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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Email info: firstname.lastname@example.org
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