Creative Thinking On the Fly

Television is certainly a creative medium, though most everybody who's worked in it has found it's less than 10 percent imagination and 90 percent-plus perspiration.

And it also often feels that everybody's job is creative but your own.

It turns out there are more ways of being creative than being an imaginative writer or videographer. Stretching the limits of the equipment is another way of creatively contributing to getting the job done.

There's an old song called: "Making the Best of a Bad Situation." I remember a news photographer (in the film days) who took a misdesigned 1K open-faced spot (manufacturer's name purposely omitted) and made it do the job of two lights.

As you spotted this particular fixture down, it threw off a second ring of light 30 degrees or so from the edge of the spot circle. You'd go nuts trying to barn-door off that extraneous ring of light if you were trying to put a spot in the middle of a dark stage.

But this photog had to light a stand-up in front of a dark legislative chamber while that body was out of session, and he found that if he positioned the light fixture just so, the spot lit an area of seats on the chamber floor and the ring of light provided a keylight for the reporter. He added a soft fill and a backlight, and he was in business with a beautifully lit scene, using three lights in place of four.

While I'm on the subject of stand-ups, I remember one news crew that wanted to do a shot with the reporter walking and talking in a noisy rail yard. The shot was complicated, requiring the talent to begin speaking at just the right time. He was so far away it was hard to visually cue him, and way too noisy for a shout to work.

Luckily they had two wireless mics. They rigged the second one so the photog was mic-ed, with the reporter wearing that receiver and an earpiece. They had developed a wireless cueing system.


That reminds me of a pre-wireless-mic story in a rail yard that I saw on a funny outtake reel. A news crew had strung a long mic cord from camera to reporter, and while the reporter was trying his 15th or so take on the stand-up, a switching engine ran by in front of him. Needless to say the audio cut out at that point.

Years ago, before robotic cameras were inexpensive enough for the budget and small enough to fit in the lighting grid, people doing cooking shows figured out that if they put a mirror over the stove and prep area, they could aim one of the studio cameras up at it and have a point-of-view shot from directly overhead, ideal to show something like a pot just coming to boil.

The problem was that when the guest chef was stirring clockwise, the mirror shot had him stirring counterclockwise. Then some heads-up technical director plugged that mirror shot into the DVE and flipped the frame: bingo, both shots now showed the pot being stirred clockwise.

It isn't always the equipment that has to be stretched. Sometimes the crew just needs to stretch its imagination to get something done.

A station was shooting a marathon (run in the morning) that was going to be shot by news photographers on field tapes, then be edited and replayed at six that evening. The coverage of the race was carefully formatted so that each camera operator stationed around the course, or on a propane-powered vehicle, had a specific assignment to shoot on a specific videotape cassette.

As luck would have it, one vital cassette, containing a key piece of narration from the vehicle in front of the race leaders, was lost on the way back to the station. It wasn't discovered until the race was over, and the producers were furiously trying to figure out how to work around it.

The reporter on that vehicle learned of the lost tape, and without being prompted, went for a quick ride around the station, recreating the audio. The post-operator mixed that narration with crowd audio from the video he used to cover the scene, and you'd never have known there was a problem.

There are thousands of these kinds of stories at stations all over the country. The trick is to encourage this kind of creative thinking. I've got a suggestion.

Somebody a lot smarter than me came up with a management technique that boils down to: "Catch somebody doing something right and tell him about it." So when you hear a story about somebody creatively solving a problem, tell them about it. Thank them.

You can even go one better. I worked for a general manager once who encouraged his managers to tell him these kinds of stories when they happened on a daily basis. When he'd pass the employee in the hall, he'd stop him, say he's heard something about it and ask for the details.

We started getting a lot more of these kinds of stories.