Science, history and buildings

I don’t know of a more haunted place in the world than Central State Hospital in Milledgeville.  Picture a huge college-style campus filled with large, empty, hospital-sized  brick buildings dating back to the 19th century; stuck hard among pecan trees in a hard-to-reach part of Georgia.  Add to it a rough history that began as the “Georgia Lunatic Asylum,” and the draw becomes obvious.

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Because state law protects the anonymity of patients at CSH, there’s not much to shoot there except the buildings.  Granted, the buildings are amazing.  Seeing rows of hospital-sized buildings moldering on a lovely campus is kind of breathtaking. But I didn’t want to do a story on empty buildings.

The archival photos and footage, much of it provided by CSH, helped a lot.  So did the interview with the father of a patient.  An unplanned interview with longtime Milledgeville resident Katherine Fuller became indispensable.

But ultimately, it came down to shooting buildings.  WXIA photog Mike Zakel was as drawn to the  gothic setting as I was.  Yet shooting static buildings makes for dull TV.

CSH wouldn’t allow us inside any of the numerous condemned buildings on campus (there are photos I poached from a blogger who apparently snuck inside one of them last year).    But CSH allowed us inside an empty hospital building that’s still maintained, used for patient overflow in case of an emergency or disaster elsewhere in Georgia.

I had been insistent about going inside the empty building.  Yet, once we got inside we saw — an empty building.  Empty hallways.  Empty rooms.  No people.

At this point, I freshened up an old trick I’ve used for years when confronted with dull office-type video settings.  You might call it the poor man’s jib, or the cheap truck.

I asked PIO Kari Brown to produce a wheelchair.  Curiously, there was none inside the hospital building.  I asked for the next best thing:  An office chair with wheels.  Brown found one.

Zakel sat in the chair, shouldering his camera.  I pushed.   We went up and down a hallway several times.  Zakel sat sideways shooting rooms as we passed.  On the next pass, he sat forward.  Each shot of the empty space had slow forward or lateral movement that gave it needed life.

The rolling office chair is a technique that’s especially suitable for stock brokerages, technology spaces and other indoor settings that scream “dullsville.”  It’s a step up from the photog-walking-while-rolling technique frequently seen in TV news.  The downside is:  Office chairs, with their multiple tiny wheels, often have a mind of their own, direction-wise.  Especially when laden with 200 plus pounds of photog and gear.  The reporter pushing has to be prepared to muscle up, and hope the floor surface cooperates.

The office chair jib is an offshoot of the shoot-from-a-driving-car technique employed for the exteriors on this shoot.  Photogs mostly despise it.  Their positioning is ergonomically awkward when pointing a lens out a car window.  They can’t control the framing with their accustomed precision, and they’re dependent on the driver (the reporter, typically) to maintain a smooth speed.  Zakel shot lovely video of the decaying campus from his tripod.  But the rolling shots maintained the story’s visual pace.

And that was essential.  The story was about government, history, science, the mentally ill — and buildings.

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About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

10 thoughts on “Science, history and buildings

  1. Jane Jetson

    A wonderful piece that could be done by only a handful of Atlanta reporters (many of whom work for WXIA). Only Channel 11 would have a talented enough photog to shoot and create the right visual mood. Gannett television stories like this work in Minneapolis and Denver.
    The audience in Atlanta doesn’t warm to this kind of tv. Consumers of local television are not cerebral or smart enough to understand this story. Pacing in local tv is king (fast, meaningless stories of crime, fire, and victims are king) add weather and that’s it. I think Gannett is going to have to come to their senses with Channel 11. Smart, languid television isn’t going to work in Atlanta. WXIA’s erosion in terms of viewers can be stopped. I think they need to hire a more traditional style of management that is more in step with traditional Atlanta television viewing. If people want beef- – you can’t serve fish by explaining that Grouper is healthier and better for them. The best local stations are reactive to their communities and their viewing habits (WSB). It’s not the other way around. I know the WXIA management gang doesn’t want to hear this- – you need to play it very different here.

    1. Mike

      Your Jetson “name” kinda seems ironic. The only people sticking around to watch the nightly horror news are people in the dark ages. The other educated people you talk about are getting their news some place else. Once WSB’s viewers die off, who then will watch them? I actually enjoy watching 11Alive because it’s something different on local news. It’s refreshing to see a station trying to make change. Instead of hiring a traditional management, maybe the other stations should get with the program… the younger generations are NOT watching this type of news that you speak of.

      1. Jim

        Mike-While I do like the fact that WXIA is spending time on stories like this one, the really are doing it at the expense of nearly all of the “real” news.

        Seriously, I DVR WXIA and WSB, and nearly every day, I see three or four stories on WSB that just weren’t covered on WXIA. Not talking about your routine smash and grab, I’m talking political stories, crime stories that count, stuff that should not be cut.

        They need to find a balance.

    1. live apt fire Post author

      Wow– it’s the 1950s Dunwoody version of CSH. Or, it was. The skateboard park is surely an upgrade. Too bad the Tech kids’ movie won’t play anymore. Thanks for pointing this out, John.

  2. arky

    A trick to get a low-to-the ground moving shot in a hallway: Hold the shoulder strap firmly, letting the camera dangle at your side so that it’s pointing forward just above the floor. Walk forward with your knees bent slightly using a rolling step like in the marching band. The combination of avoiding the bounce of your knees locking along with the gentle rocking of the strap makes for surprisingly smooth movement.

    Of course, you look like an idiot while you’re doing it, but probably not much worse than shooting from a wheelchair. 🙂


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