Thursday, July 1, 2010

NBS Det Rota: Hiring Freeze

I wasn't sure about uploading this story, another one from back when I was a Navy journalist. Despite the ability to tweak some of its parameters after transferring the video from 3/4-inch analog tape to digital format, the color and stability are lousy. Nonetheless I thought it'd be cool to recall more images of Rota-life back in the eighties. Scroll down for scenes of the exchange, commissary, pizza parlor, and more. Better yet, stick around to read more about my adventures in broadcasting. We'll get to the video soon enough.

As I've written before, my first year at Rota was a mess. Lacking formal training, I was lucky to find someone on base willing to teach me basic video production skills during the late-night shift when I was otherwise abandoned to a life on the "board": cueing, loading, checking, unloading, and packing videotapes for our closed-circuit television channel. During those long shifts, I learned enough to produce a music video and shortly afterward saw an increase in my opportunities to work with the news team. Unfortunately my fortune was short-lived. Before long I was tossed back into the control room, presumably to stay. Somehow I just couldn't do anything right. Then a Marine sergeant named Al Moore showed up and offered me another chance. For reasons I never did understand, he challenged a recalcitrant Chief and got me off the board for good.

Working for the Sarge made all the difference. He had high standards and expected a tight learning curve, but he also spent time teaching me stuff I never learned back at DINFOS. Little by little, with lots of trial and my share of error, I began to master the rudiments of electronic news gathering. Perhaps most importantly I learned that all the editing prowess in the world can't make up for crappy raw material. Under Sarge's tutelage I spent lots of time studying the mechanics of video production. My life was learning to set a white balance, turn a manual "rack focus," and troubleshoot a piece of gear in the field.

Working an ancient camera while taping a visit by a Dept. of Education bigwig
Suddenly I began to see broadcast journalism as more than the sum of disparate parts. As the Fixx sang a few years before, it became clear that "one thing leads to another." For me, this insight grew from my efforts to learn the art of "sequencing." In other words, I began to frame and select shots, stopping the tape each time I altered composition, so I could edit in the camera. Before "non-linear editing," this time-saving approach made it much easier to complete packages in the actual edit suite. More importantly "editing in the camera" cultivated a keen eye for visual narrative. Sarge and I discussed this technique so often that I gained an almost unconscious understanding of the need to shoot an establishing shot, cut into the primary subject, select a motive detail, switch to a reaction, and then pull back to broader frame. Journalism became story-telling.

Each scene called for a different permutation, but the principle stuck with me. Story after story, I enlarged a collection of techniques to organize pieces into a coherent whole. It became a passion to me, so much so that I once had a dream comprised solely of sequences. I was videotaping an historical scene. My eyes glued to the viewfinder, I'd open wide, shoot ten seconds, select another angle, zoom in tight, shoot seven seconds, and keep going. The weird part? I'd just finished reading a passage of the bible before bedtime; in my dream I was covering the crucifixion as a news story. "Establish Jesus. Hold. Zoom in on those hands. Hold..."

I wasn't kidding about it being a passion.

Much of my news obsession involved the very physicality of the equipment, especially when we got a new-fangled Betacam. I swear I heard once that thing cost twice my salary. But, oh, what an amazing machine. No more connecting a heavy cable between an ancient camera and a finicky videotape recorder. I didn't even need extra lights for most shoots, just a lavalier for interviews. My beloved Batacam could do nearly everything else. With each shoot, I came to know that camera as well as my own hands. I remember swinging it confidently onto my shoulder, flipping switches by memory, and breathing slow to compose steady shots when a tripod wouldn't fit.

Setting up for a shoot with my beloved Betacam
At the same time I developed a passion for planning. Since I frequently went to a shoot alone, I couldn't count upon someone else to keep me on task. Sarge was always good for a script consultation or to offer big-picture advice, but the job was ultimately up to me. I got what I needed in the field or I was stuck with the consequences in the edit suite. If I screwed up in any one of a million possible ways -- setting the wrong white balance, failing to check my audio quality, neglecting to get the proper spelling of an interviewee's name -- there was no one else to blame. Attention to detail became a real and vivid thing to me. The immutable reality of the deadline taught me more about professionalism than all my years at school. Moreover, I found that mistakes, which could never be fully eliminated from any project, needed to become at least a tool for continued growth. If I couldn't always get it right, I could at least learn to make it better.

Thanks to Sarge, I learned one other lesson too: collect a souvenir from every story. No, not a literal object (though I did get a swell ammunition case that way). Sarge was referring to an even better type of souvenir: experience. Thus when the Marines practiced fast-rope exercises, I wouldn't just videotape them; I'd tell the guys I needed to fast-rope too. And when we flew to an aircraft carrier for one reason for another, I didn't just ask about flight operations, I got topside to feel the heat of afterburners roaring over my head.

Best of all, when we visited the Fleet Logistics Support Squadron to feature their latest milestone in safe in-flight refueling, I knew enough to ask them to let me fly the plane. The guys in the cockpit were happy to get the attention our story would bring them, and that's how I enjoyed a few moments of carefully supervised flight experience over the Mediterranean Ocean. I remember that day so clearly: "keep your 'horizontal' level, and we won't crash." Call it an apocryphal story (I certainly don't want to get anyone in trouble) but I didn't get my leather aviator patch from a catalog!

Learning from an expert, building my confidence, and expanding my skills, I found myself far from those first cruddy days in Rota. I was a broadcast journalist. It didn't take long for me to start paying a bit more attention to my uniform, to saluting a bit more smartly, to generally being a "squared away sailor." I felt that I'd accomplished enough to never doubt my position there again. Of course, that's when a new guy showed up. He was our incoming Commanding Officer, and he wasn't gentle in his assessment of our operation: We were doing OK, but we needed to do much better. Even Sarge had his doubts that we were up for what would happen next.

More on that turn tomorrow. For now, let me tell you a bit more about today's discovery from my "Safe Deposit Closet."

This story deals with how Rota confronted a range of fiscal challenges as the Cold War began to wind down. While the job of a JO was to support the Navy's public affairs mission, I saw these stories as an opportunity to practice a more "hard news" journalistic persona. Announcing the risk of reduced commissary staffing and a potential decline in childcare availability, I hoped to present a factual assessment of changes faced by Rota when everything seemed in a state of upheaval.

Few contemporary viewers will care about every wonky detail in this piece. But anyone who spent time on base will dig the chance to see Rota in its late-eighties glory. Again, the color of this video is washed out by generation loss, but the memories remain fresh.

[Get higher-quality playback. To see the story in its highest possible quality (though it's still pretty awful due to the generation loss) visit its YouTube link: - and select 480p. If the words on the lower-left are "jaggy," reload and try again. If the words are relatively smooth, you're seeing the video as it's intended.]

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