboro and shoot video of construction workers milling about the exterior. Keep eye on ticking catch and illegally parked news unit. Scarf copy of ‘Yes Weekly’ from nearby box. Answer ’When will this be on?’ a half dozen times

3:00 PM Meet local missionary outside Natty Greene’s to discuss the horrible plight facing the survivors of Indonesia. Listen as interviewee tells how the worst is yet to come for Indonesians if the volcano that usually erupts after earthquakes begins to spew. Make mental note to pull file video of said volcano. Thank God you were born in America.

3:45 PM Enter newsroom and spend next ninety minutes, picking sound-bites, assembling footage and writing scripts. Enjoy snack machine’s last Payday bar as you whittle a full day of shooting into five separate computer timelines. Send to server down the hall and leave the building as the first of your stories air. Don’t look back.

5:15 PM Climb into personal car, pop in Etta James CD for maximum relaxation and pull out of parking lot. Spend next twenty five minutes battling for supremacy on crowded interstate. Stare through windshield and wonder how people with desk jobs spend their day. Worry that you’ll have nothing to blog about after the kids go to bed...

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Fishing for Sound

“So why do you TV news people always interview the biggest goobs and losers you can find?” asked a new neighbor.

“Because,” I said “they’re the ones who seek us out. It’s a socio-economic thing. Or maybe it’s educational. Either way, folks with reasoned opinions and large vocabularies don’t flag down news crews quite the way guys with gravy stains on their t-shirt do.”

My new neighbor nodded as if my answer sufficed, but I could tell that it didn’t. Truth is, I’ve never figured out exactly why some people shun my lens while others sprint through heavy traffic to tell me and the audience how the tornado sounded ‘just like a freight train’. As far as I can tell, the decision to comment on camera correlates directly with how much authority you invest in said logo’d device. Let me explain. I can waltz into a thousand dollar a plate fundraiser with my fancy-cam in tow and feel they looks of disdain radiating from somewhere above the rubber-chicken entrees. That same day, I can roll into a public housing project full of curious crime-scene watchers and be treated like a visiting emissary. Why exactly, I don’t know - but being received as a conquering hero one moment and a filthy leper the next is a sensation anyone who’s shouldered a lens for very long can write a book on.

Like the time a woman turned away from the house fire that was swallowing everything she owned to repeatedly ask me that age old question, “What time will this be on?”

Or the time a group of disgruntled airline passengers demanded I use my aging betacam to get their cancelled flights immediately re-scheduled. I blamed my inability to do so on dying batteries and they seemed okay with it.

How about the hundreds of times I’ve used my gear to gain access to the freshly bereaved? I’m still amazed at how many people will talk to the press before their loved ones are even in the ground.

Even the happier times are just as perplexing. I still don’t know what that mob of drunken Halloween revelers wanted from me when they bum-rushed the ice machine I was standing on and began singing “You Can’t Touch This.”

Nope, no matter how long you heft a lens for a living, you never really know how some people will react when you stick a lens in their face. Hey, while I’m on the subject of close encounters, here’s a tip for the general populace:

Say you’re out in public and a telegenic young woman approaches you with a question about a current issue. Behind her, a scruffy enough chap climbs out of a brightly decorated SUV and opens the tailgate. While he scrounges around in this mysterious vehicle, the woman moves closer and engages you in conversation, all while holding a tubular device with a familiar symbol down by her side. As you answer the woman’s open ended queries, you notice the scruffy one moving in slowly behind her. As he grows closer, he lifts an awkward dark object and places it on your shoulder, its strange, reflective surface almost winking at you. At the same time, the well-coiffed female who’s been talking all the while raises her shiny pointy thingy at your face and raises her eyebrows in feigned consternation….

Are you ready? Here comes the clue….



P.S.) The above outburst has absolutely nothing to do with the hapless lady I spooked yesterday with my lens, microphone and highly-identifiable ride. Apparently she thought I was ‘with the paper’.

That is all.

Monday, May 29, 2006

First Responders to the Truth

We stateside photogs like to swagger all right, but none of us cranking out local tripe can hold a dying frezzi to the camera crews who embed themselves with our nation's military. Regardless of your politics, you've probably watched the war in Iraq from the comfort of your couch. Those pictures, whether they vindicate or enrage you, don't appear in your living room by magic. They're wrestled from the muck of war-torn strife with the blood, sweat and tears of the few broadcasters who choose to seek the ultimate access. That doesn't make them heroes; save that for the ones in uniform. They are however, the very best of my battered breed - state-of-the-art journalists, world-class adventurers and first responders to the truth.

From CNN

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Four people, including a U.S. soldier and two members of a CBS News crew, were killed Monday when a bomb ripped through the U.S. military convoy in which they were traveling. CBS said cameraman Paul Douglas, 48, and sound tech James Brolan, 42, were killed in the blast. Both were British and based in London, the network said.

The U.S. military said a U.S. soldier and an Iraqi contractor also were killed in the attack on their convoy.

Six U.S. soldiers and CBS correspondent Kimberly Dozier were wounded in the attack, the military said.

The attack came as the convoy passed through Tahariyat Square, just across the river from the Green Zone, around 10:30 a.m. Monday (3 a.m. ET).

The convoy victims were among at least 50 people killed in insurgent attacks in Iraq on Monday.

The CBS team -- which was embedded with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division -- was reporting from outside their Humvee and they were believed to have been wearing protective gear when the blast went off, according to CBS.

Dozier, 39, sustained serious injuries and underwent surgery at a U.S. military hospital in Baghdad.

Douglas had risked his life covering international conflicts for CBS since the early 1990s, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Rwanda and Bosnia, according to CBS News. He is survived by his wife, two daughters and three grandchildren.

Brolan was a freelancer who worked with CBS News in Baghdad and Afghanistan in the past year. He also shared an award with the network for its coverage of last year's deadly earthquake in Pakistan. He leaves a wife and two children

UPDATE - CBS News Statement...

Via TV Newser, Background on Paul Douglas:

"The CBS News family lost two gems today. Paul Douglas was one of the finest men I have ever known. He had a smile that could light up a room, a man who got the most out of every minute of life. He made us laugh every time we were with him. Paul started at CBS as a freelance soundman and quickly became one of our finest staff cameramen -- always willing to travel to the most horrible places on earth to do his work -- to shoot his pictures, record his sound and make live television work for all CBS News broadcasts. He was one of those heroes behind the camera -- never wanting the limelight -- only trying to make CBS's foreign news coverage better every day while providing for his wonderful family. And oh that smile!" -- CBS Public Eye

Via TV Newser a message from James Brolan's family:

"The Brolan family would like to thank everybody for their support and help at this time. James was the best dad, the best husband and the best mate to be with in a tight spot out in the field.

He leaves behind two children Sam, 18 and Agatha, 12 and his wife of 20 years Geri. James was born on April 7th 1964 in London where he has lived all his life. He met Geri in August 1984 on leave from the Royal Green Jackets (1983 to 1988) and knew instantly he'd met the woman he was going to marry.

James spent a couple of years after leaving the Army running his own painting and decorating business getting his break in TV as a sound recordist few years later. He travelled extensively round the world always fascinated by the places he visited. His unassuming nature and love of a practical joke often belied his well read, 'university of life intellect' - he always took great pleasure on the road beating his Harvard, Yale or Oxbridge educated correspondents at Scrabble and his knowledge of useless facts was unrivalled!

James had a natural way with people and was always in demand as the person to go with to the world's trouble spots; always putting the locals at ease, winning friends everywhere he went and always putting in his best effort. He will be greatly missed by his friends and family. --Geri, Sam and Agatha

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Idol Finale: CD Shout Out

It's no secret that I entered this season of American Idol a conflicted man. Though I've never counted myself a huge fan of the show, I know a soft news juggernaut when I see it. Thus, I signed up for another year of local Idol coverage with a fair amount of reticence. 'At least local fascination with the show won't last long', I thought. I mean, no way can this year come close to Fantasia's unlikely ascent two seasons ago. Was I ever wrong. Chris Daughtry's turbo-powered pipes, Kellie Pickler's intoxicating schtick and Bucky Covington's good ole boy charm sucked in a nation of viewers and yours truly.

CD ShoutoutNow, at the end of a most improbable season, I find myself signing off with a few more twisted vistas seared into my frontal lobe and a few more friends scribbled in my Rolodex. And quite unexpectedly, the appreciation has been reciprocrated. In the soon to be best selling American Idol Encores CD, Bucky Covington took the trouble to thank Shannon Smith and your lowly lenslinger by name in the liner notes. Thanks, Bucky - you've once again proven yourself a (country-fried) class act and, for a little while anyway, convinced my nine year old that Daddy's pretty cool. Now if you could just do something about the cat....

Idol Finale: The Adulation at Hand

DSCF0056As Ryan Seachrest anointed Taylor Hicks the new American Idol, I stood outside the Kodak Theater and braced for impact. I wasn’t alone. All around me, itchy lenslingers caressed their own ‘Record’ buttons, as visions of the previous evening’s melee ran through our collective consciousness. It was enough to give us all tunnel vision, a convenient enough condition when you’re trying to ignore a packed menagerie of drooling Idol fans, testy publicists and hysterical tourists. Shannon Smith didn’t have any trouble focusing. From across the courtyard I could see her standing in front of the live shot camera, calmly surveying the crowd as she prepared to lead off the ten o clock news back home. That live shot would be easy, a quick and narrated chunk of video, featuring the mostly famous faces we encountered earlier on the red carpet. No, the real challenge would come forty five minutes later, when our second live shot would demand the presence of a certain bald dude, a lanky good ole boy and a southern fried prom queen. I was weighing the real world possibilities of that on-camera coup when the crush of fans at my back went absolutely batshit.

DSCF0102One look up told why. Still dressed in their formal attire, the top ten America Idol finalists (minus Taylor and Katharine) poured out of the theater in a single file phalanx of newly appointed fame. Like gunfighters ready to draw, each of the hundred plus camera crews rotated around them. The rest, quite honestly, is a little fuzzy. Unable to hear over the roar of the crowd, I wormed my way around zoom lenses and hangers-on to grab the attention of the three North Carolina finalists, acutely aware the next few minutes would determine the success or failure of our whole trip, heck - our whole breathless season of Idol coverage. By the time I wiggled a position next to Rockingham’s favorite son, Shannon Smith was by my side.

DSCF0094“Bucky, we NEED you for a live shot at 10:45!” Shannon shouted over the din of excited civilians. Bucky nodded absentmindedly as he signed countless autographs, then looked up in befuddlement. “10:45?” he asked. Shannon thought about it for a split second, realized her mistake and half yelled over the crowd. “7:45! It’s for the 10:45 hit back home!” Realization washed over Bucky’s face, followed by the goofy grin Shannon and I have both grown to adore. As a group of frantic housewives screamed his name, he turned back to scribble his name on caps, posters and the occasional 8 by 10 glossy. Shannon and I retreated, knowing our righteous redneck friend would be there. Chris wouldn’t be so easy.

DSCF0105It’s not that he didn’t want to play ball. But with Taylor Hicks still inside, Chris was the biggest fish in a pond densely stocked with frenzied predators. Grinning reporters pulled him into their own live shots, young girls bounced uncontrollably as they thrust pictures and autograph books from behind the barricade and at least one old lady genuflected in his presence. Even the beefy bodyguard tasked with shadowing Chris seemed a little frazzled. He may not be the next American Idol, but the little bald dude who used to write up service orders at Crown Honda sparked the largest fervor outside the Kodak that evening. I was mulling over that improbable fact, when a handler grabbed Chris and pulled him to the farthest reaches of the courtyard. Realizing I was out of range, I settled for a twirling Kellie Pickler to my left, herself the object of incomprehensible adoration. Never one to question a good photo op, I horned in on someone else’s interview.

Chris Daughtry, Soul Patrol!The next thirty minutes unfurled quickly. Caught up in the frenzy of lenses, I shot video of the manufactured madness while Shannon worked the edges of the crowd. When I saw her whispering into Chris’ ear across the way, I knew we’d done all we could do. Kellie proved even less accessible; a clutch of cameramen and fawning entertainment reporters had her in their clutches, guffawing on cue at her continued disdain for upscale seafood. About that time the crowd’s screams pitched even higher, as Mr. Soul Patrol himself entered the fray under heavy escort. Bedlam ensued, but it wasn’t of my concern. Taylor Hicks’ image was being splayed over the heavens and living rooms below. Our viewers wanted to hear from the North Carolinian contestants who’d captured the nation’s imagination, and I was prepared to use any tactic shy of bloodshed to make that happen.

DSCF0104Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. When the clock struck quarter of eleven East Coast time, Shannon was positioned in front of the live shot camera with Bucky at her side. As our anchors back in the High Point studios read the lead-in, Chris shimmied next to Shannon and yelled my name just as the director took our shot. ‘Bingo’, I thought as Shannon, Bucky and Chris cut up for the camera. I noticed a certain red dress to my right. Kellie Pickler stood at attention for a neighboring crew’s live shot, aw-shucking on time at the reporter’s feigned admiration. If I could coerce Miss Pickler to join us, all would be complete and Shannon and I could go home heroes. But their was less than sixty seconds to do so, as our satellite window would slam shut regardless of who did or didn’t join us. It was with this thought that I edged closer to Kellie and prepared to yank her out of that live shot and into ours. Mercifully, she moved toward us on her own, joining Shannon and Bucky just as Chris’ publicist pulled him out of our frame and into another region’s living room.

As Kellie and Bucky laughed and joked with Shannon, I stood just off screen and for the first time in many days, breathed a sigh of relief. It had been a long nine months since Shannon and I began the 2006 Idol season with an unceremonious interview with then-unknown Chris Daughtry. Since then we’d jetted to Hollywood for three frenzied junkets, conducted countless interviews back home and spent endless hours in the edit suite whittling away at the resulting footage. Now, with the winner named and Kellie, Chris and Bucky giving him on-camera props, this most inherently weird season of freeze-fried adulation was almost completely behind us. ‘Maybe now I can blog about something else,’ I thought as Shannon began to wrap up the live shot. ‘Just as soon as I finish filling in my own fractured audience on the madness that was’.

And believe it or not, I'm not quite done yet...