Thursday, January 31, 2008

Lucky or Tough

Al'lavee Miller is either lucky or tough. Either way, we're glad to hear the KSHB-TV news photog is now resting at home, a mere forty-eight hours after bouncing off the windshield of a moving car. He and his reporter were covering a gas line break in Olathe, Kansas when a car struck him from behind. Judging from the video, Al never saw it coming. Reporter Russ Ptacek did. He was a hundred feet away in the KSHB live truck when the car blindsided his partner and in a well-produced (if not overly breathless) account, describes watching his photog go airborne. Despite that short flight, Al Miller didn't break a single bone. He did break the windshield, dent the hood and lose consciousness for a short time. Emergency room physicians treated him briefly before releasing the undoubtedly sore shooter to the care of his family. Here's hoping he's more comfortable there than on some semi-attended gurney in the ER.

In romanticizing TV news photography (as I often do), one can go on and on about the perils of inner-city crime scenes or the outer bands of an approaching hurricane. But the biggest danger to those of us in the field is far more pedestrian. With the grinding pace of the modern news cycle and its endless demand for live remotes, the average photog clings to breakdown lanes and crumbling road shoulders with disturbing casualness. While there's no evidence that Al Miller was being careless, I know that I for one have not always paid attention when I should have. Then again, it's difficult to maintain situational awareness when tunnel vision is your stock in trade. Don't know what I mean? Press your right eye up to a fancycam's viewfinder, twist something interesting into focus and, oh yeah, watch your back!

It ain't easy, but it's imperative we news crews practice safety and accost those who don't. Otherwise, who else will? As proven time and time and time again, we cannot trust the desk to look out for our well-being. Not when everyone in the newsroom is worried the competition wil get the sexier shot of that five car pile-up. I'm not laying blame back at the shop, but any TV news photog who places his or her safety in the hands of management hasn't been doing this very long and risks not doing it for as long as they may want. Just this week, a WNEP crew went live(!) beside an outside curve in Scranton, PA. Their message: Roads are icy, be careful! The resulting remote was so dangerous looking, viewers berated the crew on the station website. Hey, here's a clue: If the viewers are worried about your safety, you're doing something stupid. So let's review. There is NO TV news story worth your life. The greatet peril comes cloaked in inattention and that putz with the gel in the hair back at the station ain't gonna save yer ass.

That's YOUR job.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Slinger Incognito

The NEW Unit 4Nearly a month after driving my old Ford Explorer to the edge and back, I’m still getting used to the new Unit Four. Sure it’s nice: the All-Wheel Dive, the sunroof, even the nifty radio controls on the steering wheel have made life on the street just a little more refined. Problem is, it doesn't f-e-e-l like a news car. Why should it? There's no police scanner noise crackling from the dashboard, it doesn't smell of old onion rings yet and so far not a single logo desecrates the door. Only a tiny number 4 in the corner of the windshield gives it any air of officialdom. Catch a glimpse of me in traffic and you'd never believe I was an Action News Man, though you might wonder what kind of Mens Cosmetics I sold. No doubt about it, my new hoopty is a tad emasculating.

See, ever since I've been chasing news, I've done so from behind the wheel of a highly-marked news unit. The look has changed over the years, of course, but the sticker scheme always involved some garishly rendered numeral and a false promise or two. Early on, I thought all those tacky slogans on the door gave me the right to drive like a terrorist - a policy I followed until I scored just about every kind of speeding ticket there was. Since then I've slowed my roll considerably, but I never realized how driving a glowing logomobile affected my approach until I went completely unmarked. For instance, I grew used to the stare of strangers at stoplights. I knew how to wheel my billboard into a small town gas station and empty it of all its inhabitants - without even trying. Yeah, I used to come screaming in to a ribbon-cutting parking lot like a runaway ambulance; now I mosey up to crime scenes with all the authority of a lost Soccer Mom.

I know what you photogs are saying: "Dude, quit yer bitchin! I'd give my buddy's best battery for an unmarked car!" I used to say the exact same thing. Still, my transition to stealth mode was rougher than I suspected. Maybe it's machismo, perhaps its the perk of parking where you want, but really now, it's just a matter of access versus anonymity, right? Right? Yeah, I'm not so sure, either. All I know is that two weeks into the clandestine life, I found myself eyeing packs of multi-colored Sharpies with no small amount of lust. But before I could check into rehab for ACW (Acute Logo Withdrawal), my 13 year old daughter saw my new ride for the first time and, being 13, passed immediate judgement: "Cool," she said "now you're undercover..." Suddenly a veil was lifted and I saw for the first time the logic of my snow white chariot. Undercover, eh? Yeah, I can dig that; it goes nicely with my aversion to logowear. Besides, now that I can slip in like a ninja instead of rolling up like some circus clown, I may just commit better journamalism -- and what, I ask you, is more important than that?

Well, being able to pick your nose at a stoplight without triggering any angry phone calls ranks right up there too...

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Canadian Kicks It

Tim Bateson, Soccer HooliganWorking at El Ocho just became a little less fun, now that Tim Bateson has officially left the building. It was seven years ago (or so) that the wily Canadian first snuck past security and somehow landed an overnight gig in the feed room. There he learned to edit videotape - an ancient art that brought him into contact with many a surly photog; vested ruffians who impressed upon him the wisdom of the street, before weaseling out of doing their late show re-cuts. Inexplicably, this prolonged exposure only made Tim want to join their ranks and before anyone could think better of it, he scored himself his very own fancycam.

Your Author's Favorite CanadianFrom that point on, The Canadian (as he came to be known) soaked up all things photog. He even came equipped with his own bullshit detector - a handy enough device when you’re learning the trade from a bunch of salty blowhards like the crew who keeps El Ocho out of the black. Maybe that's why this UNC-G Grad completed his degree in cameramanthropology so quickly. I first realized how far he'd come several years ago, when I found myself molesting a most unconsenting live truck. Producers were counting backwards in my ear, mourners were crying just off screen and large splotches of rain were darkening my shirt. Worst of all, I couldn't get the cursed audio set-up to work as advertised. The truck was parked at the top of a hill and I was seconds away from dropping the damn thing into nuetral and watching it roll away. That's when Bateson rolled up. With barely a word he walked up to the side of the truck, switched a few cables until the problem was fixed, then left without ever giving me the grief I so richly deserved. The student had become the teacher...

Bateson, MyersBut it wasn't Tim's skills that endeared him to the El Ocho staff. It was...Tim. Unlike most people with tripods in their background, the dude's intensely likeable. Witty and laid-back, he can brighten a room without ever breaking out his light kit. This made him invaluable in the trenches, where deadlines and edit bays can spark delusion, mutiny and repeated trips to the Chinese buffet. Sadly though, our little Canadian is all growed up. A new groom and an expectant father, Tim looked around at what TV news had to offer and decided he could do better. Smart. Man. Drawing on the feelings he got while shooting a controlled burn, he surprised alot of us cynical bastards by admitting he wanted to become ... a fireman. Thus, he's left us, hanging up his camera and tripod for turn-out gear and a more noble profession. While his departure has saddened many who share my logo, we're all very proud of Tim and look forward to harrassing him at structure fires in the future. His abilities and attitude will serve him just as well there as it did here.

Besides, as a photog, he already knows a lot about getting hosed...

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Dream of Consciousness

Ya ever have that dream where you're perched on the edge of a forest fire and can't move. You know, where you look down to find the news van you're standing on is sitting on four flat tires. Then you realize you're all alone, parked atop some rusted-out live truck on a lonesome road as a tower of smoke chokes out half the horizon. Most times I try to flee, but wouldn't you know it that damn camera is locked to the 'pod! No matter how I wrestle with the knob to loosen it it either refuses to budgee or breaks off in my hand. Either way it doesn't matter 'cause just then a huge fireball starts rolling down the mountain above me and on instinct I point the camera at it. That's when everything goes all slo-mo and my eyeballs burst into flames. That or I wake up, depending on many take-out enchiladas I ate. URP!

Then there's the Soundtrack Episode. I don't how exactly it seeped into my lid, but every once in a while I get that crazy language dream that always leaves me scratching my pillow's forehead. Often, I'll just pop into consciousness mid-live shot; my right eye buried in some strange viewfinder. Then I notice little warning lights on the tiny screen are flashing weird symbols. They're vaguely familiar yet totally unreadable, and as I squint repeatedly at them I realize the words bleeding through my earpiece are indecipherable as well, just a jumble of split-lip syllables and uncommon consonants. Still, the guy with the microphones yammers on happily and I give him a hearty thumbs up, even if he does sound like Charlie Brown's teacher after a few Whip-Its. From there it usually just peters out, but once I woke up on the phone, rattling off something in pig-latin to an overseas operator. It-Shay!

Or maybe you're an age-shifter. That happens to alot of people. Mostly, folks dream they're back in high school at their current age, walking upstream through soem crowded hallway with outdated clothes and a mid-thirties perspective. Not me. I dream I'm eight years old again and trying to shoot a press conference. I do pretty well until the question and answer period, when all the TV News ladies bum-rush the podium and I'm left a screen full of anchor-butt. You ever seen anchor-butt? Not something you wanna twitch yer eyelids at all night. The only worse dream is when I wake up eighty with a whole list of dog and pony shows to shoot. Come to think of it, I have that nightmare all the time: during the morning meeting, back in the edit bay, over at the courthouse, on the side of the highway, at that last groundbreaking, in the Dollar Menu drive-thru...

Most everywhere.