Monthly Archives: January 2012

The poor man’s jib

TV news folk are well-equipped to shoot images of events happening right in front of them.  We can produce pictures of fires or images of people talking with near perfection.

But put us in a situation that requires us to make interesting the routine settings of real life, and our equipment sometimes isn’t sufficient.

Real life tends to be much more predictable and stagnant.  People sit in their dens and read books or watch TV.  People sit in their cubicles and type.  People sit around an awful lot.  Real life is frequently all-but motionless.

Which is why the guy in this photo brings joy to my heart.  And the disembodied hand of the unseen person pulling the wagon.

I’ve never used a wagon to give motion to a TV camera.  I honestly doubt I could ever persuade a TV news photographer to sit in a wagon and allow me to pull him in it.

But we do improvise.  Put me in a room full of stockbrokers — who generally sit in chairs and stare at computer monitors — and I will almost always look for an office chair equipped with wheels.  “Sit!” I’ll gently insist to a photographer.   They’ll sit.  I’ll push.    The photog trains his camera on the succession of cubicles, while zipping past in his reporter-powered chair.

I’ve also been known  to use a hand truck for the same purpose.    This is a bit scarier because the photog’s upright position creates a higher center of gravity, resulting in a more unstable balancing act.  If you can sweet-talk a photog onto a handtruck, I recommend pulling the cargo rather than pushing.  Always use both hands.

The most commonplace poor-man’s jib is the automobile.  Photogs mostly don’t like to shoot rolling shots through the passenger window, because they have less control over the composition of their shots.  They’d prefer to stand or squat in the back of a pickup truck, which gives them the flexibility of composing shots from a 360 degree perspective.

Unfortunately, all of this requires teamwork in the field.  One-man-bands, or photogs working solo, would have to recruit an intern or a stranger for assistance.  The explanation itself would be enough to spook most non-TV folk.

The poorest of the poor-man’s jib is the walk shot.  An item is fixed in a room; the photog stands back from some distance, then walks forward toward the item.

The problem with this pertains to the makeup of the human body.  Because God gave us feet and legs instead of wheels and axles, the walk shot tends to have an unavoidably clunky up-and-down quality that coincides with each footstep.  It’s mostly to be avoided.

Especially when there’s an office chair in the room.

The photo comes from Amanda Emily’s Facebook page.  She ID’s the photog as George Potter of KOGO-TV (now KGTV) shooting Harry Truman’s two mile morning walk in San Diego in 1962.  She also compiles and blogs about vintage newsgathering images, on the blogroll to the right under “Feeding the News Beast.”  Click here.  It’s worth visiting.

And of course, Lenslinger beat me to the punch writing about this photo, plus he has details on Potter.  Visit his site here.

Winne Watch 1.23.12

“He’s agreed to talk to Mark Winne and nobody else.”

Those spirit-draining words came from Lt. Sean Smith, the new temporary PIO for the Gwinnett County Sheriff.  We were at the Gwinnett County jail, which was holding inmate Victor Hill.  Hill, a former sheriff, had been arrested following a public corruption indictment.

Sometime this summer: The writer with Mr. Winne

Every local media goon and their brother had requested a jailhouse interview with Hill, myself included.  Hill had a colorful history.  He’d been a bit unorthodox, shall we say, when he was sheriff.  He lost re-election and has been running to regain his seat in 2012’s election.

Why he would agree to talk solely to the WSB reporter was beyond my understanding.  Sure, Winne’s a fine reporter for whom I have much love and mad respect.  And sure, Atlanta’s TV viewership misguidedly turns to WSB in droves for its local news. Hill would have had a substantial audience by giving Winne the exclusive.

I didn’t expect Hill to say anything particularly interesting in a jailhouse interview.  But I still wanted the video image of the former lawman dressed in a prison uniform, predictably professing his innocence.

And I didn’t want to see it on WSB without seeing it on WXIA.

Unfortunately, Hill’s attorney was complicit in the arrangement.  When he walked into the lobby, he was highly agitated from a sleepless effort to post bond for Hill, and adamant that he speak only to Winne.  When asked why, he wouldn’t / couldn’t explain it.

My options were limited:  Credit Winne with a “win,” and watch him traipse into the jail for an exclusive; or try to do something about it.   I only had one choice:  I had to gripe.  Like you, I hate whiners.  But I also hate getting my ass kicked by a competitor — especially when I’m on the property, watching it happen.

Fortunately, Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway was answering his phone at just the right moment.  Hill is only going to talk to Winne, Conway reiterated.  I don’t have much say in it.

Conway knew there were reporters from four Atlanta TV stations in his parking lot.  I couldn’t plausibly argue to replace Winne as the exclusive agent of Hill’s utterances.  But Conway has a good relationship with local media.  I appealed to his sense of fairness.  Without saying it explicitly — because I didn’t want to back him into a corner — I was asking:  Who’s in charge at your jail?  Victor Hill, or you?

I proposed an unorthodox compromise:  Agree to Hill’s request to only talk to Winne, but let TV cameras from the other stations record the interview.

Do what, now? 

Let Winne ask the questions, I said.  That gives Hill what he wants.  But don’t allow the interview unless everybody gets to record it.

Conway hung up.  Shortly thereafter, the PIO was telling the assembled media that they’d get a chance to record Winne’s interview.  Winne reacted only by engaging the PIO in a hushed conversation afterward.

Minutes later, the PIO escorted Hill’s attorney, plus Winne and his photographer, past the security checkpoint and into the jail.  Hill had to agree to the arrangement, Lt. Smith said.  If he doesn’t, then we’ll escort WSB back out emptyhanded.

This was a worrisome moment.  Winne was back in the jail with Victor Hill and no other news media.  He was one “REC” button click away from the exclusive I’d tried to undo.   Winne is a wily guy.  If anybody could bamboozle an inexperienced PIO, it was Winne.

A long fifteen minutes or so passed.

Then Lt. Smith reappeared in the lobby.  The cameras can go back, he told Winne’s competitors.  The reporters have to stay in the lobby.

Aungelique Proctor and I sat in the lobby.  We chatted about our children and looked at our wristwatches.

Mark Winne was the only reporter allowed in to ask him questions, intoned Justin Farmer as he led into Winne’s 5pm live shot.  Winne had gotten his exclusive, in a manner of speaking.

But my day turned out just fine.

Indecision 2012

When I learned that a  crew from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart would shoot a piece in Ellijay, I initially hadn’t considered turning it into a local news story.

They were doing a piece on some Mitt Romney supporters whose over-the-top enthusiasm for the milquetoast Republican seemed newsworthy when I did the piece in November.  One of them, Joe McCutchen, told me Politico had picked up the story (though I can’t find it), which caught The Daily Show’s eye.

Oren Briner (far left), with Joe McCutchen and Al Madrigal

I’m not a big fan of movie-crews-in-our-little-town stories.  But I do like The Daily Show.  The shoot was topical and interesting.  The story would have  ample layers of comedic potential.

McCutchen blessed our presence at the shoot.  So did Oscar Poole, whose barbecue restaurant would host a portion of the Daily Show shoot.  I did not call Comedy Central to get their permission, figuring it would simply give them an opportunity to invite us to stay the hell away.

I figured our presence there could be a source of some conflict, and wanted to minimize it.  I was mindful of the fact that they had set up this shoot.  But Poole had told me the restaurant would be open to the public during the shoot.  This wouldn’t be a closed set.  Mike Zakel and I went and resolved to be respectful of the Daily Show crew.

The conflicts were minimal but amusing.

Producer Oren Brimer arrived at about 1pm and seemed unalarmed when he saw Zakel’s camera on a tripod, wedged discreetly into a notch near a cash register.  McCutchen said he had forewarned the Daily Show crew of our presence.  Zakel introduced himself first.  The response was friendly.

We had already interviewed McCutchen and some other Romney-supporting patrons (Poole was out of state; I’d gotten his permission by phone the previous day).   The Daily Show shoot was an hour behind schedule.  We were anxious to get what we needed and drive back to Atlanta to produce the piece for the 7pm news.  I told Brimer that it wouldn’t take us long to get what we needed and be gone.

However, the crew (two photogs, an audio tech, and correspondent Al Madrigal, who was making his Daily Show debut as a field correspondent with the Ellijay piece) was hungry and intended to order lunch before resuming the shoot.   Brimer had never heard of Brunswick stew.  I described it to him as “basically meat soup.”  He ordered a bowl of it, plus beef ribs.

Brimer was tall, good humored and barely 35, if that.  When I asked him if I could ask him a question for my story (I try to avoid the word “interview” because it sounds nearly synonymous with “interrogate”), he agreeably said:  Sure.  What questions do you want to ask?

I should have responded by answering the question:  I want to ask you why you’re here, and about your approach to the story.

That would have been easy.

Instead I said:  Did you tell Joe McCutchen what questions you would ask him before you interviewed him?  The crew had just finished an interview with McCutchen that McCutchen said had lasted three hours.

Zakel and Richards use their persuasive powers. Photo by George Winn

Fair enough, Brimer said.  Ask away.

I said: OK.  Let me clip this mic on you.

Then Brimer got nervous:  Wait.  Whoa.  We’re just here to eat lunch.  Maybe we could do this later.  He started to turn away, but turned back as I reminded him that we were trying not to linger.  Plus, lunch wasn’t ready yet.  He became agreeable again.  I clipped the mic on him.  The on-camera chat lasted maybe two minutes.

As lunch concluded, the crew turned toward their gear.  Then Brimer unexpectedly told Zakel that he couldn’t shoot them.

He turned to me and repeated it:  We can’t let you shoot us shooting.  We have to keep our methods confidential, he said.

Your “methods?”  I pondered a diplomatic response.

“I can see by your face that this isn’t agreeable to you,” he said to me.  “What’s the problem?  Because we’ll have to shut down the shoot if you insist on shooting us.”

It appeared he was yielding to an instinct which I fully expected:  We’re a big time TV show with a national audience.  You’re local news.  Bug off.  Yet he remained good-natured, even as he indulged the ill-considered Diva instinct.  He could have thrown a fit and and recruited McCutchen and the restaurant management to force us to leave.  To his credit, he didn’t.

He also quickly realized he was backing himself into a corner.  Rather than start an argument– which was tempting–  I gently reminded him that our needs were minimal and our desire to finish and depart was considerable.  We shared a goal here, I suggested.

We came to an understanding.  He blocked out and shot Madrigal and McCutchen walking into the dining room.  We shot it too.  The scene continued for two or three minutes.  For our 90 second piece, it provided ample cameras-on-location footage.  “Got what you need?” Brimer asked me.  I nodded and thanked him.

We got out, and retained our respect for the Daily Show.   They regained control of their set.  Everybody wins.

When asked when the piece would air, Brimer gave two answers.  “Our goal is to air it before the South Carolina primary (which is January 21).”   He also said they were shooting for Thursday January 19.

The empty gesture

When we speak, most of us gesture.  We can’t help it.  It’s natural.  Especially when we’re being emphatic, the hands and arms tend to move in conjunction with the words.  The best of us do so with the style of a symphony conductor, with words and movements that fully communicate.

Even on the phone, gesturing comes naturally (left).  Ben took this photo in our newsroom while observing me in the throes of a heated phone chat with a brain-dead public information officer person.

Gesturing on TV is different.  If the material is unscripted, then gestures naturally accompany the words.  When reading a script or a teleprompter, then gesturing can be affected and unnatural.

About twenty years ago, I began to take note of some very earnest gesturing by ‘prompter-reading news anchors.  (Perhaps they’d done it before, but that’s when I noticed.)  Even when their image appeared on TV only from the neck up, the gestures would fly off camera:  Arms waving, hands chopping, fingers pointing.

Though the arms typically didn’t appear on camera, they let fly anyway.  One suspects that talent coaches advised them to gesture because it added energy to their from-the-neck-up presence.

At WXIA, reporters in-studio tend to be shown on-camera from the waist up.  The wider shot is a blessing and a curse.  It’s a blessing in that it reduces the need for makeup; it’s a curse because body language becomes an essential part of communication.  Typically, we read from ‘prompters in the studio.  This means that the body language becomes part of a script.

I have yet to master the art of scripting body language.

The piece below classically exposes this shortcoming.  I dashed out this piece within a few minutes on a Thursday afternoon, loaded it into a ‘prompter page, then went into the studio moments later to perform it.  Though I was familiar with the material, I’d failed to read it out loud prior to reading it on camera.

After the recording began, I read the first line and realized I hadn’t gestured.  As I started reading the second line, I threw out a gratuitous arm-wave at the start, emphasizing “the picks” instead of “the news professionals,” as I should have done.

Then came a list of stories, each with a hand gesture.  With some prior thought, I might have flailed less and done the classic two-handed finger-count, with the forefinger of the left hand touching successive extended fingers on the right.

About 35 seconds into the piece, my gestures began to get into sync with my copy.  “Act naturally,” as Buck Owens sang in the early 1960s.  It’s not as easy as it looks.