Thursday, October 18, 2007

ConvergeSouth: Get it On...

With ConvergeSouth less than a day away, can I go ahead and get my geek on? My humble burg is already filling with folks of the cyber-variety: laptop lords, narrowcasters and scores of haunted auteurs - all in town for a one-of-a-kind tech summit of which I'm proud to be at least tangentially connected. This year such web heavyweights as Jason Calacanis, Anil Dash and Elisa Camahort will helping to oversee the making of The Fifth Estate - that bustling sector of the media landscape that has little to do with six o clock newscasts and moldering newsprint. But we're getting ahead of ourselves; what I really like about ConvergeSouth is the stimulating chichat between sessions, the live music my conference badge gets me into and the world's most sinful bar-be-cue, courtesy of one David Hoggard. Over the next couple of days I hope to catch up with Dan Conover, learn a few video tips from Tom Lassiter and witness the sartorial splendor that is Joe Killian. While I'm at it, I'll check in with The Fantabulous Coon Brothers and leave a dollar or two on the bar. Oh - and then there's Soni Pitts - a lady I'm collaborating with on my dream project, but have yet to meet in person. Yes, there is much happening this weekend in Greensboro and if I can manage to, I'll blog about it along the way. Otherwise, look for things to return to normal Monday, when the toxic stream of photog anguish will once again flow unabated. Now, if you'll excuse me I have to go charge a whole bunch of batteries...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Trees With Pedigrees

SunriseYou’d think covering a couple of D.C. wonks as they picked out the official White House Christmas tree would be a pretty cushy gig. You’d be wrong. First, there’s the matter of location. See I got some pretty firs in my backyard, but to find the kind of trees the First Lady digs, ya gotta head uphill. Which is exactly what I did early this very morn, stealing away like a televised spy as unread newspapers slept in neighbors’ driveways. It was pitch black for much of the way. Keeping me company were Two Guys Named Chris, doling out the portion of their show I usually sleep through. I laughed out loud a few times, but otherwise conjured operas in my moonlit cockpit as the road ahead sloped ever upward. By the time dawn did break, I was chugging along the Blue Ridge Parkway, trying not to veer off a cliff as I took in one splendiferous vista after another. Okay, so the trip up wasn’t so bad.

One Eyed GrinConditions deteriorated upon impact. See, I’m not the only joker paid to poke a lens into happenstance and pageantry. When I pulled into Mistletoe Meadows, three highly lacquered SUV’s already sat in the gravel parking lot, their corporate mascots taunting the latest logo to arrive. ‘Perhaps I poked around the parkway for too long‘, I thought as I counted the cameras in the crowd. Conventional camera crews, tall loners with the littlest of lenses, one dude with an ancient Polaroid hanging around his neck … the ‘slingers mingled and the scribblers kibitzed with the local folk who’d turned out for the auspicious tree pickin’. Meanwhile, I stood to the side and eyed a 20 foot victim in the distance. It’s soon to be significance might make for an easy way to end the newscast, but there’d be nothing simple about the acquisition of said footage. ‘Not with this crowd‘, I thought as a blue rent-a-car pulled up. ‘It’ll be combat.’

William BottomleyI’d hoped to pin a wireless microphone on the White House’s chief usher, but the former Admiral who now holds that post wasn’t having it. Instead, he popped out of the blue rental, dropped a few unheard soundbites and waved his entourage down the path toward one mother of a Fraser Fir. I fell in around them, as did every other cameraman on the property. To a (wo)man, we spun and parried, tweaking our focus before running ahead and backpedaling ahead of the moving retinue. And dance steps, they’re frightfully unrehearsed, but the impromptu pirouettes of a shooter in the groove is a dazzling thing to behold. At least from where I sit, which incidentally is usually right in front of the best seat in the house. But I digress - where was I? Oh yeah, about to eat a competitor’s elbow were it not for my ninja-like skills. Equally lethal: WXII’s William Bottomley, who’s constipated poker face may very well be my shot of the day.

Fir Tree Press PitBut alas, I only get paid for the pictures that move. So I stashed my snapshot camera and focused on the annexation at hand. The Chief Usher conferred with his crew and cast his Naval gaze skyward. At 24 years old, the massive tree had the look and the pedigree. More importantly, it just would fit through the doors to the White House’s Blue Room, a quality which prompted the ex-Admiral to proclaim the Great American Christmas tree officially over. Upon hearing this news, the locals clapped, sunlight broke over the valley and white doves ascended into heaven. I meanwhile lined up my shots, pushed past a genuflecting tree groupie and body-checked one irritating producer chick into a nearby Pine. Hey, we all got a job to do, but if you’re gonna take up my frame with your clipboard and tape recorder, pick a prettier shirt or get thee behind me - you’re polluting my view! But again, there’s no need for me to shout, for I just wanted you to know that no matter how serene the greenery may appear on your set, procuring the news is rarely so placid. Now get outta my shot!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Ectoplasm Not Included

I was setting up my lights in the middle of a - ahem - haunted house today, when a light bulb suddenly blew. As it did, the paranormal investigator behind me dropped to a low crouch and looked at the ceiling, chuckling in awe at the poltergeist’s latest prank. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that light blows a bulb every other week. Instead, I smiled and dropped the matter of lights altogether. It was Monday morning after all; I just wasn’t up for illuminating the underworld. So I switched filters, repositioned my guest and peppered him with questions on benign spirits and deceptive specters. As the man launched into his polysyllabic response, I looked around at the room’s plush leather furniture and tried to decide whether I was truly standing in the middle of a haunted house or just a bed and breakfast with a heckuva marketing plan.

But then metaphysics gave way to basic mechanics. With a light kit feeling vexed and my tripod still wobbly from some weekend excursion, I was all alone there in the master suite of the Twin Lakes Lodge. Sure, the ghostbuster before me had some interesting things to say, but the hard evidence of a haunting he spoke of was mysteriously absent and I found myself wondering how I was going to tell this ghost story without a single bleeding wall to speak of. Unwilling to wait for a trembling lamp of swarm of locusts, I shouldered my axe and followed the innkeeper and the excitable scientist into one truly creepy basement. No dank chill passed through my body but my shoulder did ache as I slung my lens this way and that. Scanning the stone walls for any trace of ectoplasm, I sighed, realizing for not the first time that ‘I Hate Mondays’ is more than a reasonably good Boomtown Rats song.

But a funny thing happened on the way back from purgatory. The owner of the bed and breakfast mentioned how ironic it was that things were indeed going bump in the night, considering who used to live here. Back upstairs, she pointed to a small end table and a dusty volume took me back in time. ‘The Devil’s Tramping Ground’ by John Harden -- a book I and every other middle school kid growing up in North Carolina read at one time or another. I remembered it vividly from the fourth grade when a saint of a woman named Mrs. King encouraged my insatiable reading. Little did I know back then that a grown up me would one day stand in the bedroom of that very book’s author and scoff at the possibility of anything truly hinky coming to pass. For a moment I was ashamed for the cynic I’d become and I vowed to look at (the after)life with the same sense of wonder I possessed back in the fall of 1976.

But then I snapped out of it, shot a few exteriors and met Satellite Dan for lunch. Lunch ... that’s something the fourth grade me would have appreciated.

My Kingdom for a Giant Paddle

Lottery PosseLaugh all you want, Mr. Portier, but everyone knows a true champion goes nowhere without the proper entourage. Sure, they’re only part time now, but if I ever do strike it rich, I’m hiring agents number 12 and 7 to follow me around from photo op to farmers’ market to fire truck summit . I’ll also probably take to wearing a cape,regularly festoon my chest hair with shiny gold medallions and sport a twinkling cane to complete my nouveau riche look. For now however, I’ll simply continue to embarrass these N.C. Lottery staffers by insisting on a picture ... though judging from the brunette’s hisses, I shall never again address either of them as ’Ball Lady”. Sheeesh - who knew giant ping-pong balls were so freakin’ sensitive?

Mountaintop Solace

Atop Hanging Rock
Every October or so I get the itchin’ to go climb Hanging Rock. Which is exactly what the offspring and I did Saturday, forgoing our usual schedule of puttering about the house for a full-blown assault on our favorite rocky outcropping. I know: there are bigger hills to climb, but at just 38 miles away from my suburban driveway, this most famous of Sauratown monadnocks is mountain a plenty for me and mine. Thus we happily ambled up the Hanging Rock Tail, until the gentle ascent became a moderate slog. By the time we made it atop the quartzite, we were all ready for a rest. As we passed around the granola, tried to guess the zip code of the skyline shimmering in the horizon and kidded ourselves we’ll one day climb nearby Moore’s Knob, it occurred to me these were the times my own descendants might talk about when recalling their own storied childhoods Now if only the leaves would change...

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Of Outlaws, Artifacts and Anecdotes

James Gang DescendantTry as I might to control my fate, the daily assignments come fast, furious and inexplicably without reason. For every target-rich environment I stumble upon, two other such cornucopias get covered by cross-town competitors and in house colleagues alike. ’Tis the nature of the beast and the veteran news-chaser cannot dwell on the ones that got away. That’s why serendipity was in the air as I rolled into Eden last week to rendezvous with Bob Buckley and instead found Jesse James. Well, a descendant of his famous gang at least. Ralph Ganis, great-grand something of outlaw Mome Diggs, looked up from his artifacts when I entered the room while his wife kept sorting through boxes of weapons, clothing and accoutrements of the world’s most famous train robbing gang. It was all I could do not to swoon.

Why, exactly? For the past week I’ve been totally taken with
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Ron Hansen’s novelized account of the doomed outlaw’s undoing. I don’t normally go for novels, but the lyrical depiction of the ex-Confederate and his mutinous lackeys had held me thoroughly enthralled - and that was before I learned it was coming to a theater near me! None other than Brad Pitt stars as the gregarious Jesse; the film’s in limited release and I haven’t been so excited by a Mr. Angelina Jolie performance since dude’s turn as a clueless stoner in the much underrated True Romance. But I digress. This post is about history, happenstance and hirsute brutes staring back at yours truly through dusty picture frames. How cool is that?

Don’t bother answering, just know I was in a state of reader nirvana as I wandered through Ralph Gannis’ exhibit in the making. Having grown up listening to family lore about told uncle Mome, Ralph began researching and confirmed his ancestor did in fact ride with Jesse James. This led to a life of collecting James gang material - from old movie posters to an actual holster once worn by the notorious gang leader. When Hollywood began kicking the tires of this gunslinging legend, they wisely hired Ganis as an artifacts consultant to their film. I didn’t ply him for on-set details though. Instead I quizzed him about myths and misconceptions as I looked into the long-dead faces of men whose names had merely been characters on a page. The post-mortem fun didn't even stop when Buckley finally showed up and trotted out his oft-told tale of going to college with one Brad Pitt.

For once, it almost seemed relevant. Almost.

Lacking the Crackle

When does a school bus wreck turn into a meet and greet? When the ambulance driver puts it in park. That was the (social) scene Friday morning, when scribes and lenslingers turned a patch of Highway 68 into a roadside symposium on spot news readiness. Lemme ‘splain. Sixteen minutes before putting boots on the ground, I was sifting through coffee filters in a state of bedhead undress. Answering a ringing phone quickly, I almost handed it my bride when the sound of distant scanner traffic seeped out of the handset, telling me my cup a Joe would have to wait.

It’s tough juggling hot java when you’re putting your news unit through its tightest maneuvers. No barrel rolls though. I can’t say I coasted on my to Oak Ridge, but I didn’t break the sound barriers I would have as a younger man. Instead I proceeded deliberately down old 150, eyeballing passing road signs like a fighter pilot scans mountain ranges. Two Guys named Chris cackled in the background as I threw the cockpit into a tight right. Up Harrell Road a bit another sharp bend loomed near and I took it, the morning producer’s words in my head, “Semi hit a school bus up on 68. Students transported.”

The bus was upright when I arrived, a classic ‘short bus’ parked alongside the ribbon of blacktop. It appeared unscratched. Ahead, an 18 wheeler idled in the center lane as a gangly teenager in an oversized fireman’s coat waved traffic past a spitting flare. I pulled over on the shoulder, fumbling for my cell phone and punched the speed-dial. As it rang, I watched a state trooper walk over and look at the semi’s tires. His body language - and that of the firefighters gossiping nearby - told me next to nothing was up long before I had it confirmed. The parent in me was greatly relieved. The newsgatherer was slightly annoyed.

When the newsroom scanners start spitting words like ‘school bus wreck’ and ‘students transported’, morning show producers lunge for the telephone. Game on. While someone like myself hurtles toward given coordinates, they overtake the earpiece of the on-set anchor, who soon start spouting phrases like ’a crew is on the way’. When I arrive and what I see determines if said event is a flashing item on the traffic graphic or continuing team coverage of ‘every parent’s worst nightmare. I might very well call in the kibosh, but until I do the suits will throw talent and technology at the fateful locale. In Friday’s case, it was but a bump: a braking semi couldn’t quite stop and tapped the back end of a shortened school bus. The kids on board were ‘special needs’ and taken to the hospital just to be safe. But the scanner omits those kid of details.

All of which explains the fleet of logo’d mobiles breaking over the horizon. Mine wasn’t the only newsroom assuming the worst; live trucks from two other stations pulled up before I’d even got my tripod fully extended. The drivers and I exchanged exasperated looks as the unscathed bus and the idling ambulance signaled the scene’s lack of severity. Furrowed brows loosened and eyes rolled as the journeyman responders realized their recent RPM’s were all for naught. Small talk broke out; men with beat-up tripods and women with perfect teeth chatted there on the grass - all urgency set aside as a perfectly round tow truck driver began rattling his chains. The sputtering parade of morning commuters slowed to a crawl as they passed…

What are they looking at?