Saturday, April 21, 2007

Smells Like Team Spirit

No doubt about it, we TV news crews tend to gather in packs. Pressers, plane crashes, pickle queen fests - you can't sling a lens in most markets without clocking a younger version of you holding a Sony of their owny. Then of couse, you gotta man up and act like you meant to - lest you be booted from the Curmudgeonly Cameraman Club (3 million members and growing!). But go easy! Defend you turf too vigorously and you just might find yourself rolling around on the floor with a competitor on the floor in one of those awful press pit dust-ups that prove once and for all why no on one pays to see pasty suburbanites fight. Next thing ya know, the cursed clip's on YouTube and your daughter's threatening to run away if the neighborhhood boys don't stop singing the theme from Rocky III every time you step outside in your bermuda shorts and knee-socks. A daughter's shame - all because you wanted a wide shot without some cable punk's handycam in it. And you call yourself a parent...

Since your kids do, you'd better chill. You'll be part of the scenery soon enough anyway, probing some distant news frontier with not enough sunscreen on your lips and notions of trophies in your head. There you'll have plenty of elbow room and by jove, you'll need it! No station chiseler green-lights a trip without his own vision - one that usually involves lots of re-cuts, promo shots and if possible a two-gallon jug of photog sweat to use a set-prop (you know - something for the anchors to fondle as the houselights fade). Loss of body fluids aside, most shooters I know jump at the chance to schlep their tools to remote locales. Where else ya gonna clear your head? Besides, I'd rather clock a prarie rat at a thousand paces than guess what kind of deodorant Otto the camera-slug chose to leave untouched this morning. Maybe then the kids will respect what I do for a living. Speaking of which, I gotta scram, There's yardwork to do out back and unless my vision fails me, those little bastards are lining up by the fence again. I'll show them some 'Eye of the Tiger'...

Friday, April 20, 2007

King of Pain

From the time my cousin Brian slipped me his twice-read copy of 'The Stand', I have been an eager disciple of Stephen King. As I read it, the apocalyptic potboiler fully engorged my twelve year old cortex. Instantly I forgot all about that Time-Life series on UFO's I'd been eyeing at the school library and began trolling the paperback racks for King titles. Quickly I devoured his full catalog, catching up just in time to gorge on every new zombie-filled novel he'd unleashed on the 1980's. But it wasn't the lurching axe-murderers that drew me to the Maine native's dark canon - it was his freakin' readability. Populist horror yet so much more, King's winky kink for brand name placement, odd character cameos and twisty narratives made every tortured tail of gore worth far more than its reckless heft. My collection grew and my mother worried. Assurring her I'd read this particular author if he churned out only cookbooks, I dismissed the unspeakable evil within. Today if you asked my brother just what I read, he'd still say "Stephen King", even though I haven't cracked one of his novels in almost 20 years. Still, I credit the man with inflamming my adolescent brain and teaching me early that its perfectly okay to take dictation from the madman in your head.

So what's my point? None really, other than to say I absorbed every syllable of King's books as a kid and have yet to breech the walls of a cemetary in the dark. Well there was that one time in high school, but that's only because that's where the liquor bottles were stashed. I wouldn't have dared to do anything too creepy, despite having thrilled at every fresh shovel crunch into King's eternally haunted sod. In a book he's now distanced himself from, the author foretold the future with an unfathomable tale of a troubled student opening fire in a classroom. I still remember the stilted conversations the character Charles Decker had with police over the classroom loudspeaker. Back then, the very scenario was ludicrous it was safe as entertainment. These days not so much. When Entertainment Weekly asked the bestselling author what to make of the Virginia Tech murderer's violent screeds, he found little correlation between imagination and intention.
For most creative people, the imagination serves as an excretory channel for violence: We visualize what we will never actually do...Cho doesn't strike me as in the least creative, however. Dude was crazy... Essentially there's no story here, except for a paranoid a--hole who went DEFCON-1. He may have been inspired by Columbine, but only because he was too dim to think up such a scenario on his own.
Too dim indeed, Stephen. I only wish his unthinkable acts were still just the stuff of your cinematic nightmares - instead of the trademark arc of another marquee massacre. Maybe then I could forgo the unfortunate carnage and tell these good people about your most indelibe tome yet, 'On Writing'. Until then, I'll be out back, grooming my prose and sharpening my meat cleaver.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Sat Truck City

So just how many TV crews are at Virginia Tech? Not as many as they're were certainly, but a sat truck city of staggering breadth still clots a fat swath of Blacksburg. One dish truck driver I know says it's the biggest satellite scrum he's seen in his twenty years of transmitting calamity. Local crews from around the nation, accented presenters from across the pond, a Who's Who of network press. It's enough to make your low-laying lenslinger wish maybe he'd poked his head up when the marching orders were being issued. Then again, I've spent the week providing counter-programming for all the producers in my life. Today for example I milked a volunteer luncheon for seventy five seconds of feel-good theater. More of a viewer reprieve than a full-fledged feature, not once does it mention handguns, lockdowns or manifestos. Here's looking forward to a quiet weekend...

Citizen Psycho

I find it haunting that between killing sprees, Cho Seung-Hui stopped to vlog. Using video, words and digital stills, the Virginia tech student assembled a rambling screed of murder and hate he needed the world to see. Apparently, a disturbed young man known for speaking little had a lot to say when he was all alone. 1800 words of venom, countless photos of him and his weapons, first person video clips of his monotone yet murderous rage. Cho Seung-Hui wasn’t just obsessed with smiting his self-perceived enemies. He wanted the globe to know why he did. So he snail-mailed his ‘reel’ to NBC, certain the news-gathering goliath would unleash it on an unsuspecting planet. Did that satiate his rage - the knowledge that his twisted message would be seen far and wide shortly after the bodies fell? That his YouTube-infamy was guaranteed, affording himself a place in history that an old school wacko like Mark David Chapman could never even conceive?

I’m reminded of those scenes in the movies where the villain addresses the hero from beyond the grave. A flickering screen of a overacting mug, smugly explaining every detail of his madness and laughing diabolically. But played out in reality, its fare from entertaining. Instead, the pictures and clips ricocheting across the web feature a lingering peek into a mass murderer’s mind. It makes the notion of cops traveling to a prison to grill a serial killer feel positively Baroque. Yesteryear’s Zodiac letters are today’s ‘multimedia manifesto’ a term that will grimly go down as a Word of the Year. Thus, Cho Seung-Hui not only ended 32 lives and then his own. He changed the lexicon of evil, upping the ante for mass killers to come, asssuring that no dastardly deed in the 21st century would be complete without a cyber-portfolio of madness. It was blund to happen In a new frontier teeming with personal journalists, activists bloggers and MySpace moguls, I’m afraid we now have a new kind of cyber-savvy, plugged-in super villain: Citizen Psycho.

Pity the victims won't be so well remembered.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Far Flung Friends

This Just In: I'm not in Blacksburg and from the looks of our manpower plan, I probably won't have to be anytime soon. For that I'm grateful, but it hasn't stopped me from falling victim to the malaise that has gripped this fair region. Then again, I love me some good malaise. So while my colleagues are crafting comprehensive team coverage of the Virginia Tech tragedy, I'm doing my part by not watching any of it. Instead, I'm holed up in my normal roost, tending to my hens and thinking of old acquaintances. Let's meet a few...

robot nabWhile I stew in my own juices, Little Lost Robot is traipsing around Las Vegas. He's there for NAB of course, the annual summit of broadcasters, pimps and shysters. No fan of Vegas myself, I opted to stay at home. Hey I'm all for wanton debauchery but one trip to the Skeeve Capital every three years is enough for me. Still, I wouldn't have minded attending the yearly b-roll bash again. Why? Fresh beer, tipsy photogs, a chance to win a free tripod - where else can you see Kevin Johnson drink himself into a six foot five stupor? It's not on Pay-Per-View. Not yet, anyway...

Years before I'd ever heard the word 'blog', then-partner Rashunda Tramble had her own website. Of course Rash also made homemade soap, tolerated my nightly wide-angle habit and paid membership dues to Mensa. Next to that, how hard could learning HTML be? No longer an entertainment reporter, Rashunda is now a soul sister in Switzerland . When she's not busy being geographically exotic, she web-publishes photos, reflections and conjecture that still make me feel like a dumb white boy from the sticks. Ain't technology grand?

Paul DunnOne of the smartest things I did today was ring up my old buddy Vern. No longer a news photog, Vernon Paul Dunn's life still mirrors mine in many ways. We're both married to short, aggressive women, we both got girls we mostly chauffer and TV news runs in both our bloodstreams. Back in the day, we'd both lay back on the hoods of our news units and wonder what other gig on Earth could possibly be so exciting. Years ago, Vern left the business to find out. I never did. While the real winner has yet to be determined, I come away the victor everytime we talk. Love ya man.

Bucky Covington Blur 3Six months after we visited him in the studio, Bucky Covington's debut CD drops today. Though my country music collection consists of one well-worn Hank Williams Jr. album, I'll gladly plunk down my cash for this Rockingham native's freshman release. How come? Bucky's got chops, tone and wit. He's by far the most deserving survivor of the American Idol ordeal and quite possibly the sweetest hillbilly you'll ever meet. Now a citizen of Nashville and the world, I'm still hoping we can get together someday and drown some more of that good brown likker.

Next time: Something else...

Monday, April 16, 2007

Dreading the Trip

I’ve never been to Blacksburg and I damn sure don’t want to go now. But when the worst campus massacre in recorded history happens less than three hours from your TV station, a sudden jaunt North cannot be ruled out. Friends of mine are already there, dispatched early in the day before the scope of this ghastly event was fully realized. I don’t envy them. Clustered around satellite trucks and a makeshift podium, they’re left to process whatever scraps officials feed them as unseen producers scream in the ear for one more tidbit, one more live shot, one more grim-faced wrap-up of the ‘unspeakable tragedy‘.

To make things infinitely worse, broadcasting’s most over-coiffed correspondents are there too. Lauer, Williams, Couric and the like - all flanked by deadpan camera crews and excitable producers. Before I even think to turn my TV back on they’ll have draped their most somber logo over every facet of this fresh cataclysm - grilling witnesses, lining up guests, jockeying for a better camera spot. By show-time, Virginia Tech’s darkest day will be expertly accented in network-level three point lighting. Roll the news music’s most plaintive cut, cue the grimaces all around and standby for Columbine 2.0.

I don’t mean to take away from the victims’ families. Their pain has just begun. I just hope their trauma isn’t too exacerbated by the feeding frenzy of the local yokels and media elite. For they deserve better. Losing a loved one so senselessly is punishment enough. Being goaded by a hungry press while your pain is still so new is often more than I can take (or dish-out at times). Still, there won’t be any shortage of breathless bystanders on the late and early newscasts. This is, after all, America in the year 2007. We even grieve in Hi-Def. Thing is, I no longer yearn to wrangle misery though a tube. I’ll go if I have to, but forgive me if, this time, I don’t volunteer.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Fifty Years In...

From the 'I didn't even think that was possible' file - a Minnesota photog goes the distance, clocking in a staggering fifty years behind the lens. Fifty years! That, my friend, is alot of ribbon cuttings. Just ask Brad Jacobs, who first joined KSTP-TV in 1957 - a full ten years before this humble lenslinger was even born. Since then he's covered the Twin Cities up close, personal and from afar - mastering a mind-boggling progression of technology as generations of ever younger news-gatherers came and went. I'm getting winded just thinking about it! Lauded for both his mad camera skills and industrial-strength resilience, Brad Jacobs is also known for something few photogs ever succesfully pull off: a positive attitude. I could pile on the accolades all day, but you'd do better to head over to KSTP's site and hear from the man himself. Were I in the area, I'd saunter right up to Mr. Jacobs and insist on carrying his tripod, but with only 17 plus years in the bag, I fear I'm Simply. Not. Worthy. Congratulations...Sir.

(For an Australian's take, check out Widescreen...)

The Invisible Class

FOX 8 WGHP PhotojournalistsMan, just when my self-esteem was on an upswing, the clever newspaper website video people weigh in with another dismissive assertion. This time they're out to learn why TV News shooters don't post 'web-exclusive' video on-line (something the average TV photog doesn't really think about alot as he's racing to fill HOURS of airtime a day), but I'm not here to fight that fight. Or fight at all, really. I wish, rather, to be an ambassador - to brook a better understanding of my most beleaguered TV breed. But to build a relationship, you have to know how your new partner views you and therein, lies the rub...
'Just as the print media has always had a better reputation for their ability to cover a story in depth and have larger staffs to cover more community news…their photographers seem to have better reps too. Print photogs are seen as visual artists and have a history of being part of the journalistic tradition. They are seen as independent individuals with their own identity and vision. Video/TV photogs do not seem to have the same polished reputation - even though they provide pretty much the same commodity to their medium and have equal aesthetic and creative abilities. This may be because (opinion again) they work with a reporter who is seen (first) as a TV star and (second) as a reporter. The amount of equipment traditionally carried by TV photogs turns them into living breathing pack mules. They set up live shots and run microwave trucks. So there they are: the perception is subservient, technician, pack mule.'
Wow, I feel like I should go shower off or something. Derision aside though, these print people do have a few good points. We TV News shooters do appear slovenly compared to our on-air partners. I mean, have you seen the amount of hairspray those people travel with? I once saw a consumer guy take out an entire family of woodchucks with a single can of Aqua-Net.
'Unlike still photogs who shoot the story along-side, but independently from the reporter, the TV photog’s visuals are driven by the style of their reporter and interwoven with the words written and narrated by the reporter. The identity of the photographer is lost in the shadow of the on-camera person, who is recognized every day for their efforts. Rarely is a TV photog given recognition - while their print counterparts get a byline whenever work appears.'
Actually the photog usually sets the visual pace. Ask any reporter who's had to stretch a tape full of shaky and blue footage into something coherent. As for the inherent lack of credit, it's hard to outshine the spotlight you helped manufacture. Then again, no TV shooter worth his or her first white-balance sticks with the gig for plaudits alone. There's more glory in gutter-repair. But that really ain't the point.
'This lack of identity has made television photographers an almost invisible class. While they are what sets television news apart from print and radio, they are not given recognition as individuals or even allowed to post their images to the web so they can earn some individual recognition - because somebody else might profit from their work besides the company that owns them and their images. The no-competition contracts most photogs sign even preclude them from doing much video on their own that might compete with their own stations.'
Personally, invisibility is a professional goal of mine. I work hard to blend into the backdrop, so the person in my crosshairs forgets I'm there. Sure I could worm my way back on-air but I learned a long time ago that being gestured at in the Wal-Mart parking lot don't feed the bulldog. I'm far more interested in visual storytelling, be it my preferred solo methods or as part of our continuing team smotherage on the clamor of the moment. I'm all for my work appearing on-line (as it regularly does). Hell, I'd gladly recut an extended mix-master version for the web alone, but until the suits lop off a few newscasts, I'll be out in the sat truck camp, feeding the on-air beast. I see no shame in that. As for non-competes, I ain't signed one of those since Bush the Elder upchucked on that Japanese dude. Now that was great video...

The Organic Cameraman

Gallagher at Work
Kevin Gallagher will be the first to tell you he's no news shooter but he does cut a striking figure in his crunchy earth-tones and retro film-cam. Seen here careening atop a Habitat for Humanity roof, this seasoned promotions producer works his high-end lens in muted, earth-friendly fashion. Then again, no one rocks the neo-hippie lenslinger look quite like Sir Gallagher. From the old school battery belt to his homemade skull cap to that scraggly chin cabbage, Kev's got a look that says' "Sure, I'll shine twenty ozone killing spotlights on your sponsor's doodad, but those chicken sandwiches I see on the Craft Services table over there HAD BETTER BE FREE-RANGE!" Okay, so perhaps I'm projecting a little, but the truth is I've always dug Kevin's look - even if he did once try to kill me with my own mountain bike! I just wish someone hadn't given him those kick-ass Dale Earnhardt gloves. Dude's hands were so warm and toasty up there, he took FOREVER! Thought it would never be my turn...