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By Lynn French
Photographer KPNX-TV Phoenix, AZ
"What the Hell is That?"
Remember the old Saturday Night Live skit with Steve Martin and Bill Murray looking into off into the distance yelling "What the hell is that?" That question is always a precursor to adventure. A while back we talked about holding off on your passion stories until you got a few one-man-band packages under your belt. Now that you have a feel for what it takes to get the story on tape, we can have some fun with the story itself. For you all who have been one-man-banding awhile, let that question remind you of why this is fun.
When I started my first one-man-band reporting job at KOAT-TV's Roswell, New Mexico bureau (I can hear you snickering from here, yes I did lots of alien stories), I was still living and going to college at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales. If you have never had the pleasure of driving 90 miles of perfectly flat desert with nothing more than a below average convenience store along the way, try it for three years. You develop an immense eye for detail and an acute sense of back timing out of sheer boredom. The first week I made the hour and a half commute, the only things I noticed were the Elida convenience store and the Roswell city limits sign. But soon little roadside oddities started to jump out... a burned out tavern, missile silos on a small bluff, abandoned ranch houses and windmills. I quickly learned to gauge how far I was from Roswell or home based on what time I passed the antique USGS marker, the turn off for the Melrose bombing range or a cluster of TV towers referred to as High Lonesome. And then one day at the minus 17 minute mark, this little cluster of buildings grabbed my attention and would not let go. There was no time to explore these mile markers because my schedule was already strained to the minute as it was: 4:15am get up and go to work at the PBS station where I worked master control to pay the bills, 9:00am go to classes for three hours, 12:10 p.m. run home and change into reporter clothes and woof down lunch, 12:22 depart for Roswell which put me in the bureau at 2:00pm on the dot, work until 10:35 p.m. including my reporting job as well as running studio camera for the newscast, drive home and get in around midnight and do it all over again tomorrow---ahhh, to be young, hungry and sleep deprived. It was not until Christmas break that I hit the road to Roswell early one day to get an up close peek.
It was the stone arches out front that intrigued me most, they said "something classy used to be here". But on closer inspection, the buildings told me a story that sent my imagination racing. The main building has a wide stairway and three rooms like an old city hall or courthouse, maybe a post office. The roof is completely gone, but a few fragments of wooden beams hang in the stone work. The walls will be there until the end of time; they are 18 inches thick interlaced with intricate stone work. Over the entrance is a bull's head made out of stones with nails tapped into the surface for eyes and literal rock stars on the east and west walls. It is the smaller building out back that really spoke, it actually said "water". The word water is shaped with flat stones in the mortar and there are two big holes in the floor where water was stored. I did not step inside for fear the old concrete would give way and I would quickly learn just how deep the cistern really was. Beyond the stone archways was a dirt road leading to a graveyard. It became evident I have watched too many cheezy westerns. I was hyper with the anticipation of a sun washed skeleton exposed by erosion, marked with a decayed wooden cross and a rusty six-shooter tucked under the ribcage of the deceased cowboy bones. Much to my surprise (and a little disappointment), the headstones were very modern and relatively new. The earliest death among the dozen gravesites was in the 1930's. The most recent was just two years earlier in 1991. The last name on most of the graves was an uncommon one to southeastern New Mexico (I want to say Hobgood, but don't quote me on it). After an hour and a half of exploring and fantasizing what happened on this plot of land, it was time to go to work.
For two months I researched the buildings (keep in mind, this was before the internet was in newsrooms, how did we survive?). There was absolutely no record of a town on maps or in history books. However, there were two listings in the Hobbs phonebook for the last name on the gravesites. No answer at either. Our main anchor, the magnificent Teresa Davis-McKee, suggested calling the Roswell historical society. Curator Elvis Flemming vaguely knew about them... the big building was a schoolhouse for the town of Fraiser, which only existed for a few years. But then he gave me the name of a lady who was the undeniable expert on that area, Margaret Chesser Williams. Mrs. Williams was well into her 80's but sharp as a tack with the facts. We scheduled and interview for a week later and I shot the b-roll on my drive in the next day. It was my first big experience of answering the question, "What the hell is that?"
Here is the condensed version of the final story. The Acme (yes, just like the Coyote and Roadrunner) Gypsum Company used to mine minerals in that area in the late 1800's when Roswell was overrun with cattle drives instead of aliens. As the miner's families moved in, they established a neighboring town named for the mayor of Roswell at the time, Robert Frasier. The schoolhouse, water storage and arches were WPA projects built in 1932. The town only sustained into the early 1950's when the gypsum company was shut down by that era's EPA and everyone moved into Roswell.
When I watch the package now it makes me laugh. Along with being two minutes long! It was non-stop pans and zooms of the buildings. However, to this day, the writing is not half bad and it is a good road marker to how far I have come.
(For you all with kids, keep an eye out for a vignette on Sesame Street, one of the stone arches is featured musical number about the letter "n".)
So there is something out there that has you asking, "What the hell is that?" Here is a way to find the story in it and sell it to your desk, EP or news director.
---Selling it: Find an ally to invest in your story. Do you have a favorite reporter or anchor who has been on board with your one-man-banding since the beginning? Let them run a little interference for you by pitching the story as something they are interested in and you are doing the legwork. Reality is that they carry a bigger punch in most newsrooms than photographers. Many times we are fighting sins of the past... photog pitched nat sound packages that went awry running 3:00 and went no where, less good intentioned people who used the time to go car stereo shopping and then sprayed it as a VO or the story did not turn and the producer needs someone to blame for the 1:30 hole in their show. I wish it was not that way, but as you and your "ally" turn more of your stories, your credibility will grow and it gets easier every time to sell your story.
---Invest a little of your own time: if there is not someone willing to ride your train, then run on your schedule. It may mean leaving for work an hour early for a few days or giving up part of your evening, but there is no stronger trump card than already having the story in the can.
---MAKE NO PROMISES! If there is wide spread interest in your story, immediately qualify it with the fact that this is a fishing expedition, not the aquarium at Wal-Mart. You have reason to believe the story is out there and it will be a great haul if it is, but it has yet to bite on the line and you need some time to cast for it.
---Gather as many facts as you can so you can walk out of the building with a focus, let the little surprises you find along the way surprise your viewers as well.
---Start at the source: Look for identification marks or signs on or around the subject that can get you started with some research. Nothing there? Hmmm... what the hell is it?
---Neighbor knocking: I despise doing it during a murder scene or neighborhood tragedy, just because we do it so much with no purpose. But on something fun or curious, it is a blast. Under most circumstances, just leave the camera in the car and take a hand full of business cards or station letterhead until you start finding answers. Unless it is something so off the wall that I want the neighbors saying, "I have no idea what it is", I leave the camera so people will talk more freely and see me as an interested person rather than a camera with an interested person attached to it. Even if someone does not know what it is, there is a good chance the next time they are talking to a neighbor they will start doing the asking for you and call if they find out.
---Research: I hated it in school, now it is one of my favorite parts of storytelling. Start with the internet, it is the fastest way with the broadest range. I use google.com and dogpile.com the most, but yahoo.com and webcrawler.com also do well and sometimes turn up more obscure results. But as you know, anybody can put anything on the internet, double check your facts with another source if possible before putting it on the air or be ready to attribute it to the website in the proper context. If it is something in a city, try the neighborhood associations, they will point you toward the old timers. If it is out in the middle of nowhere (kind of like Fraiser, New Mexico), try the associations that use that area for industry or recreation; farmers and ranchers, 4x4 folks and dirtbikers, oil riggers or copper miners. If it is government land, start at the agency with the most jurisdiction, is it in the forest---Department of Agriculture, BLM land---Department of the Interior, tribal land---Bureau of Indian Affairs. If credible sources don't know what it is, then that is part of your story.
---Take an expert to it: Put a call into your local university, extension service or local historian and have them meet you at the site to give their opinion. Or shoot video, dub it to VHS and show the tape in their office and shoot an interview while they are looking at the tape.
---Find the person in the object or place: It is tough when an inanimate object is your subject rather than a person. When you look at the mystery thing, think of the first emotion you feel, that is what you will want the viewer to feel as well. With the Frasier story, it was abandonment. The story was not the buildings; it was the people who had to walk away from them because they could no longer sustain their lives out on the high plains. Most "What the hell is that?" moments come from things that make us laugh or entertain us. Find a way to make your viewers feel that same discovery of joy. When you finally find the answer and have that "ah-ha!" moment, try to recreate that for the viewer through your interviews and the sound you choose in the story as well as how intimate you let the viewer get with the mystery subject while shooting.
---Don't kiss me before we have said hello: This is where writing your own anchor lead-ins and tags are vital. Don't give the show producer a chance to ruin your surprise by telling the secret in the lead-in. The lead-in should whet the viewer's appetite by letting them identify with that feeling of "what the hell is that?"
Have a great time discovering! If your first few don't pan out, don't sweat it. There is no sin in letting it run as kicker VO and letting the viewer decide for themselves in 20 seconds. I have a suitcase full of tapes of things I wondered about but it did not come together, what is life without a little mystery?
I would love to see some of your stories, especially "what the hell is that?" pieces. I will be glad to critique them if you are looking for some tough love, or if you need a cheerleader to keep you motivated, I will dig out my pompoms. Drop me a line at LEFrenchNM@msn.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next time we look at tools of the trade, stuff you need when you are shooting solo and a few things to put on your 2003 wish list. We will also just be coming to the close of the February book and an industry collective sigh of relief. We will look at why photogs should know how to read a ratings book. I just saw you roll your eyes, but wait, along with learning ways to make your news director's jaw drop while getting your packages the proper time and promotion, I will tell you a story that could begin the rebirth of a bizarre ratings book tradition of the past, two words...beenie weenies.
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