Faculty Diary

By Cynthia Karasak

 

TV Bootcamp was the brainchild of Warren Lustig, an award-winning editor and producer as well as a former cameraman for CBS news. With more than twenty years experience on the premier news programs, 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II, not to mention thirteen personal Emmy Awards on his shelf, Mr. Lustig wanted to develop a program that would help students at CUNY, his alma mater, and to this end he teamed up with Michael Arena, a fellow-alumnus with a Pulitzer Prize in journalism to his credit and the college's Media Director. Together, the two designed an intensive two -week program giving talented students the chance of working as professional broadcast journalists. Under Mr. Lustig's leadership, these students would experience the same working conditions, demands and deadlines as those faced by the seasoned news teams at CBS 60 Minutes.

Three CUNY campuses were invited to send a team of three students and a faculty advisor to BOOTCAMP. The schedule was rigorous. Each team had two weeks to produce a magazine style news segment in the format of CBS 60 Minutes. During the days we would shoot, screen, edit, transcribe and write; in the evenings, we would join Mr. Lustig for dinner at the CUNY studios, above the CBS studios, to assess the day's work. This would be followed by seminars on reporting, editing, producing, and shooting, given by veteran newsmen at 60 Minutes II.

After learning about the Bootcamp, Dr. Sadie Bragg arranged for a team from BMCC to attend only days before the program began. With little time to waste, and non for pre-production, we assembled a team of students with strong video experience, and brainstormed for a story. When the students settled upon 9/11 and its effects on the garment industry in Chinatown, I asked for permission to add a fourth student to our team who could report and translate in Chinese.

The BMCC team:

  • Miguel Bernard CCC producer
  • David Gallardo CCC cameraman, editor
  • Fatima Boone CCC reporter
  • Katharine Sung MMV reporter, translator

Our first assignment was to show up on Monday morning prepared to pitch a treatment of our story to Mr. Lustig, Mr. Arena, and the other students. Mr. Lustig turned out to be a most benevolent and humorous drill sergeant. During the blurry, work filled days that followed, he would teach, cajole, prod, and push our students to do the best work they had ever done. He would also amuse them with a showman's sense of humor and nurture them with endless e-mails and late-night phone calls. He quickly became "Warren" to the campers.

He opened the program with the cardinal rules he had learned from the legendary Don Hewitt and from his own experience:

  1. Tell me a story.
  2. Tell the Truth.
  3. Find the spine of the story quickly and stay with it. Maintain the central theme of the story to the end.
  4. The public cares about people and what happens to them.

Find "characters" that will interest the audience, and let those characters carry the story.

Our next deadline was to produce a "radio cut" by Friday evening. A common practice in electronic news gathering, writing a radio cut is not usually required in our CCC program. It is a word by word script of the story including the reporter's intro, all voice-overs, and transcriptions of every word spoken on video taped interviews. To produce a successful radio cut, interviews must be completed, the content of the story must be fully formed, and the reporter must have done all the writing for the segment.

The pace of the work during the first week was frantic, but the students responded with excellent judgment and common sense. They called upon members of the faculty and administration to obtain contacts for interviews. The team worked the phones constantly to set up interviews and began shooting at the same time. They solicited help from fellow members of the digital video club. By the end of the week, Christian Moran (CCC) and Fausto Elias Wilson (CCC) were pitching in with the shooting and helping in the lab. When contacts from phone calls began to dry up, they took to the streets of Chinatown to get interviews with small business owners. Fortunately, our students are technically very well prepared for this work. Everyone on the team had solid basic skills in video production.

The hardest part of the assignment for our team was holding onto a central story line as the reporting unfolded, and the content of the project shifted and grew with each new interview. Community activists were eager to speak on camera, and were especially proud of a public demonstration they had organized several weeks earlier. Several experts were able to describe the impact of 9/11 on Chinatown. We discovered that FEMA had established Canal Street as the northern boundary of the relief zone, excluding 75% of the Chinese garment factories from aid. But we needed to tape the accounts and faces of ordinary people who had suffered directly from economic hardships, and those people were very reluctant to speak on camera. We began to understand that this reluctance was actually a part of our story, because it was a cultural barrier that inhibited victims from obtaining the relief that FEMA and private agencies were putting into place, and prevented the community from complaining about the inequities in the distribution of aid. It also prohibited our reporters from getting authentic first-hand reports of the suffering that was evident throughout Chinatown. Many residents were very angry about the way they had been treated by FEMA, or the Red Cross, and would speak at length in Chinese to our bilingual reporter, but were not comfortable going on camera. And the story was bigger than the fate of the garment workers; the lack of tourism and business trade in the restaurants had devastated shops and small businesses everywhere in this small community. Our treatment was getting lost in a broader, more diffuse, study of the sociology and economics of an immigrant community under tremendous financial stress.

By Friday of the first week there was a sense of mounting anxiety in our bureau. We had shot about twenty hours of interviews covering many aspects of the situation in Chinatown. We had lots of facts and opinions on tape, but we did not have a compelling narrative line that connected the dots; we did not have a Story. Our radio cut was due by 7:00 PM and we were still shooting and screening footage, hoping that a gravitational force would take hold of all of the fragments and begin to pull them back into the central theme of the original treatment. Fatima, Miguel, and Katharine returned from shooting in mid-afternoon with good news: they had finally managed to get on-camera interviews with several unemployed women from the garment factories who were sympathetic characters. We had a chance to return to the theme of the unemployed garment workers, but this footage needed to be screened, and translated, and transcribed, before we could see if we had the content needed to make an integrated script. We also had to re-organize the script outline, fit the best pieces of the puzzle together, write all the transitions, and last but not least provide a new intro.

The students were encountering the central challenges that electronic news reporters face: how do you get the footage you need to tell the story AND how do you adjust the structure of the story that you have uncovered to utilize the footage that you have shot? Experienced reporters and producers learn to manage this dialectic between chasing down the facts of a story while synthesizing the story, by writing and rewriting the story outline based upon the facts as they are uncovered. The CBS 60 Minutes format encourages reporters to write extensive voice-over to structure the story and add order and clarity to the images and interviews captured on video. This technique requires solid writing skills, the experience to distill hundreds of fragments into a cohesive narrative line, and the ability to organize approximately 10 pages of script in one afternoon. Our students were learning this lesson the hard way, but they were not alone. All three Bootcamp teams had hit the wall on the radio cut, and Warren extended the deadline to Sunday night.

With our first big deadline behind us, our weary team developed better traction during the second week. We focused on shooting the footage we needed to fill in gaps in the story. We worked on the script relentlessly, trying to explain the relationships between the garment workers, the restaurants, the shops, the problems with FEMA and the unique cultural attitudes of Chinese Americans. The talent, experience, and dedication of our team became apparent as the students scheduled and executed all the tasks that are required to assemble a finished product. David finished a rough-cut and sent the crew back to Chinatown to get more b-roll for a final cut. Fatima and Miguel went to CBS to shoot the studio intro for the segment and meet with the art department. They recorded the voice-over translations and re-shot and re-recorded Fatima's voice-overs and stand-ups. By Thursday, we were feeling the affects of fatigue combined with the anticipation of our final deadline, the screening, on the following day. No team had seen the work of the other teams, so there was a sense of pride and school spirit driving the students to show their very best work when the segments were evaluated side by side in the CBS screening room. The final cut was finished by midnight, but David, Miguel and Fausto worked on the mix-down until 4 am.

Adrenaline had erased any signs of sleep deprivation when our team arrived at CBS the next morning. For television journalists the screening is the moment of truth that brings sweat to the palms of seasoned professionals. A senior producer can decide (in ten minutes) to air, kill, or redirect a story that has absorbed a news team for weeks or months. Warren had arranged to have the segments screened by Jeff Fager, the Senior Producer of 60 Minutes II, along with his script editor, and fact checker (who responds to issues of accuracy and legal liability). After previewing the segments with the editor from each team, Warren set up the screening schedule with our team in the third slot.

We listened and watched while two excellent segments were presented by the other teams. Mr. Fager's ability to discern the structure, strengths, and weakness of a segment in a single viewing was impressive. He praised and critiqued every aspect of the segments including content, technical problems, structural decisions, accuracy, clarity, and audience response. His response to our segment, "Lost in the Shadows" was enthusiastic. He praised the students for a "well layered" piece, perceiving their efforts to weave together the many aspects of this complex story into a coherent picture of the situation in Chinatown. He noted that the piece had captured the rich texture of the community, and praised our decision to end the piece with a sequence showing the unemployed garment workers taking classes to learn English. It was clear to us from his tone and comments that he recognized the achievement of our team. His few suggestions were constructive and mirrored some of the points we had discussed among ourselves.

Following a luncheon and informal graduation ceremony where the students showed their gratitude to Warren Lustig, we walked to a nearby park where we held the first a several decompression sessions and reflected upon surviving Bootcamp. The students had a rich and deep learning experience. The pressure of working under strict deadlines, combined with very high expectations and the subtle competition among the three teams had tested them on every level. They saw the value of discipline, organization, good craftsmanship, and professional cooperation.

It became clear to the students that the imprimatur of professional work lay in the consistent excellence of each of the many elements that comprise the complicated process of creating a feature-length news segment. Shooting video is an exercise in managing limited opportunity and often there is not a second chance to get an interview or meaningful image on tape. Every shot must be well lighted, every interview must have good sound quality, every voice over must be clearly written, and every editing decision must move the story forward with style and grace. On a large budget feature film, the director may quip "we'll fix it in post (production)", but with only ten days to shoot and edit a news feature, there is little chance to cover mistakes caused by poor craftsmanship or sloppy planning. The finished segment was the sum of hundreds of small decisions and judgments made by many people over several weeks but the quality of each and every choice was evident in the product.

The students reported that they had benefited from the evening seminars. Tom Armstrong, a producer, had talked about the importance of assembling a good team, and of building trust with his reporter, camera crew and editor. Cameraman Mike Hernandez had given a succinct lesson on lighting, and talked about the importance of capturing the action under pressure. Reporter Bob Simon had recounted his experience of being captured and held in captivity by Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. Warren Lustig had shared the "do's and don'ts" of professional editing. The students had been very attentive during these sessions, sensing the weight of accomplishment that these speakers brought to their topics. But several of the students observed that they were not getting new content from seminars, instead they were recognizing the importance and authenticity of the lessons they had learned in their classes at BMCC.