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COW Blogs : Mike Cohen's Blog : television
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Last season I started watching Terminator; The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The first episode was not impressive, but it got better and is now a pretty good show. You certainly need to leave your logical mind at the door, but it is fun. This week's episode takes its cue from past seasons of 24, also on FOX. The episode had fewer commercial breaks, all of them from Dodge, promoting the very truck featured in the show. Seriously, most people I know fast forward through the commercials anyway.

Here is the problem for me. Sarah, John and Derek Reese (Michael Biehn's brother) are on the run from both the law and the various pre-Ahnold Terminator models (if these things are made in a factory, why do they all look different?). However the cars they drive get nicer with each episode, culminating this week with the exact same Dodge pickup being promoted in the commercials. Presumably they steal a new vehicle whenever they need one, but this pushes the limits of believability (in a show about cyborgs from the future).If you want to be inconspicuous, don't drive around the latest model. Didn't these people see Goodfellas?

Now no one believes the show is a real life documentary, but a certain suspension of disbelief applies to any dramatic show. Once you see the proscenium arch, if you will, you are disengaged  from the action and you realize you are watching a tv show. Blatant product placement is one way to break that 4th wall and remind the viewer that they are watching a car commercial in the guise of a tv show. I don't think the show has completely jumped the shark, but it comes close.

On the other hand, we all realize that these shows are expensive to produce. However, most action sequences take place on deserted roads, in abandoned factories or inside homes. Thus far, the show has avoided any big action pieces from a Michael Bay movie, thus cutting costs. Someone has to pay for these free shows.

Lately I have been watching videos on Hulu.com. The website has made deals with studios and networks, to give away content, much like broadcast television, only with limited commercials. I predict that one day, individual shows will be subscription based. You only pay for what you want to watch. iTunes does this, but as an option to watch shows previously on broadcast channels at no charge. I see that one day the free broadcasts will go away, because the audience will be so fragmented that advertisers won't want to waste their money. Instead of paying $59 a month for every channel, why not pay $10 a month for a connection, then an incremental charge per program viewed, up to a limit selected by the viewer. You never know.


Posted by: Mike Cohen on Oct 7, 2008 at 2:59:34 pmComments (1) television
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John McCain's Five O'Clock Shadow

As many readers know, Richard Nixon famously lost the first televised debate against John Kennedy because his five o'clock shadow made him look old and haggard on television.

Tonight we had the first Presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. I'd like to offer a few observations, taken straight from Intro to TV Production 101, a course which the campaigns and tv networks ought to revisit.

The last live Presidential debate that appeared on American television was between Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda. I think it was a draw, like most debates full of talking points, sound bites and cliche. Perhaps Smits had a slight advantage given Alda's diminished bump after naming Jamie Farr his running mate.

The stage set seems to be a universal fixture of all debates, whether on a fictional tv show or in real life, which lately has resembled a fictional tv show. Tradition is all well and good, but the setup of two podiums and moderator in the middle is not conducive to direct debate between the two candidates. As observed tonight, the candidates tend to respond to the moderator, and look not at each other but at the moderator. The problem with this from a pure tv production point of view, is that eye-lines are off kilter and sometimes reversed. As the following screen shots depict:

Here, the two candidates are looking at Jim Lehrer during a question, or perhaps responding to the tally light on the wide shot camera. Looks ok.

Next, we see Obama, on house right (stage left) speaking. He correctly alternated between looking at the moderator and at his opponent.

Although not always:

Next we have McCain who must hate Obama, because he tried very hard to never look directly at him, and most of the time was looking to his left, which is a bit odd for someone on the left side of the stage (house left, stage right)

However, to be fair, the podiums (podiae?) are angled on stage, so the speakers are half facing each other with an easy view of the moderator, and presumably, offering the left and right sided cameras a 2/3 view of their heads, rather than a head on or profile. Thus, when McCain appears to be looking to his left, he is really looking at a right angle from the stage to the moderator, while Obama has a more flattering position at his angled podium, looking to the right to view both McCain and the moderator.

This situation is made worse by the split screen view, showing one candidate's reactions (McCain smirking, Obama nodding and making notes) while the other is speaking.

See what I mean. If McCain was not interested in facing Obama, his disadvantageous stage position made his intellectual position magnified. Thus, McCain's inferior stage position could be his five o'clock shadow, making him look even more disengaged than he really is.

The cardinal rules of the vectors is basic TV 101. Even though the speakers and cameras were positioned to maintain the integrity of the vectors, the podium angulation combined with the split screen, and a real or implied decision by McCain to avoid eye contact with Obama worked to McCain's disadvantage. Such observations are lost on the average tv viewer, however the average tv viewer's brain interprets subtle nuances without the conscious mind's involvement. Perhaps in the next debate McCain will get the superior stage left podium, just to be fair.

The other cardinal rule of television that struck me almost immediately was McCain's tie. Sure HDTV and digital televisions do not have the moire problems of analog television, but I and about 200 million of my closest friends still have analog televisions. Again, while the vibration of the lines on his tie may be lost to the average viewer, it can be subliminally disconcerting. Obama's people must have a copy of the Herbert Zettl classic Introduction to Television Production. Aside from the dated pictures of porta-pak u-matic cameras and 2 inch quad machines, the fundamental aesthetic principles are sound.

McCain's tie (oh my eyes. Pay no attention to the scan lines from my digital camera)

Obama's tie - still a pattern but no wavy lines

Finally to the journalism aspect of the debate. Jim Lehrer of PBS attempted to get the candidates to address one another, to no avail. I don't know if he was trying to make them take a swing at each other or what, but Obama and McCain acted like two kids on the first day of school being pushed towards each other by their parents, "Go on Johnny, say hi to the nice little boy. That's it, he won't bite."

Finally the gloves came off and the two men started getting into a proper debate. But when things started to get interesting, Lehrer moved on to another topic.

A good start, but we really need to see the two candidates (plus third party candidates should they be acknowledged by network television) on a stage with full camera coverage, but no moderator. Let them show that they are educated adults who can have a civilized debate without any hand holding. One might argue that a debate needs a moderator. But I would argue that the moderated debates of recent history have discouraged any useful dialogue - useful that is to the viewer.

As my college journalism professor used to say, ask real questions and then let people give real answers. Sound bites are ok for the nightly news, but voters want substatial discussion, something that is absent from most political discourse.

Thanks for reading.

Mike

 

 


Posted by: Mike Cohen on Sep 26, 2008 at 9:45:12 pm television
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This Just In...There are other Olympic events besides Swimming!

Ok, maybe that headline was a bit sarcastic, but I have just returned from a 20 mile bike ride (inspired by watching the Olympic bike event) so I am a bit oxygen deprived. Bear with me.

What I am getting at is a review of the NBC Olympic coverage.

Let's start with the opening ceremonies - China's so called coming out party. Whatever.

It was certainly spectacular with very nice tv coverage. But seriously, I could live without Matt Lauer's incessant political commentary. We know, Iraq, Iran, North Korea etc all have problems. We get enough of that from the regular news. Same goes for you Brokaw! Let Bob Costas talk about sports and shut your traps for once.

Ok, got that off my chest.

I seem to recall Lauer and Costas trying to suggest that the "footprint" fireworks were in fact being shown on tape, but this comment was not mentioned a few days later when "footprint-gate" revealed the truth about the opening ceremonies. I'm not sure if this was the US media trying to discredit China or what, but everyone knows these types of events are designed for television. And as we COW members know, live television does not always go according to plan.

Took a few paragraphs to make this post somewhat relevant to our readers, thanks for sticking with this.

Next on to the 12 hour time delay. China is 12 hours ahead of the east coast of the US, approximately. Thus, US Prime Time is actually 8am China time, which is ok because a lot of big events seemed to happen in this time slot. Thus, we can in fact watch live events without staying up until 3am.

The only problem with live events is, of course, commercials. The same 10 commercials it seems. The most interesting commercial was this morning (or last night/tomorrow morning - now I'm getting confused). The moment after Michael "Superman" Phelps won his 247th gold medal, there was a Visa commercial, narrated by Morgan Freeman, congratulating him. This shows some good planning on the part of Visa and NBC.

Speaking of Gold Medals, I say this every 2 years during the Olympics. Why must tv commentators focus so much on the Gold? Winning a Silver or Bronze is still pretty darn good. I'll take 3rd place in the world, thank you very much. Here's what I mean:

Swimming Expert 1, "And here comes Joe Schmoe, less than 100 meters left, he's faltering. Not sure he has what it takes to get the gold. What do you think?"

Swimming Expert 2, "I agree. Joe won't be getting the Gold at this games. And China takes the Gold, US gets the Silver and Mexico the Bronze. Ohh, poor Joe Schmoe. He must be so disappointed."

Expert 1, "You're right. To come all this way and only get the silver. What a loser. He should just drop out of the games."

Expert 2, "I'm standing here with Joe Schmoe, his dreams of Gold squashed by his Chinese rival. You must be so disappointed and heartbroken."

Joe Schmoe, "Actually, Silver is pretty awesome. And the US team has broken 10 world records. So I can't complain."

Expert 2, "But what about that elusive Gold. Don't you just feel like dying?"

Joe Schmoe, "No, it's ok. The Chinese put up a good fight. I'm just honored to be here."

Expert 2, "Oh. Ok. I see..um, back to you."

Luckily, my non-TiVo DVR lets me pause live tv, thus allowing me to watch time shifted live tv, eliminated commercials and horrible commentary as illustrated. And, just this morning, in the case of the US women's basketball team wiping the floor with New Zealand(the whole country, not just their team), I could fast forward through the second half to get the final score of 900 to 50. Good effort New Zealand. Even better effort Diana Taurasi (of UCONN fame!).

____

What I am getting at, tv commentators, is you need to be a bit more optimistic. Just being in the Olympics is an honor. There is no need to sensationalize everything. But then, it is the job of network TV to sensationalize everything. What do I expect.

Wow, that was pessimistic! 

This year, NBC has a great website for the Olympics.

http://www.nbcolympics.com/video/index.html

In fact, assuming the Silverlight servers are not choking like they were last night, it can be a better experience than watching television.

You can watch the live broadcasts, including having any 4 feeds going at once, not that this is very useful, but it seems to be a selling point of Silverlight vendors. Silverlight, by the way, has pretty darn good streaming video quality. Once you are able to use a non Microsoft tool to create Silverlight content, it may give Flash a run for its money. But don't hold your breath.

Back to my point about the website. You can choose to watch time delayed live events, and here's the best part...WITHOUT COMMENTARY. There is a God.

Call it the unfiltered version of the Olympics. The C-SPAN of sports. The Italian Stallion..oh wait, still oxygen deprived. Sorry.

The other piece of good technology application is NBC's DirecTv Olympics menu. You can hit the red button on the DirecTv remote and reveal an on demand menu system.

 

You have instant viewing of the current schedule, with instant access to the NBC channels without going to the usual program guide or remembering the channel numbers. You also have a medal count, and a daily trivia game.

This could be a preview of good things to come in the slow amalgamation (convergence for those in the industry) of internet and television.

Speaking of convergence, when I am not watching the Olympics, riding my bike or reading the COW, I am at my new favorite website, Hulu.com. This site has very good quality Flash video of hundreds of old and current tv shows and some decent and not so decent movies, with limited commercial interruption. For example, I watched the entire 3 season run of Arrested Development(not all in one go, it took me at least two sessions), and am now working on Burn Notice, with the occasional episode of Emergency or Galactica 80 thrown in for good emasure. Ok I was kidding about Galactica 80, but it is there if you want it. If I had my computer hooked up to my television, the site would be even better. Netflix sells a $99 box that lets you stream movies to your tv, but 80% of the on demand Netflix movies are not movies anyone would ever watch.

Ok, a slight divergence to talk about convergence, but the overall goal of this post was to use the Olympics and related web based video programming to show the good, the bad and the ugly of live and non-live television. Hey, I think I just found my next movie to watch.

Thanks for reading.

 


Posted by: Mike Cohen on Aug 17, 2008 at 5:05:28 pm television
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I love it when a plan comes together...

I chose the famous Hannibal Smith line from the A-Team because that's what happened today. As related in my previous post, i have been planning a weekend bonanza of shooting, here in Sunny, altitudinal Denver, CO.

The three of us on this shoot woke around 3am Connecticut time, which is a few minutes earlier than Eastern Daylight time, and high-tailed it to the airport in the torrential rain. For those who have not been to Hartford's airport, it is a time warp. If you are flying Southwest, United, Northwest, Delta or Air Jamaica, you depart via the new glass and steel terminal 3, reminiscent of the Deep Space Nine space station, complete with MSNBC store, a Brooks Brothers store should you need a $75 dress shirt at 5:30am and numerous coffee bars. If you are flying American, aside from paying the new innovative $25 for the first checked bag plus $125 for each additional bag fees, you walk into terminal 1 and are instantly transported to 1985 - no Delorean time vehicle required.

Hartford's Terminal 1 brings back special memories for me. In college Advanced TV production, we had the nonsensical assignment to create an airport scene within the confines of the tv studio. The intent of the professor, who was in fact a great mentor, was to learn how to use tv studio techniques to create a scene and set a mood without actually building a set. Well, my assigned partner (drug addict) and I (geek) took a brief road trip up to terminal 1 armed with a Hi8 camcorder. We filmed various scenes and recorded some NAT sound. Upon review of the tape, we decided to create the monitor wall with the well known American Airlines red white and blue wall stripes. We settled on just the lower half, from a few inches above the stripes down to the floor. A visit to Home Depot and $100 later we had all the makings of the set piece. It was beautiful. It weighed more than me (in 1992 I did not weigh very much, but you get my point).

We had to transport it from my meth-addicted partner's apartment to the tv studio on the roof of my roommate's station wagon. When the evening of our shoot arrived, we recruited my other roommates to act, from the waist down (oddly, I did not think to invite the women's volleyball team), and walk back and forth in front of the wall, as we played the NAT sound off an audio cart (remember those 8-track-like endless loops?). The big moment was when my roommate Pete, who was planted dead center leaning against the wall, looked up, as if looking at the arrivals monitor, we cut to a still store image of the monitor, captured at the airport, then cut back to the master shot to finish the scene. It was cinema magic. It is rumored that Spielberg was inspired to make The Terminal after catching a clip of this production on Compuserve (this was 1992 remember.)

Incidentally, I never got the $50 my partner owed me, although he offered me several bong hits as a consolation. I refused and left with my pride.

So getting back to Hartford's Bradley Field, we arrived at the gate and found the only food available were hot dogs and bagel sandwiches. Not a fan of microwaved egg patties, I went for the hot dog - not just for dinner anymore! The first flight to Dallas was uneventful, although 3.5 hours of uneventful while squeezed into 737-300 steerage is pretty dismal. The connection in Dallas, complete with Au bon Pan chocolate croissant (best chocolate croissant) and chef's salad, it was onto the Denver flight, a mere 2 hours. I always cringe when boarding an MD-80 series aircraft - these suckers are old with cockpits reminiscent of the Memphis Belle, and their history of failed acme screws in the tail. But alas we arrived safely in the Mile high city, and thank goodness John McLane was able to restore the correct ILS altitude settings!

Luggage claim was surprisingly efficient and our minivan easily held all of our gear.

We have always flown with our own luggage carts. We used to have some very sturdy carts, but thanks to TWA we no longer have these. Then around 2000 I discovered the Rock-n-Roller cart. Any production crew that does not have one of these should get one. This cart, pictured below, is one sturdy hunk of metal. I replaced the balloon tires with solid plastic wheels but every other part is factory. This thing is indestructable - 8 years of baggage handlers have not destroyed it yet!

We next proceeded to Film/Video Service Inc to pickup our Arri kits, batteries and LCD monitors. Given the high luggage fees, it made sense to rent this stuff on site. Note to anyone renting lighting kits - bring your own gels, C47's and extension cords - or be prepared to pay for each additional item. You've gotta pay someone no matter what you are doing!

Hampton Inn near the Capitol is very nice and modern. The breakfast, usually pretty nice, was fair. The scrambled egg nuggets may very well have been the leftover egg patties from Hartford, sent through a wood chipper and sent via Ace Ventura's shipping service to Denver. Pretty dismal!

Friday night, despite the 3am start time, we hit a Rockies - Milwaukee game. The dinner of beer and stadium meat-like products was perhaps not the best choice after a day of airport food, but adding insult to injury is sometimes a choice we humans make. No harm done, the aforementioned scrambled egg nuggets removed any doubt that a culinary mistake had been made.

Finally this morning arrived at the local Hospital around 7:30 and the shoots went as planned - perhaps even better. The Anton Bauer Dionic batteries, though small in size, powered my DVCPRO camera and attached audio receivers for about 3 hours per battery, including about 1 hour of shooting to 2 hours of standby time. Very good indeed.

 

I shot a video on preparing pediatric patients for surgery, with the help of a local audio engineer, while my two colleagues shot a video on operative patient positioning, with the help of a male and female model in their best leotard attire. Something for everyone.

Finally for dinner we hit a brew pub near the stadium, then Cheesecake factory for get this - cheesecake - and drinks, then back to hotel, so we can do this all again tomorrow.

I've said it before and I'll say it a gain - I love it when a plan comes together!

Thanks for reading.

Mike


Posted by: Mike Cohen on Jun 7, 2008 at 10:19:03 pm television
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Learning by Watching Television

This blog post will focus on what we can learn by watching different genres of television.

Specifically, what do I learn from watching television? And what can I apply to my career?

Network Drama Series

A series I have watched every season is 24. If you can get over the absurdity of one guy doing all of these extraordinary things in one day (such as driving anywhere in LA in less than an hour), one can learn some useful techniques.

For example, most scenes have a master shot, generally a wide shot, as well as a B camera on shaky-cam closeups. You occasionally see another shot of the same scene but from farther away, to suggest someone else's perspective, or usually to suggest that there is something shady going on.

I have several shoots per year where we are in an OR or a trauma room. We give the "actors" a scenario and suggested dialogue, then we roll 2 or 3 cameras, sometimes hand-held, sometimes locked down, sometimes on sticks but following on a medium shot, sometimes up high on a wide shot. Then we make some suggestions and shoot it again, sometimes the whole sequence, sometimes just the parts we need. Sometimes just with one hand held camera. Then of course the insert shots as needed, usually an on the fly decision.

Cooking Shows

Aside from my girlfriend threatening to move back home if I forced her to eat burned chicken ever again, Jamie Oliver is the reason I got interested in cooking. Luckily I learned how to cook and my girlfriend became my wife!

Jamie Oliver's original Naked Chef shows were shot in his home kitchen with 2 handheld cameras - one on a wideshot, on on closeups. You sometimes could hear the producer asking him questions, giving the show a very unrehearsed feeling, and you really felt like this was a regular guy cooking in his kitchen. We also got to see him visiting his local produce, butcher and fish sellers and pick out the ingredients. As the seasons progressed, Jamie's home kitchen seemed to evolve. One such kitchen was difficult to discern whether this was his actual apartment or some fake kitchen. Regardless, his shows continued to be enthralling, with a very casual production style.

His recent show, Jamie at Home, is more of the same, but with some unique additions. For one, Jamie now has a country house with an amazing garden. Each episode is dedicated to one ingredient - and he cooks something in the backyard, something in the kitchen and something out in the woodshed on a wood stove. Very rustic. This show is shot with a wide shot, a closeup, and an extreme closeup camera which does sweet subtle little dolly shots of an ECU of whatever he is doing - chopping veg, plating his food or dressing a salad. I wonder if this all happens in real time, or if they pause the action to get these ECU shots.

On the other end of the spectrum is Everyday Italian. I am not so sure what dishes are being prepared, that is, the presenter is eye candy enough. This show is shot in a real house, which the producers take over for the entire season, using the garage as a prep area. The show is shot film style - One camera on a wide shot, all the way through. Then they do everything again to get closeups of the presenter and closeups of the food prep and cooking and plating. Shows like this have been called "food porn" because of the extreme closeups of moist luscious food, the sensual description and handling, the obvious shots of Giada licking her lips, looking at the camera in a flirtatious manner and the use of extreme closeup sound - you hear every nuance of the food being cut, chopped, squished and beaten.

I'm feeling a little excited, aren't you?

So how can I learn from these shows? Surgical education uses aspect of the wide shot, closeup and extreme closeup, highly descriptive audio and retakes. Well, most of the time surgery does not give the opportunity for retakes, although it has happened.

Nursing education and other hands-on training, however, is often done with mockups and simulation, so wide shot, medium, closeup of the same actions is the norm. Granted this is the norm for most production, but the application and technique differ based upon the subject matter.


Posted by: Mike Cohen on Feb 22, 2008 at 6:52:00 pm television
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Internships Part 2 - Insert Clever Subtitle Here

If you have already read my first post on internships, thanks for coming back.

At the conclusion of Fall semester of Junior year of college, with two news internships under my belt, it was time to take a semester and get our student tv network off the ground, and on the air. I actually used that cheesy line in a story!

Anyway, during Fall 1992 we worked each week to create a few news packages, learn something about video journalism, and practice the really challenging part, pulling together a 30 minute live newscast. Our campus had recently installed a cable system, free to all on-campus residents (I guess it was not so much free as included with the room and board.)

The campus TV studio, built in 1992, purchased a modulator for cable channel 2. Hence, we became Channel 2 News on the Student Television Network (STN).

My job during the week was to shoot and edit a package, and on live show day I was the technical director during the show.

Remember we were figuring this out as we went along. The few of us who had done news or sports internships set the rules, and tried to teach our classmates what we had learned. I say classmates, but this was an extracurricular club. We had received an inital $17,000 from the student activities council which paid for a 2-CCD Panasonic SVHS camcorder, an SVHS editing deck, microphones, tripods and blank tapes. Luckily the tv studio was fully equipped with U-Matic decks and all the bells and whistles needed for the live broadcast. So we shot on SVHS, but cut our stories on U-Matic.

The first live broadcast was in January or February 1993. I had the lead story, something about Clinton allowing Gays in the Military. I interviewed a history professor who was in the Navy in WWII and an openly gay humanities professor about their opinions. I used some stock footage from CNN and did the obligatory stand-up intro and outro. The famous line "what the President says......goes" became my catch phrase for the rest of college.

Our weather segment often included a celebrity weather person. This first show had Beasley Reece, the former sports anchor from WVIT in hartford and former New York Giant. Because of the difficulty of getting people comfortable with Chroma Key, we did the weather segment on tape. When we recorded Beasley before the broadcast, we did 2 takes, because the 1st take had a technical error. Unfortunately during the live broadcast, the tape was cued to the 1st take, so we had to quickly cut to commercial then try again. Then we edited the show for future broadcasts. We had one half hour show per week, so we re-ran the broadcast a lot!

Ah, live tv!

Over the coming weeks we perfected our craft, and I did some very interesting stories. One idea I had was to do a story about the blood drive, while having blood drawn myself. Much to my dismay, just the sight of blood being drawn on others was enough to make me queasy. Little did I know that a year later I would be videotaping surgery for a living. More on this later!

What's all this got to do with internships anyway?

School got out, I moved into on-campus apartment housing, and began my Summer 1993 excitement.

I was staying on campus for the Summer, so I worked several jobs plus my 3 day per week intership at Cox Cable Advertising, then known as Dimension Media Services. I should call your attention to the fact that this facility was about a mile away from my future wife's house, although we had not met yet. Perhaps one day my subconscious memory of seeing her at the grocery store buying some cold cuts will come back to me, but nothing yet!

Responsibilities included updating the weekly tapes for the head end. This was a pre-striped 60 minute U-Matic with tones before each 30 second spot. I and the other intern had to replace old spots with new ones at the appropriate spot using an insert edit. This was before commercials were run off a server. Every Friday one of us would drive to the Head End in Meriden and deliver the new tapes and take back the previous set to be updated the next week.

The rest of our time was spent going on shoots for the free 30 second commercial local advertisers get with their advertising contract, and helping to edit some spots. One interesting weekly spot was the IGA donut. The intro and tag were the same, but there was space in the middle for video of that week's special, such as milk, eggs or steaks. We would go down to the IGA supermarket, pick up a sample of the special product, then shoot video of it. Pretty exciting stuff!

I have to say this internship was not that exciting.

One piece of potential excitement came with the arrival of the Matrox Hybrid editor. It was essentially a pc controlled editing system. Think of it as an early Tricaster, only one which controlled the decks. It didn't work very well.

I mentioned living on campus, since this internship was in Cheshire, CT and I was from Massachusetts. I worked part time as a TV studio assistant, helping to organize the tape library using MS Access, giving tours to potential students and their families, and I got to be a teaching assistant for one class during the Summer term. And I got paid!

Another on-campus job that Summer was working as an usher for the on-campus theater. This was easy work, and I got to stand right in front of the stage for such acts as Suzanne Vega, Phish, Squeeze and Wynton Marsalis. I guess this would be a good spot to say I was a volunteer usher at the Tweeter Center in Massachusetts the previous year, and saw some concerts including Huey Lewis and the News, Paul McCartney and Yes. Hey, it was the early 90's!

Yet another on-campus job was an AV tech for an auditorium in the Communications building. This was easy but occasionally a nightmare. Main problem was messed up wiring in the booth.

Once the Fall 1993 semester began, Senior Year, I had a full plate.

Main Dish - Channel 2 News, General Manager, News Director. We now had a full crew of talent and technical people and new recruits. I and the producers came up with the rundown, assigned the stories, did stories of our own, assisted others with editing and got ready for Friday's live show. Now granted a half hour show is usually produced in a half day, but we all had classes, internships, relationships, job searches, sports and paying jobs, so it was a challenge to make it all come together.

A few technical notes. Our switcher was a simple 1 bus, 16 input analog switcher, with 1 linear keyer and one downstream keyer for supers. My technical mentor Mike told me "if you can run a switcher, you can do pretty much anything." He was right. Setting up a downstream and linear key in the preview bus, taking the effect simultaneous with changing camera inputs, then losing first the super then the OTS graphic in a smooth operation is enough to rewire anyone's brain for logical thought and fast thinking.

Our paintbox was an old school unit with a tablet. The video input was black and white, which was ok for text, but not so good if you wanted to create an over the shoulder graphic with a color picture in it. Never fear, I was there. Using a combination of video stills pulled either off the deck with dynamic motion heads or from the frame synch, I captured the still into the Abekas still store. This resulted in a full frame image. To make it more stylized, I would superimpose the output of the paintbox as a linear key over the still store and paint a black mask over the areas I want to key out. Then I would route this live composite to the 2nd channel of the still store and grab that image. Then I would put that image in the primary still store channel, and key color graphics and Chyron over the first composite to create a 2nd composite and grab that into the 2nd still store channel as the final graphic. During the show I would load the graphic, route it to the DVE, position it over the shoulder in the preview monitor, then key out the black using the linear keyer to get a non-square superimposed color OTS graphic. Today you just use Photoshop, but in 1993 that was science fiction!

The paintbox and Chyron were working great until each one decided to short circuit on different occasions. The paintbox we replaced with a PC based system which ws sweet and did all the color compositing we wanted. The Chyron had to be sent out for repairs, which was actually before the original paintbox died. So using the black and white copy stand camera, we captured our supers the old school way from cards printed in large font on a laser printer. Each one was captured to the still store, then using the linear keyer and the matte generator we had decent temporary supers.

I could go on, but that will suffice.

Side Dish 1 - Serial Drama Production. Many moons ago a serial drama production class (aka, MOW) was proposed. A former student wrote a script and it was tucked away in the theater chair's desk for future use. This semester there was enough interest in this class, from all the same Seniors who were busy with the newscast by the way, so we went for it. First we all volunteered for positions. I chose lighting director because that was an area I needed practice with. The only person who wanted to be director was the only person who had time for that role. The guy who shall remain nameless was our newscast producer, a relatively poor student who did not actually graduate, and was sort of an idiot. Like the drug addict mentioned in an earlier post, I'm sure he is a responsible adult person these days, but at the time we all complained about him a lot. Luckily a director is only as good as his crew, and we were a good crew!

"Into the Night with Righteous Wright." A story about a on-campus radio host who solves crimes, or some idiodic idea, was our script. Each weekend during the semester, after we were all exhausted from the newscast and other activities, we devoted about 24 hours to shooting this movie around campus. First we held auditions. A few actors were from Hartford College for Women, our sister school, there were a few adults, and a few U of H students. A few crew membersincluding myself had background parts. Say what you will about college actors and our script, every setup was a learning experience, all going into the master database of stored experiences for future reference.

Perhaps in a future post, if I find a good bottle of Merlot, I will recount scene by scene the experience. For now just a few highlights will do.

The exterior establishing shots were shot on another campus which was more college-like than our 1950's campus. The Radio station scenes were shot both in the campus radio station, WSAM, and the audio booth of the tv station. The fraternity house exterior was the Dean's house. We shot this night for night, which was a mistake. All the lights in the universe could not make the whole house look good. By the way we were shooting with a Hitachi Z1 (ironic that the very popular Sony HDV camera of today is also the Z1).

The interior of the Fraternity house was the basement rec room of one of the on-campus dorms. In scouting this location someone forgot to consider how our wheelchair bound audio engineer would get to the basement location, so he had to miss that day.

The library scene was shot in corner of the library. Every minute or so there was a loud plumbing noise, so that 2 minute scene took hours to get right.

By the time we wrapped in December no one wanted to think about this project again, so the tapes went into a box and were stashed right next to the Ark of the Covenant never to be seen again.

One night just before graduation, I returned a camera to the studio around 11pm, and having no plans for the rest of the night, I opened the boxes of 20 minute U-Matic tapes, found the logs, and cut the show in one edit on the cuts only edit bay. At 7am I made some VHS dubs and went to bed. Come to think of it, I did not went to bed, but actually loaded my car with some unneeded stuff from my dorm and drove back to Massachusetts for the weekend. I do not recommend driving 150 miles on no sleep.

Last year I decided to tweak some edits of this show and put it on YouTube. Here is part one if anyone is interested. Remember this was made by a bunch of 21 year olds on a tube camera - could use some color correction!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IyhDlsCyvhw

Dessert - Post-production editing Class

Before 1993, apparently, there was never enough interest to warrant more than 3 produciton classes. Our same group of overachievers plus some art students enrolled in the Post-Production class. This one was taught by the Art School's video instructor Gene. Those of us in the art school video program were accustomed to making video art pieces. Those of us in a broadcast video program were not. Again, it was a good learning experience.

Lessons included the use of an EDL. If using a cuts only system, we were told to submit an EDL before being allowed to do our edit. If using the online edit system, which I and one other guy knew how to use, the computer would generate an EDL up to 1000 lines, or less. It was a Paltex Abner. The primary feature of this edit controller seemed to be making head switches on the wrong field, making match frame editing a laborious process. It once took me 8 hours to cut a 15 second spot, just because I wanted to use dissolves. Anyone under 21 who is reading this had better go out and read Droidmakers which gives a great history of nonlinear editing. This unit was linear editing at its worst!

At the time we all thought making an EDL was an unneccessary skill to learn. However a year later when I started doing editing at my job, using the ACE 25, the value of an EDL became apparent. In performing 2nd and 3rd edits on cuts only surgery edits, I could in fact do the edit using only the EDL without looking at the video, then ripple the edit and let the machine perform the EDL in a hands-off manner. Sweet.

We had to learn how to place GPI triggers in the editing instructions. A GPI was a signal which let the edit controller trigger the cut or dissolve or take buttons of the switcher, so that at the initiation of the edit, the effect would go at the right moment. I could draw you a diagram if you need it!

We also had acquired a D/ESAM - digital edit suite audio mixer. This was a precursor to today's control surfaces for DAW software like Cakewalk or Protools. This little cash register sized unti actually was an audio mixer which would remeber your moves during preview, and then using GPI make the moves during the edit. This was good on paper!

Assignments included: Record a audio only poem or other production. Then we all were randomly given someone else's audio track to create visuals. Another assignment was to create 1 minute of raw video and turn it into a 3 minute finished piece using artistic/technical processes. My neighbor played the piano so I had him play some notes and speak some lines so I could cut them together.  The final project was whatever we wanted to do, as long as we used some post-produciton editing skills, such as dissolves, effects, audio mixing or color correction (TBC, nothing too fancy). I simulated a virtual reality fly through of my apartment building, with my roommate playing his guitar for the soundtrack.

I shall try to find some of my projects and post links.

Some extra-extra-curricular learning courtesy of the studio technician included timing decks, using a waveform and vectorscope, wiring up a portable live production rack, and general studio maintenance. He also took me on field trips to see a demo of SGI computers and the AVID Roadshow where the Media Composer was first demonstrated to the masses.

The Travelers TV studio experience discussed in an earlier post was during this time also. Apparently I found time to eat, sleep and pass my classes. I seem to remember some exhaustion setting in around October. Actually some photos of me from this time show that perhaps I was not doing much eating!

Late Night Snack - 3 days a week my Spring semester of Senior year - 1994 - I worked as an intern at Visual Concepts Media, one of the top corporate communicationsoutfits in all the land. Started by a tv reporter and news shooter, they did high end work for CT based companies such as United Technologies, Hueblein, Duracell and Pilot Pen.

I was told "if we find you invaluable, we'll hire you when you graduate," as they had done with their AVID editor two years earlier. It didn't pan out, but that is ok.

My first day on the job I got to use Armor All to clean bird droppings off of video and audio cables from a shoot done over the weekend in a factory. Hopefully it was not a food factory!

Each week I did mundane tasks like duping tapes, semi-interesting tasks like creating b-roll tapes for online edit sessions, sitting and watching the AVID editor edit, and really fun activities like going out on shoots. Here I learned some great lighting skills, how to conduct an interview and how to work with talent. We did some interesting shoots for Jose Cuervo, shooting margarita's and food. We did a cool shoot for an insurance company, with a dolly and film-style crew. This job was most similar to my career, so over the years I have referred to these experiences most of all.

Upon graduation I secured an entry level duping job. For the first 3 months I went on medical shoots around the country, learning the craft which I still practice today. Then came my big break re-editing a very complex video on an unknown to me Ampex editing system. Luckily the experiences discussed in these posts were just the preparation I needed.

Thanks for reading.

Mike

 

 

 


Posted by: Mike Cohen on Jun 28, 2007 at 10:38:20 am television
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Internships are great

I had four, count 'em 4 internships in college. Aside from eliminating 4 semester-long classes from my schedule, they were one and all great experiences.

My sophomore year I attended a 4 week evening seminar, open to the public, given by the Hartford Ad Club - a consortium of ad agencies. Each class covered a different aspect of advertising, including guest speakers. One such speaker was from the local CBS affiliate WFSB. She arranged an interview for me with the News Director, or managing editor, or some such position, for an internship the next semester, Fall of my junior year.

Upon learning I got the internship at the assignment desk (at this point I did not know much about the news business), the semester ended and I went home. I should mention that by this time I had already secured a Summer internship working for the WCVB Mid-day news. I grew up watching WCVB in Boston so this was a dream come true. The folks at channel 5 were impressed someone so young was doing a Summer internship. So was I.

As Mid-day news intern, I worked Mon, Wed and Fri from 8:30am to 12:30pm. Basically the prep time for the Noon newscast, and the newscast itself.

Remember I was very green, so it was trial by fire.

My main jobs were:

1. Receive rundown from associate producer.

2. Prepare stories from morning newscast which were to be re-used at noon. Find the tape, cue it up, prepare a cue sheet, order supers and turn this in to the playback engineer.

3. Prepare new VO stories. Receive copy from producer or anchor. Log field tape if a new story, or search for and cue up stock footage from the library if a continuing story. Having not yet learned anything about editing in my college classes, it took some time for me to get the hang of matching picture to VO, plus pre-roll and pad at the end. But I figured it out. I also learned not to give a box of stock footage to the satellite truck driver just before it rolls away.

4. Assist with preparation of VO/SOT. Same as number 3, plus submitting supers to the Chyron operator. Learned a valuable lesson about checking spellings BEFORE air. If you are unsure, ask and ask again.

5. The real scramble came around 11:30am. Once the script for the show was finalized, it was printed on a 5 or 7 layer carbon printout - remember dot-matrix form feed paper. It was great when the paper ran out mid-print. Whoever invented the dot matrix printer feeding mechanism should be locked up. Once the scripts were printed, I had to rip the pages, collate into stacks, and deliver each color to the correct person - Susan Wornick and Jim Boyd, the anchors (they may still have those jobs 15 years later), the Director, TD, audio, playback, producer and possibly the news Director, can't be sure.

6. An even bigger scramble was the rundown. The final was printed and I had to make enough copies for all the same people. It would have made sense to just hit print 7 or 8 times, but I guess copier toner was cheaper than printer toner. It was not uncommon for one or more copiers to clog or run out of toner at 11:45 or so. One day I found myself in the Traffic department in another part of the building copying rundowns at 11:55am for the noon show. Arggh!

This went on for weeks. Every 4th Friday during the summer the station had a theme cookout and free ice cream truck after the noon broadcast, which was fun.

One day in August I got the opportunity to go in the field with a reporter. This was not part of my normal duties, or even a possibility. Who would give the canary script to Jim if I were out of the office? So I did this on a Sunday, on my own time. No problem there.

I should mention that just before school got out in May, I and a group of students, led by a grad student, had a meeting to plan the first ever U of Hartford live student newscast, to go on the air the following year. So my assignment was to figure out how to run a newscast.

I got to the station at 8am and sat with the assignment director until a story came in. I fire had erupted at one of those big apartment complexes you can see from Rt 128 in the Natick vicinity. I rode with the photog/shooter in his station wagon, and we shot the story sans reporter. He suggested I walk behind the fire chief so I could get in the picture. I made sure to use my walk on when I cut the story for the evening news (no noon show on Sunday).

Next was back to the station. George Bush, the original, was giving a press conference about Iraq. This was Summer of 1992, so airstrikes were periodically sent into Iraq. Must run in the family.

Anyway, David Boeri, the weekend hard news reporter and I went to interview retired general Bernard Trainor in his house. On this task I learned that news shooters are given a camera, a tripod, one Tota light if they are lucky, and a shoddy Ford to get there. So much for the glamrous microwave truck. We interviewed the general, which was cool, then raced back to the station. While David started cutting his story, I manned the satellite feed to log Bush's speech and pick out some sound bites. I also found some cool stock footage of carrier aircraft from the library, and this material then went into the story. I then raced home to watch the newscast with my parents. They were impressed with my day's work, as well as my walk on at the apartment fire.

So by the end of the Summer I had it all figured out. I even learned how to load the printer paper and fix the copier jams without breaking a sweat. I carefully studied the rundowns, cue sheets and logs on each videotape case. I also created my own form to use as a to-do list, and impressed the producer with my creativity. On my final day I got to cut a 2 minute story (the editor does the cutting, but I made all the decisions) and felt like I had figured it all out, and definitely got my money's worth (while the internship was unpaid, it counted towards 3 credits of coursework, which was like $1000.)

Upon my return to Hartford in September, I started my assignment desk internship. By comparison, it was boring. My job one full day per week was to answer the phone, taking phone calls from all the nuts who call reporting UFO sightings. I also had to call each state police barracks and ask if anything interesting happened. Generally the answer was no, and for some reason I dreaded these calls. One time a state police trooper had a finger bitten by a police dog.

One time I answered the phone and it was Oprah. My aunt Franny was impressed!

The union rules at WFSB were more strict than at WCVB, so I was not allowed to touch anything that didn't look like a telephone. Once while logging the daily CONUS feed I ejected a tape and put in the blank one and hit record. The engineer told me, very nicely, DON'T DO THAT AGAIN. Oh bother. So there was no editing for me on this internship.

What I did get to do almost every week was go out in the field with a reporter. I got to hold the microphone or other gear, and actually learned a lot about field reporting and shooting. On one occasion I told the shooter about my advanced tv production class assignment, to which he relied "That is totally useless."

During the Fall of 1992 we covered some political events. On one occasion we interviewed Jesse Jackson who was trying to get African Americans registered to vote in Hartford. That was cool.

Another time Barbara Bush was speaking at some auditorium, so we interviewed her which was very cool. At first the secret service wouldn't let me in the room, but when they asked who I was, they escorted me into the room. The reporter was David Ushery, who is now a big-time reporter with NBC. I think Mrs. Bush smiled at me, or perhaps she had gas!

My final brush with fame was in Woodbridge, CT. A man had killed his wife and child and then shot himself. We raced the satellite rig down and parked out front in the quiet neighborhood. To my dismay, riding in the SNG truck was akin to riding in a U-Haul. We went door to door asking neighbors about the man and got the cliche responses "oh, he was very nice." We waited for hours for the coroner to bring out the body bags. At one point the female reporter caught me taking a wizz in the woods across the street. What was I supposed to do?

Finally out came the bodies, we got our shots. Then Dr. Henry Lee, world famous forensic investigator arrived, and we interviewed him. The reporter was nice enough to introduce me and we shook hands. Sorry Dr. Lee, I had no where to wash my hands :)

Then came the live shot. I learned a valuable lesson as the truck operator was trying to connect to the satellite. If you have an intermittent problem, give the piece of equipment a good whack with your hand and it usually does the trick.

The live shot was around dusk, so I think I held the sun gun and the cell phone during the on camera report. That was cool too.

Finally on my last day, I got the hang of the assignment desk part of the gig, and actually wrote a story which was on the air. At that point I wished I could stay for a few more weeks.

Once the 5:00, 5:30 and 6:00 newscasts began, I had free run of the whole building. I could sit in the studio, stand in the control room or wander around. I was pleased when the news anchor Gerry Brooks knew my name in the elevator, and said he was glad I stopped wearing a suit jacket. For the record I never wore a suit jacket, although I did have a nice selection of ties. This was the best part of my day, because everyone outside the newsroom was very friendly, and was eager to teach me about their jobs. I spent a couple of hours with the online editor, watching him cut Bernies commercials (the local crazy eddie). I became friends with Hilton Kadderly, the local Willard Scott weather guy. He actually taught me a lot about news reporting and also demonstrated the cutting edge 3Dweather computer. I also got friendly with the paintbox operator and was also friendly with another reporter Jeff Cole, who sort of mentored me on a couple of stories. And did I mention I spoke with Oprah? Oh I did, never mind then.

By this time our student news cast was done with weekly rehearsals, we had our very own 2 chip SVHS camera and were going on the air in January. As the most experienced field reporter, I got the biggest news stories on campus. More on this later.

Well, as you can see, hind sight shows just how much I learned from my internships. But I still have 2 more semesters of internships to go over. That will have to wait, Oprah's on the line.

Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

Mike


Posted by: Mike Cohen on Jun 26, 2007 at 6:19:45 pm television
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Live Studio Production

Introduction to Television Production, the first video class in my college curriculum, had an odd approach. You learn the Zetl textbook backwards and forwards. The black and white pictures of a two person ENG team with a hernia-inducing porta-pak system slung over their shoulders seemed pretty cool. Our first assignemtn was to "produce" a "how to" video, as a live to tape 5 minute studio production. "producer" meant "on-air talent." I was my job to write the script, assign each crew member a job and work with the "director" for that project. I was afraid of the director. He turned out to be a good friend later in college, but at the time he was this flannel wearing mountain man with no apparent verbal communication skills.

Anyway, most of the kids did "how to boil pasta" or "how to knit a sweater" or "how to deal crack from your dorm room." Ok the one about knitting a sweater was made up. I mean how could you knit a sweater in 5 minutes.

Being the geek that I was, I decided to do "How to Disarm a Nuclear Bomb." I carefully constructed my prop bomb out of various parts from Radio Shack and some chrome tape from the auto parts department at Ames. To my dismay, I was not allowed to have the chrome parts on camera. "You'll burn the tubes!"

So my bomb looked like a cardboard box with some wires sticking out of it. That being said try getting it on a plane these days.

Since I had written and rehearsed the script, I blew through my prepared material in about 4 minutes. When I saw the dot-matrix printer paper fall away from the teleprompter, I had to start improvising. I will try to post the video on here at some point. Anyway, it was an interesting although somewhat useless experience. The goal was for us to learn the different roles in the tv studio. However there was so much chaos before each show that we all learned how not to do a live show. So I guess we did learn something.

The next semester was Advanced TV Production, also a studio based class.

The first project was a "vignette," that is, a brief video created in the studio, intended to be a convincing representation of another situation. My assignment was "an airport." My partner was a drug addict. Needless to say I kept the power tools away from him. We drove up to our local airport and scoped out all the airport-looking areas. We settled on the monitor wall next to the American ticket counter.

We decided to create the lower half of the wall, have people walking in front of the wall, and we recorded some airport announcements and a shot of the arrivals monitor to use as an insert.

After a trip to my local home center, we built perhaps the most heavy duty prop in the history of television. Our 8 foot wide by 4 foot high airport wall must have weighed 150 pounds. We had to put it on my roommate's station wagon roof to transport it to the studio.

The end result was actually pretty convincing, albeit a bit long. Lesson learned, don't over do things. A sheet of painted luan would have accomplished the same thing for less money, paint, weight and hassle.

The final project was a group drama. We needed to do a live to tape tv show, any genre. Once again, I was given the group of rejects. I wonder what those kids are doing today. )I know one guy is an antiques dealer. It's actually the drug addict from above!) The other group got all the best kids and did a funny sitcom, along the lines of Men Behaving Badly. My professor must have put me in charge of my group because he figured I could carry the team. He was wrong. It was a disaster. Apologies 15 years out to my friends Craig and Atara. You guys were my actors and I put you through agony. That was one tape I did not save.

Over the past two years I have done several live to tape studio shoots. Each experience had lessons of its own, to be discussed in a future post. One of the best experiences was at a college studio in Hartford. One of the staff was the very same guy who did the sitcom described above.


Posted by: Mike Cohen on Jun 25, 2007 at 2:33:55 pmComments (2) television
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I have a passion for my job, which entails training for medical professionals such as surgeons, nurses and administrators, not to mention various industries.

Technology is great, but how you apply your skills is what pays the bills.

Years ago I canceled my Media 100 support contract upon discovering what a treasure trove of helpful advice can be found on the Creative COW website. I am proud to be a part of this fantastic community.

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