The Things I Lose Sleep Over
By Mark Neuling
Photojournalist for TechTV
Maybe it was because I was fighting a cold.  Perhaps it was because the shoot had already been postponed once and I just had more time to worry about it.  But sometimes even after nearly 20 years in this business I make a dumb mistake now and then, one that makes me feel like a complete rookie again.
Becky Worley and I were scheduled for a morning shoot.  Our assignment – an inflatable surfboard, one you pump-up, wax and ride. Not a news story but a product profile.
At home the past two mornings I had scraped ice off the windshield of my car; an activity I have do at most five or six times a year.   For this part of Northern California that is about as cold as it gets.   The day time temperatures along the coast  run in the mid-40 to 60 degree range with the ocean temperature being  in the low  50’s; which is pretty much what the water temperatures are year-round.  Surfers around here wear wetsuits in all seasons.  This day was mild and clear.
We wanted to leave around 9 a.m.  The assignment desk booked us for a half day to shoot this piece.  Four hours to shoot a 90 second package at a beach 25 minutes away, what a luxury.  But Becky had some last minute voiceovers to track, we shot a brief introduction to the package at the office and then all the surfers in the news department started to chime in.
Before you can say “Dick Dale and the Del-Tones” one of the other shooters is looking at a web site with all the local surf conditions.  Most of the beaches have 6 to 8 foot surf.  “Mavericks,” the world-famous big wave beach north of Half Moon Bay has surf in the 12 to 18 foot range.  Even the smaller surf conditions are way too dangerous for a novice surfer on an inflatable board.  Someone suggests a beach where there is 2 to 3 foot surf but it’s a good 55 minutes away.  Becky and I decide to stick with our original plan and check the conditions in Pacifica even though the surf is closed out.   Essentially what this means is that the waves don’t hold their shape and collapse onto themselves.   We are 45 minutes behind schedule.
A brief drive out of the city takes us to the coastal town of Pacifica and Linda Mar Beach.  From the road above the town we can see sets of waves, like ripples in a pond, stretched clear to the horizon marching their way towards the shore.  At the Pacifica Pier the waves stream past the jetty.  The off-shore winds kick a wicked spray off the crests of the waves; unfavorable surf conditions even for experienced surfers.  But farther along the coast we find a sheltered beach where a couple of other surfers are already in the water, this looks like it might work.
I park my news car in the dirt parking lot and we start to unload.  Becky is pleased with the light; at this time of the year the sun is low, even in mid-morning and there is still some fog that hasn’t entirely burned off, diffusing the light somewhat.  Reporters love good lighting.
Worley and I have done a lot of shoots together.  We have a unique style of approaching our product stories.  We never work from a script, which is rare for this shop.  Sometimes we’ll have a shot sheet, but more often than not we just work from some ideas that we’ve sketched out.  My contribution is to capture those little, real moments that can’t really be planned.   She can then use this video and audio to cement the story together.  In the TV biz it’s know as writing to the video; for a camera monkey that’s like a tree full of bananas. 

We start the shoot with Becky unpacking the board and then pumping it up on the beach.  This takes awhile and some effort on her part.  I offer my assistance, which she declines. 
She has a pretty good burn going in her triceps by the time she’s finished.  While she is changing into a wetsuit I get beauty shots of the surfboard.

A year earlier Becky and I had shot a similar story at this very same beach.  She had wanted to do a “stand-up” from astride a surfboard.  Since we had no one to operate a boom mic (and against my better judgement) I decided to let her wear a cheap wireless mic.  Despite Tupperware, a plastic bag, gaffer's tape and a fanny pack the transmitter still managed to get wet.  Needless to say it didn’t take much saltwater to completely kill the transmitter, though to this day the microphone still works great.  This time I was taking no chances.

We’d both brought flip-flops and towels.  While Becky paddled out, I spread out a towel on the sand to protect the legs of mytripod.  She paddles way out, I lose her at times as she disappears between the troughs of waves.  She doesn’t get any good rides and paddles back to the beach to wax her board.   Since there were no interns available to do sound for us, I’d grabbed a shotgun mic that I could hold off-camera in my left hand so that I could at least get some of her comments as she waded in through  the surf.

Becky and I discuss what we’ve got so far.  I ask her to surf a little close to shore, she asks me to move a little nearer the water.  She goes back out and I move my towel and tripod down the beach a bit, right to edge of where I thought the surf had broken at its highest.  Initially I clip the mic to my pants.  Then I get what seems at the time, to be a brilliant idea; put the mic down on the towel to get those great nat-sounds of the roaring ocean surf. 
Perhaps only a little over a minute passed.  Becky is actually surfing with this thing.  I get a nice shot of her riding the board and falling in, the surf grows louder in my headphones, great nats I think.  About then I look down, I never felt the water break over my feet.  But there below me, little foam bubbles are popping and my towel is soaked, as is my shotgun mic and transmitter.  It still seems to be working. The foam windscreen has protected the microphone and the Cordura pouch appears to have protected the transmitter.  I listen.  It sounds like the mic is gurgling, drowning, dying a slow death.  Of course this was the only wave all day that even came close to me.
I stuff the microphone in my back pocket, pull my head out of my behind and get back to work.  I have a reporter out in the Pacific Ocean who is depending on me to get the shots she needs for her story.  Becky gets several good rides, even better wipeouts and returns to the beach tired and cold.
After she changes out of her wetsuit we head over to Starbucks for some coffee.  It’s rare when we reporters and shooters take time for coffee, even rarer when we actually sit down and drink it in the coffee shop.  We discuss the shoot, work, career aspirations and the future of our network.  But the conversation eventually turns to things that friends talk about, family, kids, and relationships.  If you want to build a good team of reporters and photographers it helps if you are more than just colleagues, friends go the extra mile for each other.   Becky loves the nat-sounds I got.
That night I toss and turn over the events of the day.  The transmitter can be replaced, friends never can be. 

Story and all photos © Mark Neuling 2003
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
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TechTV is the world’s leading cable and satellite television channel covering technology news, information, and entertainment from a consumer, industry, and market perspective 24 hours a day.  Available in more than 75 million households across 70 countries, TechTV is also the world’s largest producer and distributor of programming about technology.
Copyright TechTV 2003 TechTV Inc. All rights reserved.



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