Thursday, September 27, 2012

Anchors Away: Allan Hoffman

First Press PassWhen WNCT-TV first issued me a press-pass, no one was more surprised than I. At the time, my show reel consisted of a couple dozen used car lot spots and some half-baked station promos. But that all changed one March morning, when fate placed me and a camera on the inside rim of an unlikely hostage situation. The newsroom took note and soon I was cruising the mean streets of Greenville in a white Ford Bronco with the N-Word on the door. (News, silly!) I'd fumbled my way into The Life, all right, but I still had A LOT to learn. Luckily, there were people there to teach me and one of the most willing to do so was the station's main anchor, Allan Hoffman. Not quite the teddy bear he looks like now, Allan was gruff enough to scare me a little. After all, dude was a chopper pilot in Vietnam. He'd witnessed death and valor while most of his co-workers were in the womb. Thus, it fell to Allan to review all outgoing scripts, lest one of the twenty-two year old reporters make a grievous error on the air. A revolving door of novices kept Allan pretty busy back then and my dumb ass was no exception.

Serge Brockman ReportingBut a funny thing happened on the way to failure... I got better! Through risk and repetition, I learned  to shoot sequences, walk backwards and make a tape-to-tape edit bay stutter, smoke and whistle. After a while though, my ambition got the better of me. Nowhere near as polished as the young reporters around me, I yearned nonetheless to put my personal stamp on the many stories I was learning to tell. A great and mighty clamor did not ensue. I wasn't the first photog itching to go rogue and I damn sure wasn't the most telegenic. But Allan and others must have seen something in me, for they critiqued the stories I produced on the side and, to my further surprise, started putting them on the air. A reporter was born! Or so I thought. As luck would (not) have it, my future played out off screen, but the four years I spent as an on-air one-man-band swelled my neck-tie collection and boosted my confidence.

Screen shot 2012-09-27 at 11.55.35 PMIt wasn't always easy, though. Every mistake I made, I made on the air - from mangling names to missing cues to freezing up during my second ever live shot ("Tell him to breathe!", I heard Allan tell a producer in my earpiece). I don't think that I ever did that night, but the concept sure stuck. Here's another one I remember Allan hammering home: Pre-recorded reports should NOT end on soundbites. Unless the bite is especially strong, a reporter track makes for a better summation ("It's a 'package'", Allan would say, "It needs a bow. Tie it up!" I don't think I've ended a report with a soundbite since. It's just one of the many fundamentals Allan Hoffman taught me and another thing I forgot to bring up when I attended his retirement dinner two days ago. Oh well, maybe he'll read this. Then again, maybe a man with 42 years of broadcast experience has seen this kind of thing before. Sure hope so. A guy like Allan should know the difference he made, in the jungles of Southeast Asia and in the hearts and minds of the generations of of journalists he's helped shaped since the early Seventies. Enjoy retirement, Allan. You probably deserve a piece of mine, but the way things are going, you'll be a hundred and six before I can afford to lay down this lens...

Until then, consider me in your debt.

Allan Hoffman retires

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Show Your Work

photoLearn to operate a TV camera and you too can work with a bunch of fruits. Take last Friday, when a particularly plump pumpkin took up most of my morning and about ninety seconds of that afternoon's newscast. It began with a journey: a frantic uphill trek in which I tried to discern which Patrick County field could support such a monstrous squash. The GPS fell strangely silent as I threw my news unit into one hairpin turn after another. Just when I was about to give up the mission and point my camera at the first interesting cow I saw, the aforementioned pumpkin patch hove into view. Actually, an unmarked gravel driveway leading to the aforementioned pumpkin patch hove into view, so I jerked the steering wheel to the left and damn near put Unit 4 on its side. That's when I spotted it: not the Great Pumpkin, but an aging tractor surrounded by three men, all of whom seemed to be wondering why the approaching news car was doing so on two wheels. Once the dust settled, I hopped out of my ride, shook a few hands and got down to the dirty business of loading a nine hundred pound pumpkin into the bed of a pick-up truck. Okay, so the only thing I lifted was a lens, but it didn't matter, for my hosts handled the hoist. All I had to do was flit around the field like the parasite I am, eventually landing on the gargantuan gourd itself before the damn thing was trundled off to a nearby county fairgrounds.

A few hours later, the clip below aired. Did it change the world? No, but neither will that three part investigation on filthy hotel bedspreads/napping utility workers, justsoyouknow...

Then there was today. No sooner did I offer to air my list of grievances in the morning meeting than I was informed I was suddenly late for a distant village. Mocksville, to be exact. Seems that was to be the scene of a reunion of sorts - if I could get there in time. Never one to back down from a challenge involving fossil fuels, I ran to my car before the suits decided to send me to a city council meeting instead. Only when I was safely on the interstate did I scan the printout someone jammed in my greasy photog fingers: Something about a horse ... of course. Thirty minutes later, I found myself as lost as I was when I was searching for that pumpkin patch. This time, however, I had fewer roads to choose from and after driving down two of them, I stumbled across the corral in question. A nice lady was waiting for me there and as I wrestled my gear into submission the explained the significance of the approaching equine. At least she tried to. Three sentences into her spiel, a truck pulling a horse trailer roared into view. I shouldered my weapon and free-rolled for the next few minutes. Only after the horse - a Palomino named Jasmine - nearly trampled me did I get the low-down on the mischievous steed. Seems Jasmine wandered off six weeks ago, prompting her owner to launch a hard-target search of every pasture from here to Hanging Rock. That's where a woman spotted a certain Mermaid-named mount this morning, sparking a series of events that ended with me backpedaling before a horse who clearly wanted to step on my throat. She never got a chance, for this wasn't first rodeo. Neither, for that matter, was it my first missing horse story, but merely the one I produced today...

A fat pumpkin. A skinny horse. Two tastes that may not go great together, but together they constitute two days in which I didn't have to stick a lens in a baby-mama's face. That, my friend, is as close to a victory as this photog's gonna get. And it's two more reasons why newscast producers know when they send me out solo, I'll come back with the goods, or not come back at all.

Now if only I could stop getting so damn lost.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Of Thee I Sling

A decade and a half back I did the unthinkable. I willingly returned to the world of NEWS. It was not an easy decision. After all, I knew what the job entailed: unsavory hours, less than stellar pay, the numbing grind of constant deadline. Just a few reasons why I'd left in the first place. But if my twenty plus months spent cranking out promos and such for a certain station taught me anything, it was this: "Never work for a man you'd rather hit with a bus". That and "Get Thee Back to News." To be fair, that last one had nothing to so with the troglodyte in charge. It went much deeper. The first time a hurricane hit the Carolina coast and I didn't have keys to a news car in my pocket, I nearly stuck my head in an oven. (I still can't hear the names Fran or Bertha without eyeballing the microwave.) So when my exciting foray into Promotions turned into a battery of soul-sucking meetings and not much else, I did something I still don't regret... I issued my own stern memo to a boss I'd come to loathe and followed a few bread crumbs to a place called the Piedmont.

Fast forward fifteen years.

I find myself doing pretty much the same thing I did in my twenties. Chasing candidates and reprobates, profiling neighborhood heroes and sketchy dudes coming out of a courthouse, lowering my lens at a policeman's funeral and raising it to capture the blimp I'm about to board. It has been everything I expected and much of what I feared. But before you go looking for that sentence that announces my new position as Head Video Guy at the Coat Hanger Outlet, relax: I ain't goin' out like that. No, until I can convince someone to pay me by the paragraph, I'll most likely be found babysitting the day's events - be they grim, slim or whimsical. I'm okay with that, even if it occasionally makes me crazy. When that happens, I tend to clam up for I've found that a distillation of pixels will support but so much untreated angst. I'd much rather stew in my own juices until I cough up something worth sharing, Otherwise, I'm a hack - the kind of guy I saw myself becoming back in the hallowed halls of a not so distant affiliate.

Which brings me to YOU.

Chances are we know each other, either in person or on-line. Being that we're tight and all, you understand my compulsion. You know that, while I've yet to profit financially from my blogging efforts, I've benefited immensely from sharing what I watch my fingers type late at night. Sometimes, I wake up the next morning and wonder why I did, but it rarely stops me from logging in to do it all over again. Lately though, I've fallen out of rhythm and while no pitchfork-wielding mob has formed outside my door, I've dragged myself to the outskirts of town on more than one occasion. Now, however, I'm back and though I don't know where I'm going, I'm delighted to have you along. For it is you, dear readers, who've convinced me a life behind the lens isn't a total waste of my time. Where else would a guy who'd rather be writing find so much story material than on the surface of a tiny flickering screen in the shallow end of an upturned eye-cup? If you know, don't tell me. I'll go on thinking I'm where I need to be. If nothing else, it's a delusion I can chew on while waiting for the next speaker to clear his throat.

It's a living.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Arrow My Own

Sticks and Stone
This silly gig won't make you rich, but it affords one helluva view. Just ask birthday boy Jonathan Malat. That's him and his sticks perched high above Tettegouche State Park in Silver Bay, Minnesota - where he and the ridiculously gifted Boyd Huppert are putting together one of their Land of 10,000 Stories. They're a towering pair, even without the added altitude. But trophies suck dust and the fanciest lanyards stiffen over time. Vistas like this, however, last forever. They fill the mind's eye and keep old souls company long after bold shoulders molder. So the next time you perch upon a precipice in the name of news, soak in the moment, won't you? They make up for that forest of podiums you hiked through, the press releases you rationed, that wildebeest you gored. If nothing else, know that your life behind the lens will make for a righteous highlight reel. Good luck playing it at the old photog's home, though.

Those Minnesota cats hog up the machine.