Of Mad Monks And High School Rock Bands

It’s really easy to fall into the mindset that “TV production is TV production.” Hey, I’ve been doing this for 25 years now, and I make that mistake all the time. But it really couldn’t be farther from the truth.

After college, I got my start at an ABC affiliate in Orlando, FL, as the lowest-of-the-low: a studio crew member, at first tasked with making sure the several dozen individual pages of teleprompter copy rolled down the conveyor belt in order and on time (and yes, in the early 1980’s that’s what a teleprompter was – a conveyor belt running under a black&white camera.) Of course, this was at 6AM for the morning newsbriefs, so just keeping awake was an integral part of the job. Studio camerawork soon followed. I was blessed with a production manager that, for some unknown reason, liked me, so armed with little more than overweening eagerness, I quickly managed to move over to the field production unit, first as audio operator, and soon enough as a photographer. At this point I had already, and unknowingly, jumped from one side of a fence to the other – from the camera operator that wears a headset and takes direction to the mad monk squadron that is the brotherhood (and, occasionally, sisterhood) of the ENG/EFP shooter.

It wasn’t till much later in my career that I realized these two groups rarely meet, or even have much to talk about. Somehow I had managed to get on some freelance hiring lists for sports productions, and I really developed a taste for it. Televised sports – and most live remote production – follows what I call the “5-S” approach – you “S”how up, you “S”et up, you “S”hoot the game, you “S”trike the gear, and you “S”plit. If you have ever been involved in the editing of a documentary project that suffered revision after revision after revision, you’ll recognize immediately how appealing “5-S” production can be. That’s not to denigrate single-camera, film-style production, which is what ENG/EFP shooting usually is. (Of course, in ENG the script gets written after the shoot, in EFP it’s usually the reverse.) They are just two different techniques, with their own individual strengths and weaknesses.

Why am I going on about this now? Well, my career has taken some interesting twists lately. I have been put in charge of a Sony Anycast Station field production unit – a video switcher, audio mixer, graphics generator and monitoring system in a briefcase-sized box. Basically, it’s a limited-use remote truck without the wheels. At Wisconsin Public Television we’re using it (so far) to record lectures for air on one of our digital multicast channels, under the banner of “University Place.” Sometimes the content is great, compelling stuff; sometimes it ain’t, but there are several imperatives that must be delivered, and Job 1 is good audio. My partner in this endeavor is Steve, a studio director of about the same vintage as me, but his field experience is almost entirely in the live-remote arena. In that corner of the biz, you never go anywhere without scouting your location, so you know exactly what you are getting into. I fully recognize this, but on the other hand, the ENG guy in me bangs his chest Tarzan-style and brays, “I never saw a situation I couldn’t shoot my way out of.” Ooops.

Turns out my quarter-century in broadcasting is not really the skill-set I call on most. It’s the four years or so I spent playing in high-school rock bands. All that time futzing with the PA systems – that no one else in the band wanted to decipher – is the most important experience I bring to bear. If you have to use the audio from a venue that you don’t control, you better be able to figure out if there is an effects bus or some other output on the mixer you can adopt as your own, and you better do it fast. Of course, if you had scouted the location first, you might have prevented that particular bit of pain, but what fun is that? Where’s the tightrope?

Shocking revelation: Tightropes are overrated. My inner mad monk has come to learn that, while running and gunning is a perfectly valid way to do a tape package, knowing what you are getting into is a better plan of attack when there is more than one camera involved. I find this dichotomy rather hard to bridge at times, but then, it’s not all about me. It’s about the show. So schedule that scout day – the show will thank you later.

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A 1981 graduate of the Boston University College of Communication, Bruce A. Johnson got his first job in broadcast television at WFTV, an ABC affiliate in Orlando, FL. While there, he rose through the ranks…