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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Shooting Bahrain

          Before the Arab Spring, Yaron Deskalo had produced E:60 stories from India, Liberia, Serbia, England, Spain, Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.   Not bad for a guy from Milwaukee.
          And then Bahrain erupted in six weeks of protests, which left 24 dead and 400 missing.   Its Sunni royal family imprisoned and tortured elite soccer players, as well as workers at the Formula One racetrack, many of them Shias, who dared to protest.  Bahrain is a mere speck of a country on the western shore of the Persian Gulf, but not too small to escape Deskalo’s passport.
          Shooting in a foreign country, particularly one in upheaval, requires a detailed plan.
          “I might have 12 things on a list, but I have a sense of four things we really want, and I prioritize,” said Deskalo.
          Nothing gets done without a “fixer” - someone who lives there and can act as a guide, intermediary, translator and reporter.   Deskalo hired Lubna Takruri, a U-Cal Berkeley Masters of Journalism graduate (2006), who had reported from the Middle East for CNBC and Irish Radio.  While Deskalo, reporter Jeremy Schaap and shooters Bill Roach, Joel Edwards and Jessie Edwards applied for media visas, Takruri reached out to potential interview subjects.
          “In a foreign country if you don’t speak the language you’re only as good as your fixer,” said Deskalo.  “At the end of the day if you can’t communicate your vision to the fixer she can’t communicate to the government and you will have a hard time getting what you need.”
          A tight budget limited the shoot to 5 ½ days.  First came Oman, another Persian Gulf country slightly larger than Bahrain.  Two of Bahrain’s top soccer players, the brothers Alaa and Mohammad Hubail, had been banished to Oman.   Late in September, after 20 hours of travel, Deskalo’s crew arrived in Oman.  At Customs he was told he did not have the proper papers for ESPN’s gear.
          “We were screwed,” Deskalo recalled. “It was Wednesday night and Thursday and Friday is the weekend in Oman.  My fear was that our gear would be in the airport for two days.”
          In the morning Deskalo appealed to a press officer at Oman’s ministry of information, and his gear was cleared, but half a day was wasted.  Still, he got what he needed, in a day and a half.
          Next came 3 ½ days in Bahrain, which could be difficult, he worried, if government officials suspected a critical story. Officials were told the story would show “how the uprising affected sports in Bahrain, and how the country was moving forward”, Deskalo said.  They were told athletes who were in the protests - and subsequently tortured - would be interviewed.
          But at the time Bahrain was alone among Arab Spring countries to retain the backing of the Obama administration.   This likely worked in Deskalo’s favor.
          “I didn’t’ get the sense that they were concerned about a sports network,” said Deskalo.          “There was no video of torture, and no wounds remained on the athletes.  There was a level of arrogance from the royal family in terms of acknowledging the situation.”
          On the first day he interviewed a soccer official whose comments were too guarded, so Takruri lined up alternative interviews.  On the second day, driving to the U.S. Naval base, Deskalo thought a helicopter was shadowing his vehicle, but nothing came of it.  Coincidentally, the government handed down prison sentences to several doctors who had protested.  Takruri knew the attorney of one of the doctors, and secured an interview.
          “You have to adjust on the fly - you only get one opportunity because you’re not flying back to Bahrain soon,” Deskalo said.
          Overall the E:60 crew shot 13 interviews and ample scenery and color.  On the last morning, before his flight out,  Deskalo still needed an interview with a Formula One official but his request had been ignored.  Finally, he took his crew to the lobby of the Formula One office.  A flak told him the official was unavailable.
          “We can’t go back without him,” Deskalo insisted.
          The flak went into a back room and then returned.
          “You can have 10 minutes in his office,” he said.
          Schaap interviewed the official, also a member of the royal family, who pleaded ignorance to the plight of 27 of his former employees who claimed to have been tortured while in jail.  The man in flowing white garb did his best Sgt. Schultz “I know nothing” impersonation, but his furtive eyes spoke otherwise.
          “A good moment,” said Deskalo.

Posted by Steve Marantz on November 22, 2011

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Risk in Snowtober

          On Saturday afternoon, October 29, three E:60 producers worked on three stories at three edit houses - all near, but not on, the ESPN “campus” in Bristol.
         Martin Khodabakhshian was at Bluefoot Entertainment in West Hartford, Mike Loftus was at Northern Lights in Bristol, and Matt Rissmiller was at Anderson Productions in Bristol.  Each was in a dash to complete a story for the special “Risk” show - about extreme athletes and their deathly feats - scheduled for Tuesday, November 2.
         Snow began to fall.  It fell and fell, gobs of wet stuff, a record amount for Connecticut in October.  Trees bent and power lines sagged.  Lights flickered out and furnaces went dead. Though generators powered the campus, many neighborhoods and homes went dark and cold.
         Soon enough, “Risk” was something that crawled off the screen and into the lives of the three producers, and indeed, all ESPN employees and families in central Connecticut.  
         At Anderson Productions, Rissmiller toiled on a piece about Tyler Bradt, a kayaker who plunges down steep waterfalls.  A generator kept Anderson lighted and warm.
         Then Rissmiller heard the crack of a tree.
         “A large pine tree fell within inches of the post-production facility,” said Rissmiller. “The limbs broke a window in a nearby edit suite and caused some water damage.”
         The tree missed the generator, though.  The building had power.  The “Legends of the Fall” edit continued.
         Executive producer Andy Tennant stopped in, viewed the damage, satisfied his concerns about safety, and headed to New Haven, where he found his home with power.
         Over at Northern Lights, Loftus worked on “Kings of the Mountain” - about the ‘Red Bull Rampage’ mountain bike contest in Utah.  At 8:30 p.m. Loftus and editor Nate Hogan called it a day.  Loftus returned to his West Hartford home - minus heat and lights.
         “It was cold,” Loftus recalled. “I had to bundle up and use a lot of blankets.”
         Khodabakhshian, who conceived the “Risk” show, was in his third day of edit on “Land Sea Air” - about a high liner, free (ocean) diver, and sky diver - with editor Matt McCormick.  Preoccupied, neither thought about the storm.  But both received calls from their wives - stressed and anxious - so they broke off at 6 p.m. and headed home.  Khodabakshian planned to return later to edit the ‘tease’.
         West Hartford’s streets were shrouded, an apocalypse - Khodabakhshian counted a dozen trees downed.  In his car Khodabakhshian took another call from his wife, Shalom, at their West Hartford home with their three children.
         “The electrical wires snapped and are sparking like mad,” she said. “I think our house is on fire.  I called the Fire Department.”
         Moments later McCormick, at his home without power, texted Khodabakhshian: “WOW.  Do not go back to Bluefoot!”
         The Khodabakhshian family, without power, bundled up and hunkered down for the night.  Khodabakhshian tried to get his Honda Civic off the street, but its battery died, and it was plowed in by two feet of snow.  His four-year-old son became ill and vomited.  Khodabakhshian made a run for supplies with his 4-Runner, but only after the vehicle spun and almost hit the house and garage.
         Rissmiller left Anderson Productions late Saturday evening and drove to his Bristol home.  He lost power at midnight as he shoveled his driveway.
         “I was shoveling in the dark - awesome,” recalled Rissmiller.
         By Sunday morning the storm passed, but the temperature plummeted.  Tennant returned to the campus and beheld a post-apocalyptic scene.  Employees, spouses and children crowded into the cafeteria, seeking food and warmth.
         “People were showering in the locker rooms across from where we have E:60 production meetings on Friday,” Tennant recalled.
         But Loftus and Hogan returned to Northern Lights to find it now without power.  Hogan called Bluefoot owner Tim Horgan - by a stroke of luck Bluefoot was spared.  Horgan offered Hogan space at Bluefoot, at which point Loftus and Hogan transported an entire edit bay 20 miles to West Hartford and set up in an empty conference room. 
         By now Loftus was worried.
         “All of this is cutting into precious edit time,” Loftus recalled.
         Khodabakhshian was at Bluefoot on Sunday, too.  But as he worked he worried about his wife and kids in their cold house.  Shalom tried to find a hotel with power - all were full.  Later in the day Horgan invited Khodabakshian’s family to bunk at Bluefoot, in an empty edit room.
         “So we packed up,” Khodabakhshian recalled. “We got pizzas and moved to Bluefoot and my family was huddled in one room while I edited in the other two rooms at Bluefoot.
         “It was wild. Checking on kids. Encouraging the wife.  Making L-cuts with Matt.  Adding more insane-Asian-model shots with Tim.  Surreal experience.”
         Also sleeping at Bluefoot were Horgan, his wife Hillary, an E:60 producer, and McCormick, whose wife and kids had gone to New Jersey.  Hillary Horgan, who grew up in Florida, had spent the day editing ‘bumps’ on campus - but only after her husband had chauffeured her from their Avon home, and then to West Hartford.
         “I was too afraid to drive in the snow,” Hillary Horgan recalled.
         Tennant came by, and was amazed at the scene.
         “There were blankets, pillows, kids and bodies everywhere, on couches and floors, whatever space was available,” he recalled.
         Loftus chose to sleep at home.
         “Night was the worst, sleeping in a cold drafty house trying to stay warm and hoping that each day you would get the power back,” he recalled.
         Power remained out Monday for much of central Connecticut while edits continued at Bluefoot.  Shalom Khodabakshian and her kids found a hotel room in Boston, at Logan Airport.
         About 80 to 90 percent of the E:60 staff, Tennant learned, had lost power, and had their families displaced.
         Loftus and Hogan logged 14 hours to complete “Kings of the Mountain”.   At one point Loftus ventured out for food.
         “Lines were nuts,” he said.  “One pizza place had to turn us away because they ran out.”
         Khodabakhshian finished his edits late Monday, slept for three hours at his 43-degree home, and flew out at 5:45 a.m. Tuesday to Birmingham for the premier of his ESPN Films documentary “Roll Tide/War Eagle”.
         E:60’s “Risk” show aired Tuesday evening, without a hitch.
          The next day, Wednesday, Tennant recalled, “we had a smile on our face.  People told us they enjoyed the show, but no one had any idea what went into putting that on the air.”
         That same day ESPN President George Bodenheimer issued a statement to employees:
         “It has always been true that the people of ESPN band together to meet any challenge placed before them.  Its what has made this a special and exhilarating place to work.
          “The last few days of  ‘Snowtober,’ which continue to leave so many in the Northeast without power and heat - and their families in distress as a result - are the latest examples of this.  Schools and businesses are closed. Fallen trees and power lines dot roads and streets.  Municipalities have declared states of emergency. Amidst this turmoil, our people are meeting their professional obligations to each other and to sports fans nationwide in exceptional fashion.  Anyone consuming any of our content would have no idea of what our people have dealt with to present it.
         “From added meals for families in our cafes, to making showers available in a variety of Bristol campus locations, to the Kids Center going beyond to help families, to watching everyone pick each other up - the events on our campus these last few days have been truly inspiring.
          “My sincere thanks and appreciation go to all who have demonstrated the best of ESPN during a difficult time.”
         Nearly two weeks after the storm, with Connecticut power crews still making repairs, Tennant looked back at ‘Risk’.
         ““To put on a show so unique and well-produced under those circumstances was truly remarkable,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud.”
posted by Steve Marantz on November 10, 2011

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ray Rice’s Barbershop

          E:60 pushes for access to celebrity athletes off the field and away from the spotlight.   Sometimes the personal door is jammed tight.   Other times it creaks slightly ajar.  And then, on occasion, it swings open to unfiltered light and sound.
          Such was the case with Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice in “Like Mother Like Son”.   Producer Frank Saraceno asked Rice if he could shoot him at his barbershop, in his hometown of New Rochelle, N.Y., because Rice had worked at a barbershop as a kid.  Rice agreed, and invited Saraceno and reporter Rachel Nichols to join him, on his bye week.
          They met at “Flavaz” just before noon and Saraceno sized up the layout.  The shop was large enough, he determined.
          “The only real concern were the mirrors which of course are everywhere in a barber shop,” said Saraceno.  “I told my two-man crew to shoot like they weren’t there so they wouldn’t be concerned about being seen in the shots.
          Regulars - tipped to Rice’s visit - crowded the shop.  This put to rest another concern - that the scene would lack energy and atmosphere.
          To encourage relaxed banter, Saraceno urged Rice and the others to forget that a camera crew was in their midst.
          “It took a few tries but once they finally got going, the conversation started to become very natural and free flowing,” Saraceno said.  “By the time Rachel stepped in to ask Ray questions the room was primed.”
          The scene yielded one particular gem - Rice’s anecdote about his first encounter in pads with Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
          Nonetheless, in the first cut, Saraceno downplayed the barbershop.  The first cut began at the public housing project where Rice grew up.
          But after a staff screening, coordinating producer Michael Baltierra urged that the barber shop lead the piece, to highlight Rice’s outgoing personality and his close relationship with Lewis - who spoke of it in a separate interview.
          “In retrospect it was a brilliant decision which helped give the piece a great kick-start and pacing,” Saraceno said.

Posted by Steve Marantz on  November 4, 2011

Monday, October 24, 2011

Subtitling Ernest Willis

          “The Good Life” is the story of Patrick Willis, All-Pro linebacker for the 49ers, and his ascent from rural poverty and an abusive father.
          The story takes Willis back to his childhood in a rusted trailer outside of Bruceton, Tennessee.  His mother abandoned his family when he was four. His father, Ernest, a part-time logger who drank and used drugs, raised him and his three siblings.
          Willis and his siblings describe the physical beatings and threats they endured from their father before state officials placed them in a foster home.
          Ernest Willis was interviewed by E:60 producer Beein Gim, and denied the allegations of his children.
          But Ernest’s diction - colloquial and rapid - raised a question in edit: should he be subtitled?
          Executive producer Andy Tennant asked E:60 staffers their opinion after they screened the story.  Ernest was subtitled in the version they watched.   The result was a 50-50 split.
          Feature producer Lisa Binns, who did not work on the piece, opposed subtitles.
          “The first time I watched I relied on the subtitles and the second time I avoided watching them to see if I could understand and I did,” said Binns.
          Typically, subtitles are used to translate language foreign to the intended audience.  They may be used for the same language as the intended audience - if the speaker has impaired speech. Subtitles can be used for song lyrics, rapid dialogue, and for accents unfamiliar to the intended audience. They are used to keep the viewer in the moment if speech poses a potential distraction.
             Said Coordinating Producer Michael Baltierra: “When you subtitle somebody in our own language there’s always a concern of why are you doing this.”
          In this case, Tennant and senior producers sought out multiple opinions, including that of senior vice-president/director of news Vince Doria.  They reviewed the raw footage of the interview.  And they asked the E:60 staff for its vote.
          In the end, the decision was to subtitle Ernest Willis.
          Tennant explained it thusly:
          “If half the room can’t understand him clearly - if 50 percent of our audience is not going to understand his side of the story with clarity - maybe the way to go is to subtitle.
          “Several factors came into play.  One, he was not the main character...he was a secondary character.  But more important, he was responding to accusations against him by his children - serious accusations.  To be fair to him and to give him a platform to respond we thought it was an absolute necessity that people were 100 percent clear on what he was saying.”
          E:60 logged no complaints about the Willis subtitles,  Tennant pointed out.  And if the decision had been reversed, perhaps nobody would have complained, either.
          “When you produce this type of TV clarity is the most important thing,” he said. “You want to make sure it’s easy to follow and that the characters are easy to follow.  We did what we thought was the fair and right thing to do.”
          Going forward, Binns suggests that when a judgment call arises, the staff first should view a version without subtitles.
          “I’m suggesting as a best practice to show these things without subtitles to see how the room reacts,” she said.

posted by Steve Marantz on October 24, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Jamie Convey, Radio Dreams and Judgment Calls

          “Radio Dreams” is the story of Jamie Convey, a 10-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, his own Internet sports talk show, and indomitable spirit.   The making of “Radio Dreams” raised a couple of sensitive issues around Jamie’s disability.
          One was subtitling.  Jamie’s speech can pose a challenge because cerebral palsy affects a part of the brain that controls motor skills such as speech.    Producer Heather Lombardo and E:60 brass considered subtitling Jamie’s comments.
           Typically, subtitles may be used - for the same language as the intended audience - if the speaker has impaired speech. They also are used to translate language foreign to the intended audience.  Subtitles can be used for song lyrics, rapid dialogue, and for accents unfamiliar to the intended audience.
          “If he says something and the viewer has to stop and think, ‘What?’ and then misses the next ten seconds, it takes the viewer out of the moment,” said Lombardo. “With subtitles there would be no questions about what he said.”
          But Lombardo was wary.  She once produced a story that involved an aging heavyweight boxer, James ‘Quick’ Tillis, whose speech was slurred from his life in the ring.  She subtitled Tillis, and incurred the wrath of his girlfriend.
          “You made him look stupid!” the woman complained.
            Lombardo stands by her decision, but says it can be a tough call. 
          “It’s sensitive because you are dealing with pride and ego and emotion,” she said.
          In Jamie’s case, because speech is central to his role as a broadcaster, subtitles were deemed “insensitive”.
          With careful screening of Jamie’s shows - archived as well as the two shot by her crew - Lombardo found ample bites that were clear and understandable.
          “It’s about a kid doing a radio show,” Lombardo said.  “We want people to understand Jamie, but we don’t want to embarrass him.”
           “Radio Dreams” posed another sensitive decision.  Just past the five-minute mark it includes a scene with Jamie and his father, at an outdoor track, where Jamie goes for exercise.  From a distance, the camera catches Jamie, on his walker, exhausted and discouraged.  At one point, he collapses onto his walker, with tears in his eyes.  Then, with his father’s help, he collects himself, and completes the circuit.
          Lombardo’s first inclination was to leave out the moment of discouragement, and show him at the moment of completion.  But the more she thought about it, the more she liked the scene.
          “In order to show what Jamie has accomplished - for the story to resonate - we had to show the challenges that he endures on a day-to-day basis,” Lombardo said.
          Yet, Lombardo knew that “Jamie might not be happy with that scene because it captured a vulnerable moment.”
          Another judgment call, but this was different.  The track scene, she decided, is more about Jamie’s courage and spirit than weakness.  She used it.
          After the piece aired Lombardo talked with the father, Jim Convey, and sure enough, Jamie is not happy with the track scene.  On the other hand, as a veteran talk show host, he knows to respect her professional prerogative. 
          “He understood,” Lombardo said.

Posted by Steve Marantz on October 13, 2011

Thursday, September 22, 2011

In the Moment

          Producer Dave Salerno was under pressure for his August piece on Tulsa quarterback G.J. Kinne.  Another story was cancelled at the 11th hour, and Salerno was asked to pull off a tight turnaround.
          Kinne’s story involved his father Gary Kinne, his former coach at Canton High School in Texas.  In 2005 a disgruntled father of another player confronted Gary at the high school and shot him in the stomach.   He was rushed into emergency surgery, and a police officer told G.J. that his father had died.  But he hadn’t.
          Salerno moved into production mode without a script in mind.
He interviewed G.J, his mother, another coach, and Gary, and elicited detailed and emotional accounts of the shooting and aftermath.
          In edit he had two choices. 
          One was to use Gary’s voice in the re-telling of the incident.
          Another was to create a “reveal” - an editing technique in which crucial information is withheld until the middle or end for a surprise.   In this version, the reveal would be Gary’s survival.  Reveals are desirable for their dramatic tension. 
           E:60 has used reveals in stories about retired NFL-er Marvin Harrison, MMA fighter and bank robber Lee Murray, double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius, and brain-damaged college football player Preston Plevretes.
          An effective reveal requires interviews that stay in the moment, meaning they describe action without giving away the outcome of that action.  The subject knows the outcome, but is transported back in time to when he or she did not.
          “I knew there were things we had to hit,” Salerno recalled.   “I wanted to go into detail and build up the events of that day.”
          Salerno and reporter Lisa Salters managed to elicit G.J.’s description  - six years after the fact - in the moment.  In edit, Salerno went with the reveal because “we had the sound to support it.”
          At the top, when reporter Salters ask G.J. for his thoughts at the time of the shooting, he says “I’ll never see my Dad again. He’ll never get to coach me again. He’ll never get to do the things that Dads do because someone had taken that from him.”
          The first hint of Gary’s survival comes at about eight-and-a-half minutes into the piece.  Gary doesn’t speak until 9:10 - a powerful and uplifting moment for those unfamiliar with Kinne’s story.
          The reveal proved persuasive at the E:60 screening and became a segment titled, “Back From the Dead”.
          In retrospect, Salerno credited the interviews.
          “With material like that it’s much easier to hold the reveal,” he said.  “Sometimes you can do it, and sometimes you can’t.  In theory it’s great but in practice it’s more difficult to pull off.”

posted by Steve Marantz on September 22, 2011

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Finding Emotion

          By the time producer Hillary Horgan caught up with the 18-year-old Coppola triplets in December 2010 their unusual story was well along.  Brandon Coppola had fractured a cervical vertebra in a 2008 scrimmage that ended his football career.  Jared Coppola had suffered the same injury in a 2009 practice, and was in a wheelchair. 
          The third brother, Tyler, was the star running back of St. John’s Prep of Danvers, Ma.   He was “Running for Three”, as St. John’s went into the state championship Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium.
          Horgan had two challenges.    Her story had three main characters, and two (Tyler and Brandon) are identical.  She had to minimize confusion to viewers.
          “Typically in a feature we only put name fonts to identify a person one time - the first time they show up on the screen,” Horgan said. “But in this case, to alleviate any confusion, we put name fonts up each time a triplet was on the screen.”
          Problem solved.
          The second challenge was more difficult.  In their interviews with E:60, the triplets and their parents had a flat affect.   This may have been because they had ample time - and local media coverage - to move beyond the initial trauma.  Or it may simply have reflected their personalities and priorities.
          “The parents, Dawn and Skip, never really got emotional in order to stay strong for the family,” Horgan said.  “They never felt sorry for themselves or their situation.  They always stayed positive.  The children saw this and did the same.
          “I give them a lot of credit, because I think the positive attitude helped Jared to continue to work as hard as he has in order to one day walk again.”
          A flat affect is okay for people, but not for stories.  Horgan had to find a way to tell what in essence was a dramatic story - of three brothers tied to a cruel fate - without emotion from the main characters.
          She took two approaches.  First, to put viewers ‘in the moment’ as the triplets and parents experienced the injuries and aftermath.  Second, to emphasize the close bond of the triplets, with photos and video from their infancy and youth.  
          Especially powerful were images of Tyler and Brandon helping Jared with his rehab.  The defining image came as Tyler carried Jared up a flight of stairs, to the second-floor trophy room at St. John’s Prep, where Horgan shot their interviews.
          “The shot happened by chance,” Horgan said. “There was no elevator and no way to get Jared up the stairs without someone carrying him up.  Without even giving it a thought, the boys said ‘no problem, we can carry him up, we do it all the time’. So when we were ready for Jared, I asked one of my camera men to get in position and shoot them going up the stairs.”
          The special brotherhood of triplets takes over the story.  There is Jared, on a walker, making his way to the center of a football field, with Brandon and Tyler at his side.
          At Tyler’s final high school game, Horgan has her cameras on Brandon and Jared, riding the team bus, watching from the sidelines.
          Horgan wraps it with a specialty shot, with Jared between his two brothers, arms entwined, standing tall, about to head off to three different colleges.
          By that time it’s hard not to cheer - and feel a lump in the throat - for the Coppola triplets.

Posted by Steve Marantz on August 17, 2011

Monday, August 15, 2011

Comfort Zone

Production assistant Toby Hershkowitz writhed on the floor while a frail 7-year-old boy twisted his arm and stomped on his chest.
E: 60 meets WWE? Not exactly.
The vignette occurred July 7 at the E:60 roundtable shoot in midtown Manhattan, as producers, talent and film crew relaxed between segments.
By way of explanation, later, Hershkowitz, 26, said, “I still consider myself a kid.”
But that’s only part of it.
Rewind to last fall when E:60 ran a story about the little boy fastened onto Hershkowitz.
Josiah Viera suffers from Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria syndrome, which causes accelerated aging in children, and has a life expectancy of eight to 13 years.
Baseball, a sport without a clock, is Josiah’s passion. The story, “Josiah’s Time”, with footage of his first Little League game in Hegins, Pa., touched viewers near and far, and garnered an Emmy nomination.
For E:60’s summer lineup 2011, executive producer Andy Tennant proposed a show of Emmy-nominated features. Feature Producer Ben Houser, who produced “Josiah’s Time”, suggested that the boy and his mother sit in on the roundtable - a simulation of a news meeting in which producers and reporters discuss the news value, characters and themes of stories. The idea was to use the roundtable to update Josiah’s story.
That’s where Hershkowitz, who produces the roundtable, came in.
When Houser arrived with Josiah, and his mother, Jennifer, Hershkowitz called for a break.
Houser introduced Josiah to Hershkowitz. They shook hands - and Hershkowitz took note.
“An incredibly firm handshake for a 25-pound kid,” Hershkowitz recalled. “A lot of kids are shy whether they have issues of not. He was not shy.”
Josiah took a shine to Hershkowitz. He told the producer that he planned to go to a park to play baseball after the roundtable.
“You can come and be on my team.”
Soon enough, Josiah and Hershkowitz were on the floor in their best WWE imitation. Hershkowitz was not entirely surprised - though not a father he has young cousins and he babysat in his younger days.
“I love being around kids and I usually have a pretty good rapport with kids,” Hershkowitz said, later. “I still consider myself a kid. Anytime I refer to myself in conversation I probably use the word ‘kid’ more than I use the word ‘man’ because that’s just how I feel. I don’t mind rolling around on the floor and pretending to play dead when he punches me in the chest. It’s as much fun for me as for him.”
But behind Hershkowitz’s playfulness was a professional calculation. In a few minutes Josiah would be on camera.
“We’ve had guests at the roundtable before - it’s always important to let them know what we’re trying to accomplish and to make them feel comfortable,” Hershkowitz said.
“He was in a room full of adults and I could tell he wanted to play - little kids just want to run around and play all the time. And I’m probably among the goofiest most childish people on this show so I was a good candidate to play and make him feel comfortable.”
Indeed, Josiah and his mother appeared relaxed when the cameras rolled. At the table - actually a rectangle - were Tennant, Houser, coordinating producer Michael Baltierra, and reporters Rachel Nichols, Chris Connolly, and Jeremy Schaap.
Jennifer told about wondrous events, about gifts from Terrell Owens, a trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke, the 15-games Josiah played in little league, the Harlem Globetrotters’ show at his elementary school, and about countless requests for autographs. Josiah, in his squeak of a voice, talked of the batting glove and bat he received from Ryan Howard.
Neither mentioned the several strokes he has suffered in the past year, or the increased fragility of his health. Those demons will return soon enough. But not now - not with Josiah feeling chipper and surrounded by a roomful of adults and cameras who adored him.
The group arose from the table. Tennant tossed a plastic ball and Josiah swung a thin wooden bat. The ball soared over Tennant’s head and caromed off a wall. Another pitch came back on a line at Tennant’s face. Then Josiah ran around the table. The cameras got all of it.
Later, after Josiah, his mother, and Houser departed, to eventually visit Diane Sawyer at the set of ‘World News Tonight’, Hershkowitz pondered the edit.
“This is a situation where they will let the roundtable go a little longer - maybe two to 2 ½ minutes,” he said. “Because it’s easy to feel for this kid - but maybe tough to connect to him on a personal level because of the unique situation facing him. That’s what the roundtable does. It lets us connect with him just as a person and forget for a minute that he’s a little kid with this terrible disease. It lets us see him just as a little kid who loves to have fun and play baseball and interact with adults the same way other kids do. I hope we can get that across.”

Posted by Steve Marantz on August 15, 2011

Monday, August 1, 2011

E:60 Jib and Boom

For two days last August E:60 producer Ben Houser followed Mike Reeder around two of the lesser-known of the five courses at St. Andrews in Scotland. On the third day Houser arose well before dawn.
Reeder, 63, of Franklin, Tennessee, was about to become the first wheelchair golfer to play the Old Course, the ancestral home of golf, one of the most iconic locations in all of sport.
Reeder had lost both of his legs below in the knee in 1970, in a mortar explosion, while serving as a medic in Vietnam. He took up golf in 1988, shot par at his home course in 2001, and dreamed of playing St. Andrews with his golf buddy, Mike Bilbrey.
But Bilbrey never made it - cancer took him in 2009. Before he died he asked Reeder to spread his ashes on the Old Course. Reeder made the journey in August 2010, funded by the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
Which is why Houser found himself, with a local Scotsman, assembling a jib camera near the Swilcan Bridge - the most iconic landmark at St. Andrews - before sunrise.
The jib, which reaches 36 feet at full extension, was essential to Houser’s game plan.
“The jib gives you a different perspective,” Houser said. “It allows you to see the majestic nature of that course, and also gives you very smooth movement.”
At sunrise, when Reeder rolled across the fairway in his wheelchair, the jib was ready, as were Houser’s two other cameras.
“We waited for the sun to come up on the horizon, so that it framed our shot,” Houser said. “It was between the bridge and Reeder as he wheeled toward the bridge. When he was on the bridge we had this big jib overhead.”
The sunrise shot in “Dead Solid Perfect” speaks for itself, for sheer beauty.
But the emotional climax came later in the day, after Reeder teed off on the 14th hole. He climbed out of his golf cart, accompanied by his wife, and carried Bilbrey’s ashes to the sand trap known as Hell Bunker. Houser’s main shooter positioned at the edge of the bunker, while Houser held a second camera from another angle.
As Reeder spread the ashes over the sand, and bid farewell to his friend, he was seized with grief. When he walked away from the bunker, he sobbed. Houser got it all.
“A guy with a boom mike was standing there right over top of him - but out of the frame so you can’t see him,” Houser said.
From the Old Course to your screen, another E:60 trail of tears.
“What you saw was real,” said Houser. “Witnessing it, obviously not knowing Mike Bilbrey, and only knowing Reeder for a short time, to have him open up his world and allow ESPN to document what happened, to be a fly on the wall as he’s doing that, takes a lot of trust. I was thinking from a producer’s standpoint, what an amazing moment to capture. Most of the time you don’t have people open up the most intimate things in their life.
“Lots of times a story will just cover that moment with a track, ‘oh, and he spread the ashes’. Or we’ll do a recreation or cover it with a photo. But we literally had it. The way it happened is the way you saw it.”
Reeder emoted for E:60, Houser suspected, because he had come to know Houser and his crew in the two days before he played the Old Course.
On the second day, Houser recalled, one of the cameras had moved too close to Reeder as he hit a tee shot.
“Hey, you got a little close that time,” Reeder said.
That moment, Houser later realized, was crucial in establishing rapport and trust.
“By Day 3 he had played 36 holes with us,” Houser said. “He knew we weren’t going to talk or interrupt his golf game. He had a comfort level with us.”

Posted by Steve Marantz, August 1, 2011

Thursday, May 26, 2011

E:60 Paco Rodriguez (subtitled)

On Sunday, November 22, 2009, boxer Francisco “Paco” Rodriguez was declared brain dead two days after collapsing in the ring following a fight in Philadelphia. Hours later, his family made the decision to donate Paco’s organs and in turn revitalized the lives of five others. One of the recipients, 25 year old Meghan Kingsley had been diagnosed nine years earlier with a condition known as Neurofibromatosis Type 2 . In 2009, Kingsley participated in a clinical trial to attempt to reduce the growth of the benign tumors in her brain and spine, but the medication shut down her liver, leaving her in dire need of a transplant. Meghan, like many NF2 patients has suffered a loss of hearing. In order to serve the Neurofibromatosis community, we have produced a version of E:60 Hero – The Paco Rodriguez story” with subtitles.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Chameleon: Going Undercover

This is the story of two E:60 producers – one who conceived and plotted “Cockfighting Undercover” and one who shot it. Their names are changed here to safeguard their identities.
The lead producer, Claude, had read about illegal underground cockfighting in Texas. The ‘sport’ features duels to the death, with rooster claws outfitted in three-inch blades that produce a bloody and gruesome result within a few minutes. Up to 20 matches take place, before crowds of 200 to 300, who wager on the outcomes.
Claude reached out to the Humane Society, which investigates and exposes cockfighting. The Humane Society agreed to take an E:60 producer undercover to shoot an underground cockfight. But the Humane Society did not want the typical producer type - urbane and sophisticated.
“Since cockfighting in Texas is largely Hispanic and rural they needed someone who kind of fits the bill,” said Claude.
That’s where Earl came in – he had The Look. Claude asked Earl if he were game, so to speak.
“I’d like to be part of it,” Earl said.
Earl’s photo was sent to the Humane Society and he was approved.
Claude and Earl met with Humane Society officials in Texas and agreed on a plan. Earl would accompany an undercover informant for the Humane Society, as well as the informant’s undercover informant. They would attend an illegal cockfight just outside Gunter, Texas, (population 1,100), about an hour north of Dallas, on the morning of April 16. Both Earl and the informant for the Humane Society would be fitted with hidden cameras.
Dangers were discussed. Cockfights attract a rough crowd.
If the hidden cameras were exposed anything might happen.
Earl had a moment of reckoning.
“If you get caught doing something like this at the very least you are going to get the crap kicked out of you,” he told himself. “Who knows what else could happen.”
Details were ironed out. Earl would be outfitted with a buttonhole camera connected to a wire that ran down his leg to a receiver strapped inside one of his boots. Prior to the cockfight he practiced with the buttonhole camera – to learn its range. He practiced natural movement.
Claude told him, “Be comfortable with the equipment.”
Earl also watched footage of previous undercover forays, in order to dress to blend with the crowd.
Early on April 16 Earl met with Claude.
“If you don’t feel safe you don’t have to go through with this,” Claude said. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Earl nodded – this was his Rambo moment.
Soon he joined the two informants at a parking lot in Gunter and met with a surprise. Earl had expected to be driven to the cockfight in a vehicle owned by one of the informants. Instead, a fourth man pulled up, with roosters in his car.
“Right then you realize that going undercover things can change in a heartbeat and you have to react,” Earl recalled.
Without his own vehicle, Earl knew, there would be no getaway if something went wrong. He considered aborting the mission, and then climbed into the vehicle.
“Now we were all in,” Earl recalled.
The car with Earl and the informants made its way over flat country roads. Claude and his crew followed at a distance, guided by text messages from Earl. When Earl’s car turned onto a dirt road he sensed it was near to the ‘arena’. He texted Claude: “Don’t come down this dirt road – I think we’re close.”
Indeed, Earl’s car was the first to arrive, and each passenger paid $20 for admission. Soon other customers filed in and circled the ring, a 15x35 rectangle covered in plywood.
As a new face, Earl felt eyes upon him, and his stomach knotted in tension. Worse, the receiver tucked inside his boot dug into his foot, but he dared not stoop down to adjust it, and he dared not limp.
The promoter came through the crowd and introduced himself. Again, Earl tensed, because if the promoter had patted down his boot he would have discovered the receiver.
The promoter spoke in Spanish to Earl, who does not speak Spanish.
“I just shook his hand, gave him a nod and smile, and didn’t say anything,” Earl said.
The others passed a few words with the promoter, and he moved on to the next group.
“Did I just pass the test?” Earl asked himself. “I hope I did.”
Just before the cockfights began Earl found a quiet spot and turned on his camera.
“I let it go from that point until it was full,” he said. “I was already not part of this so I didn’t want to stick out anymore by constantly going behind trees or trucks to check the device so I just let it go.”
Earl went to work.
“You find a spot and stand there and make sure nothing is obstructing you and you stand there for the entire fight,” he said.
“I just tried to fit in by seeming enthusiastic. The whole thing is to fit in like a chameleon.”
During the fights, with attention on the birds, Earl found that his tension subsided. Between fights Earl moved through the crowd. He was approached by beer and food vendors, and by rooster owners who showed off their vanquished combatants, with blood dripping from slit necks.
“Sorry, sorry – too bad,” Earl said, and hoped that he had positioned his camera to capture the scene. He also hoped that his face did not reveal his revulsion.
“One thing that struck me was when a bird got sliced and was dying fairly quickly, the owner took almost as much pride as when they won,” Earl recalled. “They were showing that off. That was disturbing. Be disappointed. Be upset. But don’t be showing it off.”
His hidden receiver had about two hours capacity. But the fights went on for six hours, during which 15 roosters died. At one point four toughs dressed like “Latino gang bangers” arrived.
“I made sure never to make eye contact with them,” Earl said.
After the last bout Earl and his group filed out with the crowd and drove off the property.
“That’s when I took a deep breath,” Earl recalled. “My next deep breath didn’t come until I was out of that vehicle and back with my crew and lead producer.”

posted by Steve Marantz, May 23, 2011

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Empathy and Wow!

Paco Rodriguez, a 24-year-old boxer, died on November 22, 2009, from injuries sustained in a Philadelphia ring. Shortly thereafter, his heart, lungs, kidneys, pancreas and liver were transplanted to five recipients. The New York Times reported Rodriguez’ organ donations in December.
In February 2010, E:60 requested permission from Gift of Life, a Philadelphia-based group that arranged the organ donations, to report on four of the recipients. (The fifth was an “uncle” of Rodriguez, who got a kidney) Permission was granted in July.
Producers Vin Cannamela and Frank Saraceno began the work. Cannamela went to Philadelphia to meet with the recipients, whose names were not yet public. It was a task to which Cannamela was sensitive. He was born with a congenital heart condition and underwent open-heart surgery when he was six.
“To some small degree I had empathy for what these people had been going through,” Cannamela said. “But I also felt sympathy for what they dealt with. I did not equate my situation with theirs.
“Mine was a condition that could be repaired – my life wasn’t in danger. Surgery certainly improved my life, but it wasn’t a thing where I would have died.”
Saraceno went to Chicago to meet with Rodriguez’ family: his widow Sonia; infant daughter Ginette, brother Alex, mother Maria and father Evaristo. By that time Sonia had exchanged letters with the four recipients – all wanted to meet with her.
The meeting, underwritten by E:60, was arranged for December 1 in Chicago, in front of E:60 cameras. One recipient balked, and then consented.
Cannamela and Saraceno set up the meeting at the offices of Gift of Hope, an organ-donation group in suburban Chicago. They wanted it to be tasteful, genuine and powerful.
“How could we shoot this and have it be authentic?” Saraceno asked himself.
“You only have one shot at this moment, and if something goes wrong... a number of things could go wrong...a mike cuts out...a wrong button...everything has to be letter perfect.”
A plan took shape. They decided to limit the initial meeting – too many faces could confuse viewers. The widow, daughter, brother, and mother were chosen to represent the family. The mother was chosen because of her desire to meet the heart recipient. Alex, the oldest brother, was chosen to help translate the mother, whose primary language is Spanish.
Another question: should the recipients meet the family one-by-one or as a unit?
The four recipients – Alexis Sloan (heart), Ashley Owens (lungs), Meghan Kingsley (liver), and Vicky Davis (kidney, pancreas), had dined together the night before, and had established a rapport, a “sisterhood”, as Saraceno called it. The producers decided they should meet the family as a unit.
Four cameras were deployed. The lead shooter, Mike Bollacke, was riveted on the widow, Sonia. A second camera was a “catch-all” for wide shots. A third camera shot at 60 frames per second, providing a slo-mo option. Saraceno had the fourth camera – a mini-cam - with the freedom to roam and fill in the gaps.
Eight microphones were wired to the four family members and four recipients.
As the meeting drew nigh anxiety mounted. The producers worried that the meeting could produce awkward moments. They worried that the one reluctant recipient would back out or not emote. They worried about the equipment.
“I hope nothing happens,” Saraceno thought.
Finally it was time.
The recipients filed in, led by Vicky Davis, at 57 the eldest of the four. Davis hugged Sonia and Maria, the mother. Soon everybody hugged everybody, carried up on waves of emotion, awash in tears of joy.
Maria buried her head in the chest of Alexis, over the beating heart of her son. It was the money shot, unscripted, and captured by Saraceno’s mini-cam.
“It happened so quickly,” Saraceno recalled. “The guys were on the other side. I was able to swing around and get the shot they couldn’t get to.”
Then Sonia placed the hand of her 11-month-old daughter on the chest of Alexis. At that instant Cannamela felt vindicated.
“This is going to be good,” he told himself.
In time Cannamela sent in three more family members – father Evaristo, brother Tito, and “uncle”, Ramon, who received a kidney. Then he sent in the four guests of the recipients, who had accompanied them on the trip. Among the guests was Sharon Kingsley, the mother of the liver recipient, Meghan. Sharon hugged Maria and whispered in her ear.
Later, family and recipients lingered over a display of memorabilia from the boxing career of Paco Rodriguez, and chatted, while the cameras stayed on.
When it was over, and they had a moment alone, Cannamela and Saraceno took a deep breath and looked at one another.
The shoot had exceeded their hopes.
“As much as you think you might know what it’s like to be in that type of setting, I think we were just blown away,” recalled Cannamela.
“You can’t script that. You could try – we try to control as much as we can – but when these things happen that you couldn’t even dream of, and are so natural and organic and come from the heart – and that’s what our cameras are there to capture – that was amazing.
“And you are feeling for these people as you see this happen. You’ve got to stay as unemotional as you can but you can’t help but feel for these people.”
Said Saraceno: “It’s rare when you’re in the middle of a story when you have to check your emotions so you can think clearly. Watching it all come together was for me very powerful.”
Two months later, in edit, Cannamela and Saraceno experienced another – and unexpected - moment of wonder and triumph. When they queued up Sharon Kingsley’s hug of Maria, they heard what the mother of the recipient whispered to the mother of the donor:
“From one mother to another, nobody could understand it but yourself. But I thank you for the gift that you've given us, because without him, she wouldn't be alive, either.”
Again, the producers looked at one another.

(posted by Steve Marantz, April 27, 2011)

Friday, April 22, 2011


At about 10 a.m on April 8 Carl Crawford climbed out of a dugout onto the field at Fenway Park, four hours before the home opener of the Red Sox. He was greeted by an E:60 crew on hand to capture the moment.
For Crawford it was the start of the Red Sox phase of his career, after 10 years in the Tampa Bay Rays organization.
As Crawford walked toward left field and gazed upon baseball’s most iconic location, producer Heather Lombardo’s cameras devoured the scene. John Updike once called the wall “a compromise between Man’s Euclidean determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities.” Whatever.
To Crawford the Green Monster is something he was hired to protect, but to Lombardo it’s a co-star in her profile of Crawford.
In Lombardo’s telling, Crawford inherits a realm of immortals – Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice – Hall of Famers who played left field for the Red Sox. (And Manny Ramirez, an immortal flake and cheat). Crawford has something none of them had – speed – a gift that carried him out of his tough neighborhood in Houston and to four American League stolen base titles with Rays. And now it has carried him to a $142 million contract and a chance to become the next Hall of Fame left fielder from Boston.
“The Wall bookends the piece – we need it as a character,” Lombardo said. “We just wanted to capture the beauty and grandeur of the Wall.”
Lombardo approached the Monster shoot as she had other iconic locations – Churchill Downs, Belmont Park and Daytona.
“You want to capture them in their most pure form,” she said. “You want to capture a quiet moment – that’s where it resonates with people. You want it to be as pure as it ever was – if it’s iconic it’s traditional, and tradition is roped into it – you want to capture that.
“You want to make them feel big, because that’s how people build them up to be in their minds.
“And respect. You always want to be respectful of these locations. You don’t want to shoot the Wall with people milling about. You want it to be the central focus.”
The shoot began as Crawford and reporter Buster Olney walked toward left field, while shooters Mike Bollacke and Tim Horgan circled in front and behind. At one point, Crawford stopped and turned his back to the Monster, to allow for a different angle.
The shoot called for Crawford to walk through the door at the base of the Monster, enter the dim and cramped interior, and sign his name on a wall alongside thousands of signatures of players and fans. As Crawford signed, one camera zoomed in on the signature, while another got a low wide shot. But the interior shots, Lombardo knew, wouldn’t be as important as those of the exterior.
“From a distance the Wall looks small and then you stand next to it and look up and it’s huge,” Lombardo said. “It comes across as a larger-than-life structure, almost like a sculpture. That will come across, I hope. These guys are artists that way – they’ll make it come alive.”
The bright morning sun, which bathed the Wall in a flat light without texture, proved a challenge. Bollacke’s solution was a “boatload of filters”.
“You want something that draws your eye to the standard part of the frame but the edges will be kind of black or faded off,” Bollacke said. “The idea is to draw the viewer’s eye somewhere else to distract you from the flatness.”
The shoot took about 25 minutes. When it ended Crawford grabbed a glove and fielded caroms off the Monster. They had met before, but never as co-stars.

Posted by Steve Marantz, April 11, 2011

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

E:60 3D: Coming at You

Making of the Great Throwdini in 3-D from E60 on Vimeo.

          ESPN pioneered sports television 3D with a college football game in 2009, and continued in 2010 with World Cup Soccer, the Home Run Derby, and college and pro basketball.  Viewers find live action enhanced by a depth of field enjoyed by the athletes.
          In April E:60 will debut ESPN’s first 3D feature presentation: “The Great Throwdini” – about the daredevil act of a knife-thrower, David Adamovich.  Viewers will see sharp gleaming knives fly through the air, in ultra-slow motion, in various directions.  Some come straight at the screen, others go toward a woman attached to a giant spinning “wheel of death”.
          What they won’t see is the 10-12 hours of trial-by-error that went into shooting the 4-5 minute piece.  That was in February, at a Hofstra University theater, in a session that required a small army of 15 to 20 specialists.  Nor will they see the hours of editing.
          “It took James Cameron nine years to do ‘Avatar’ in 3D, and I’m like, ‘That’s all?’,” said producer Martin Khodabakhshian,
          “Everything takes longer in 3D – field planning, pre-production, shooting and editing.”
           Khodabakhshian was on his first 3D shoot, as were producers Robert Abbott and Brian Liburd.  They were challenged to get a shot of a knife hurtling toward a $200,000 Phantom camera – without damaging the camera.
          The camera was protected with one sheet of plexiglass, then three.  A mirror was set up, and a reflection of the knife was shot as it hurtled through the air.
          Wearing 3D glasses, the producers watched replays on monitors.  But, for an unexplained reason, the slow-motion shots would not replay in slow motion.
          Producers experimented with unfamiliar 3D technology and arrived at a few conclusions:
          1) Conceive and layer shots differently than in 2D – the more layering the better.  Create depth between the camera, the subject and the background.
          2) Cameras and rigs should be static.  Movement should come from the subjects. 
          3) Abundant lighting is required for Phantom cameras, which enhance 3D with ultra-slow motion.
          4)  In edit, avoid fast cuts.  Viewers need more time to adjust to the depth and dimension of a 3D shot.   Shots should be longer with movement toward and away from the camera.
          At the end of the day, Khodabakhshian was intrigued by the creative potential of 3D.
          “You don’t have to be throwing something at a camera – it doesn’t have to be Friday the 13th,” he said. “If you have a story on rowing, and there’s layers of kayaks, it will look cool.  If a girl is honoring her brother at his gravesite, and the tombstone is in your living room, and she’s coming to kiss that thing with emotion, why not?
          “You could do almost anything with 3D.  It just takes a lot of time and money.”

(Posted by Steve Marantz, March 22, 2011)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Re-enactment and Specialty: A Fine Line

Part 2
          A dummy from a costume shop was outfitted in a black hoodie and wing pants.  Producer Martin Khodabakhshian used the dummy as a stand-in for Jordan Burnham, who had survived a suicide plunge from a ninth-floor window.
          “This was more of an experiment – I didn’t know if it would be cheesy or offensive,” Khodabakhshian recalled.
          He considered a drop of the dummy from the bedroom window, but decided the image would be “too much”.   Instead, the dummy was thrown from the hood of a car, and filmed as it plummeted downward, silhouetted against a white sky.

          Powerful images, for sure, but Khodabakhshian wondered if they might be too...something.  Uncertain, he consulted E:60’s management team.
          “It’s not just you deciding in the end this is right for what we’re doing,” Khodabakhshian said. “There’s nothing wrong with getting input from the subject, photo editors, bosses and peers.  They help you decide if you’ve gone too far or not far enough.”
          Producers walk a fine line on re-enactment and specialty B roll.
           E:60 executive producer Andy Tennant produced a piece in 2002 on a former Buffalo Bills running back, Doug Goodwin, who had received a heart transplant in Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. The story included re-enactments of the donor heart harvested in Boston by two surgeons, flown to New Jersey, and shuttled across the George Washington Bridge minutes before the bridge was closed.
          The re-enactment was so lifelike that some at ESPN thought Tennant had shot the story live.  Tennant ultimately added a ‘re-enactment’ font at the start of the sequence.
          “The way you shoot a re-enactment will determine how it’s accepted by viewers,” Tennant said. “If it’s shot to match the time of day, at live speed, off the shoulder, it will give the appearance that it’s live and the story is unfolding.
          “We discuss re-enactments often – how to do them – where to draw the line – what’s over the top and what’s acceptable.”
          The history of re-enactment is as old as the re-enactment of history.  So said an Oxford professor of metaphysics, R. G. Collingwood, who died in 1943. “History is the re-enactment of the past in the mind,” he wrote.
          Film re-enactment enjoyed a watershed moment in 1988 in documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’s award-winning “The Thin Blue Line”.  Morris’ re-enactment of the murder of a Dallas police officer, based on interviews, trial testimony and evidence, was so persuasive that it resulted in the over-turning of the conviction of a man sentenced to death.
          In the last decade, cable viewers grew accustomed to re-enactments in the programming of the History, Discovery and Sci-Fi channels.
          But a 2005 documentary film, “Mighty Times: The Children’s March” – about a 1963 civil rights protest by thousands of children in Birmingham, Ala. – was controversial for its use of re-enactment.  The filmmakers, Bobby Houston and Robert Hudson, recreated scenes with vintage cameras and distressed film stock to shoot more than 700 extras, trained dogs, period autos and fire engines at various locations in Southern California.  Real archival footage and re-enacted footage were woven together.  Shots from other cities were edited into the footage from Birmingham.
          Of “Mighty Times”, Errol Morris wrote in an essay for the New York Times: “Surely this is not a question about re-enactments.  It’s a question about fraud.  If someone presents a scene as a real event, and it has been produced after the fact, it’s a re-enactment that’s a deceptive practice.  It’s a false claim. It’s a lie.”
          Morris made a broader point:  “Critics argue that the use of re-enactments suggest a callous disregard on the part of a filmmaker for what is true. I don’t agree. Some re-enactments serve the truth, others subvert it. There is no mode of expression, no technique of production that will instantly produce truth or falsehood. There is no veritas lens – no lens that provides a “truthful” picture of events. There is cinéma vérité and kino pravda but no cinematic truth. The engine of uncovering truth is not some special lens or even the unadorned human eye; it is unadorned human reason.”
          “The brain is not a Reality-Recorder. There is no perfect replica of reality inside our brains...Many people believe they have found a way around the eccentricities of the brain by substituting a camera, but this only defers the problem. It does not solve it. Even photographs have to be perceived. They have to be seen. There is no shortcut around the Cartesian riddle of separating reality from the appearance of reality. There is no shortcut to reality. The brain is all we have.”
          E:60 producers have used re-enactment since the show’s inception in 2007.  Producer T. Sean Herbert, whose resume includes CBS News’ ‘60 Minutes’, had never shot a re-enactment in 20 years in network news before he came to ESPN.  The difference, Herbert noted, is because ESPN, as a sports network, does not have the same standards and practices as a news network. 
          “It’s always a delicate balance,” said Herbert. “If you’re asking your character to do what they normally do, that’s okay.  At ‘60 Minutes’ we could have a generic walking shot, or a shot behind the desk or typing at a keyboard – something the character had done a gazillion times and might do that day.
          “Conversely if you took someone to the middle of a desert, or to a concrete bunker – anything that didn’t happen or never happened and is unnatural – that might be pushing the boundaries. 
          “Re-creating is okay – you duplicate what they do, whereas, creating is asking them to do what they haven’t done before.  Staging is not organic, and in my mind it’s not real or authentic.”
          Herbert cited his piece last fall on Preston Plevretes, a college football player who nearly died from Second Impact Syndrome.  It included specialty shots of Plevretes as he held a football and wore his letterman’s jacket, and of his mother as she peered at a pre-injury photo of him.

          “Would they normally do those things – not necessarily,” Herbert said. “But I was in her foyer at her home so I was comfortable asking them – to have him wear the clothes he wore, and to have him hold a football he actually owns, and to have her at the bottom of a grand staircase holding the photo in her arms.”
          Producer Lisa Binns, who also worked for ’60 Minutes’, recalled her piece on Andre Lampkin, a Texas football player whose legs were amputated as a result of bacterial meningitis.  She re-enacted the night he became ill with POV shots of Lampkin in the shower, at the refrigerator, and falling down.

          “It falls in line with what this show tries to do – you might see something like that in a movie,” Binns said.  “As long as the viewer is aware that it’s not actual video and not altering or taking license with the facts.
          “A purist would say any re-creation is too much.  The rule of thumb at other networks was ‘oh yeah, that’s a great story, but how can you tell it visually?’ And if you couldn’t you might pass on the story.  But considering how the medium has evolved, if a story should be told, you should be able to use visual tools that are out there.
          “A producer might say to a character ‘show me what you were doing’ and somebody might perceive that as acting.  But a print reporter would do the same thing.  What’s wrong with asking them to emote and show what they did?  What’s the difference?”
          Producer David Salerno re-enacted a scene in his piece on running back Maurice Jones-Drew last fall.  He shot Jones-Drew under a showerhead, with water cascading over his head.

          “It wasn’t a special shower – he wasn’t pretending anything – he was in a contemplative mode,” Salerno said.  “It wasn’t overt – it didn’t feel emotionally over the top to me.  In the Burnham piece I wouldn’t have chosen to have the mother bang on the door.  I like to be more subtle and not as overt.”
          Neither re-enactment nor specialty shots are addressed in ESPN’s new Editorial Guidelines for Standards and Practices, although “the intention is to continually grow the documents - they may be something to consider at some point,” Senior Vice-President/Director of News Vince Doria wrote in an e-mail.
          “I’ve never been comfortable with re-creations in pieces that are clearly investigative, or examples of enterprise journalism,” Doria continued. “The credibility of that sort of work relies heavily on accurate reporting and hard facts. The interjection of actors re-creating a scene clearly can increase the dramatic impact of a piece, but too often, I think, may over-dramatize the facts in ways that don’t reflect accurately what actually occurred.”
          Re-enactments and specialty shots in the Burnham piece were scrutinized, Tennant said, because the principals acted them out, they looked real, and the subject – clinical depression – is sensitive.
          “Every story gets treated differently,” Tennant said. “This subject matter was very sensitive, but the producer argued that the family was comfortable with it.  At no point when we watched it did anybody question the integrity of the piece.”
          In the end, four of Khodabakhshian’s dummy shots were approved. The first three are in a ‘falling’ sequence that includes a shot of Burnham looking upward and opening his mouth as if to scream.  In the fourth and final, the dummy floats upward, to symbolize Burnham’s recovery.
          “To me it’s more about doing it tastefully cinematic and dramatically than just doing it to have video,” Khodabakhshian said. “I don’t think there are any rules beyond not offending the family or doing something they wouldn’t be on board with.”

posted by Steve Marantz, February 14, 2011