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By Lynn French
Photographer KPNX-TV Phoenix, AZ
GETTING THERE WITH GEAR
"That guy running for Vice President took my luggage." Well, he inadvertently grabbed the wrong bag off the carousel at the Raleigh airport and took it home with him. I would love to ask him if he ever opened it. If he did, it forever changed how he perceived my previous station.
After the University of North Carolina choked in the 2000 NCAA Final Four on a rainy Saturday night in Indianapolis, our crew was to fly home the next day. I awoke that bright humid Sunday morning, to find my roommate, Jim---one of my favorite anchors of all time, in the living room of our borrowed apartment in front of TV blaring CBS Sunday Morning eating stale powered doughnuts. "What time is our flight?" Jim and I both dug at our plane tickets. "I think it was something like 11:50" I replied as I pulled out mine. As Jim dug in his briefcase, "I remember it being 11:00." The punch to the gut came as I looked at my ticket, it was indeed 11:50...when I should be landing in Raleigh, the plane was departing in 8 minutes. Jim looked at his ticket, "We take off at 11:00." I shook my head, "You take off at 11:00, we could step outside and watch mine take off during the next commercial break." Why we were booked on different flights, no one knows. I called Midway Airlines (now a defunct sub carrier for US Air) and the earliest flight I could get on was at 4pm the next day.
We had been in Indianapolis for over a week and I was burned out on the city, we had hit all of the major attractions while shooting flavor pieces. I seriously needed to get home and take care of lots of housekeeping items. Jim laughed, "I know what you are doing today." I rolled my eyes at him as I envisioned myself lounging on the couch for 24 hours watching HBO and drinking what was left of the Kaluha straight from the bottle, "What am I doing today?" Jim smirked, "You are going to Chicago, all I have heard this week 'we are two hours from Chicago, look... the exit for Chicago, we could be in Chicago for dinner'." The wheels started turning in my head, I could do this, it's not like tomorrow's flight is going to get here any sooner, I have the rental car and apartment through Monday, I guess the laundry and weeds in the yard would have to wait, I did not have to be to work Monday anyway, I was going to Chicago.
I am going to fast forward here, eventually the Chicago trip and all that it has lead to since will be in a book someday titled "Get Your Poop Square Off My Tray".
The next day I got to the airport about an hour before my flight to find our Sports anchor, Bob, in line just ahead of me. I was relieved to have some help getting my camera and the suitcase editor on and off the plane (we had a policy to not call them laptop editors, they are not the size of laptops). As we stood there talking about our Sunday adventures, Senator John Edwards (the guy running for Vice President now) got in line behind Bob. I said hello to the Senator and Bob turned around to see who I was talking to. "Wow, Bob Holliday! It is great to meet you, I have watched you for years!", the Senator beamed at Bob as he vigorously shook his hand more like a star struck fan than a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. We did introductions all around, checked in and walked up to the gate together.
As usual, I got hassled by the flight attendant for the size of the edit deck and had to use the classic line, "I have to ride in cargo before it does, we fly with it all the time, you are the first one to have a problem with it." We landed in Raleigh and everyone got off but me. I was in the last seat in the back row of the plane and had two chunky pieces of equipment to manage down the aisle. Just then an angel appeared at the front of the cabin. Actually, it was one of our photographers who also worked at a ramp chief at Midway and saw our names on the passenger list. Keith took the editor as I carried the camera. We stood talking at the gate when I remembered I had my black roller bag downstairs at baggage claim. I got downstairs to a deserted carousel except for one little black square suitcase going around and around. At first glance it was mine, but as soon as I grabbed at it, the handles and wheels were wrong. I looked at the tag, "John Edwards". I called the assignment desk to alert his office that we needed to switch bags and I was going to leave his with Midway. I then went to passenger services to turn in the mis-identified suitcase. When they asked me what was in mine, I had to fib a little. "Clothes, mostly", that was a vague description of it. I started going though the true inventory in my mind and imagining the Senator's face when he opened it.
North Carolina has super strict liquor laws compared to the Western states where I have lived with drive-up liquor windows and being able to buy triple digit proof grain alcohol in gas stations on a Sunday morning. We went a little nuts being able to buy alcohol after 8pm, and flavors we had never seen the likes of down South. I purchased a bottle of Jack Daniels Single Barrel Whiskey to share with my beach buddies later in the spring and carefully packed it in the black roller bag with a few TV items---RE50 with the Channel 5 mic flag on it, a Prolight, and some audio cables along with all of my underwear. Looking back, I don't know why there was only underwear in the suitcase, I think I sent back the rest of my dirty clothes on the sat truck but wanted to keep my unmentionables within my control. But I can clearly recall the horror imagining this US Senator innocently unzipping the bag and being presented with a bottle of whiskey encased in undies garnished with a Channel 5 logo.
Traveling with gear on airplanes will make you crazy no matter how much you do it. Yeah, there are the network guys who travel with eleven Anvil cases filled with HMIs and stuff most of us have only seen in the Kennedy's catalog and he can slip the Skycap a twenty to deal with it. But for those of us who travel a handful of times a year and know that filling in the line "tips" is the quickest way to get your expense report kicked back, there are a few ways to get your gear there without too many extra baggage fees or a broken back.
First, seriously assess what you NEED. Lighting is one of my favorite challenges in TV and I would love to take my regular light kit. But in a lot of situations, it is dead weight. Before you go, check to see what situations you will be shooting in during the trip. If you are shooting "hold for release" sweeps pieces or some super exclusive interview, then take only what you need---in my case: an Anton Bauer Satellite, two stands, a Prolight with barn doors, a Tota, a silver umbrella, a set of spare lamps and a piece of tough spun with some clothes pins. Total weight: about seven pounds. My regular light kit with all of it's goodies: about 35 pounds. If we are doing multiple slamma-jamma packages and having NBC News Channel or a similar network entity shoot our live shots, the only light I take is my camera top light and an AB Satellite and depend on mother nature to do the rest. It is not as pretty as I like it, but experience has taught me that those lights would have never left the trunk of the rental car if I had brought them. As for packing lights, I wrap them in my jeans and t-shirts deep in my suitcase, they are just as protected as in an Anvil case, but only add a few pounds to your suitcase rather than another 75 bucks out of your pocket for an extra piece of luggage.
Beg, borrow or buy a golf hard case with wheels. Every TV station has a guy who is obsessed with golf to the point that he travels all over the US, if not the world to play elusive courses. It is an unwritten rule of keeping a TV station in it's proper staffing balance to stay on the air. Sometimes he is the sports guy, often sales or upper management or a fellow photog. He will have a hard plastic octagon shaped tube with wheels on the bottom that was designed for really nice golf clubs to travel in. But interestingly enough, it fits tripods and light stands perfectly and was made for anchors or reporters to pull through the airport. If he is not headed to Pebble Beach when you need to travel to Portland, promise him a box of Titlist Pro V One's if you can borrow the case. If your station travels a lot, buy one, it is worth the price of admission.
Invest in a good cart. It is the cheapest alternative to back surgery you can buy next to strong arming reporters to carry more stuff. Those little cheapie luggage carts from the outlet mall will not do long term. A good cart will run you around $150. But it should have a 150 pound capacity, larger rubberized wheels to minimize vibration and manage uneven terrain, a large enough platform to carry your suitcase editor, tripod and gear bag, and fold up enough to be checked at the gate like a stroller or car seat.
Always, Always, ALWAYS carry on your camera! An airline has not lost my luggage in 8 years (other than US Senators inadvertently taking it). That is until a little recent trip to Athens (Greece, not Georgia). Carrying my camera on the plane served two purposes. We shot a package with the Zambian Olympic Team (all 9 of them) while waiting for our plane in Amsterdam. Nothing takes the pressure off like having a story in the can before you even get to the final destination. AND, when we were standing at the baggage carousel in Athens when the last bag rolled out and our luggage was still in Amsterdam, we could still get on the air that afternoon with what I carried on the plane. In my laptop case I had my stick mic, four tapes, and my battery charger (if you travel quite a bit, the Anton Bauer Titan 2 is perfect---slim, light and charges Dionics). I was pretty miserable the next morning when I had to put on the same dirty clothes that had been on my body the previous 36 hours, but not as miserable as explaining to the news director why you are missing the story and can't go live. I know the flight attendants will hassle you and tell you it has to be checked because it won't fit in the over head compartment, they have told me that a thousand times. I always assure them that it has fit on every plane I have ever been on. Some ways to cut down on the hassle factor:
---Know the aircraft you are boarding: Most e-tickets will state the airplane type when you book it; Boeing 737, Airbus 320, CRJ-900 and so on. Our cameras were designed to fit in standard overhead bins in large airplanes, you will probably have to take of the wireless and push the viewfinder in, but it is more compact than most of the roller bags regular passengers try to cram in there. If you have a soft side travel case for the camera, that will protect it from some of the vibration and bumps it will get during flight. Otherwise, pack some pillows and blankets around and under it, positioning it at an end of the compartment pointing the lens toward the wall so some schmuck does not come along and put his twenty pound briefcase on top of it. If you are getting on an "RJ" (regional jet), the little puddle jumpers and smaller jets, then you will have to take off the viewfinder and wireless mics completely, but it still fits.
---Get approval ahead of time for your camera: Right now with airlines filing for bankruptcy right and left, they are desperate for our business. Unlike real people, TV stations are notorious for booking tickets at the last minute at the highest price. Have your chief photographer or operations manager play the media card and obtain letters from the airlines you fly often stating that the airline recognizes your camera as acceptable carry-on luggage. At KPNX, we had to go to the maintenance hangar of one regional airline with a camera and prove it would fit in their little baggage compartments on their smaller planes, but we have not had an issue since. If they are cold to the idea, play the Southwest card. Southwest Airlines has an EXCELLENT policy about cameras as carry-on. The same sensitivity we have about "who is the number one station", airlines feel that way about Southwest. Just print up this page, http://www.swamedia.com/swamedia/media_cameras.html or send the link to the media relations person at the uncooperative airline and let them know that Southwest has no problem with us, why do they?
--- Back of the plane: Book your seat in the back of the aircraft. It is louder, bumpier, but you get to board first and get first crack at the overhead storage bins. I now even book vacation tickets for the back of planes because it is always less crowded and a decreased chance of an uptight three year-old kicking me in the back of the head from Dallas to Miami.
--- Prepare to pay or standby: If you absolutely, positively have to be on this flight today, right now, get out your credit card. In the same fashion that airlines have ticket policies for large sized passengers who must purchase two seats, they have policies for items that cannot be checked. Most airlines will let you buy a seat for your camera on that plane for the same price as you paid for your original seat (you may need to remind them that it is their policy). It is intended for musicians who travel with priceless instruments and folks like us whose luggage is worth more than a Lexus and they don't want to assume the liability for it. Or you can give up your seat on that flight and wait for a less full flight, but knowing TV stations, you need to be there two hours ago, find the sat truck and go live for the five.
--- Don't lose your cool: As much as I wanted to grab the America West gate agent by his polyester clip-on tie and choke the life from him when catching a flight to Sacramento a few months ago, I sucked it up and took his abuse. I was carrying on my camera and the laptop that brings me b-roll.net and lets me file scripts from far away exotic places like Anaheim. Even though their policy states you are allowed a carry-on item and a personal item which specifies a purse, briefcase or laptop, he demanded I choose an item to check as baggage. Other passengers started to jump in and defend the size of my camera and laptop, several offered to carry one on as their own. But obviously, this guy who was the spitting image of Milton from Office Space had an axe to grind with the media and chose me to be his punching bag. The thing is, he could deny me boarding privileges or even have me removed from the gate if I pitched too big a fit. I know eventually I would get on a plane, but something about this putz told me he just wanted to ruin someone's day and it happened to be mine. As I continued to coldly comply with his bizarre demands, the plane arrived and he suddenly had more to do than torment me. Next thing I knew, they called my row and I was on the plane---me, camera and laptop. My pride was a little bruised by a guy with kitty litter breath, but otherwise I got there, got on the air and in the end that is what matters.
There are some great threads on the message board about traveling with gear. It is one of the most stressful and fun parts of our job. There are going to be times on the road when you want to shoot yourself and others. There are going to be times when you can't believe you are getting paid to take your camera on an all expense paid vacation on the station with a few scheduled interviews mixed in (I am still waiting for that one). Now that I have had some time to detox from Athens, as a trip---it was not the exotic vacation my co-workers envisioned. But I miss laughing so much with our anchor Mark. I would lay down at night for my four hours of sleep and realize my abs hurt from exercising my internal organs with non-stop guffaws. Station trips are a chance to concentrate on one story, one reporter, and outshine the sun. But most importantly, it is a chance to remind yourself why it is such a great job. And of course... what goes on the road, stays on the road!
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