Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Cable Guy

Pulling CableGod knows it ain't sexy, but 'pullin' cable' is an integral part of the live TV news experience. See, our fancy-cams cannot go live by osmosis alone. They must be tethered to a nearby truck by a hefty audio/video cable. It's simple enough science, but it continues to baffle Hollywood's finest filmmakers. Just ask any photog and they'll reel off several key movie scenes in which the heroic news crew transmits live(!) from the prison cell/protest/ocean floor without the benefit of the aforementioned cord. Man, that really chaps our ass! Seems those cinematographers would grasp the whole concept of plugging things in, but apparently not. That's a drag, as wrestling with the spaghetti is as much a part of the photog life as and scanner traffic and lunch in the car. In fact if they ever held a TV news Olympics, one of the main competitions would have to involve man-hauling 500 feet of undulating cordage up a fire escape while a hysterical producer screamed for a shot in your earpiece. Call it the fifty yard cable run. I call it Tuesday.

The Big KnotBut what a Tuesday. By the break of dawn, Joe McCloskey and I had yanked every bit of cable out of the sat truck, hooked it to the back of my camera and waded into the crush of delusional singer-songwriters. That sufficed for awhile, with Shannon Smith going live every few minutes with yet another warbling homegirl. About that time, the American Idol producers decided it was just too damn hot to pull off their jib shot of the glittery masses. 'Everyone Inside!', they bellowed and before Joe and I could properly curse, every damn one of our warm props had fled into the bowels of the Georgia Dome. Only crickets and crumpled water bottles remained - not the kind of backdrop my bosses wanted to see behind their willowy morning reporter. So we did what any sweaty crew would do: we gathered up our gear and followed the crowd inside - but not before pulling, wrapping and tugging all 500 feet of live truck ligature up, across and into the house that Michael Vick used to play in.

Cable BlazeNinety minutes later I emerged, ears wringing, shoulder screaming - but happy the morning news was finally over. That's when I spotted him. Bent at the waist and muttering under his breath, the young WAGA employee jerked repeatedly at what had to be the ugliest cable knot I'd ever seen. With a lump in my gut I offered to help, but the young truck operator only stared back with hollow eyes, like a returning soldier clutching one dangling, severed arm. 'How the hell did that much cable become so entangled?', I wondered to myself. I've seen plates of noodles with less twists and turns. But all I could do was watch in mock horror as the dude searched for an end to the madness. He didn't find it. Instead he called over his colleague - a most stylin' photog by the name of 'Blaze' (really!). Together they stood over the grisly snarl and spoke in pops and clicks. Not knowing what to do, I grabbed my camera and took a few snapshots. However extreme, their corded conundrum was a fine example of the many off-screen intricacies faced by the average photog. The viewer never sees it and nor should they have to. But that doesn't stop us poor saps from unraveling mundanity long after the director has punched to black. Hell, as far as I know, those two guys are still out there...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Idol All the While

Butterfly GirlHaving covered American Idol auditions in D.C., Greensboro and now Atlanta, I'm here to tell you they're all the same. How's that you ask? Simple - no matter what zip code the Idol juggernaut rolls into, a wildly diverse mob of starry-eyed supplicants materializes from the mist. Male models and shifty drifters, pageant chicks and pregnant drop-outs, Christian rockers and the criminally insane. They may all hail from different realms, regions and realities - but they share similar dispositions and mutually ambitious dreams. It's in this hodgepodge of humanity that the mass appeal of Idol is revealed, for no matter if you're an aspiring Gangsta rapper or a young housewife smitten with lullabies, you can envision yourself one day soon being coronated by Ryan Seachrest. On this populist allure, TV dynasties are built. Just ask Aaron Spelling. Or come to think of it, don't. He died. Moving on...

Grilling SeachrestW-e-e-e-l-l, speak of the devil and he sends a diminutive metrosexual to answer your every silly question about this steamroller of a reality show. In all fairness, Ryan's a heck of a nice guy and I've watched him suffer the slings and arrows of condescending reporters and amped-up Big Mamas with equal aplomb. That requires a mastery of people skills I really respect. Yesterday, we met Ryan in a secluded part of the Georgia Dome, where the affable Atlantan fielded questions from a snarky press corps. With about a dozen crews all lined up, this generation's Dick Clark gave each camera their own few minutes. That worked well until a purple haired camcorder dude and his college podcast partner stepped up with a unique interviewing style. "Ryan, our own Gayle Sholopowitz has just one question," the kid said, his voice cracking as he read from a crumpled piece of notebook paper, "boxers ... or briefs?" Eyes rolled and groans rang out from the waiting press members as Idol's PR chick moved Ryan on to the next crew. Tough room...

Welcome to the Georgia DomeSpeaking of room, the Georgia Dome has plenty of it - which is a damn good thing since fifteen thousand contestants, a score of Fox affiliates, countless Idol producers and, of course, Atlanta's thriving homeless population milled about at will. All was friendly at first. It's like that at these auditions - at least the front end. Punch-drunk with impending fame, the varied folk who show up for these open cattle calls quickly coalesce into a happy little town. After all, they're all about to be whisked away to Hollywood, right? Well ... no. See, at this point Paula Simon and Randy are nowhere in sight. Contestants eager to kibbitz with the celebrity judges are instead met by anonymous twenty-somethings in Idol t-shirts, who corral them into workable swaths of ambition and body glitter. But even this doesn't kill the mood. Instead, the giddy contestants hunker down and happily exchange addresses and vocal runs. It's not unusual to see people who might never speak to each other otherwise join hands and take turns warbling the latest Avril Lavigne dirge. Oy!

Lenslinger in AtlantaBut the good times don't last. Once the first of the auditions begin, dreams are quickly dashed and scores of disappointed citizens who feel its their destiny to one day rule the charts slink away like freshly defeated prize-fighters. I know this because once they're deemed unworthy of this hallowed event they come see me - or any other camera crew unlucky enough to be caught in the line of fire. Tears, profanity, outright threats and thwarted choruses ring out as the Great Unwashed protest their unceremonial exile from the American Idol dream. It can make for a l-o-n-g afternoon, especially when the inevitable sing-offs begin. See, seven out of ten fallen contestants feel obliged to share their vocal prowess with all who will listen. Thus your grizzled lenslinger is soon surrounded by crooning B-boys, teary-eyed prom queens channeling Christine Aguilera and enough caterwauling choir members to re-shoot that church scene from The Blues Brothers. Beats babysitting some talking hairdo down at the courthouse, I guess...

The Wireless Incident

Wireless MIcI'd barely been at the American Idol Atlanta auditions fifteen minutes when Cameraman Calamity struck: a piece of missing equipment. Not just any piece either, but the oh so vital wireless lavalier microphone! Somehow, I dropped the damn thing when I fished a stick mic(rophone) out of my boogie-bag. Realizing it was gone a few minutes later, I re-traced my steps like one of those over-actors on CSI. Alas, I found nothing. What made it all the stranger was the fact that I'd barely moved twenty yards from my news car in the short time that I'd been on-scene. But no matter how many times I scoured the six sun-baked parking spaces, the high-dollar transmitter refused to reappear. %@$#%@#$! By now highly frustrated and dripping in sweat, I popped Unit 4's tailgate and reluctantly ripped through the methodically packed contents. I was halfway through this hard-target search when a representative from the vast homeless community that apparently calls the Georgia Dome home approached from my left. Actually, he'd been trying to get my attention for a few minutes, but I assiduously avoided making eye contact with him as I tore through my gear. What he said next however, brought my foraging to an immediate halt.

"Yo man, whatcha'll do for some lost and found?"

Looking up, I took the man in for the first time. Dressed in dirty blue jeans, he wore a leather bomber's jacket but no shirt. It was a glaring lack of wardrobe choice in the smoldering heat and everything on him seemed to sweat accordingly. "Depends on what ya found..." I said, knowing full well what he'd 'found' - even before he reached into his jacket and produced my missing microphone pack. Ever so gently I reached out and took it from him, pretending to examine it to make sure it in fact was mine. It was, of course. I was delighted to have it back too, but I really wasn't up for exchanging e-mail addresses with this exiled stranger. He, however, had other plans. Sensing my unease he moved in even closer, asking what I had in the truck, how much the microphone was worth and what I might do to alleviate his overall plight. About that time, sat truck operator Joe McCloskey ambled up and spotted the aforementioned gadget in my grip. With a slight grin, he put two and two together and joined in our little parking lot bartering session - a move which didn't deter our new friend one iota.

"Dig deep fellas, ya'll need to hook me up!" The man's voice was as gravelly as the blacktop pavement we all stood on, his patter practiced, his tone only slighly annoyed. "Come on now, scrounge! Ya'll got any juice in dat truck?"

What followed was a friendly yet awkward negotiation between a hapless photog, a savvy transient and a chuckling truck op. While we hammered out the terms of our transaction, I found myself wondering just how long my microphone lay unattended before Leather scooped it up, how much he'd enjoyed watching me frantically search for it, and just what other pieces of television he had in that jacket. I'll give him this, though: dude was shrewd. Despite his vaguely predatory demeanor, he painted himself the Good Samaritan with a flourish that would have made the late Johnny Cochran proud... Some might think me callous when it comes to the homeless. Not true. I've done tons of shelter stories over the years, brought distraught families asked-for publicity and have thus developed real empathy for the truly downtrodden. That said, if all your limbs work and you're still looking for a hand-out - I'm probably not your guy. This case, however, was a little different.

In the end, we parted friends. - I with my wireless microphone, the leather-clad stranger with a dollar eighty-five in pocket change and two glistening cold bottled waters from our sat truck cooler. Tucking the frigid bottles into his jacket, he strutted off - but not before bumping fists with me and Joe while imploring us to give the local homeless folk a shout-out during our upcoming Idol coverage. Consider it done.

Pretty People and Mental Patients

Falcons Field
A pox on me for not live-blogging my American Idol Atlanta trip, but I was simply too busy high-fiving my fifteen thousand new best friends. Here's a picture of us now inside the Georgia Dome ... I'm j-u-s-t left of center there; that sweaty camera-speck wegded between the transsexual Elvis dancers and the beatboxing lumberjack. Between those fellas(?), the sixteen hour workdays and the hundred degree heat, I was simply too tuckered to type, Instead I chose to wash down my evening with a good steak dinner and a highball or two. Is that so wrong? Anyway, I'm now back in my upper sanctum, sifting through my digital stills and wondering where to start. While I figure it all out, please enjoy one of my favorite collaborations, a potent aural antidote to the oversung showtunes coming you way. But don't worry: at no time will I call you Dawg...

Monday, August 13, 2007

Decamping to Atlanta

It's mid-August, so you know what that means ... time for tens of thousands of hopeful vocalists to gather en masse for a chance at disposable fame. We've been through this before. And if it's okay with you, we're gonna do it again - for soon after I finish typing this, Shannon Smith and and I are decamping to Atlanta for one more headlong trip into the surreal. The last time Shannon prowled the edges of the Georgia Dome, she stumbled across a saucy homegirl named Fantasia. Two years later we huddled elsewhere with a chrome-plated brooder by the name of Chris Daughtry, who thought he might like to sing for a living. Can it happen again? Will another unknown Tarheel native rise up and become a fleeting household name? Not bloody likely! But if there's anything I've learned in my last few years of making television, it's 'Never Underestimate American Idol'. So bear with me, readers, as I suffer the slings of ambition and psychosis while attempting to blog about it along the way. The chance to sing for the first of many anonymous judges is still a full day away, but from the looks of this picture taken by Rodney Ho just hours ago, the melee outside the Georgia Dome is well underway. I'd better get going...

Sunday, August 12, 2007

In the Mood for Something Stupid?

Are you ever in luck...

Grumbling Under Glass

Live Truck Phone Outsider. Insider. Gate-Crasher. Ghost. The TV news photog is all these and more - a restless, jaded, wandering being who travels alone yet gathers in packs. Don't let the cargo shorts and golf shirt fool you, for this particular breed is notoriously intense. You might be too if you rushed from misfortune to happenstance and back again, turning all the world's minutia into disposable photoplays. It's a thoroughly bracing way to spend the day but it can easily leave you numb and cold. See, after awhile the players all seem the same, puffed-up incumbents swiveling in the spotlight, shelter directors embezzling on cue, that missing kid's picture taped to your passenger's side window. I've processed more strife and pageantry than I could possibly ever recall. Should I receive a blow to the head, I'm certain my psyche would burp up a few ground-breakings for me to chew on.

Crime LensI blame the lens. That's what first lured me in, long before I desecrated the threshold of my nearest affiliate. I remember one seminal afternoon, in the shadow of my boyhood home. A friend came over with his Mom's camcorder smuggled in a book bag and we took off on our BMX bikes to a sacred spot. There we popped wheelies over cinderblock ramps while quoting Elwood Blues - the same way we always had. Except this time the camera captured it in fuzzy silhouette and as we sat playing back each jump in the tiny blue viewfinder, I found myself entranced - far more so than a sixteen year old slacker should have felt over such a trifle thing. Had I been more focused back then I might have entertained the idea of film school but I was a fuzzy-headed bumpkin at the time and considered only truancy to be my special purpose.

Habitat RoofLittle did I know that day a pattern had already been established. Four years later I'd pick up a shipmate's oversized Betamax and document countless, ill-advised cannonballs from a series of Caribbean balconies. No great thunderbolts of lucidity that day either, but I do remember being the one drunk sailor who could keep his buddies in frame. Is it any wonder I one day wound up under heavier glass? I sure didn't sharpen any other skills there at the Salamander Inn. Still, I did a way to use my sea legs, not on a pitching ship, but a Habitat for Humanity roof, the lip of a telethon, the crowded back hallway of a dozen County Courthouses. I may no longer be serving my country, but I am keeping the Greater Piedmont Googleplex swimming in drive-bys and bake sales, all from the comfort of their living room couch.

Confidence ScreenStill, one can't help but wonder if he chose correctly when picking his dream. God knows I could have aimed higher than the six o'clock news. But at the time the access was most intoxicating. Hell, driving a logo'd news car used to be a blast - until I logged a couple hundred thousand very hard miles in assorted Peacocks, Eyeballs and Foxes. It didn't take long before that particular buzz to wear off. No longer smitted with my unfettered view, I'd pull up alongside the cops and grab my gear, never every feeling like I'd truly arrived. Perhaps I still haven't. Maybe's there's a imbroglio looming in the distance, one that will render me punchdrunk like that day in my hometown's shade. Or could it be I'm already there, but so sore from the journey that I simply haven't noticed my time-traveling news unit has come to a complete stop...

Perhaps I'm just out of gas...