Scowling portraits of premiers past glower at the members of the Queen’s Park press corps as they saunter down from their comfortable offices to the scrum area at the Ontario legislature. On arrival, the seven cameramen and 16 reporters are hit with huge news: a tax break for the province’s two pro hockey teams. The announcement is a surprise. So is the place at which Finance Minister Ernie Eves chooses to be interviewed: not the west doors, where Tory scrums traditionally take place and where the pack has already set up, but the centre doors. Eves watches in amusement as the cameramen frantically fumble with their equipment while they run the few metres toward him. The camera guys, who just a few moments ago were chatting collegially about taxes, the housing market and hot interns, are now elbowing, shoving and hip checking one another in order to get a steady, unobstructed shot. One cameraman, 17-year veteran Doug Gamey of Global TV, is squeezed out. Unfazed, he grabs the stepladder he has brought for just such a circumstance, swiftly unfolds it and hops up. As the finance minister fields questions from the reporters, the cameramen flick on the bright lights and settle into a tight semicircle. One camera to the left of Eves is so close that he could turn his head, stick out his tongue and lick the lens.
After 15 minutes of countless variations on the how-can-you-support-$1-million-athletes-when- so-many-people-are-hungry-or-need-heat question, Eves heads to his office. The cameramen pack up. They’ve got what they need for their supper-hour newscasts: a classic 10-second pol-at-the-mike clip. Tempers, however, haven’t cooled. “I fucking got elbowed right out of the scrum,” vents Gamey. “The fucker should take a Valium.”
The fucker in question is Kevin Fabish, a cameraman for CFMT, a multicultural station out of Toronto. He denies the charge: “I didn’t elbow him out; I just didn’t let him into the scrum. Doug was late. It was like he was cutting in line.” Later, in a taxi on the way to the Toronto Tourism Awards to get a reaction on the tax break from Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman, Gamey says that cameramen have to work together in scrums. “[We] all need the same shot,” he says. “If no one pushes, everyone can just do their job.”
For more than 40 years, cameramen like the guys who gathered around Ernie Eves have brought images from every corner of the earth into our living rooms. From the fire up the street to the fires of countless war zones, through snowstorms and through swamps, in times of celebration and in times of mourning, they got the perfect shots that helped shape the worldview of several generations. And they did it anonymously. We knew the correspondents but never the guys who shot them – burly, dedicated men who schlepped 30 or 40 pounds of equipment over considerable distances. But now, as a result of technological advances combined with cuts to newsroom budgets, the colourful cameraman of TV’s heyday is a member of an endangered species. He’s being gradually replaced by the videographer, a relative youngster, not at all burly – or even male – who carries both the camera and the pencil.
Ground zero of the cameraman’s testosterone-infused culture is the locker room. Every major TV news operation has one. At Toronto’s CBC building, the room is tucked away in a dingy corner near the parking lot. It looks like a dimly lit 1970s-style shag palace with some pungent leftover Chinese food on a plain wooden table, and a ratty, dark blue couch in front of the large TV. The computer, with its high-speed Internet connection, looks oddly out of place in a room not afraid to flaunt its affinity for the old and ugly. The men’s change room feel of the place, with its overwhelming smell, would be complete with the obligatory beaver shot and towelled men heading for the sauna.
While cameramen wait for the call to shoot a story, they often sit around swapping the latest gossip and exchanging tales about the legends. The adventures of Dave Wilson, now semiretired and living in Kelowna, B.C., are frequently mentioned. The lore that surrounds him stops just short of involving a giant blue ox. Consider his posting to Argentina during the buildup to the 1982 Falkland Islands War with Great Britain. According to legend, he escaped to Peru, sued the CBC for millions, inverted the plug of the playback device in court to blow up evidence, fought with the police and stood 12 feet tall.
What actually happened? After spending eight or nine days in Buenos Aires, Wilson, along with his soundman, the producer and interpreter, drove to the army base at Comedero, in Argentina’s central region. On the morning of their arrival he took establishing shots – images used to support a reporter’s narrative – of the training grounds. Then the group discovered some radar and satellite dishes. After shooting for seven or eight minutes, they spotted a convoy of military police racing toward them. Wilson and his team were arrested, charged with treason, placed under house arrest for 21 days, brought to court several times and interrogated for more than 80 hours. Charges were eventually dropped, but when Wilson arrived back in Canada, the CBC said he wouldn’t be paid for all the hours he had spent under house arrest. After protracted negotiations, Wilson reached a compromise with the CBC.
More satisfying to Wilson, now 59, is another story. Corner him at his local pub and, with a little prodding, he might tell you about the Panama City riots of 1988. At the time, the Central American country was in chaos. Manuel Noriega was hanging on to power but faced a growing opposition, which had set up its headquarters near the hotel that housed the foreign press on the assumption that the Panamanian dictator would be less likely to kill them in front of cameras and correspondents from around the world.
On March 28, Wilson, a soundman and an interpreter were on hand for a huge protest at which 15,000 people marched peacefully toward an enclosed square near the opposition headquarters. However, after everybody had filed in, the army blocked off the square and opened fire with tear gas and water cannons. They also released some thugs from prison to rile the crowd and rob protesters. After capturing the riot on film, Wilson and his team – now joined by a boy incapacitated by tear gas, his grateful father and another couple – raced to what they thought was the safety of their hotel. On their approach they were warned of soldiers indiscriminately beating journalists and grabbing tapes from their cameras. To avoid them, Wilson’s group successfully snuck in the back staff entrance and carefully made their way up to the CBC suite, which had been converted into an editing room.
Before locking themselves in, Wilson and his soundman removed the CBC signs from the door. Once inside, the couple flushed handfuls of notebooks down the toilet and the soundman hid their tapes in the ceiling, including the one with the Panamanian army official promising no violence. The group stayed put for four hours. “I guess I was lucky to survive,” he says, “but I was glad I was able to show what happened to the world.”
Television is a visceral medium, not an intellectual one, and that is why the cameraman is so important,” says Robin Christmas, veteran CBC producer and director. Viewers, he adds, will lose interest if they don’t feel a connection to the story, and the people behind the camera can provide the connection. How? They “function as your eyes,” says Suanne Kelman, a former producer with The Journal. “And if they are any good, they capture the moment even better than your eyes would.” Compelling visuals grab the viewer’s attention and help support the reporter’s narration. To get those vital pictures, the cameraman must effectively use light and skillfully frame the shot. But there is also something intangible involved. “The best see where the emotion is, capture it on film and deliver it to the viewer,” says Howard Bernstein, the former head of CBC News in Toronto. “It’s like great art – hard to define exactly what makes it so moving, just that you are moved.”
Bernstein could have been talking about Peter Zin’s work in Chile for the CBC in April 1998. His assignment was to shoot reactions to the news that former dictator Augusto Pinochet would receive a lifelong senate appointment – a measure designed to give him immunity from prosecution while under medical care in Britain. Each day thousands of anti-Pinochet protesters clashed with the army, which sprayed the crowd with water cannons and plastic bullets. Zin jumped right in and stayed there until he caught on tape the raw emotions on the faces of angry yet frightened protesters as they threw rocks at the soldiers, then retreated when the military fired back.
Coming up with compelling images is a challenge when the segment is about matters more mundane than protests and riots. For example, in 1993, Christmas and cameraman Mike Sweeney were sent to Arizona. Photo radar was about to be introduced into Canada, and the CBC wanted to look at how it worked in the United States. Sweeney realized that without some visual flair, this story would quickly become a boring list of safety statistics that even he wouldn’t watch. His solution: he placed a small lipstick camera, similar in size to a photo radar unit, inside a rented sports car and shot his producer at the wheel, along with shots of him racing past his regular camera. “It was perfect,” says Christmas. “The dramatization helped the viewer understand how photo radar works.”
Sometimes camera operators get their best shots from the reporters who accompany them. Two years ago Robin Benger, a documentary filmmaker, worked with cameraman John Westheuser on a piece for CBC’s Witness. The focus was on the corner of Dundas and Sherbourne streets in Toronto – a hangout for crack dealers. At one point the pair was invited to a user’s apartment. Once inside the smelly, rundown room, Benger noticed a table covered with drug paraphernalia and pointed it out to Westheuser. While Benger interviewed the addict, the cameraman took carefully composed shots of broken bottlenecks, a crack pipe, condoms and a Bible – all of which could be edited into the final piece to show, in a way that words cannot, the grim details of a user’s life.
Camera operators and reporters often form bonds, says Global TV anchor Peter Kent. “It is almost like a romantic relationship. You tend to take things for granted. You start to act like a married couple, squabbling over this and that.” During his days as a correspondent, Kent cherished any opportunity to work with Louie De Guise, a cameraman respected for his talent and his willingness to take chances. In 1970, the pair covered the FLQ kidnapping crisis. After Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau implemented the War Measures Act, De Guise sat with Kent in his Cougar in front of a provincial police office in downtown Montreal and waited for the cops and soldiers to head out and start making arrests.
To pass the time the pair discussed life, love and sports and argued about where to eat. When the combined security forces finally left the station, De Guise and Kent followed, filming them busting down doors and arresting suspected terrorists. The footage was dramatic, graphic and shocking. “The intimate shots Louie got were way ahead of their time,” says Kent. “What he got not only shaped the way people saw the crisis but the way people saw the police.”
De Guise, who now works in the CBC bureau in Washington, D.C., is a craftsman. He says that the secret to great shots is all in the lighting. For example, when he was in Rwanda in 1994, he was scheduled for an interview with a relief worker. But De Guise didn’t want a standard talking-head shot. He wanted to show the scared and starving Hutuus who were crammed in the relief camp as well. So he set up the lights in such a way that he could show both: the pleading relief worker in the foreground, and, clearly visible behind him, the faces of the hungry people he was trying to save.
As corporate bottom lines increasingly dictate news values, the cost-saving benefits of a videographer – one person who reports and shoots a story – are becoming increasingly attractive. At the CBC station in Windsor, for instance, there are now only two news cameramen. “Videographers offer some intimacy advantages, but they hold few editorial advantages. The shots are just not as thoughtful,” says Dave Cook, former cameraman and one of two crew chiefs for The National, Newsworld and The National Magazine. Adds cameraman Neith Macdonald, a 15-year veteran now working for The National, “I just don’t see how a videographer can produce interesting shots. There are just too many other things to worry about.”
Michael Sullivan is the full-time rep with the Communications, Electricians and Paperworkers Union, which represents the CBC’s 165 cameramen and five camerawomen. When a reporter’s or camera operator’s position becomes vacant, he says, a videographer is often hired instead. Since 1997, there have been about 45 new videographers hired at the CBC and just 22 new cameramen and women. The gap grows larger each year.
Sullivan first heard the term videographer about 20 years ago. Michael Rosenbloom in New York was among the pioneers. He shot and wrote his own stuff, but he did it with a sore back. His camera, one of the first ENG or tape machines, weighed more than 30 pounds. Phil Pendry, a cameraman who lugged a unit across Vietnam, compares the experience to carrying two industrial-sized microwaves around the jungle: one for taping and another for recording.
By 1985, the ENG camera weighed a more portable 23 pounds. Since the strength of an Olympic weightlifter was no longer a job requirement, it was easier for women to enter the profession. Shamila Hunter started apprenticing at Global in Toronto in 1982. To gain the acceptance of her mostly male colleagues, she says, she took the tough stories, the ones where she’d have to shoot grieving families at drownings, fires or whatever. “[Being a camerawoman] was something I wanted to do for as long as I can remember,” says Hunter. “I think I would have put up with anything to work with the camera.”
The big broadcasters didn’t adopt the videographer until the early 1990s. While they’ve saved money, they’ve created a situation where there’s often too much for one person to handle. When a reporter is expected to produce as many stories as the standard reporter-and-cameraman tandem, innovation and thoughtfulness suffer. Mike Wise, a videographer for CBC Toronto, is the only full-time entertainment reporter left at the station. Just a few years ago he had six co-workers and regular access to a few cameramen. Now, after two rounds of budget cuts, Wise is left on his own to decide on a story, shoot it, write it, interview for it and sometimes even sit in on the edit. He was hired full-time in 1994 as a reporter. Wise says he’s overworked and bombarded with information. It shows in the quality of his shots.
While shooting a segment at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Wise has to worry about everything at once. Is the lighting too dark? Do I have enough angles and shot variation? Is my battery running low? Should I use the tripod or just rest the camera on my shoulder? The piece that aired the next day was slightly too dark and he should have used a tripod. Because he interviewed the two actors sitting side by side, the camera jerked back and forth, from one to the other, over and over again. Wise, though, doesn’t have time to wait for the perfect shot. “I have to worry about five two-minute segments a week,” he says. “I can’t get hung up on one part of one story.”
On New Year’s Eve, 1986, Dave Wilson was at home in Toronto, sipping on a cold beer, barbecuing some steak and enjoying a relaxing evening with his wife. At 6:15 p.m. the phone rang. It was his assignment editor, wanting him to go to Puerto Rico immediately. There had been a massive hotel fire – 100 or so dead. Could he be at the airport in an hour? Sure. Could he stay for a few days? Of course. Wilson threw some clothes in a suitcase, kissed his wife goodbye and was in his car five minutes later. The CBC arranged to send his camera to the airport. The plane waited while Wilson cleared customs. Five hours later he was in San Juan at the Dupont Plaza Hotel, gathering shots of hotel rubble, rescue crews and grieving families. He captured the emotion of desperate emergency workers frantically searching for survivors. He also filmed an interview with a pair of Canadian survivors in front of the burnt-down hotel, skillfully framing them to the side so the viewer could also see the rescue drama in the background. With the aid of Wilson’s memorable, thoughtfully composed footage, the team at The Journal had the complete segment put together in less than 24 hours.
Two days later Wilson was back in the locker room waiting for his next assignment. On this morning, years before the videographer revolution hit the big broadcasters, the guys listened with respect and deference as he unfolded the story of that tragic night. They relished hearing the tales of one of their own, a cameraman dedicated to the craft of getting the perfect shot, one of the more colourful characters in a profession that seldom steps into the spotlight.