Friday, November 23, 2007

Clash of the Titans

Rad meets LenslingerSure, we're all smiles now, but just minutes before this photo was snapped, Richard Adkins and I were locked in mortal camera combat. I considered it a honor. But then again, I've clocked this formidable photog for years; watched his stuff on WRAL, read his thoughts on, coveted his hi-def lens from afar. I'd just never met him. That changed this morning of course, when - shortly after arriving on the scene of a sleepy feature, I felt a powerful disturbance in The Force. Looking up, I saw why: a shaggy figure slingin' tricked-out gear and giving no quarter. Instinctively, my frigid knuckles curled into a fist as I took in the markings of a fellow apex predator. 'Shit', I thought. "Howdy!" I hollered.

Girdling the TreeHe didn't answer. Dude was in battle-mode. Barrelling past me, the man known as 'Rad' headed straight for the clutch of Mexicans who were slipping a girdle of sorts over a 20 foot Fraser Fir. Not about to let some out-of-towner eat my lunch, I fell in behind him as I fished my wireless microphone out of a pocket. Game. ON. The next ninety minutes are still a blur. Like hyped-up Jedis we spun, parried and backflipped all over that Christmas tree farm. The future of the universe wasn't exactly at stake, but you'd have thought some kind of galactic title was up for grabs by the way we battled for the better shot. By the time the behemoth tree fell, I was bloodied, bruised and ready to grapple to the death if that's what it took to best this legendary lenser.

Thankfully, it didn't come to that. In fact, when every conceivable shot was committed to disc, Adkins and I chatted for a bit - before slowly backing away from each other. Nice guy, that Rad. Be a real shame to see him forget to white balance, double-punch or get sucked into a wormhole. You know, metaphorically speaking...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Why They Hate Us

In my self-appointed role as local TV News pundit, I spend alot of time defending the actions of us wacky broadcasters. It can be tough; with out brash logos and slow-motion close-ups, we give our enemies lots of ammunition. But what little success I have in convincing others we're not all smarmy charlatans is quickly erased when stations pull stunts like this.

For those of you lacking broadband, I'll do my best to explain: In a giggly morning remote, on-air staffer Chris Burrous lives ups his segment of "Good Day Sacramento" by approaching a homeless camp with bags of fast food, a case of Bud Light and the mistaken impression that he's Stephen Colbert. What follows is a painful stretch of videotape, in which KMAX-31-CW sets back our cause at least twenty years. If it sounds crass, you gotta see it. I've watched it a dozen times so far, hoping repeated viewings would present something that would excuse the buffoonery. It hasn't happened.

Full Disclosure: I too have done stupid things in front of videocameras. When it comes to asinine behavior we ALL fall short of the Glory. But I'll be damned if I've ever scoffed at the downtrodden with free beer and a self-congratulatory attitude. What exactly convinced Burrous and his bosses that a cheeky live shot involving sleepy homeless people and a few brew-skees was a good idea remains a mystery, but if the ratings were good, look for this fool to be dishing out one-liners and dimebags outside a methadone clinic near you very soon. (And to think I once considered this to be the lowest point of our existence. At this rate of descent, I may very well black out before our industry hits rock-bottom.)

Ya know - it's not even the alcohol. Truthbetold, I could give a shit if anybody knocks back a few beers for breakfast. What sickens me is the very premise: a condescending live shot in which our grinning hero mixes it up with the Great Unwashed. No, my stomach flipped even before Burrous hoisted the Bud Light into view. When he began waltzing toward the campfire with suds in tow however, my jaw dropped. Had I the good sense to lunge for the remote (or mousepad) I would have done so. Instead, I sat and watched a few far-flung colleagues bring dishonor to us all. Stay Classy, Sacramento!

Perhaps I'm mistaken. Perhaps there's some greater context that I'm missing; a West Coast vibe that makes it perfectly cool to bag on the humbled. Maybe I got it all wrong. Maybe I'll walk into work tomorrow morning to find humble Unit Four has been replaced by a shiny Dodge Viper. Maybe. More likely I'll never grasp what that live shot was trying to accomplish. Here's one thing I do know, however: You can work in local TV News or you can go audition for The Daily Show. Attempting both further cheapens what we do, blurs already fuzzy lines and makes your un-funny ass look like just another untalented Letterman wannabe. See, the folks in those tents are real people with real lives. They're not just warm props for your lame attempt at vaudeville. Figure that out and we stand a chance at preserving the Fourth Estate. Ignore it and you won't have to worry about what the audience thinks. They'll all be heading for the exit as fast as they can, while you bomb at your local Funny Bone's amateur night. Then who will need a beer?

Swing and a Miss

Dwight ShawBy all logic, this story should be A LOT better. But despite repetitive scenarios, friendly civilians and a dynamic palette, my mojo was nowhere on scene. So I slogged my way through what could have been a masterpiece, cracking my hairy knuckles as I tried to muster some semblance of Lenslinger's Zen. It was not to be. Thus, I dug deeper, clawing past my diminished abilities until I lay hands on that I know by rote. 'This ain't rocket surgery', I mumbled under my breath, as I strained (in vain) to keep the pigskin center-screen. I failed. The shoulder-loaded footage I left with was not that of a skilled photojournamalist, but that of a high school kid hopped up on half-flat cola and orange Tic-Tacs. Worse yet, my editing acumen ebbed early, my writing skills tripped the kill-switch and I visibly winced as I sent the ninety seconds of filleted electrons hurtling toward the super-secret, hyper-redundant news server down the hall. Perhaps the only thing that saved me from being banished to the world of midnight wrecker chess were a few decent soundbites, semi-correct white-balancing and the charity of a region still high on pumpkin pie. Still, it did beat running the Photog Holiday Decathlon. Again.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Turkey in the Trenches

RoadwatchIt’s the day before Thanksgiving and I’m preparing to go back to work. You heard me, I took my turkey time early this year. That’s what happens you ignore the appropriate paperwork, forget the fact that you’ve forgotten and assume your seniority will make up for your slack. Not. So. Still, I did wrangle Tuesday and Wednesday off in exchange; a forty-eight hour period in which I stared at the falling leaves from the breakfast nook and got in my wife’s way as she planned a culinary summit of reality show proportions. Yep, I may (think I) cut a dashing figure out there on calamity’s edge but I’m told I can be a real pain in the ass in the kitchen. Thus I’ll rise early tomorrow, crawl in the pick-up and drive to El Ocho with little to no tryptophan on board. Shortly thereafter, I’ll no doubt spin the Wheel of Suck.

The Wheel of Suck, a term I just made up for the dry-erase board in the news department’s conference room. Each morning you’ll find quickly scribbled story descriptions, reporter-photog pairings and the occasional bullet-ridden happy face. In that graffiti you’ll find the schematics for a newscast that will seep into the region’s every other crack and crevice eight hours later. Like the tricked-out updates they lead to, the dry-erase board (from hell) is a haphazard tapestry of the tragic and absurd. But ever is it a more predictable blueprint than on Thanksgiving Day - when no matter what else may happen - some things are gonna git on air. Feel free to play along at home…

Framing Deprivation

Welcome to your neighborhood homeless shelter, where the guy with the raging crack habit is more welcome than your snooping news crew. Quite justly, I might add. You know, every time I write about the homeless I come off as more callous than I actually am. Truth is, I empathize with the denizens - especially those with kidsin tow. The last thing I want to do is get in the grill of anyone lining up for a free meal on the one day everyone should be eating at home. But that’s exactly what I’ve been dispatched to do - for no post-feast show is complete without a token visit to the downtrodden. It’s been a time-honored slug on Turkey Day rundowns since those guys with the buzzcuts fired up the first test pattern. Thus, I or a lenser to be named later will try not to incite a riot we point our cameras at anonymous plates and not the faces happy to have them.

Concourse Zombies

Of course there’s another bedrock backdrop featured every fourth Thursday in November. I give you the bustling airport. Okay, by the time we go live at five, the place may be very well be deserted, but since when has that stopped toothy interlopers from pretending something fascinating is going on just off-screen? I’ll never tell. Rather I’ll bite my tongue and swallow my bile as I gather the requisite airport shots: the arrival/departure board racked in and out of focus, the great unwashed fumbling for their boarding passes, the part-time bus driver in the TSA vest groping that grandmother…it’s all there. Just. Like. Last. Year. But hey, who gives a final approach? If highly compressed shots of constipated travelers is what it takes to get me home, hide the Ex-Lax, I got a pumpkin pie at the house with my name on it drizzled in Kool-Whip.

Interstate Exile

A far lonelier outpost is reserved for the heartiest of souls. The grassy knoll off an interstate exit ramp is no place for the delicate. It’s a loud, dangerous unforgiving place; littered with shattered glass, 18 wheeler tire husks and the ever-present possum carcass. Here in the Piedmont we perch high atop cloverleafs and render architectural studies of streaming traffic. There’s no feeling like that of a bridge flexing under your feet as it as a river of iron and steel flows underneath, or the slightly perverse practice of approaching total strangers at rest stops for their thoughts on speed-traps. The best you can hope for is to edit back at the shop, otherwise you’ll spend the afternoon picking bugs out of your teeth as the reporter spills his Slushee on your light-kit. By the time you get home you’ll be so covered in road dust the wife will withhold all cranberry sauce until you hose down out back.

And we haven’t even talked about The Shopping Mall.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Bloviating Owens

I’m fairly positive Howard Owens means well. A newspaper guru and early arbiter of on-line video, he’s made quite a name for himself espousing his medium’s embrace of moving pictures. That’s cool by me; there’s plenty of room for newcomers and the fresh take they bring to visual newsgathering. Trouble is, Owens likes to disparage those of us on the TV side (for what on Earth could we know about telling stories with pictures and sound?). That’s certainly his right, and God knows television news is an easy target - but if Owens wants his intended wisdom to resonate outside his group of converts, he needs to brush up on modern broadcast tactics. Take his recent posturing on why newspapers can beat television stations in online video.

Owens: In large markets, newspapers can equip more reporters with video-capable cameras, and you don’t need expensive cameras to produce good online video; in small markets, TV isn’t going to cover many local stories.

You don’t need expensive cameras to produce good online video, but you do need a certain skill set. Granted, it ain’t rocket surgery - but handing out camcorders to people with only a cursory grasp of the fundamentals will result mostly in noise. Not all will suck, but my money’s on those who already know which end of the lens to point toward the action.

Owens: TV can’t cover a story without sending out a “crew,” which means they cover only stories that they’ve pre-screened as being video worthy, worthy of the time to send a crew out to a location, which means they miss a lot of good stuff that “print” reporters will naturally stumble across — quantity means more choices for online video watchers, which is a distinct and huge advantage.

Monday through Friday, I strike out all by my lonesome to produce news stories that will air later that very day. Most times they do, but if things don’t work it in the field I call my bosses and quickly move on to more fruitful subject matter. I’m not all that unique either. Every sizable market has a couple of journeyman photogs who operate outside the traditional confines. Generally newspapers do have larger staffs, but with more print outlets slashing staffs than ever before - that advantage could quickly erode.

Owens: For newspaper reporters, there is no pre-conceived idea of perfect TV video, so any experiment goes…

If I do have a pre-conceived idea of perfect TV video, its because my resume tape fairly bristles with the stuff. With new deadlines every day, experimentation isn’t always possible, but given the time I’m fairly certain I can best the efforts of that IT schlub who always thought he’d like to direct music videos. TV stations would be smart to follow the newspaper industry’s tactic of unshackling their best photogs from the daily grind while re-thinking expectations.

Owens: Newspaper reporter shooters can give sources a chance to speak for themselves, making the video more personal and more meaningful than what TV will do with the same material.

Why newspaper folk would produce more meaningful stories than those of us with more experience is a great source of mystery. Granted, a fresh perspective can bring new energy to well worn terrain, but new doesn’t necessarily mean good. At my shop, we regularly produce pieces four to six minutes longer than your average news story. This doesn’t always result in better stories, but they certainly are more substantive than the very worst examples Owens likes to trot out.

I don’t know if Owens watches local TV news, but I’d invite him to peruse the websites of medium market stations, who don’t suffer from the rank amateurism of beginner markets or the often frenzied sloppiness of the top TV towns. If he would, perhaps he’d see that - like newspaper video - not all television news is created equal. At my station, we take our craft (but not ourselves) very seriously. While our hearts may not be as pure as all those fine newspaper folk unpacking their new camcorders, I’d put my team of photog-producers up against anyone. Features, investigative, consumer, profile, or late-breaking crime and grime, we do it all - everyday. Most of our work goes on-line as well, though since it also airs during a broadcast, most newspaper folk dismiss it as warmed-over dreck. Most TV photogs however will judge whatever you put in front of them on its merits - not some silly prejudice regarding its origins. We just wish the omniscient print pundits would return the favor.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Three Years In...

Apocalypse StewIt occurs to me I’ve let the third anniversary of this humble site pass without any pageantry whatsoever. How times have changed. Back in ‘05, I celebrated my first twelve month mark with a lengthy post detailing my every whim, hope and aspiration regarding Viewfinder BLUES. At the time it felt cathartic, but now when I read it - I wince a little. Worse yet, it was the first of my grand proclamations that preceded a sharp drop-off in new ideas, inspiration and overall storytelling mojo. You’d think I’d pick up on that kind of thing early, but in truth it took a half dozen more chest-thumping entries to convince me of that old maxim:

“Announcing your plans is a good way to make God laugh”

If that’s true, there’s a certain deity blowing ocean water through his nose, for every time I get on here and riff on what I might next write, I wake up the next morning unable to spell my name correctly (Stewart? Stuart? Styoo-wert?). Why I’m afflicted with this braggart’s remorse, I don’t know. All I do know is that the quickest way to silence that interior voice is to boast on all that he can do. (By the way, if that’s referring to oneself in the third person, Mr. Pittman would like to sincerely apologize). Therefore, I’ll refrain from any swaggering predictions and focus only on the past:

Credit or blame one Randy Page for my writing compulsion, for it was my lifelong friend that used to rib me about my job with inane queries worthy of an ‘Anchorman‘ prequel. In my attempts to answer him in equally silly manner, I discovered I had a lot to say. Stay Classy, Randy!

With tonight’s edition, I will have posted 1,031 entries - two dozen of which are actually worth re-reading. Typically, I don’t get around to logging in until after nine PM or so - at which point I either pound out a screed effortlessly, while away the hours drinking and thinking - or come up with something so banal and wrong that I hit ‘Delete’ halfway through. Now you know.

Blogging has not become easier over time. It’s gotten harder - if only because I feel I’ve already explored so much of my source material. Perhaps I should go for that mid-life crisis and switch careers midstream. How else will I become King of the Small Engine Repair Bloggers?

A lousy day at work makes for a pretty kick-ass blog entry. Sure, I prefer cranking out soft news, but nothing engorges my writing utensil like a senseless crime scene, city council stalemate, or just another slog up the widow’s porch. Now I know how Billy Joel turned a shitty gig into a trademark tune, instead of attempting to shiv Davy, who’s still in the Navy and probably will be for life…

When not engaging in self-induced Schadenfreude, I find my blog posts fall under a handful of categories: photo-safaris, attempted memoir, the plugging of others and outright shameless filler. Though I try not to, they often run in spurts - with one post inspiring a similar one - until something close to a theme is achieved. Of course when I’m really lost, I just log on and blather. Like now, for example….

“Viewfinder Blues” is a term I came up with y-e-a-r-s ago while trying to devise a title for a book I knew I would someday write. “Schmuck Alert” never sounded as good as “Douche Bag on the Loose”, but since my kids regularly walk by this computer, I didn’t wanna go there. “Lenslinger” I pretty much made up on the spot, in an effort to top “Lensmith” - which I felt was already taken. Who knew I’d eventually want it on my tombstone?

Blogging has cost me a few relationships. Simply put, it’s hard to shrug off the way you really feel when you slather your true opinion on-line every night. This kind of transparency has taught me who my friends are and aren’t. Of course, I’ve tempered all this by profiling those I care about and totally omitting from these pages those I truly don’t. Were office politics so easy…

Writing well is the best revenge. Most every afternoon I plop down in my cubicle and pound out a script for someone with a better hair-do to read into a microphone. Greatly compressed and rife with clichés, these sentences are designed to be heard - not read. It’s a noble enough craft I guess, but one that provides about as much joy as emptying the dishwasher. On the other hand, my late night compositions are written solely for my amusement and thus rarely fail to satisfy. Also, I get a kick out of some of my colleague’s reactions - who always seem surprised I can conjugate verbs without dialing a 1-800 number.

There you have it, eight or so randomly compiled, self-serving bon mots. I’d wrap it all up with some sweeping statement concerning my literary aspirations and eternal gratitude, but we’ve both been around long enough to fall for that crap, eh? Instead, let me put an end to this navel gazing by once again saying thanks and reminding all who visit here regularly to please keep doing so - for my site meter (and ego) couldn’t bear the thought of you losing interest. Not until I have, anyway...