Friday, January 26, 2007

Son of Shannon

A belated congrats to my friend and sometimes partner Shannon Smith, who's probably home right now smooching on her newborn son. Sure he's cute now, but if I know Shannon's husband John, that kid will be a chiseled He-Man by the time he's 13. Then who'll be gettin' em some sugar, hmmmmmmm?

Hurricane Live ShotsI met Shannon on her very first visit to El Ocho. Then just a job candidate, she rode with me on a story assignment as a kind of test. Needless to say, the willowy Clemson Grad passed - quickly proving herself to be alot tougher than she looked. After taking the job, she soon assumed the punishing mantle of 'quarterback reporter'. You know - the one who goes LIVE! from the late-breaking news scene every night? Why, Shannon even allowed herself to be lashed to a seaside patio without so much as an umbrella while Hurricane Isabel pummeled her and her merry band of photogs. I still got sand in my ear (and gear) from that long week. Not that Shannon complained. Instead she impressed her crack team of smelly fellows by displaying a trait not often found in the female TV news species: The woman, is low-maintenance.

Shannon Smith & Stewart PittmanAnd smart - for when the chance to work on our marathon a.m. newscast presented itself, she traded the gritty dinner-time crime scene beat for the frothy squeal of early morning live shots. There she remains, having made quite a name for herself as the region's favorite on-scene sweetheart. Of course, readers of this blog may know Shannon from her other role: Miss American Idol. Ever since she chatted with an unknown Fantasia moments before her first audition, Shannon has owned the local Idol beat. A year later I joined her and together we've since documented the froth from every conceivable angle. Local finalists, countless trips to L.A. and thousands of delusional wannabes later, Shannon and I have shared many a giggle at seeing the lunacy up close. Which is why I'm eager for her to return from maternity leave. I'd be her photog ANY day - and that, I assure you, is not something I say alot.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Stressing the Edit

EditScapeIt's been said that TV news is the only business where when it's five o clock in the afternoon, you wish it were four. Why? Well, obviously, you've never raced down the hall waving a tape over your head as some guy with a better parking space than you flexes his eyebrows and reads words you wrote a half hour earlier off a gleaming teleprompter. It's the kind of desperate run depicted in the beginning of the movie Broadcast News and it's a very real part of the daily chase. Of course, non-linear editing has replaced that frantic dash with a simple drag and drop. These days when I've finished whittling away on my timeline, I merely click a box, sending fresh electrons hurtling toward to the station's servers. As a result, there are fewer mid-hall collisions but the pressure to make slot remains the same. Take today for instance, in which a simple shift ramped up into near-panic...

4:00 My photog-senses tingle as I realize I'm not sitting in an edit bay. Looking at the rundown, I confirm the story Jeff Varner and I spent most of the day shooting is scheduled to air at 5:04. A quick glance at Jeff's cubicle finds him hunched over his computer and mumbling to himself. Hey look, Oprah's on...

4:10 Loitering in a cluster of photogs, I tear my attention away from the war stories and Knock-Knock jokes long enough to establish a visual on my partner of the day. Jeff's cubicle is empty but I spot him doing the Macarena over the newsroom's row of printers. In an effort to get his attention, I employ a rude hand gesture and a friendly smile. He ignores me.

4:15 After an intense game of Rock-Paper-Scissor with my fellow lensmen, I walk by the assistant news director's office and find he and Jeff locked in negotiations over adverbs and innuendo. Shooting both of them dirty looks, I'm rewarded for my enthusiasm by a series of reciprocating sneers. To the break room...

4:20 Cheeto's and Sprite in hand, I settle into an edit bay and hover over a workstation. Stashing my snacks so a passing engineer doesn't freak at my No Food policy infraction, I open a blank timeline in the editing software and wait for Jeff to bring me his script. He does, I take mouse in hand and make it do what it do.

4:30 Ten minutes have passed since I began the backwards puzzle construction process that is desktop editing. Using the time-codes on script, I lift soundbites from my shoot disc's image bin and drag them into place on the timeline. Rather than assemble the soundtrack from beginning to end, I whittle away at the opening, feathering background noise underneath Jeff's narration again and again. Much time is wasted.

4:40 Realizing I've dawdled too long, I quickly change tactics, dropping in the soundbites and placing Jeff's pre-recorded voice in between. With the flick of a wrist I chew my lip and highlight clips, drag them into place and constantly hit 'Control-S'. Falling into a groove, I rock back and forth as I build the story's soundtrack. Suddenly, the edit bay's phone rings and I answer it - in a bad Scottish brogue, of course.

4:50 On the phone is my assignment editor, who wishes to discuss tomorrow's story. For a good ninety seconds, I'm lured into conversation - until a glance over at the clock quickens my pulse. With my story set to air just after the top of the story, I have about ten minutes to complete what will be a 120 second heavily-edited story arc, complete with narration, natural sound and nuance. My leg shakes and I begin twitching like a junkie on the verge of a fix.

4:53 The A-roll is complete. In fact, the whole thing would be done were it a radio piece. With background noise woven between interview sound and reporter track, I tweak and stretch the audio before hitting 'Save' for the fortieth time. Scrolling back to the story's beginning, I began dropping in appropriate cut-away shots and deciding transitions. Behind me the door opens and Jeff pokes his head in. Seeing the veins pulsate through the skin of my temples, he wisely retreats without a sound.

4:56 With a series of hand motions and keyboard shortcuts that is by now innate, I fill in most of my story's visual blanks. Feeling like the kid who saves the world in the closing moments of War Games, the blood in my capillaries changes gears as I close in on the only reamaining gap in my timeline. That's when the damn computer locks up.

4:57 The walls of the edit bay melt away in my peripheal vision as all sound leaves the small booth. On screen a tiny hourglass rotates slowly in a taunting, coronary-inducing manner. I have at least fifteen seconds of timeline to filet, but am rendered inert while the computer hangs on the verge of re-boot. Unaware of the impending peril, Jeff saunters in only to be sucked in to my swirling stress-vortex. Time. Stands. Still.

4:59 Burping up the timeline, the cantankerous hard drive mysteriously decides to once again work as advertised. Abandoning the impromptu circle I'd been spinning, I regain control of my senses and fall on the mouse. Slicing and dicing shots off the disc, I place them onto the timeline's remaining blanks with great prejudice. Behind me, Jeff makes a series of litle girl noises as the 5:00 news music echoes down the hall. Hunkering down over the keyboard I recite a certain strain of phraseology I learned in the Navy. Blood pounds in my ears.

5:02 Despite the edit bay's chilly temps, sweat drops off my brow as I fill in the last defiant blank space on the timeline. Dropping in two dissolves, I hit "Save' for the last time - then rifle back through the talking head shots so Jeff can scribble down the exact time their names should pop up in the lower third portion of the screen. Super-times in hand, Jeff flees the edit bay with the grace of a third grader losing control of his bowels. I hit 'Send' and clench my own but-TOCKS. Don't laugh, it helps.

5:03 Seconds before anchor Julie Luck is scheduled to read the introduction Jeff wrote for his story, I watch as my computer screen's half-finished progress bar wallows in eternal still-birth. Lunging for the edit bay's phone, I try to dial the control booth, only to fat-finger the three digit number. On the second attempt I'm succesful, and when a producer's bored voice answers, I bark out in the halting tones of a dying hostage taker that Jeff's. Story. Is. Feed. Ing...Strangely, the voice didn't seem to care.

5:04 Staggering into the news room, I collapse at my desk and try to decide whether the twinges in my left arm are real or imaginary. As I blow deliberate breaths into a paper bag, a passing manager pauses at my cubicle and raises an eyebrow at my twitching form. "I'm okay" I say, "just had to bend space and time to make slot, that's all." Glancing at a clipboard, the manager kept walking and over his shoulder said, "Mmmm, yeah - Jeff's story. The show was running heavy so we decided to hold it until tomorrow."

5:06 I drive home in silence, wondering what greeting card artists stress about.

Leave it to Ziggy

It's been a while for me, but it damn sure happens...

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Faro's Broken Arrow

Unlike the Air Force brats I skipped class with in High School, I could never identify the many military aircraft constantly swooping and diving over rural Wayne County. See, I was but a misplaced country boy, not one of those jet mechanic's kid with airplane posters lining the inside of their lockers. But even a reluctant bumpkin like me had heard about the broken arrow of 1961 - in which a crippled B-52 dropped a hydrogen bomb just four miles from my future boyhood home. In the nuclear weapon community, it is nothing short of mythology. In the rusty Camaro circles I grew up in, it's little more than a backwoods curiosity, right up there with the Mystery Lights of Maco and the Devil's Tramping Ground. But unlike those paranormal question marks, Goldsboro's broken arrow most certainly happened. Dig it:

Forty six years ago today, a B-52G Stratofortress bomber stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base virtually disintegrated in mid-air and crashed near the cross-roads of Faro, NC. It ejected two hydrogen bombs as it fell. Like one of those warheads, five crewmen escaped by parachute. Three died -- two who went down with the doomed bomber, and another who was ended up ensnared in a tree two two miles from the crash site, his neck snapped. The H-bombs too jettisoned as the plane dropped, one bomb parachuting to Earth intact, the other striking a farmer's field at an estimated 760 miles per hour (Mach 1 for those of you out there in flight suits). Luckily, fiery annihilation did not ensue.

In the end, the soggy topography of backwaters Carolina saved the very region from this Hammer of the Gods. While one bomb landed quietly by parachute, the second one struck the muck of a farmer's field at top speed, entombing itself in mud-encased frozen freefall. Telling locals they were looking for a 'lost seat', the Army Corp of Engineers tried to excavate the site but never did recover all of the bomb's components. It remains buried in that swamp today, under a beanfield on Big Daddy's Road - a stretch of blacktop I remember for the old seafood restaurant that used to stand nearby, rather than the precipice of nuclear holocaust.

But that's what almost happened. The H-bomb in question's strength is forever in dispute, but the most conservative guess places it 250 times more powerful than the blast that erased Hiroshima. Had the lost bomb detonated, it would have carved out a crater one third of a mile wide, leveling every home in a five mile swath, including those of the good people who came to raise me. Even new cousins nine miles away would have suffered third-degree burns. It would have been a very bad day Downeast. Instead, the thermonuclear weapon vanished into the goop - out of sight, out of mind. That so many in the area know nothing or little of the incident is a testament of our limited attention span, perhaps. Even I, a UFO nerd with a soft spot for 'In Search Of' episodes, grew up only dimly aware of the white-hot annihilator down the road.

I did always think the water tasted funny, though.

From Blog to Glossy

Forgive the victory lap, but this photo signifies the best birthday present a wannabe-writer like myself can ever receive. It's the January edition of NPPA's News Photographer Magazine, featuring a slighly tweaked article I penned as a blog post several months ago. Not only is it the first time I've ever been officially published, I even got paid for the damn thing! Whatsmore, they even plugged my blog address and included a couple of pictures. How cool is that? Don't answer - just know that your friendly neighborhood lenslinger isn't quite as grumpier as usual. For a while, anyway. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to fill out my NPPA membership application. Otherwise, I'll never lay hands on all the future issues I hope to weasel my work into. More cognac!

Have Mullet, Will Skydive

Learning to Fly
This I do for you, dear reader - for nothing seems to please you people like a picture of me with a stupid haircut. I hope the above photo - a frozen frame of ancient video that will NEVER see the light of YouTube - will suffice. If my wrestler's hairdo seems a bit more unkempt than usual, there's a reason: I'd just plummetted to the Earth from 15,000 feet when WNCT-TV chief photographer Kevin O'Brien accosted me with his ever-present lens. If memory serves me correctly, I said something stoner-ish about tandem skydive being 'the ultimate head rush', before throwing the goat and further embarrassing myself. Horrible thing, youth...

Monday, January 22, 2007

Oz Takes a Fall

"When are you gonna write that book?" It's a question I'm asked with increasing frequency and one I still have no satisfying answer for. Truthbetold, I'm writing that book every other time I log in to this humble site, for "Viewfinder Blues" will be a collection of my worthiest short stories - whether an honest-to-God publisher gets involved or I end up scribbling it all out on a stack of bourbon-soaked cocktail napkins. So here's your warning: I'm self-publishing a collection my favorites with plans to pimp it profusely here and elsewhere. Look for it.

Aside from my long-delayed anthology , there are far more fictive elements roiling around my now four decade old brain. I've got a few storylines in mind, but until they rise above the level of your average made-for-TV shlock, I'm keeping them to myself. Characters, I'm far more willing to share - for every flawed persona residing in my head (and notebook collection) are based on real people - mostly the surreal cast of kooks that populated my formulative years behind the lens. You know, back before I decided that most of the charlatans clamoring for my camera's attention were in fact, a complete waste of flesh. But enough of my bitterness, let's meet the players!

First up is Oz: A former news shooter from back in the day who worked at every station in town until a botched pot-dealing sting left him on the wrong side of the lens. These days you'll find him driving a dilapidated ice cream truck of sorts. Instead of pedaling soft-serve to the kiddie set, he works the construction sites, selling biscuits, cigarettes and God knows what else to any hard-hat or goth kids who'll approach his rig. But when spot news strikes and the TV vehicles gather by calamity's edge, Oz makes a beeline for said sat-truck encampment and soaks up the glory of deadlines past, while hawking his wares to anyone in need. Hey, a burn-out's gotta eat.

Next is Maurice: Derided by some as a simple ghetto-preacher, this crunked-up evangelist is so much more. When not whipping his inner city pack of church ladies into a religious and weirdly lustful frenzy, Maurice cruises the hood in any number of sleek new sedans a man of his means couldn't possibly afford. Sure, the slum-lording helps pay for the day-glo suits and blinged-out cellphones, but Maurice has a curious habit for a man of the cloth so obviously shady: He loves to be on the evening news - whether condemning the plight of local criminals from his pulpit - or bathed in the glow of crime-scene close-up, doling out sticky details over the freshly dead.

Last but not least is Lloyd: A former deputy who's managed to fail upward, this marble-mouthed hillbilly actually got himself elected sheriff by appealing to a backwater constituency with race-baited talk of no-nonsense law enforcement. Now in office, he delivers on that promise - no matter what he's got to do along the way. A greasy good ole boy backed up by a gang of inbred deputies, Lloyd's got an awful hankerin' for a certain local news bunny. That puts him on TV far more often than he probably should - but who can resist when the object of his lust comes a callin' with that shaggy cameraman in tow?

Clichéd? Hackneyed? Predictable? Check, check, chiggety-checked. But these three dudes do exist, in my memory and now in my imagination. Whatsmore, they all three share a common past - a sketchy history they never thought would come back to haunt them, until a sliver of success splashed their gnarly little secret all over the evening news. As soon as I figure out what exactly that secret is, I'm gonna write it all down. For now however, I think I'll look for an old mullet picture to post...

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Photog Turns 40

Spend just one year chasing news and you’ll quickly start repeating yourself. Winter storms, Spring training, Summer camps and Fall Festivals, all punctuated by a steady barrage of crime and grime. I’ve spent the past fifteen years running circles around this slow lurching parade, doubling back and stealing glances while trying not to get run over or step in too much horseshit. It’s a ludicrous way to make a living, but it’s the one I’ve chosen.

Or maybe it chose me. After following my lack of ambition around for a bit, I wandered into my first TV station at age 22. Imagine my shock at all the inmates running the asylum. Characters straight out of vaudeville sat in corner offices, puffed-up anchors arm-wrestled for face time and zonked out production types regularly fell asleep at the wheel. Suddenly, I was home! Looking around at the twenty year old technology, blustery egos and simmering incompetence, it occurred to me I’d found my special purpose.

So I dove in headfirst, soaking up everything there was to know about backwaters television. I started each morning slow-dancing with a studio camera as ladies with blue hair hawked homemade potholders. I learned to run audio for the noon news and tried not to doze off during weather. After lunch, I’d hold up in a musty edit booth, watching wizened masters craft polished spots out of sticks and scrap metal. Along the way, I traded notes, jokes and a few unmentionables with the pirates, freaks and madmen that made up the station ranks. Staffers a few years older told us we were attending the Roy Park School of Broadcasting - a half slam against our affiliate’s miserly owner. How right they were. The steakhouse coupon I got for being Employee of the Month turned out to be the only sheepskin I've ever received.

But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming the World’s most well-read studio tech. I saw...THEM. Swaggering through the tape room like dusty gunslingers, the station’s news photographers ambled past with their cameras hung low and dirty. I couldn’t look away. With their streamlined gear, digital pagers and seen-it-all stare, they bled the kind of street cred I‘d been faking all these years. As they passed by my darkened post on their way back to their waiting news steeds, I sunk further in the tape room’s shadows and swore to myself I’d one day join their ranks.

And so I did, but not the way I‘d envisioned. It took a fake handgun and a twist of fate to draft me into service, but once I became indoctrinated, I never looked back. How could I? I was too busy learning the ways of The Force, sharpening my camera skills and editing acumen until I could slay the scariest of deadlines. Looking back, it all seems quite silly, but at the time, it was a heady rush of newsgathering truths, a period of time in which great mysteries dissolved into well-worn tips and tricks behind the lens. Before long, I was blowing through the station with considerable swagger of my own, convinced I’d already seen it all because I’d attended a half dozen press conferences.

That was a decade and a half ago, though it feels even longer. In that time a lot has changed. I’m a father now, one who places a higher value on getting home on time than scoring that elusive exclusive. I don’t knock over old ladies to get to house fires anymore, I don’t jump curbs to attend ribbon cuttings. More significantly, I don’t high five co-workers over tears captured on tape, I don’t roll up on children in peril without swallowing hard and thinking of my own beautiful girls at home.

No, the joys and pitfalls of the evening news aren’t quite as intoxicating as they used to be. What rendered me spellbound as a 24 year old news punk with an attitude now barely holds the attention of this now 40 year old taxpayer with a mortgage. I suppose that’s only normal, but as I spend day after day peering into the same old viewfinder, I find myself wondering how much longer I can keep it all in focus.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a groundbreaking I have to get to.