Saturday, March 22, 2008

Cue the Delusion

Live Truck Time Stall
Live Trucks: they go anywhere, smell like bus stations and - when parked in remote locations - can make the closest clock face melt. Just ask anyone who's suffered that interminable wait between live remotes, vast forty five minutes stretches in which time draws out like a blade. Yes indeedy, for your average dashing news crew, the hardest assignment can just be sitting still.

Spool of DoomTake Friday. After a morning of phone calls yielded absolutely zilch, Chad Tucker and I were forced to drown our sorrows at a Chinese buffet. I'm not saying we ate alot, but one more helping of Sesame Chicken and we'd have created an international incident. As it was, we rolled out of the Wok of Shame fat dumb and sleepy - which is a heckuva way to feel when you've yet to pull the trigger. Not knowing how we were going to fill the two minutes of the six o clock news we were responsible for, my reporter and I filled the pungent cockpit of Live Five with tall tales from broadcasts past. Chad and I both got graduated from Roy Park U and we love swapping lore from our alma mater. I was just about to tell him about the time that weatherman shot himself in the foot when both our cell phones erupted. Anecdotes stowed, we hit the interstate...

Cable DropNinety minutes, thirty miles and fifteen funny looks later, we hunched over our quarry a full county away. Seems a certain skeevy diddler has been harrassing college girls at Elon University, an encounter only slightly less creepy than a conversation with that camera crew in the bushes. Still, Chad and I braved the prickly hedgerows and icy stares long enough to score enough tape of Girls Not Going Wild to flesh out our less than sexy report. Done with the co-eds, we retreated to an empty police department parking where we paced the various spaces like a couple of lifers in the yard. Actually there was much to do and in between scenes from Cool Hand Luke, Chad and I made the news. First though, I wedged myself behind the wheel and sacked out while my partner picked his soundbites. It wasn't comfy, but having learned to spot-nap in Caribbean bound warships, it takes more than a wiper knob to the gut to keep me awake...

 Live Shot Dead TimeWhen I came to, Chad was reading his script into a cell phone. Once it was approved he repeated the words into a wireless microphone while I watched the audio needles dance and the second hand on my wristwatch stand still. 'Damn', I thoght, "I'd rather race one of these stagecoaches up and down Grandfather Mountain in the dark (again!) than watch it sit it broad daylight. Even with cables to pull and video clips to drag and drop, I couldn't find enough chores to keep me busy as the generator wheezed. At one point, Chad came up with a way to achieve peace in the Middle East, but then forgot it when a once ubiquitous ditty came on the radio. You ever seen a General Assignment reporter 'Wang Chung Tonight'? I have, but I can't say who - not as long as I'm susceptible to getting stuck with stranded talent and half a roadmap. Now if you'll excuse me, there's a half-eaten Moon-Pie in the glove compartment and until that buzzard with the Channel 12 tattoo stops circling overhead, I'd feel better if I held onto it...

Friday, March 21, 2008

If You Can't Beat 'Em...

...become a contributing writer to their website. That's what I'm doing over at News Videographer - the on-line watering hole for newspaper multimedia producers. For some time now I've surfed the site, learning much about the on-line approach and taking on those who dismiss me as a TV News Neanderthal. A caveman I ain't. But if this discussion is going to evolve, perhaps I should lay down my club. When site founder Angela Grant offered me a spot on her growing roster, I saw it as an opportunity to seek appeasement. Thus, I'm stoked over the impending tractate - if only because the many fine print folk who read this rising site don't expect a TV cameraman to use a word like 'tractate'. Anyhoo, here's an excerpt of my inaugural post - the beginning of what I hope is a beautiful relationship...
I get it. TV News is SO gauche; a crass bastardization of the Edward R. Murrow dream slathered in glowing logos and happy patter. Guilty. As. Charged. But look beyond the triple-lit sets, plastic-wrapped talent and endless promos to the visceral images captured daily by street-level TV shooter. There you’ll find the fundamentals of visual storytelling, whether you’re looking to fill up your plasma fattie or simply debut it in on YouTube.

So what does a TV News Photog know about Multimedia? You be the judge. I've spent nearly two decades committing trivia to video on an often hourly basis. While I'm not above ferrying around overdressed reporters in equally garish live trucks, I most often work alone. Shooting the story, writing the script, editing the finished piece; I do it every day - often under miserable conditions. Sometimes it's meatball surgery. Other times it's Penny Opera. Either way, it's always on time. The stories I produce rarely lead their newscasts, but they're often the one story viewers remember at the end. What can I say? I know how to work a dog in a funny hat.

I dip my considerable lens to Angela Grant for allowing me to contribute to News Videographer and I promise to keep my ire in check. I also realize you don’t want to be like TV. That’s cool; not once will I suggest you sprinkle your piece with some overstuffed hair-do sporting a day-glow microphone. Just know that are thousands of TV news photogs like myself who are itching to plunder the shifting paradigm. Newspapers got a head start, but as the vestiges of Vaudeville finally leave my medium, it’s gonna be on like Donkey Kong.
Too warm and fuzzy?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


(A sporadic series in which I plumb the conundrums of TV News...)

Varner hears voicesEver watch a reporter in the field and wonder if they're LIVE? Trust me, if there's no glowing 'bug' in the corner saying so, they ain't. See, newscasts producers consider the live shot as a badge of courage. They'd no more refrain from proclaiming the immediacy of their actions than let that crusty burnout down the hall do the weather (I've asked). Still, their is one scenario in which the show-stackers will drop the L-Word and hope like hell you won't notice. It is the 'Look Live' - a time honored tradition and quite possibly my industry's worst kept secret. But before you lunge for the cell phone and call your lawyer, lemme 'splain...

Few crews set out to fake a live shot. Hey, you try drive a rolling billboard across the county, throw up the mast and drag out every gizmo you got. You'll wanna go through with the damn thing even if it means YOU gotta take a hostage. But stand-offs notwithstanding, it isn't always possible. Dirty weather, dead live trucks, forgotten water towersblocking you signal - any number of real world conditions can can cause the loftiest producer plans to come crashing down. What's dressed-up reporter to do? Simple, just get int front of the camera, wait for you photog to roll tape, then nod knowingly like Chet McDimplechin is asking you about that smoke plume in the distance, then start talkin'. When you're out of info, give it a generic 'Back To You' and freeze that furrowed brow until you shooter hits stop. Race that puppy back to the shop and hide under your desk while your seemingly Live visage bounces around the ether. Don't worry though, the director will drop the LIVE bug, no one will know the difference and you'll soon be able to troll the local food court with your your hair-do held high.

There is a secondary aspect to all this play-acting and I find it fascinating. It doesn't matter if your on-air partner truly is that 'bubbleheaded bleach blonde who can tell you 'bout the plane crash with a gleam in her eye' - tell her to do a Look Live and she'll surely fumble her lines. It's almost as if the knowledge that you can mess up and start over requires you to do so. Hey I got pals you could slip a Roofie to and they could still host a telethon. But make 'em pretend to be live and they'll muck it up so bad you'll wish you'd brought a lawn chair. So let's review, shall we? 'Look Lives' are piss-poor television and will be driven from existence as soon as laptops replace live trucks and the idea of some pretty schlub playing host to the news will seem as odd as - well, acting like you're live when you're not. So, if you're playing at home watch for stammering speech patterns, nervous reporters and odd pauses between anchor tosses. Spot all three and you'll know there's skullduggery afoot. As for whether the Look Live truly is deceitful, well - that depends on what the meaning of "IS" is ... right, Bill?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Return of BamBam

Bam Bam Wants You!
OVERDUE DISCLOSURE: I ain't the only member of my extended family who toils in television. Benjamin Canady, my Mother's brother's son, has been punching newscasts for almost as long as I've been filling them with feel-good kickers. A pop culture disciple and self-admitted 'flock rocker', Ben - known to his many peeps as 'BamBam' - is a far nicer guy than I. While I like to think I had nothing to do with his decision to pursue broadcasting, we of the Canady clan have been proud of Ben for a very long time. A couple years back, he left the life of Technical Director to be TV guru for his beloved MegaChurch. Well, he's b-a-c-k. Now the Senior Director for NBC17 in Raleigh, Uncle Randy's boy calls the shots in Capitol City. Truthbetold, I rarely see him - but I never pass an NBC17 crew without asking about my younger cousin - if only so I can drop the name 'BamBam'. Without fail, my inquiries are met with smiles as they emphatically confirm he's a righteous dude. That I knew - but it's always good to hear it from unconfirmed sources. Now if I could only get him to STOP talking shop at family reunions...

Glass from the Past

Daniel Anderson's TK-76I rolled into Daniel Anderson’s office with two simple goals: Get in and Get OUT. But no sooner had I entered the Elon University administrator’s workspace when a certain dusty relic rendered me inert. There on a back shelf sat a freakin’ RCA TK-76, all retro-logo’d and beautifully battered. It made my shoulder hurt just looking at it. Forgetting instantly why I was even there, I stumbled toward the bookshelf and reached out to caress That 70’s Cam. Full of sharp edges and muted metalwork, this earliest of portable recorders thrummed with the energy of countless newscasts past. I reached out to lift it from its perch and the incredible heft humbled me. Leaning into its pitch black viewfinder, I imagined all the polyester clad passion plays that had appeared on its milky screen. “D-a-a-a-a-m”, I heard someone say - before realizing it was me. That’s when I sensed a presence behind me.

Daniel Anderson and his TK-76It was Daniel Anderson and to my instant relief, he was totally cool. In fact, the Director of University Relations positively beamed with delight at my enthusiasm. Finally, someone who could fully appreciate his fossilized fancycam! What followed was a history lesson of sorts, in which Anderson explained how he used to sling a similar lens back when he was a young one-man-band shooting news in North Dakota. Many years later, he fished this holy trophy out of his old station’s dumpster and gave the broadcast artifact a special home in his Elon campus office. Far more stoked over the history it witnessed than the dimension of its lens, I smiled and nodded as Anderson ran down the schematics. I never shot with a TK-76 myself, but the landmark model was a fancycam legend and should it ever go missing from Anderson’s possession - well, you’ll know where to bring the search warrant.

I just wish I could remember why I went to dude’s office in the first place…

Monday, March 17, 2008

Gone in a Flash

And so it came to pass that the giddy hipster known as Joey Flash fled El Ocho, trading in the workaday dirt of lower Archdale for the rarified air of exotic Asheville. Joe Avary, we hardly knew ye. It was little more than a year ago that this mercurial and burly stranger joined our particular photog force, bringing his burgeoning skills and a wooly effervescence heretofore unseen in the Greater Piedmont Googolplex. Though he already knew his way around the end of a TV lens, he was new to news and threw himself wholeheartedly into the Art of the Grab. He also displayed his singular sense of style, once wearing sparkly blue glitter gloves to a national tragedy. That wardrobe choice earned him his nickname as well as a few lifted eyebrows from the stodgier members of our newsgathering team.

Joey didn’t care; nor did he give a shit what people said when he called the station on his day off and asked the Chief if he’d come down to the courthouse and be a witness for his impromptu wedding. But lurking quirkiness aside, Joe Avary proved himself no slob in the storytelling department, even cranking out anchor packages that other news shooters were, quite frankly, too scared to tackle themselves. That takes grapes and I’m sure he’ll ripen his bunch in his new role at good ole WLOS. I’m also hoping he’ll accept the position of Asheville bureau chief for the Viewfinder Blues Global Network, for I’ll miss this hopped-up lumberjack of a photog - even if he did want to chat every time I sat down to write a late afternoon script. More than anything though, I’m forever indebted to The Flash for turning me on to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings - a CD he passed my way that’s become the interior soundtrack of the new Unit Four.

Thanks, Avary. I’ll be sure and send that disc your way - just as soon as my thirteen year old shows me how to burn a copy of a copy of a copy...

Flop o' the Mornin...

"Ya’ll have fun jobs."

Looking up from my Bangers and Mash, I took the lady in. She was one of a half dozen women crammed into the booth at M’Coul’s Public House - each one resplendent in Saint Paddy’s Day green. Together they giggled and gossiped over the traditional Irish breakfast being foisted upon them by the wait staff - a raucous crew in various forms of leprechaun dress. When not plowing through that heavy fare, The Lady couldn’t help but watch the TV reporter and her photographer as they alternated between going live(!) and gobbling any and all free food passed their way. When the furrier of the two looked her way, she stated what most certainly HAD to be a fact.

"Ya’ll have fun jobs."

"It has its days,” I agreed. “But then there are the icy overpasses, the County Commissioner meetings, the midnight calls to the ghetto." Setting down my coffee, I gestured to the packed house of allegedly Irish patrons - many of whom were making love to stout vessels of Guinness, despite the fact it was 7:15 in the morning. "Granted, this crowd loves us, but there are times when a camera on your shoulder marks you as the biggest asshole in the room. I remember time at a triple homicide this lady in a housecoat threatened to shove my camera straight up ---"

It was then I locked eyes with Shannon Smith, my on-air partner for the day. No stranger to hard news or my incessant ramblings, she gave me a look that’s normally only shared between oafish husbands and their irritated wives. Having escorted Shannon through Hollywood junkets and Piedmont jungles, I took her unspoken cue to shut up. Turning to our admirer, she flashed the kind of smile that landed her on the news in the first place and returned the lady’s good will.

"Don’t listen to him. We usually have a pretty good time in the mornings."

With that, the lady seemed satisfied and turned back to her chattering tabletop - no doubt to whisper to her nearest friend what a total windbag the camera-dude was. Damn! The next time a bystander remarks on the intrigue of my occupation, remind me to just smile and nod. Sure, I consider myself something of a pundit for the photog nation, but nine times out of eleven, most folk aren’t looking for a dissertation. It’s kinda like when people ask “How ya doin’?”. They’re just being nice; they don’t really want to hear about you Irritable Bowel Syndrome. So, the next time some yak tells me what a cool gig I have, I’m gonna quietly agree and keep my rambling anecdotes to myself!

Hmm? Yeah, you’re right. That’ll NEVER happen.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Pilgrimage Imminent...

Now that passage is booked, I guess I can start talking about the B-Roll Bash - that drunken summit of professional TV News photographers held every year in oh so wholesome Las Vegas! Some of you may remember the spotty coverage that resulted from our 2006 trip, in which Team Lenslinger first tripped the showroom floor of NAB, an annual gathering of more than 100 thousand TV geeks from all over the globe. Well, his year we're making another pilgrimage to that neon blight - not so much to have ourchains yanked by cheesy sales reps (we ain't buyin' nothin') - but to break bread and liquor bottle seals with the cream of the photog crop. And what a cast! Not only are The Mighty Weave and I trekking West, but the one and only Turd Polisher will make his Vegas debut (drenched in sequins, of course). Once convened, we'll lead the group in quiet reflection, cadge all kinds of worthless freebies and shoot a few cheesy videos for a certain website! then on Monday April 14th, we'll all put on our leather and head over to the Harley-Davidson Cafe, where the towering Kevin Johnson will no doubt insist we get all sloppy. Join us, won't you? I promise stimulating conversation for the first thirty minutes, followed by a lightning round of clumsy high-fives and perhaps even some photog karaoke. Of course if you cannot make it, simply twist some tinfoil around your rabbit ears and point 'em this way - as I'll be babbling on about the matter long after the jet lag and hangovers have dissipated.

After all, I don't get out much.

Shooting the Futurist

Heads up!It’s the end of the world as we know it and your local photog feels fine. At least that’s the vibe among some veteran TV news shooters after reading a Denver Post article on changes at KUSA Channel 9. In it, Joanne Ostrow describes the new philosophy afoot at Gannett Broadcasting - a huge station group already known for embracing ‘backpack journalism’. Now the print and TV behemoth is preaching Fundamental Multimedia, merging their newsrooms into all-purpose information portals for TV and the Internet (even Print, should it still be in demand). To hear KUSA general manager Mark Cornetta tell it, the future’s so bright, you gotta don somber monocles:
"In the old world, one person shot a story, another edited it, a third told the story. In the new world, one person would be reporter photojournalist editor and producer for TV and the Web."
As a TV news shooter who’s worked alone most of his career, that excites the hell out of me. (I doubt it does the same for the hot blonde reporter chick accustomed to a cameraman but that’s another post.) While far from the sharpest shooter, headiest editor or even bestest writer, I juggle all three just fine. Though I currently don’t appear on camera, I do EVERY thing else - from making the initial phone calls to penning a closing thought for the anchor to share just before he throws it to Super Duper Doppler Sports. I’m not saying it’s the right way to commit television, just the way they learned me back at the Roy Park School of Broadcasting. It was there I earned my first degree in Pit Stain Journalism - that reportorial discipline practiced by sweaty young men talking to empty cameras on the side of the road while dressed in nice shirts, cheap ties and blue jeans tattooed with tripod grease. It’s never pretty but what you trade in artifice you sometimes gain in authenticity - provided the dude figures out how to focus his camera from in front of the lens.

Now of course your average Sony is a lot less bony, laptops can make acres of French fries and still entertain your kids and that not so distant rumbling you hear? It’s the tremors of a coming quake that’s gonna blow those outdated stage doors off the Fourth Estate. In its place will be a new media landscape and while I cannot predict what delivery platform will become the norm, I feel pretty good about my chances of survival. No matter which new gizmo I’m made to master, street level data-gathering skills will still be needed to navigate the haystacks, highways and courthouse halls where news is known to happen. So too will time-management, a sense of cinema and writing on the fly, three of the very few things I do okay. So while crafty newspaper folk stay up late learning my job, some snotty kid in his bedroom masters Final Cut Pro and corner office chiselers salivate over departmental fat, forgive me if I hum a familiar tune.

VJ, One Man Band, Lunchbox Cineaste ... I don't really care which moniker sticks. Cocky photogs will continue to craft news stories all by their lonesome, just as they've done since the very first test pattern was stitched together from Indian blankets. Certainly more will join the fray, but I don't see our big-headed industry taking the ‘crew’ out of news crew just yet. Not with a hopped-up 24 hour news cycle, a cable net universe with a dead blonde addiction and a populace smitten with pimped-out plasma fatties. It's a fantastic time to sling a lens, but you'd better be ready to write, edit, enterprise and schmooze your way into a room as well - for the era of the daydreaming photog is sputtering to an inglorious finish. Luckily, the very same can be said for the sheltered news producer who thinks a way with clichés and the ability to count backwards should forever protect him from getting his hands dirty.

Then again what do I know? I once turned a four part series on the pending apocalypse of Y2K and felt pretty good about it. Had some real moments...