Thursday, March 01, 2007

ConvergeSouth 2007: Be There

Consider this the first of many items on ConvergeSouth 2007 - the third incarnation of Greensboro's annual summit of geeks, thinkers and on-line vagabonds. Why here? Because the not so stretchy metroplex in which I dwell boasts the cyber-nightlife of a far bigger 'burg. In L.A., it's said every waiter has a screenplay. In Greensboro, every milkman's got a blog. Okay, so not many dairy drivers actually hammer out manifestos every night, but we have every other breed of insatiable communicator ... office-seekers and laptop addicts, Classics geeks and Nascar fans, tattooed anarchists and self-described millionaires. It's a fun bunch - especially when we get together nose-ring to goatee, sweater vest to Carhartt.

In years past, we've even managed to attract a rogue's gallery of cyber-icons, from blogging's true rock stars to hopped-up roadies of The Fifth Estate. Speaking of that new sphere of participatory media, it's exactly what we're focusing on this year at ConvergeSouth. Far more than journalism currently in flux, the very way we interact with others is forever skewed by the onslaught of personal technology. We'll delve into the how's and why's of all that for two whole days in late October, which is a spectacular time of year to savor the Piedmont. So save the date (OCT. 19-20) and know that this is the year ConvergeSouth grows up. Video. Film. Live Music. Interactivity. This guy's even gonna say a few words...

Arc of a Diver

Since May of 2004 I’ve juggled a Fuji digital camera with my one free hand, shoving into an over-stuffed runbag, whipping it out at crime scenes, thrusting it into the hands of strangers. The other day I dropped the damn thing. Hard. It landed on the fragile battery door, tiny screws blowing out at the point of impact. I could only collapse on the sun-baked carcass and weep for my fallen friend, despite the fact I been cussin’ it for the better part of two years. See, it sucks in low light and it has a trigger delay that makes action shots near impossible - all inherent limitations of a digital point and shoot. But all those faults were forgotten the moment it slipped from my hairy fingers, only seconds before it made that awful bounce.

When no more tears would come, I gathered up the small metal shards in my trembling palms and lovingly packed the parts away in a spare camera bag. For days, I rode around it with in the back of Unit Four, avoiding rearview mirror glances as I worked my way through the seven stages of grief. Shock (Doh!). Denial (That did NOT just happen). Bargaining (Bring her back Lord and I‘ll stop tossing her in the floorboard!). Guilt (My hands were slippery with chicken grease) . Anger. (Why do I suck?). Depression (I‘ll just lay down behind this Back Yard Burger dumpster) until finally, Acceptance. Eventually I got hungry and wandered inside, where I swaddled my loss in a most delicious Barbeque Bacon Burger.

Today I pulled Weaver aside and broke the news to him. He was his usual stoic self, though he seemed more intrigued with my lunch selection than my tale of woe. After he swung by the snack machine, he met me out by our motley fleet. With a heavy tug at the case’s zipper, I splayed the remains atop the hood of the nearest news unit. It was I realized the elaborate funeral plans I’d sketched out in dashboard dust was a tad premature. My Fuji lay broken, but not dead. A thorough exam uncovered the facts: hefty abrasions, a few missing screws, an unattached battery door. After conferring with Weaver, I decided to operate - summoning every bit of technical expertise I’ve developed over 17 years of electronic field maintenance. That’s right, I wrapped tape around it.

It powered back up, but it ain’t right. Here’s hoping I can convince the fiduciary arm of Lenslinger Incorporated to authorize an upgrade expenditure. (I think she’s downstairs, playing her piano.)

Rats at Eleven

You think the photog who recorded video of those restaurant rats knew he was capturing history? Freelance cameraman Rafael Garcia Jr. is credited with shining his light (and lens) through the Taco Bell/KFC’s window, after local stations received phone tips about rodents doing the hokey-pokey in the fast food joint’s dining room. This, my friends, is why the space aliens who crash-landed in Roswell gifted us with all this new technology. I mean, covering global politics is good, I suppose - but nothing titillates the denizens of our twisted orb like something real, something important, something, well…skeevy. Taco Bell’s mouse club is a textbook example. Within hours of Garcia’s landmark ‘get’, his footage ricocheted from satellite to living room, holding a nation no less than enthralled with the scampering health code violations. For a few minutes the cable nets even stopped ripping flesh off Anna Nicole’s corpse to dish on the fast food rats. By midnight, the whiskered little fellas were reading the Top Ten list as Letterman pretended to chortle off-screen.

It just goes to show you how easily we in the Fourth (and Fifth Estate) are distracted by something stupid. Is this what Gutenburg had in mind when he invented the printing press? What Al Gore was thinking about when he created the internet out of PVC pipe and elbow noodles? I think not. I remember what my journalism professor said - you know, the one whose classes I never once attended… I’m told he spoke at length about using our journalistic powers for the greater good - and not be sidetracked by the slippery and the salacious. It’s one reason I’ve dedicated my entire career to covering nothing but substantial issues, eschewing the prurient and the silly in a lifelong quest to serve --- Hey look! Is that a squirrel in a top hat??? Roll the sat truck, I‘ve got a job to do!!!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Ode to Rosey

Damn that Rosenblum. First we swoops in on troubled TV stations and pedals his concept of a newsroom comprised entirely of one-man-bands. Some outlets bought what he was selling and continue to produce (what I would deem as) mostly mediocre fare. Now the self-styled messiah of local news has cracked open a blog, where he's impressing an awful lot of well-intentioned folk who, when you get right down to it, don't know dick about putting together newscasts. AT least that's how I see it. Then again, I'm no jet-setting contestant. No ex-newspaper guru searching for a new frontier. No elbow-patched professor lording over hapless neophytes with theories borne of morning bravado and afternoon bongwater.

No, I'm just an undereducated cameraman - which according to many self-appointed web experts is a mostly dullard breed, a slack-jawed adventurer bent on routine, not revolution. Still, even a mouth-breather like can sense evolution on the horizon. TV news has stagnated. Lay the blame on the rabid consultants and gutless administrations of a thousand broadcast outlets. In attempting to perfect the form, they homogenized it, until all that was left was a pale husk of a once thriving medium. Couple that malaise with an explosion in persoanl media devices and you have the communications equivalent of Nirvana sending all those hair-metal acts a packin'. But don't toss in yer spandex yet. This battle of the bands ain't nearly over.

Bad music metaphors aside, it's an exciting and frustrating time to be a TV news shooter. (When isn't it?) Digital editing, cell phone acquiaitin and web-based delivery has unearthed countless new chasms for your local camera crew explore. But there's something about the word 'crew' that really cheeses Rosenblum. He contends your favorite newscast would skyrocket in quality if only the two-person teams would go their separate ways - mini-lenses, magic laptops and trucker hats in tow. Okay, so I tacked on that last item, but since this ain't exactly the priesthood we're talking about transforming here, a little smarmy humor is more than called for. Rosenblum seems to agree. His blog, for all its sweeping assertions and attempted mojo, makes for damn interesting reading. It's what makes this cocky little dude in black so hard to totally dismiss.

See, Rosenblum's got a half dozen or so really incisive thoughts about the sorry state of TV news. Were he not so unrelentingly smug about it, he might convince the pros who squint for a living that he ain't pushin' snakewater on the most stricken of station executives. I for one appreciate his stance that solo-newsgatherers can contribute mightly to nightly newscasts. Then again, that's what I've been doing for the better part of 17 years, long before this hated enemy of the career shooter started pouring his kool-aid down the twin tubes of the modern internets. In fact, a small part of me would love to jet down to Nashville (or San Fran, or wherever) and show Rosey and his peeps how a journeyman photog can outpace his Vee-Jays with a good ole, full-size fancy-cam. I believe he'd have me to - if only to coerce me with elixers and maxims. The first week I'm cut free from mortgage-paying, news-making and wife-obeying, I'm there.

Until then, Rosenblum, I'm watching you...

Monday, February 26, 2007

Silence of the Pervs

Hey, remember my recent trip to the Sex Offender's Unit? Boy, I do. Not because the visit itself made such a mental imprint, but because the resulting edit session left every frame of footage seared into my frontal lobe. No sweat. Next time a ratings period roll around I'll throw my lens behind another project: Spatula Plant Shutdown, Fruit Cup Uproar, Dog Catcher Debacle ... something. Whatever it may be, I can only hope for more savory fare. I mean, now that I've done the whole 'Cool Hand Luke' thing (again), can't I cherry-pick something, I dunno - frothier? Ooh , I got it - Swedish Barmaid Convention, or Krispy Kreme Taste Test - How 'bout Coma Patient Skydive Camp? Just imagine the cinematic possibilities of that one! Jeff? Bueller? Anyone?

Experiencing Deja View

We've examined the work of Ron 'cadencefilm' Johnson before, the Louisville news shooter I know next to nothing about. Still, whenever I flip through his Flickr account, I feel like we've kicked it together next to a train wreck, war protest or fudgemaking expo. Maybe that's because news looks the same everywhere, perhaps it's because Ron takes killer frames of my preferred source material, or possibly I'm just overthinking a harmless collection of snapshots. Whatever the case, I sure dig this dude's still-frame bounty. They're like mini-Rorschach tests for the twisted photog within us all. Well, at least the people I hang out with...

Like this little scenario: You're hurtling down the highway, minding your own business at only twenty miles over the speed limit when some heartless copper pulls you over. 'What could be worse than this?' you think as you watch a figure in a Smokey Bear hat approach your sideview mirror. Then you see him, some poor schlub with a TV camera on his shoulder trailing behind Johnny Law. What do ya do? If you're like most people you give the cameraman an icy stare while fishing out your wallet and pleading innocence. Or if you're a rougher sort, perhaps you thrust a middle finger my way when Officer Hard-Ass isn't looking. That's okay, I'll be the one slow-mowing you from afar tonight as you explain to your spouse why you're throwing outdated gang-signs on the evening news.

Not sure exactly what happened here either, but I can tell from the look on the muckety-muck's face, Miss Reporter Bunny's gonna have to work for every freakin' detail. It's often that way at asphalt gang-bangs. Combine a reluctant official with a half dozen news crews, try to have something smoldering in the background and you have an interview session that may very well throw your back out of alignment forever. Sure, they don't last long, but with a guy in a windbreaker grasping for plausible deniability as you search for a comfortable way to ride your focus, time has a way of standing still. But take my advice. If the dude in the crosshairs lapses into cop-talk (Suspect gained entry at oh six hundred hours...), put your camera on the ground and demand he drop the Adam-12 schtick. Then run.

"Hey fella! I know you're busy, what with that tree on your car and the wife inside breathing into a paper bag, but my bosses thought it would be really cool if you'd stop what you're doing and emotionally recount the most painful aspects of the last six hours. Oh, and if you don't mind, could you choke out a few tears as you describe your lost property. You know, something for me to zoom in on as your voice cracks? Now remember, complete sentences only. I'm meetin' the fellas for lunch and I ain't got time to spend the whole afternoon rearranging your every half-utterance 'til it makes some kind of sense. And for the love of all that's holy, tell those cats with the chainsaws to go get lunch or something, WE'RE MAKING TELEVISION HERE!"

White Hack Down

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m afraid we have an indicator alerting us to a possible electrical malfunction onboard and since we want to get you to Cincinnati as safely as possible, we’re gonna taxi back to the terminal for a closer look...”

Curses and murmurs rumbled through the packed cabin as rear-ends shifted and cell phones chirped back to life. The guy to my right pulled a Blackberry out of his pocket and began jabbing at it angrily. Behind me a woman explained to to someone how she was about to miss her connecting flight. Only then did I set down the Ernie Pyle biography and fish out my own itinerary. Damn. With only a fifty minute layover in Cincy, I was in danger of the same. The jet I was scheduled to be on would leave Ohio airspace without me - provided their pilot didn’t notice an idiot light flashing moments before thrusting the aircraft upward. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the crew’s dedication to safety - I did. But the fact was my own mission was going down in flames with every awkward bounce back down the rainy runway. Nope, I thought - there is no way I’ll be in Tulsa by the time the little bald guy with the lightning bolt sideburns takes the stage.

Back inside the terminal, a woman with a shiny nametag, a lovely scarf and a shitty attitude confirmed my suspicion. I would not make it to Cincinnati in time. The plane there would not wait for me. I would not be able to catch another flight West until 10 pm. I would not haggle with the tour manager, score any free drinks form the club owner or suffer the inebriated shout-outs of eight hundred unhinged Oklahomans. Okay that last one I could have done without anyway, but drunken revelers were part of the gig and I had hoped to weave their beer-spittle throughout the profile of young Mr. Turbo-Throat. Why else would I agree to dash to the Sooner State just to sling a lens? Besides the fact that I paid for it. And the knowledge it would make damn fine blog-fodder? And that I love to shoot live music - even if it is from a guy I first interviewed during his lunch-break from Crown Honda.

But it wasn’t the sweaty encores I’d miss that got me down. No, I was bummed by the flummoxing of all that planning. Gauzy profiles don’t happen by osmosis, ya know. They take strategery - and lots of doodads. It’s why I spent all day Friday bouncing from an edit suite blaring sex offender footage to a padded bag bristling with gizmos. I’d thought of everything: tripod, lights, umbrella, extra discs, batteries, microphones - even a three-pronged doohickey I was gonna use to jack into the nightclub’s soundboard. And I didn’t just cadge some of these gadgets from unsuspecting coworkers, I packed them! That’s a big deal, for photogs love to pack. It’s a ritual of preparedness, if you will - the amassing and proper stowage of the myriad of tools that help make television. I know guys who - despite regularly sleeping in piles of dirty laundry - can field strip their news unit’s interior of every working thingamabob and itemize them by purpose, cost and vintage. Blindfolded. Even absent-minded professor types like me harbor a certain categorization fetish. So its no really no surprise that as I schlepped my gear off the concourse, it wasn’t the fact that my all-access backstage pass had been revoked that bothered me, but that all my obsessive acts of inventory had all been for naught.

Sure beats a sudden loss of altitude, though.