I slid into broadcast news in the summer of 1974 as part of a joint government/private enterprise program which allowed businesses to hire folks as interns, with half of the money coming from the government and half from the industry. Got paid the grand total of a buck fifty an hour to follow crazed people in small Toyotas with big hunky film cameras around in the summer heat…and it was an incredibly hot summer. The little Toyota station wagons that the KFSN (Fresno, CA) news crews used were ovens and often the air conditioners stuggled just to pass in warm air.
My first gig as an employee was at KXTV in Sacramento. Continued to learn the craft of shooting, processing, and editing 16mm single system film on older Auricons and Generals and (when I was good) the new CP16s. Just about the time I got comfortable…about a year and a half after getting on board – I walked into work and found myself in a mini-class, learning how to operate a “video camera.” It was a strange beast. There was the flakey little camera – couldn’t have weighed more than seven or eight pounds. Had a PLASTIC lens. It looked kinda like a radar gun. But that wasn’t even the half of it. It came with another sixty pounds of plastic and metal – the CCU (camera control unit) and the record deck. All of this so cumbersome and heavy that we needed a little golf cart to wheel it around. And we had no choice – we were thrust into the new technology literally overnight. Asides from the weight issues, I was okay – a new kid and I wasn’t embedded in the old technology, so I took to it pretty quickly. Although I did have issues – night shooting (my shift) was a bear. The cameras needed a ton of light just to show an image. I should have carried an arsenal of lights, but only had a battery belt with 30w Colortran head and one stand light. The ten foot umbilical cable helped a bit when covering forest fires – but I was tethered to my news van. But while shooting was frustrating, editing became a snap. We could actually use shots over again and again….if we made a mistake, we could just redo it (something that was very tricky with film). I even learned how to pull the audio cables in the rear of the decks and trade them out to put natsound behind my interviews…but at a very low level cause the channel I used to dump backup sound on was actually the channel engineering used to put cue tones on to start and stop the playback machines (accidentally edited audio on that channel with a very crucial interview with then Lt. Governor Dymally – and the voice on the wrong channel kept starting and stopping the playback machine).
Without going into too much detail, over the next twenty-five plus years I continued to work with U-matics (3/4 inch tape) with better and better cameras. Then they were phased out and Beta became the mainstay of broadcasting…a technology so good it continues today in some areas. In the 90’s DVC Pro came on the scene. Now these were all easy transitions…it was just linear tape. We had to learn new gizmos and methods. But the ugly monster, technology, wasn’t done with us yet. I began mentoring high school kids in video production and the principal insisted I teach them some new-fangled thing called digital nonlinear editing. Learning this nearly killed me emotionally. I just didn’t get it – felt like a dinosaur – one of the old geeks who couldn’t make the film to tape transition. Had nightly headaches…I could shoot, but the damn program (Final Cut Pro 1.0) lurked in the school computer, doing whatever it could to mess with my tiny brain. The terminology….the computer keyboard…the files within files within files…the icons…and the lack of something material I could put in a machine and rewind or fast forward got to me. Finally got so mad I made arrangements with a friend of a friend for a tutoring session…there were four others, some of us dinosaurs and a few new kids who seemed to aborb everything in a wink. In one marathon eight hour session I grasped enough to understand and defeat the evil computer and its demonic software.
Where is all this leading (she must have some kind of point to make here, you’re thinking)? There’s a whole group of photographers who have to choose survival or join the dinosaurs. It’s not gonna happen overnight, but changes in the audience mandate that most print photogs learn at least some video and nonlinear editing. What I’ve seen at the workshops I’ve been to in California are the enthusiasts – the leaders – photographers who are excited about the change and embrace it. What filters in from other areas is a fear of change. I know this fear – it is a gut feeling that, “Dammit I know I’m good. The audience sees my stuff and loves it. Why do I have to change – why me? What does this new stuff do that I can’t already do?” And frankly, I didn’t have to learn it – my old station hasn’t gone nonlinear yet. I probably would have made it to retirement as a happy hadrosaurus. The message of this post is: when you stop learning, you start dying. Can I make it any clearer? Now you can die happy and creatively, doing what you’ve always done – and there’s nothing wrong with that. You have choices. One of those choices may be looking at a different career. But if you truely love your craft; not just the visual part, but the news part – change is inevitable. It hurts – you face the prospect of being not so good at first. You make mistakes. Your whole self-image changes and you have to reinvent yourself. Take it from a dinosaur who has made the transition…it can be done. That half-way feeling of, “what do I do” is part of the uncertainty of change. You ask, “Do I dare risk shooting video at a cruicial moment when I know stills and know I can get the shot with my still camera – but I’m risking it all if I use a video camera.” The broadcast equivalent is, “I’m stuck with the (censored) live shot and the blasted story is happening NOW!. I should be covering the news, not just putting a reporter up to talk.” As much as I’d like to pretend we have a lot of freedom, the reality is the bosses and audience tend to make the decisions.
So while you may not like change and I may not like it, there are a lot of hungry little mammals out there (college students) ready to take us down. I made my choice. I wish you luck with yours.
Final note: this is a discussion that needs to be in the open. I know a lot of folks fear for their jobs and their futures and have a real love of their craft as it is now. Meranda Writes has some good discussions going on this issue on her blog. Get out there and join the conversation – but don’t put up a wall and refuse to consider change. Pick up a video camera and try it out (at home if you have to). It ain’t hard and it won’t kill ya.