Friday, June 19, 2009


Well, It's finally happened!

The most significant technical change in television since the introduction of color has arrived.

Welcome to The Digital Age of Broadcasting.

That fuzzy old boxy analog TV set that has been relegated from prime time viewing status in the living room, to a back up in the kitchen, to the late night night light in the guest bedroom is now little more than junk.

Or a scientific relic. It all depends on how you look at it. Literally.

Digital Television promises wonderful things; clearer, sharper and truer colors. Surround sound. High Definition. And, in the works, 3D Television.

But of all its wonders, digital does have some drawbacks.

For example, if you don't have a converter built in to the last TV you bought and you are not on cable or satellite, you will have to do one of these three things; buy a converter box, or subscribe to cable of satellite. Without them, one or the other, you will get NO picture on your television set.

Which brings me to the greatest loss of all due directly to the digital conversion; No more white noise and "snow".

I liked nothing better than to fall asleep on the couch in front of the old analog TV and wake up in the middle of the night to that soft white noise "shisssssss" sound and the dancing black and white sparkling dots on the screen. It was all sort of comforting in a way. Almost ethereal.

But with the Digital Age the gentleness of the "late late night wake up and go to bed" call is gone forever. And something else is gone forever too.....the ACTUAL picture of the background energy left over from the Big Bang when the Universe was created.


That's right, those dancing black and white dots were a picture after all! They were the actual faint background radiation activity of the early nano-seconds of the creation of the Universe picked up by the analog television receiver when clicked over to a non broadcasting channel or when the channel being watched went off the air for the night.

Those dancing dots were nothing less than a VISUAL remnant of The Big Bang. The BEGINNING of the ENTIRE UNIVERSE being received right in our own living rooms and we didn't even know it. Now, with digital, you will wake up to flat blackness on the screen manufactured by the guts of the digital mother board when there is nothing going on. No more white noise, either.

Not half as good as staring at and listen to the faint and fading images and sounds of the very, very beginning of TIME.

We could have picked it up in our living rooms, family rooms, bedrooms, SCHOOL ROOMS, when ever we need a little lesson in human humility or an excellent example of science in the raw. But no. "Nothing on" we would sign, turning off the set AND walking away from our very own front row seat to THE CREATION OF THE UNIVERSE!

Now we CAN'T dial in the greatest show in all of eternity (up to now, anyway) even if we wanted to because, it seems, the Universe is analog.

And TV has gone digital.

Ask anyone in the Television Biz and they will tell you that analog....just doesn't cut it anymore.

Friday, May 8, 2009


When I worked in the newsroom at KATU in Portland, Oregon 45 years ago, and video cameras started taking over for the old reliable film cameras, we half joked that we should put one of the retired motion picture cameras on the wall behind a glass box. On the box we thought we should post a sign that read, "In case of EMERGENCY break glass!" In other words, no one was too sure about the switch to the electronic world of field video cameras, video editing systems, video on air play back, in short, electronic EVERYTHING. And in the switch there were bugs, lots of bugs, but we got through it....still getting through it in fact.

Now, 40 years later, I have worked in the business long enough to see another sea chance in the technology; the switch to High Definition. HD is a clearer, sharper, more realistic image produced digitally, edited digitally, broadcast digitally and received by a digital receiver. (Remember when we used to call them "television sets"?)

And now there are MORE bugs to work out on the receiver end. Older "TV sets" can't get the digital signal because they were built in the era of analog television signals. And the new converter boxes that can help some older sets convert their incoming signals to digital are challenging to hook up, program, or to just understand the "simple" instructions in the first place..

And the revolution is not over! At a recent broadcasting technical convention in Las Vegas, the hottest booth was the one with the 3D receiver! It is a device that can take a digital signal and process it in such a way that the image on the flat screen appears in three dimensions. No special viewing glasses necessary. Really! The flat screen, the inventors say, will not be "flat" for much longer. Soon you will sit in front of the screen and look INTO the program you are watching! EVERYONE will have a seat on the 50 yard line in 3D TV. And, I'm told, the 3D TV revolution is just around the corner. In other words, just about the time we have all figured out our analog to digital converter boxes, or how to re-adjust our antenna's to find the new HD signals from our local stations, we'll start pouring over the manuals and who knows what attachment gadgets required to turn our pictures into 3D TV.

I'm all for progress, and TV has led the way in the visual technical revolution from the get go; video tape, the instant replay, remote live cams, home and business video security, chroma-key, giant flat-screen technology, etc. But I still think it's a good idea to keep that old Auricon 16 mm film camera on the wall behind the glass. Because motion picture film was invented by man and has served humanity well for over 100 years. Electrons were NOT invented by man, but now reign supreme over an entire industry; an ENTIRE industry with NO backup. And should the whole thing come crashing down on us someday, of course we're going to want to film it. And the only way that's going to happen is by breaking the glass.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Moby Dick, Rockwell Kent and I

I just finished watching Frederick Lewis' superb Dundee Road Productions documentary on the life of Rockwell Kent, the artist, author, adventurer, activist and erstwhile farmer. If you haven't seen the program implore your local PBS station to run it again and again, because I am sure that you (like I) will get more and more out of it with each viewing.

For example, this recent viewing reminded me of a curious connection I developed as a child with Rockwell Kent although I would never meet the man.

Growing up in the Willamette Valley of Oregon in the forties and fifties was a bit of a struggle for our family. My mother wanted a career in teaching English Literature at the university level, so while she pursued that career my father remained at home and rode herd on the four of us kids.

Money, to say the least, was tight. But, we got by. There were no frills, however, no television, no car (for the first few years anyway), no fancy birthday gifts and no traveling summer vacation. We did have a radio. But it worked best only after sundown when the big 50,000 watt stations dominated the airwaves.

We also had a lot of books. So whenever I got bored, I was encouraged to read a book. This suggestion began way before I could read anything, so I quickly learned which books in our vast library of second hand dreams had pictures in them.

One of my favorite of these illustrated delights was a rather large dog-eared copy of Herman Melville's Moby Dick with illustrations by Rockwell Kent.

I spent many a winter night, with the rain lashing at my leaky bedroom window, leafing through the pages of Moby Dick to gaze for hours at the full page Rockwell Kent prints which adorned the book. It never occurred to me to actually try and read the book. That would have taken months, help from at least one willing adult, and hence it would have also taken all the fun out the story. Because, you see, I could actually follow the story by absorbing every detail of the stark, crisp, black and white creations of the artist.

I enjoyed the prints of Rockwell Kent in our copy of Herman Melville's Moby Dick more than any other "picture book" in our rag tag library. I got so comfortable with the story through the pictures, in fact, that I actually had the nerve to submit a book report years later on the story solely from what I had gleaned from Kent's incredible artwork. I got an "A" on the book report as well as a suspicious, sidelong glance from my teacher.

One afternoon late in December my mother announced that we were all going to the movies that night. A family outing for anything was a rare and wonderful treat, but a night at the movies was almost as good as Christmas! We ate an early dinner and then all packed into the newly acquired (but very used ) 1949 Plymouth for the ride to the Bagdad Theater.

We were going to see the newly re-released Moby Dick starring Gregory Peck.

The movie was great! In wide screen and full color, with lots of thrashing about on the part of Captain Ahab, who spent most of the movie lashed to the Great Whale!

On the way home that night, with the soggy snow splashing at the windshield, my dad asked us how we liked the movie. My two sisters were asleep, cuddled up together to my right in the back seat of the second hand Plymouth, so it was up to me to answer. "It was really great!." I said with as much enthusiasm my sleepy brain could muster. "But it wasn't as good as the book!"

There, in two short sentences I had become a critic. But more importantly I had intuitively realized that all the goings on of Ishmael and his mysterious companion Queequeg, all the gyrations of the Great Whale, Captain Ahab and his crew aboard The Pequod flashing across the huge CinemaScope screen could not compare to the imagination and passion that clearly went into the carving of every single wood block illustration in the printed form of Moby Dick. Our copy of the book was the story of a grand adventure, full of pictures more vivid, more dramatic, more creative than any movie, stunningly detailed in a single publication which I could pull down from the shelf and take to bed. And best of all, I could hold the whole amazing story and everyone in it, the ship, the whale, the crew, the entire ocean, all vividly depicted in stunning black and white images created by Rockwell Kent. And I could hold every bit of it in my own two hands.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Dancing With Clouds on Whiteface

I love shooting video. Especially with the new Hi Definition cameras we are now using. But one of the hardest lessons I have had to learn over 40 years of filming (from exposing actual movie film to the new digital "Media Discs" of today) is to WAIT for the shot. We videographers who live and work in the Adirondacks have it a bit easier as there is hardly a bad shot anytime of day, any time of year, around here. EXCEPT we still have to learn wait for THE MOMENT.

Take yesterday, for example. I have wanted a time lapse shot of the clouds lifting from Whiteface Mountain, which towers over Wilmington and Lake Placid, NY. In the winter it is like a huge white diamond sparkling with snow and hoary frost. Yesterday, I found myself in the perfect spot for the time lapse attempt if only the weather would cooperate. The forecast was for clouds over night and then clearing during the day. Perfect. I was working on a show at The Lake Placid Lodge and had a room facing Lake Placid and behind the clouds at the far side of the lake lurked my prey. I set up the Sony XD Hi Def camera on the porch of my room and made sure I had batteries and recording media discs at hand. I framed the lake and clouds beyond, hoping the composition would be right if the clouds lifted. I pushed the record button at 10am with the clouds just beginning to lift their skirts at lake level. One hour later, at the end of disc one, the clouds were about half way up the mountain. Things were looking very hopeful as I loaded another disc and check the battery. I kept rolling as, with my other mini HD camera, I continued to shoot lodge interiors, taking time to peek out any window way to often to see how the clouds were coming, or going in this case. And the clouds were lifting slowly. Things were brightening and the the mountain was beginning to reveal it's flanks to me foot by foot.

I was on the third disc and second battery when I began to feel that sensation in the pit of my stomach every videographer feels when things start to go down hill. In this case the clouds around the mountain had suddenly started to move DOWN the mountain. But I kept rolling. Too good a location, too good a forecast, too good of a shot IF IT CLEARS, I kept telling myself.

On my 4Th hour long media recording disc the mountain took pity on me as the clouds started to dissolve as they flirted the summit before, in a matter of seconds, they whisked away featuring the entire snow and ice covered mountain against a azure blue background.

It took 15 years filming in the Adirondacks, 4 hours of recording and the right place, the right time, the right camera and the willingness to wait, but I got my shot! Viewers of MLPBS will see the time lapse shot in an upcoming episode of Roadside Adventures and many other Mountain Lake PBS Productions as the discs will be archived and used when every any one's edit needs THE CLOUD LIFTING TIME LAPSE SHOT of Whiteface in High Definition.

When edited the shot will last about one minute, from total obscurity to a crisp snow covered white diamond glistening in the bright winter sunshine. Shots like this are once in a life time; right place, right time, right EVERYTHING. But more importantly, they are gifts of Nature; rewarded to those who are willing to wait.

Friday, January 23, 2009

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