Saturday, May 14, 2011

Scotty McCreery: Idol Rising

Idol RisingOkay, so before last week I was only tangentially aware of who Scotty McCreery was. What can I tell ya? My American Idol involvement was waned since the days of jetting to Hollywood to cover a certain bald rocker. These days, I’m far more likely to empty my dishwasher twice in one day that tune into the world’s most overcooked singing contest. But alas, duty calls. See, when a North Carolinian makes it to the upper echelon of Idol-dom (pretty often, actually), a special pager I wear begins to beep, summoning me to the deepest, darkest reaches of the El Ocho compound. There, I find another A.I. operator: seemingly mild mannered morning reporter Shannon Smith. Yes, when it comes to fawning over American Idol finalists with ties to the Tar Heel state, Shannon and I are Seal Team Six. Minus the top secret helicopter and federal protection. All of which explains why we both gave up our Saturdays to infiltrate the very heart of darkness: an American Idol hometown hero concert. You know: that ninety seconds or so of video that Ryan Seacrest tosses to while torturing the final three contestants on Idol. To much of America, it’s a quick look at how their favorite finalist spent their weekend. To those of us on the ground, however, it’s special ops combat, a surgical insertion behind enemy lines. Sure, there were no grubby terrorists flinging Ninja stars at us, but when thousands of rabid Idol fans turn out to genuflect in the direction of their favorite phenom, it can feel like an awful lot like Jihad.

Scottypalooza 001By the time we infiltrated Lake Benson Park, the mania was in full effect. Scotty McCreery was still nowhere to be found, but thousands of his followers were already in place, turning the sloping green lawn into that wide shot from Woodstock. It made me glad I’d commandeered a marked news unit, for nothing parts a sea of Idol supplicants like an SUV with the F-word on it (FOX). Even the hardened security guards waved us through, some believing we had the guest of honor stuffed in the floorboard. I didn’t stop to argue. Instead we found a parking spot, grabbed our gear and waded into the unwashed masses. Heads swiveled, Frisbees dropped in mid-flight and sandwiches stopped being eaten as the mob of ‘tweens, Moms and weird uncles descended upon us. Now, I don’t know what it feels like to be Mick Jagger. But I’ve slung a lens at enough Idol crowds to get just a glimpse of mass adulation. It’ll spin your melon, which is what Shannon and I kept moving, interviewing some, fending off others and avoiding eye contact with the crazies. Soon, we had what we needed and made our way to the camera platform, where an act of grace awaited us.

Scottypalooza 012There, nearly dead-center on the riser, was El Ocho’s official call letters spelled out in gaffer’s tape. It wasn’t act of Allah, but rather a photog solid, done by a certain shaggy Capital City news shooter (Thanks, RAD!). For the next several hours, I stood upon that tape as local politicians, radio dee-jays and Idol producers stalled the growing crowd with promises of their chosen one’s impending arrival. After what felt like days, it happened. Scotty McCreery, perched atop a convertible, rode in like a conquering General. When his phalanx of cars finally hove into view, senior citizens and toddlers alike lost their collective shit. But I could only think of the seventeen year old at the center of the vortex. Not so long ago, dude was bagging groceries in the shallow South. Now Scotty McCreery is a household name. For the past few months, he’s been in the Idol bubble, his every move and moment choreographed by showbiz handlers. Now, he’s witnessing the frenzy unprotected, staring out in disbelief as thirty thousand friends and strangers clog up his hometown, all so they can screech and clatter their support. Word is, Scotty is a person of faith. He’d gonna need it.

Shannon and Stewart at ScottypaloozaBut enough introspection; on with the show! A deafening roar drowned out everything else as Scotty took the stage. Unfamiliar with his repertoire, I squinted into my lens and followed him. Teenagers singing antiseptic country ain’t exactly my thing, but I’ll give him this: kid’s got charisma. Between winking to the girls and high-fiveing his backup band, it’s apparent he seems to have a showman’s instinct beyond his years. When bonafide country star Josh Turner strode onstage to join Scotty in what’s become his trademark song, it was a joy to watch the seventeen year old double over in disbelief. But as fun as that was, compressed shots of simulated stagecraft weren’t what Shannon and I had sacrificed our Saturday for. We needed an interview. In fact, promotional scripts had already been written touting that very thing. It was with this knowledge I broke away from the platform and huddled with my Idol accomplice. See, there are many approaches to gathering news with a video camera. You can plot, cajole and apply pressure by your very presence. Sometimes, though, you just gotta bum-rush the show. That’s the tactic we chose and while it was particularly pretty, it was damned effective.

Scottypalooza 013As the final chords of Scotty’s closing song echoed across the park, Shannon and I exchanged nervous glances. We’d spent the past few minutes fighting through a hysterical crowd, only to be stopped cold by an overenthusiastic security guard. Sharp words followed; it’s possible I showed my country ass. In the end, we stormed off and found another blocked entrance to the backstage area. As Shannon and I stood there silently plotting, a guy in a security t-shirt told a woman she could not pass. She did anyway. It was then we knew t-shirt man was not a professional security operative. Shannon smiled and mumbled something about meeting an Idol producer backstage and Mr. T-shirt shrugged and let us through. Which is how we came to loiter in the No Press area, Shannon with her big logo’d microphone hung low, me trying to pretend I wasn’t cradling a professional fancycam. At that point, most of Hell broke loose. Cops, Idol producers, handlers and Scotty himself poured offstage, surrounded by a sea of fans who’d broken through security as well. I stepped in front of Scotty and his goons as Shannon produced a microphone out of humid air. She fired off a question, Scotty responded and I stared at the glowing red RECORD light as the crowd carried us backwards. At one point, Shannon peeled away and I stuck with Scotty, backpedaling on sheer faith. No one pushed me away so I fired off a couple of more questions. I couldn’t really hear what the Idol finalist had to say, but the dancing audio meter in my eyepiece assured me I was fulfilling my density.

Forty seconds later, Scotty was gone, swallowed by a sea of cops and the Idol machinery. I was drenched in sweat, Shannon’s hair was out of place and we were both elated.

I wonder if that’s how the guys who popped bin Laden felt...



Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Key Features Deleted

Edit Bay Blur Face
No doubt about it, editing video under heavy deadline can be a face-erasing experience. Just ask El Ocho's own Mike D., who recently lost all but his proboscis in a horrible cut-and paste incident. I was outside the edit bay when it happened. The sounds of his screams still haunt me. Hmm? His facial features DIDN'T get deleted? It's just a blurry shot due to movement? The kind of simple in-camera flaw that would take me twenty minutes and a Final Cut Pro tutorial to replicate in the bay? Oh... Well, even if Mike didn't involuntarily join the Witness Protection Program, that doesn't mean editing isn't stressful. Hell, there are times I'd cough up an extra eyebrow if I could just get a few more minutes to tweak my piece, ifyaknowwhatI'msayin...

Even if you don't, realize that all those muscles strained on the shoot cannot compare to that sour spot in your stomach when you realize that A.) the crumpled paper under your foot is actually a missing page to the script you're cutting, B.) you haven't clicked 'SAVE' since the Bush Administration and now half your dream sequence is missing or C.) that progress bar won't speed up just because you made up whole new curse words. Why it's enough to make an old fart like me harken back to the days of tape-to-tape editing, when instead of simple drag-and-drop skills, you needed duct tape, rhythm and the occasional exorcism to make your daily deadline. At least no one ever lost an eyelid...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Behind the Lunge

Behind the Lunge

It's not often you see a TV news photog step out from behind the camera and own up to what he's shown, but that's exactly what WKTV's Tim Fisher did and the results are sobering. It all began Monday when four people perished inside a raging house fire in West Utica. Outside the two and a half story duplex, chaos reigned. Well meaning witnesses urged first responders to save the family trapped inside, but fears of a collapse prevented crews from entering the inferno. When firefighters did cross that threshold, they found the bodies of a Mother and three children. Tim Fisher caught it all. Like any 40 year veteran of breaking news, he positioned himself just out of the way and let the red light glow. At one point, a stricken witness lashed out at Tim's lens, before accusing fire crews of not doing all they could to save the family.

Tim shrugged off the lunge, but the accusation that firefighters didn't try hard enough bothered him - so much that he and his station did something rather extraordinary. They spoke up. In six thoughtful minutes the veteran photojournalist calmly describes what HE witnessed on scene and provides extensive video to back up his assertions. His pictures show rescue crews working to the point of exhaustion and family members absorbing the unthinkable. It's not easy to watch, but WKTV is to be commended for providing a painful but potentially healing view of a story no one wanted to see happen. Best of all, the station didn't wrap their good intentions in the usual broadcast hokum. No smarmy uncle type in a shiny suit reciting a script someone else handed him; just an unvarnished storyteller who doesn't need expensive recording equipment to convey perspective. At the end of his soliloquy, Tim Fisher addresses the question directly:
"Did they do all they could?? I wish you could have watched and listened and felt what I did yesterday. Then I would be happy to leave it up to you. But I hope this helps."
Judging from the many viewer comments, it did.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Clearer Than They Appear

Sheeka Squared
Wanna confuse a TV news photog? Ask him (or her) what he (or she) shot two days ago. Chances are neither of them will know. And it's not because we didn't pay attention. In fact, it's that ability to forget that enables us to hone in on the immediate - even when 'the immediate' is an elementary school principal reading her talking points from giant cue cards she had her underlings tape to a wall. Really, that very scenario happened just last week to Charles Ewing and I. Pros that we are, we let her continue, knowing none of it would ever make air. Why we were even there to begin with, I couldn't begin to tell you. But I could pen a paragraph or two about the red blotches creeping above her collar, the daylight spilling through those classroom slats or the sound of her off-camera assistants quietly rolling their eyes. I guess that makes me detail-oriented. That, or I've peered through stacked glass long enough to truly develop tunnel vision. All I know is that I have total recall of soundbites from a decade back, but couldn't tell you all that I covered last week without consulting my calendar.

Scratch that. I've consulted my calendar and the only thing I can make out are a few broken lyrics to Peace Frog and what I wanted on my last steak and cheese sandwich. Guess I'm not just detail-oriented: I'M A PHOTOG! That would explain my heightened sense of inattention, those extra points hanging off my driver's license and all that bold logo-wear stashed in the back of my closet. Yes, twenty years of street-level lensmanship has left me more addled than most TV techs. I'm convinced it's because of all that minutia I've shoved through my right eye socket, all those uncut deadlines I've snorted off the dashboard of a poorly-parked live truck. Throw in a daily diet of lunch specials and you got a pretty good idea why I haven't given up news to take on some far-flung super-computer in a global chess match. That and I look really bad in turtlenecks.

Come to think of it, there's really only one upside to my photog state of mind: I can speak to anything. Well, not intelligently - but reel off a half dozen unrelated topics and I can cough up something tangential about them. The airworthiness of modern day dirigibles? I once rode in the Goodyear Blimp and lived to embellish the tale! Can perverts be rehabilitated? Dunno, but I once toured a sex offenders unit where a whole lot of folks were pretending they already were. Do locally-elected city officials have your best interests at heart? Errrr, NO. I have sat through enough council meetings to know those people are drunk with power and hopped up on their own wardrobe. You'd be better off voting in a bunch of TV news photogs who would quickly institute a just, no-nonsense form of local government - provided someone could pipe up and remind 'em what it was they decided at the last meeting.

We're lousy at that kind of thing...