In Praise of the Nonengineer

Are you a video or audio engineer? Bet you aren't. You see, the reason I'm willing to go out on a limb is because I've met a lot of video people – male and female – and very, very few of them are engineers. No, really.
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Are you a video or audio engineer? Bet you aren't.

You see, the reason I'm willing to go out on a limb is because I've met a lot of video people – male and female – and very, very few of them are engineers. No, really.

If I'm on a shoot and I ask, "Where's the engineer?" – someone will point off behind the set, toward the donuts, under a console, or wherever one particular person is standing, sitting or reclining. That person is the one responsible for the technical quality of the sound or picture – or sometimes both – upon whose hunched shoulders rests the success of the taping, broadcast or live event. And that's whom I had in mind when I set out to find "the engineer."

But the simple fact is that it's quite unlikely that the person in question has graduated from an accredited institution with a degree in electrical engineering — in the trade, a "double-E." In strictest terms, that's what an engineer is; if you haven't got the letters B.S.E.E. or M.S.E.E. on the sheepskin, then you ought not call yourself by that exalted title. At least not according to the "real engineers."

What are you, then? Well, if you make the picture darker or brighter on a camera, fiddling with iris and pedestal, then you might be called a "shader." (What a lame job title!) If you're pushing audio faders up and down, and chasing runaway IFB levels, then we could take a page from our feature-film brethren and call you a "mixer" (like on a cooking show, with a big spoon).

And if you're running from place to place, building and cabling gear, making things go and solving problems – well, we don't exactly know what to call you, but it certainly isn't an engineer. Not a real engineer. Maybe you're a "nonengineer."

GOOD WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT

Given a choice, a diploma-holding real engineer will wisely seek out a job where he or she is protected from the elements, fed healthy, mayonnaise-free foods on a regular schedule and seldom, if ever, berated loudly and in colorful language over the headset channel. The double-E makes a living with a laptop and a copy of Autocad, taking pride in circuits laid out with picofarad accuracy and in system designs complete to the last elegant detail.

In contrast to the real engineer, the nonengineer's best friends are little strips of gaffer's tape, lots of bad coffee, his or her leatherman and a greenie.

The greenie, for those of you outside the nonengineering world, is a small Excelite screwdriver with a miniature flat blade and an emerald-green handle – hence, the name. During the old days when cameras had little pots to be adjusted, a nonengineer could count on a painful claw-handed greenie-grip muscle spasm at the end of a 10-hour shift. Despite the disappearance of little adjustment pots, the greenie's still around – perhaps more as a badge of office than as a practical tool.

Make no mistake – we need real engineers. I shudder to picture what might result if control rooms, trucks and edit suites were routinely slapped together by my greenie-toting colleagues. But in the real world of production, where time is money and where the show must go on – in the middle of a technical snafu, I'd much rather have someone pull out their greenie than pull out their laptop, advanced degree or not.

Is it all semantics? You bet it is. I offer it to you in the inaugural installment of this column in lieu of an extended apology for not being better pedigreed, for being M.O.E.E. (Mit Out Double-E). I guess it's my point of view that a nonengineer will have something to offer on technical topics, especially when immersed in picture, sound and computer technology for years and years.

For the most part, though, I hope to share some stories – a few things I've seen and heard – that relate to production and postproduction and that deal with the technical side of things. Just so you get the big picture, I can tell you I co-own a small production company just outside New York City and we do some shooting, editing, sound and graphics – probably on some of the same equipment you've got.

GOOD COMPANY

As for you – well, I already know a bit about you too. The most telling fact is that you're reading TV Technology. That tells me that you're a techie – no matter how much you protest – and it also warns me to watch what I say. Odds are that you've been reading Jay Ankeney's column, Frank Beacham's and Andy Morris' and good ol' Mario too, so you already know most of what there is to know about television.

I'll be careful when talking about sound, ‘cause I know Dave Moulton and Mike Sokol have been filling your head with audio wisdom. And for all I know, you've been reading about telco stuff and RF and who knows what else.

But the nonengineer has special needs and that's what I'm here for. We need to stick together and commiserate, to ask overly obvious questions and to proclaim, "I'm proud of what I am — I'm a nonengineer!"

Walter Schoenknecht can be reached via e-mail at walter@m2gi.com.