Little Voices
San Francisco
By Mark Neuling
Field Camera Operator
I found my usual aerie on the second deck of the train and opened one of the free papers that populate the rail side boxes at my train stop.  Inside of page one there was a full-page ad.  McDonald’s, the giant food chain company and Intel, the giant microchip company, were about to introduce high-speed wireless Internet connections at 75 McDonalds’s restaurants along the West Coast.   Gee I think to myself, this is an interesting story, wonder why we’re not covering it?  It wasn't in our rundown for the day; in fact I had nothing scheduled at all.   My little voice began to whisper to me.
As I generally do when I start the day I load my audio and lighting equipment into the car almost first thing.  When I pass through the newsroom several of the producers are discussing the McDonald’s story.  At this genesis it’s in what they call the “yeah but” stage.  Yeah it’s a good story, but do we have a crew to cover it with and can we make a package out of it.  They’ll discuss it in the 9 a.m. meeting.  It’s exactly the type of story we do.
We don’t cover much in the way of breaking news.  Fires, shootings, arraignments aren’t what we do; there are no scanners in our newsroom.  We don’t cover news in the same sense that a local television station would. Our shoot and story schedules are planned out anywhere from several hours to weeks in advance. 
I’m expecting the call when my phone rings 20 minutes later.  It’s the assignment desk, “Get over to the McDonald’s on Front Street and cover the Wi-Fi press conference.  The address is in the rundown.”  “Who is going to be the reporter on this?” I ask.  “No one else is going,” I’m told.  Cool my little voice tells me, it’ll be a VO, easy to shoot, just get pictures and nat-sound.  The only problem is that it starts in less than 15 minutes; I still need to get directions, load my camera into the car, and then venture into the heart of downtown San Francisco.
Had I not seen the ad in the paper and overheard some of the newsroom chatter I would have been totally out in the cold on this assignment.   Downtown I get lucky and find a parking space in a loading zone just around the corner from the assignment, I’m about ten minutes late.
The public-relations people have a table with handout materials set up outside.  It appears to be relatively quiet, at least out on the sidewalk.   I’ve forgotten my Press Pass at home that morning, but a tripod and TV camera are usually all the identification I ever need, that and an honest face.  Inside the restaurant though five or six television crews are already set up and rolling, several print photographers are standing on chairs getting shots.  A covey of reporters, notebooks in hand are scribbling down notes.  The place is packed with media.   There is a podium, a backdrop with the McDonald’s logo and two wide-screen TV’s for a PowerPoint presentation.   Even Ronald McDonald is there! I’ve got to admit that McDonald’s knows how to hold a press conference.  This is a much bigger deal than I’d anticipated. 
Two more television crews arrive even later than I do.   I shoot the three speakers from the various corporations engaged in this project listening for usable sound bites.   Even while the corporate guys are still braying away I break off to get my b-roll shots.  There are a half dozen people in the restaurant using laptops, wirelessly connected to the Internet.   Maybe one is actually a “real” person.  Never the less this makes for good footage.  There are some good photo-ops, care of Intel marketing, outside on the street.  I shoot the usual exteriors just to cover my backside.
After returning to the station I brief the reporter who will be writing and tracking the story.  She asks if I got any shots of hamburgers?  I pause for a moment,  “Well I did get one shot of a meal being put on a tray, and some shots of people at the counter.”  She seems OK with that but I turn and walk away having a conversation with my little voice about reporters who don’t go on shoots having no say in what gets shot. 
I have a product profile to shoot after lunch.   Most of this package has already been shot but the reporter wants another opportunity at getting some reaction shots not from people, but from their dogs.  The device we’re testing is a gimmick to translate what your dog is saying.  He barks and this gizmo translates his mood.  I don’t make this stuff up.  We’ll be going down by the beach where there’s a large area for dogs to roam off-leash. 
Becky Worley and I work together often; she’s one of my favorite reporters.  She’s intelligent, funny and totally irreverent. Teamwork and experience coupled with trust and certain amount of serendipity can result in some pretty good television.   I rarely laugh at the stories our network airs, especially one’s I’ve shot, but she usually gets a chuckle or two out of me on these crazy stories of hers.
We take Highway 280 towards the beach at Fort Funston; I notice a gray-white plume of smoke rising above the hills.  A grass fire I guess.
These shoots are easy and tricky at the same time.   We have an intern along to help; his job will be to hold a shotgun mic on a boom so that we can get sound from the dogs and their human companions.  My job consists of more than just pointing the camera and composing the shot.  Since Becky will also be wearing a mic there will be two audio channels for me to monitor and if need be adjust.  I need to keep one eye on the intern who’s never done this before, all amidst dogs of all sizes and personalities, some of who are suspicious of strangers with big cameras on their shoulders.  And I’ve got to listen closely to Becky and anticipate what she’s going to say and to whom before she even says it.  Our little voices have to be working in overdrive to pull this off.
The shoot goes pretty well, Becky gets the added sound bites from the humans and reactions from the dogs. The intern has the mic in the near vicinity of where it needs to be.  We even get one funny unplanned moment.  As I’m kneeling in the sand to get a cut-away shot of Becky she suddenly squeals.  One dog owner is furiously calling his dog.  I notice a flash of black fur dart along my left side.   As I to stagger to my feet I keep the camera rolling as Becky, in giggles, attempts to compose herself as a dog has just tried to pee on her cameraman.  Apparently this pooch had decided to define me as his territory and had taken a three-legged stance but decided I wasn’t worth the “effort”.   With that we wrap the shoot.
On the way back to the station I point out that the grass fire we saw an hour or so earlier seems to have gotten even bigger.  Becky decides she wants to go cover it.  She has a story on the tech of fires and thinks maybe we can get some shots.  The little voice says this is not such a good idea, but Becky isn’t a gonzo reporter, she’ll scrub this shoot if we can’t get what we need.  The intern is silent in the backseat.
  So we do what news crews always do when they see smoke, we drive in the direction that it’s coming from.  Since this isn’t the type of story that our coverage normally encompasses our newsroom would be of no help.  We tune the car radio to KCBS- News instead and listen for an update; in a few minutes we get our answer.  Listeners have been phoning the radio station asking about all the smoke blowing across Highway 101.  Supposedly this is a “controlled burn” on San Bruno Mountain.  I turn to Becky, controlled burn my rear end.  I’ve been around controlled burns and if it’s too hot or there’s even the faintest hint of wind they postpone it ‘til another day.  It’s not hot but it’s real windy.  Someone has made an enormous blunder.
We exit the freeway; I know there’s one road up San Bruno Mountain so Becky cracks the map book open and finds the proper route for us to take.  In minutes we come to an intersection where a lone white pickup blocks any further progress.  The trucks agitated driver stands furiously waving back traffic.  I flash my Media Parking Pass at him but it seems to make no impact.  This guy must have taken crowd control lessons from the Marines in Baghdad.  He’s going ballistic on any cars trying to pass.  Give a guy a little power and it goes to head.  Becky gets out of the car and says something to him and he meekly waves us through.
Smoke and ash blow across our windshield, I shut the vents to minimize the smoke inside the car.  Our little trio rolls up the mountainside just a short distance before we come to three or four fire trucks parked by the side of the road.  The lone firefighter won’t let us go any farther.  What we don’t know at the time was that about 15 minutes earlier this fire had been declared out of control and would go to five alarms and burn 30 acres before being contained three hours later.
I don’t see any flames but there is plenty of smoke.  The two fire trucks I parked in front of nearly disappear from view as the smoke billows across the road; they can’t be more than 60 feet from my car.  I can just discern the outline of other fire fighters huddled from the smoke.
Our eyes immediately sting from the acrid smoke when we exit the car.  Becky wants to shoot a stand-up.  The wind is constantly shifting and I can feel the heat from the fire on my neck.  I have no idea what has happened to the intern.  Becky’s eyes water and her mascara runs but we manage four or five tries at the stand-up and decide we’ve had enough.  The little voice says it’s time to leave.  I get a few b-roll shots before we abscond but have no desire for more.
This was one of those days that when I get home and my wife asks me how my day went I tell her, “Had a shoot at McDonald’s in the morning, drove out to the beach after lunch and then got caught in a wildfire on the way back.  By the way honey, I’ve got some laundry that smells a little funky.”  The little voice is still after a full day of having nothing scheduled at all.  The smell of smoke lingers inside the car for more than a week.
Mark Neuling 2003
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

© Mark Neuling 2003
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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