Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Anatomy of Chemistry

Josiah plays baseball with the crew.

          Last spring reporter Tom Rinaldi was about to leave home to work on an E:60 feature.   Before he left, Rinaldi explained to his 6-year-old son, Jack, about Josiah Viera, also 6, who has a rare disease and a love of baseball. 
          “Wait,” Jack said.
          The little boy ran to his room and returned with a book about how Babe Ruth “saved” baseball.
          “Give it to him.”
          By the time Rinaldi arrived at Hegins, Pa., senior producer Ben Houser was already there, with a plan.
          Josiah suffers from Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria syndrome, which causes accelerated aging in children, and has a life expectancy of eight to 13 years.  He is 27 inches tall and weighs 15 ½ pounds, and has a squeak of a voice, infectious smile, and a spirit buoyant and courageous.
          But like any 6-year-old, Josiah doesn’t necessarily talk to suit producers or reporters.  After an initial meeting with Josiah and his mother, Jennifer, Houser knew a conventional interview would not work.  He conferred with Rinaldi.
          “He just loves baseball,” Houser said.
          “Let’s talk to him while he’s hitting or throwing,” Rinaldi said.
          When Rinaldi met Josiah he handed him his son’s book about Babe Ruth.  Maybe chemistry can’t save Josiah, but it can tell his tale.  The two clicked and the story took off.
          Houser shot the interviews outdoors while Josiah swung a bat or threw a ball.  In one shot, Rinaldi says, “Tom pitches, Josiah crushes it over his head! Oooh!”   To which Josiah says, “That is gone!”  Rinaldi echoes, “That is gone.”
          One morning Houser asked Josiah to sit on a bench holding his bat.
          “Just a few shots.”
          “No.  I just want to play baseball.”
          Houser and Rinaldi discovered Josiah Time, which meant a lot of throwing and hitting.   Passion indulged, Josiah agreed to the specialty shots Houser wanted.
Ben Houser at Josiah's 6th birthday party
          ‘Josiah’s Time’ became a metaphor on which to hang the story – a boy whose time is limited playing a game without time.  Houser had seen the BBC series, “Life”, which features visual representations of the passage of time, such as flowers blooming and growing.  He decided to shoot Josiah’s birthday party, an obvious marker.
          “Time was one thing you could definitely say he has less of than me or you,” Houser said. “He’s not going to graduate high school or get married or have the things we have.  That’s what gives meaning to the moments he has – why baseball is so important to him.”
          Rinaldi’s rapport with Josiah enabled him to ask Josiah what heaven is.  Josiah trusted Rinaldi enough to answer.
          “It’s God.”  He pointed skyward. “Heaven.”
          “And what do you think heaven looks like?”
          Houser and Rinaldi collaborated on the writing, though Houser credits Rinaldi with the memorable final track, set over images of Josiah slapping hands with the enraptured who lined the field to watch him:  “It would be easy to say the scene was timeless.  But really, it wasn’t.  It was Josiah’s time.”
          Said Rinaldi: “It seemed time was a natural theme. Ben and the editor who shaped the piece, Matt McCormick, enabled me to write more ethereal tracks because they could visualize them.” 
Josiah with DP Thom Stukas
          Houser’s initial meeting with Josiah took place after he had played his first game for the Tri-Valley White Sox.  He assigned two cameras to Josiah’s second game – one to cover the crowds and people, the other dedicated to Josiah.
          “It went wherever he went – running to first, scoring, sitting in the dugout,” Houser recalled. “He would actually push the camera out of the way, like we were paparazzi.  He got comfortable with us.”
          One camera covered Josiah’s third game, but for his fourth and final game Houser again had two cameras, plus a mini-cam he operated.  In addition, Houser’s wife, Christina, shot still photos.  Tom Stukas, director of photography, and shooter Jim Grieco, were in position when Josiah reached base, and danced for joy.
Josiah meets Chargers TE Antonio Gates
          The story aired on November 9.  Three days later Josiah, with his entourage, came to the ESPN campus.  Josiah sat on the shoulders of E:60 executive producer Andy Tennant, showed off his Ryan Howard swing for “Outside the Lines”, high-fived network execs and another visitor, Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, and ran around the tables in the café, as carefree as any six-year-old.
          Those touched by Josiah’s story include six-year-old Jack Rinaldi and his three-year-old sister Tess.
          “They have watched it every day since it aired – several times a day,” said Jack and Tess’ father. “They feel a connection to Josiah even though they never met him.  It’s wonderful.”

(posted by Steve Marantz, November 16, 2010)

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