Sunday, August 22, 2010

Damned if I do ...

So I'm browsing the competition's website, when I see that the city will be closing a street in downtown Roanoke that morning so a crane can be used to work on the Dr. Pepper sign. The sign, about 20 feet across, is one of three iconic signs over the city (the others being an H&C Coffee sign in neon and, of course, the Mill Mountain star). It's the classic Dr. Pepper clock, with the hours of 10, 2 and 4 writ large -- the ideal times for a Dr. Pepper according to the soda's early advertisements. Now the sign is showing some wear.

Anyway, once the morning show gets underway, I drive down there to see if it's at all visual, and I've got to say that this is when my inner devil and angel war. The angel hopes for something really spectacular: a rosy dawn breaking behind a crane lifting some large piece of the sign. My inner angel is often disappointed.

The devil is looking at the fact that, even though the temperature remains high and the air thick with humidity, a light to medium drizzle is falling. Simply walking through it becomes a sweaty struggle. The devil wants to go down there and find nothing but empty streets and a homeless guy. The devil has a higher success rate than the angel, perhaps explaining his continued longevity.

What I find is something more typical: a scene that splits the difference. The road is closed, filled with a giant crane that does reach up to the Dr. Pepper sign. The light's okay, though the sky ranges from overcast white to threatening gray ... but not in any useful photogenic way. It's visually interesting, but not really amazing. So I get out the gear and shoot it.

My typical approach for something like this is to start far back and get the overall scene. Then I move closer and closer, getting more detailed shots, but also moving more into areas where I might be forbidden. By the time I walk right up to the crane the operator steps out and welcomes me.

He explained what they were doing -- a platform needed to be welded onto the front of the sign so scaffolding could be put on. The scaffolding would then allow repairs to be made to the clock face. He showed me all the parts. And then he repeated the phrase with which he greeted me: "You want to go up on the roof?"

Crane owner and operator Barry Blount explains to me how the Dr. Pepper sign used to be on a neighboring building, but had to be moved when the Taubman Art Museum was built. Shot on my Leica M3 with 21 mm Zeiss lens.

I'm looking tentatively at the crane when he explains that I would take the building's elevator and then climb up a ladder through a hatch. He guided me there, and up I went.

Stepping from the polished interior of the building (watercolors on the hallway walls, small oriental rugs on the floor) to its infrastructure (concrete stairwell with a 12-foot metal ladder bolted to the wall) is always interesting, but my mind was on a quandry. That camera and tripod are big and heavy, and 12 feet is way to long to simply push them up and out. I'd have to climb the ladder with one hand, then lift each item past my head and out onto the roof. But I'm game.

I start with the tripod. If it doesn't work, I can simply drop it with a minimum of damage. Step, step, grab. Step, step, grab. My right arm hangs out to the side, holding the tripod. Each grab involves me wrenching my body forward, hanging momentarily free before I grip the next rung up and prevent the inevitable fall backwards.

Yeah, it's a bit scary, and a lot of work, but I get to the top and swing the tripod through the hatch to the roof. Now, I think, I could climb out, go over to the guys on the roof, borrow a rope and haul the camera up that way. That involves, even after befriending them, climbing down and up and down a couple more times ... or I could just go down there and do this -- exhausting and painful though it is -- once.

Yep. That's right. Down I go, pick up the camera (which, it occurs to me, is heavier than the tripod) and start up. Step, step, grab. Step, step, grab. The camera pulls a little more, so that grab is a little harder, a bit quicker. Still, I'm going okay. I'll be okay. Look, I'm just below the hatch. Now I'll just bring the camera up and over ... and just in the nick of time.

Or not. I can't muscle it past my shoulder. It's just too damn heavy, and the space at the hatch is just too tight. I lift and angle, twist and heave, my muscles screaming with each attempt, but I just can't get it over my shoulder. And now I have a problem.

I'm a good ten feet up, hanging on with one hand while being pulled away by the camera. I'm too tired to go up, and I can't go down. I just can't let go of the rung, or the camera will pull me away and down we both go to the concrete floor. Nor can I just wait and rest, as this thing is heavy and my grip is getting weaker all the time.

It's one of those moments when one turns philosophical. You review how you got to this place, how stupid you were. What people will think, what will they do. And, really, I don't want to die. I'm sort of detached ... and panicked. Seriously, what do I do now?

Well, one thing at a time. I bring the camera up and across my chest, so I can use my left arm to help support it. Unfortunately, I can't switch hands -- no way to support it well enough without actually holding on. But now I can step up another rung. And another. Finally, it's high enough, and the camera goes up and over the top.


But alive.

I wish I could say it was all worth it, that the pictures from the roof were spectacular, but it was much like earlier -- alright, but not great. I did wish I had brought the Leica up, but then I realized the situation would have been even worse. Instead, I made do with a couple of pictures from the street afterwards.

I borrowed a rope to lower the gear down.

Welcome to my world, which continues despite my best efforts ...

UPDATE: They've done the repairs now.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

And then I got to drive ...

So yesterday I just missed a story, arriving too late, which is rare enough to be worthy of mention, but that's not why I bring it up here. It's worthy of note more because of the scene when I arrived. It was a Shriners picnic for disabled children, and after covering a heritage festival, I just got there too late. The kids were all but gone, and the area was being cleaned up. By clowns. Real clowns, in the baggy pants and big shoes and stuff. I pulled up to one, and he explained it was all over. It was just surreal.

But a while back, I had another strange experience, from start to finish.

Every year, Roanoke has a Motor Madness weekend. Classic cars cruise up and down Williamson Road -- a major avenue into town -- on Friday night, and then on Saturday they park the cars downtown, closing off several streets. While I was shooting the display for the station, I came across a red Ferrari. Perfect. Bright color, easily recognizable to the viewers, sleek and pretty.

As I shot it, the owner, Dan Ragland, struck up a conversation. We talked for a while -- probably longer than I should have hung around, but it was fun -- and in the process he told me about a garage he uses outside of town. It's just a little country garage -- literally called "Jake's Garage" -- where Dan has basic maitenance done on the car. On top of that, this is not the only Ferrari that goes there, and on the following Tuesday Dan said three would be there at once.

Well, by that time I have my notebook out, taking down names and numbers, and by Monday I had the
Managing Editor sold. Calling (I just looked up "Jake's Garage in the phone book), I talked with Bill Conner, the slow drawling owner and sole mechanic, who was okay with me coming by, and everything was set.

Jake's Garage just outside Roanoke. Two Ferraris wait outside.

Finding the place turned out to be easier than I thought. It sits on a major road running out of Roanoke, and the bright red of a Ferrari that had been dropped by earlier that morning marked it as the place to be.

Ironically, that easy marker made my heart sink a little. Part of the story all but required me getting footage (and sound -- that unique growl of a Ferrari engine) of the cars pulling in. But no worry: two more were yet to come. Soon, Dan pulled up in his, and a bit later the third -- this one a white hard top -- arrived. I shot like crazy.

The thing is, I tend to be a very passive journalist and photographer, and oddly, despite the somewhat calm atmosphere of a story like this, a lot is really happening all at once. Features are made by catching telling moments, and you never know when that moment is going to happen ... unless you sort of take control of the situation and ensure things are occuring only when you are ready for them. I don't do that control thing well, or at least happily. So, I was jittering here and there about the garage, catching Bill as he did some work while organizing everyone into their interviews.

Finally, I began to feel confident we had pretty much what we needed. The car owners were ready to head out. All that was left was to get some cover shots when Dan turns to me and says, "You want to ride in it?" Uh,

I climbed into the tight passenger seat, setting the TV camera on my shoulder (as much as an excuse for my joyride as for any useful footage ... but who knows?) and we pulled out. Dan really likes his car. He accelerated out the winding country road at rocket speed, shifting so quickly that it would push me back in the seat each time he changed gears. The landscape blurred past in the viewfinder. I shot about three angles as we went down the road; it wasn't easy in the tight confines of the Ferrarri cockpit with my massive TV camera. Then he slowed and turned into a small sideroad. "You want to drive?" Uh, yeah.

Here's a bit of trivia you're not likely to know: A Panasonic AJ-SPC700P television camera fits perfectly into the under-hood trunk of a Ferrari convertible. Something to keep in mind. Anyway, it had no clutch -- reminscent of the Sportamatic transmission my uncle had on his Porsche back in the 1970s (that was a great little car) -- but it did have paddles on the steering wheel for shifting the gears, like a Formula 1 racer. So now I'm in heaven, especially as I manage to pull away without causing the car to lug. (Dan said that's typical for first-time drivers; apparently it usually takes a few tries to understand how much gas to give her when pulling out.)

We drove up the side road a little, into a development with only a couple houses built, then turned around and headed back to the main road. I hesitated, but he said I should just drive it all the way back. Uh, okay.

I didn't have the courage to really wind it out. I'm probably incriminating myself to say I got it up to 60, but I've got to say that it was as smooth as can be. The steering was tight and sure, and the growl sounds just like you've heard it in movies, even when you're inside and driving. It was a really cool experience. And then we were back.

Behind the wheel of the Ferrari after my joyride. I think the TV camera is still in the "trunk," which is under the hood. Behind you can see the ride I came in on: Channel 7's Ford hybrid SUV.
Photo shot on my M3 by Dan Ragland, the car's owner.

I think Dan would have let me drive a lot more if I'd asked, even though he had stuff to do that day -- that and he was letting me play with his $700,000 toy -- but it had been a perfect experience, a delicious taste. I'd rather have a glass of really fine wine than get slobbering drunk and have someone be afraid of ever letting me have more. It was time for me to step away from the car, slowly.

Mike Redding, the Managing Editor, reviewed the interviews and footage, writing the final story for me, which I edited over the weekend. It became a really fine piece, the first I've bothered to save since starting to work at the station. I'm really proud of it, but I'll always savor that drive.

Next, I have to figure out how to get to Ferrari Racing Days in Budapest. Now that seems like a perfect combination of factors. Welcome to my fantasy world...

NOTE: I don't have a link to the story right now, but I'll work on it. The station is still transitioning to a new web host, so some of the archives are still slowly coming in...
POST SCRIPT: (September 18, 2010) I don't think I'll ever be able to build a permanent link to the story. Apparently the archiving system of the station's website has a rolling delete setup, where everything more than a set age goes away to be replaced with new material. I guess it saves on memory or something...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Amazing, Fascinating Stuff ...

This is amazing:

It's about 30 minutes long, but worth every minute. Amongst other things, he gives me hope for the future of photojournalism and the internet and a bunch of other stuff. He simply articulates a lot of things I sensed, but couldn't really get a grasp on...

From the website "Thoughts of a Bohemian."