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A Very Strange Occurrence

Was it Synchronicity ?


In the mid-seventies, I was Cameraman/Editor on a film about historic preservation in the town of Guthrie, Oklahoma. This was the first big project for the small film company I worked for. The Executive Producer was a college professor who did not know anything about filmmaking, but he got the grant.


The film had no “Voice of God” Narrator, the townspeople in the film did most of the “writing” with their spoken words and the shooting and editing style contributed to this overall structure. The director decided to leave the “Writer” credit off the film, implying that this was a collaborative effort.


Halfway through the editing, the Professor/Producer demanded sole credit as the “Writer” in a full frame billboard. A bloody battle ensued when the director legally contested this action. I showed the final cut on our six-plate machine with a battery of lawyers sitting behind me, I was so stressed that I cut myself on the guillotine splicer.  I wrapped my bloody finger in a white cotton editor’s glove, holding it up as a kind of Red Badge of Courage. The writer’s credit stayed in the film and the winning team of lawyers spirited all the materials away to the lab for printing.


The film premiered to a full house at Guthrie’s Carnegie Library, but things remained so contentious that the lawyers hired a separate company to project the film.  As the projector spun out our hard work, the Professor sat front and center basking in all the glory while our little film team watched from the back of the room.  As the show neared the mid-point, I heard thunder to the west of town.  A storm was moving in.


Now the end credits are flashing up on the screen to the applause of the audience.  Just as the disputed full frame writer credit appears, the lights wink and the projector hesitates. The frame stutters as the loop slips, the screen blurs and the writer’s credit is completely un-readable.  Immediately after the disputed credit passed, the sprockets caught and the remaining credits showed normally. There was a gasp from our group. Did that actually happen ?


Apparently, a lightning strike to the west of town caused a momentary loss of power and the projector’s heavy mechanism momentarily shut down. The momentum of the moving sprockets tore into the film and caused the frames of that one credit to blur.


The next morning, I get a call from the director, his voice shaking with anger, “John, get down here, we’ve got trouble”.  When I arrived at the office, my edit room was again filled with lawyers. I was being accused of tampering with the print and causing the disputed credit to blur during the big premier.


I explained that: #1 The print was out of my hands except for a brief tech check of the entire film that was witnessed by these same lawyers. #2  If I were to sabotage the film, I would definitely cut more than one frame.


I have often thought of that night and the blurred writer’s credit. Was this strange occurrence a case of Synchronicity ?



Every cameraman has had a close-call. One of mine was during the filming of “The Men Who Brought The Dawn”, the story of the Enola Gay crew and the dropping of the first Atomic Bombs on Japan.

I was shooting aerials outside of Wendover Utah in a Bell Long Ranger helicopter with pilot Ken Rudert and camera assistant Steven White. Producer-Director Jonathan Felt wanted a point of view shot of a test bomb falling towards a target marked on the desert floor. The technique we used was called “Vertical Plummets”. It involved starting at about 1,500 feet with the chopper tilted sharply on its side. The pilot would then cut power and we would literally plummet towards the ground, applying full power at the last moment.

The idea was working and after our second take we started back up for another try. I was sitting in the Tyler Camera Mount with nothing to do but look at my legs dangling out over the ground below, while Steve White checked the camera. Suddenly, when we were passing through 300 feet, two black darts raced by my feet. Pilot, Ken Rudert called over the loop, audibly upset “Those were F-14’s”.

They had passed underneath us wing tip to wing tip at great speed. If this had happened about eight seconds earlier, they would have been in our exact air space.

After we got our shot, we hurried to Clover Control, (the military air traffic control center for the Wendover area). Our Pilot was worried that if he had done something wrong, he would be in big trouble. It turned out that the two Tomcat Pilots were flying out to the Utah Test & Training Range for some low-level flying practice and they had taken a shortcut to the range by flying directly through our approved air space because, “nobody was ever out there”.

It was the Air Force pilots who were now in deep trouble because they had not checked our flight plan and we came close to a mid-air collision. Anyway, we got our shots and a good war story too.

TWO DARTS 2_edited.png

The Film Prayer


I am celluloid, not steel; O God of the machine, have mercy. I front dangers whenever I travel the whirring wheels of the mechanism. Over the sprocket wheels, held tight by the idlers. I am forced by the motor’s might. If a careless hand misthreads me, I have no alternative but to go to my death.


If the pull on the take-up reel is too violent, I am torn to shreds. If dirt collects in the aperture, my film of beauty is streaked and marred, and I must face my beholders  – a thing ashamed and be spoiled. I travel many miles in tin cans. I am tossed on heavy trucks, sideways and upside down.


See that I don’t become bruised and wounded beyond the power to heal.

I am a delicate ribbon of film - misuse me and I disappoint thousands;

cherish me, and I delight and instruct the world.


Author Unknown


Sabotage at WPIX


I got my first real job in television in 1967, at WPIX New York. I was hired as a summer relief engineer along with a handful of other guys. “PIX” went on the air in 1949 on Channel 11 and it was definitely old school. Most of the engineers had come out of the signal corps in WWII and had gone right into this new thing, television. It was a closed union job, there was a serious hierarchy, they smoked cigarettes.


I was a temp, a kid, a wet back, I should have been in maintenance or at best, a cable puller, but I was given a chance to do third camera (called the weak camera) on some little show because I had some prior experience shooting the training film of Coach Maher’s football games and with the Darien school’s closed-circuit TV system. Apparently putting a wetback on camera did not sit well with someone.


We rehearsed all morning and the old pros on cameras one & two were winging it, but I nervously took focus marks on camera three. One bad shot and I would be back in the Maintenance Dept. There was a union mandated coffee break at 10:00am, (us summer relief guys were not welcome, we had to wait in a corner by ourselves) after the break, we rushed back to the studio and almost immediately went to tape. At the last moment, I saw that my focus marks had been changed. I quickly fixed them just before they cut to my camera. It dawned on me that somebody had tried to sabotage me on my first show. An early lesson in New York television. I got my union card that summer from IBEW Local 1212.




I started shooting multi camera sports for ESPN in 1980 or 81. They were a new cable sports network based in Bristol, Connecticut that nobody thought would last very long. I only worked three or four years with them because the money working as a single camera DP was much better.

One time we were doing a live football game from the Yale Bowl in New Haven.

Right before air, (in fact during the commercial break just before Bristol went to us), all the cameras just died. There was not a lot you could do way up in the stands but wait. As the commercial break was ending, the power suddenly jerked back on and we were immediately on the air.

After the game, as we were wrapping cables, we heard the story. Some kid had pulled the master power plug from the truck. The Chief Engineer jumped down out of the truck and found the cable just lying on the ground. With no time to spare, he executed a “Hot Stab” by jamming the plug {pulling about 80 amps} back into the truck. Miraculously everything came right back up {except some of the graphics} and three seconds later we were on the air.

One other thing about that day. The truck had a brand new $100,000 dollar Grass Valley switcher just installed and we were warned “no coffee in the truck”. After the game, the Chief Engineer’s son threw up on the new switcher.

"TAPE #42"


Soundman Jeff Hayash and I once did a very arduous shoot in the Lone Star State.

Eighteen days in a row in the middle of a Texas Summer. No cool Hotel rest but a sleeping bag on Church Basement Floors the entire time. The shooting was almost all hand held, the subject matter, deeply disturbing. The Producer from LA was rather high strung. We shot an average of 15 thirty minute Beta Tapes a day, never less than 10 and sometimes 20. We shot everything that moved…

Driving back from a day’s last location to our Sleep Church, the Producer asked… Jeff “What was that last tape number ?”

Jeff: “Number 42”

Producer: “You have it ?”

Jeff: “Well, it’s in the back”

P: “You sure”

J: “It’s in the back”

P: “That’s fantastic stuff we shot… You sure you got it ?”

J: “Yes, It’s in the back…”

P: “We should go back. You might have left it”

J: “No, I’m sure it’s in the back”

Another 15 miles down the road and several failed attempts to contact the location. More worry about tape 42, the Producer pipes up “Let’s stop and check the back”

J: “I’m quite sure it’s somewhere in back”

I toss in “I’ve never known Jeff to lose a tape.

In a heat haze we pull off the highway and dig through the jumble of equipment.

No Tape...

P: “Ah, I knew it. We lost the tape, it’s gone, gone. Let’s go back… Go Back”

We are almost to our Sleep Church and after much worry and discussion it is decided to continue on to our destination, unload the vehicle and find the tape.

P: “OK, let’s hurry. I will call from the land line at the church.”

We pull into the parking lot. Jeff and I immediately start to unpack. The Producer can’t wait and rockets off to make the call. Just as he disappears into the church, Jeff finds the tape, wedged between two cases. I am in an evil mood and ask Jeff to give me the tape. I remove it from the box and stick it behind me in my belt. I hand the empty box back to Jeff. The Producer appears in the church doorway and announces “My God, they can’t find the tape. This is a disaster, it’s lost, lost…”

Jeff: “Well here’s the box…”

The Producer now rockets toward us totally revitalized. “Ah…the tape, the tape…”

Jeff opens the box and says “But it’s empty...”

He halts halfway across the parking lot as if shot by an arrow. “Ah, I knew it, I knew it. Lost, Lost…”

Jeff and I watch the spectacle of agony for a moment but, but … I just can’t stand it. I pull the tape out of my belt and walk to the producer “Well, we found the tape too…” He swirls around joyously “Ah it’s found, it’s found… What a miracle !”

The wind up to all this is that tape #42 contained about 8 minutes of unremarkable

B-Roll… The moral of the story… Don’t go to Texas in the Summer…


$700 BRAD


Many years ago I, was DP on an early cable program called “Idea Notebook”. It was a home improvement show and our talent was a young lady who turned out to be a very capable host. The engineer was Tom Schoenwandt, the gaffer was Bill Barrett and the utility guy was Ed Maher. The Director was a very intense first timer.

The Producer rented a house on Long Island for a week and on the last day, in the last hour, our talent was building a small wooden box. Since the Director wanted this scene all in one take, Bill had everything she needed carefully laid out. Wood, saw, hammer and nine brads, the tiniest of nails, all lined up.

It was hot and humid with a thunderstorm moving in. The house was a spider web of cables and I was getting more nervous by the minute. Each clap of thunder jolted the lightning phobia I had, dating back to my Tornado Intercept days out West. We were shooting with a three tube Ikegami camera, connected to a small remote truck parked in front of the house and engineer Tom was having his problems with power surges and a touchy tape machine. Our Director was making her own adjustments and kept bumping into Tom as they both ran back and forth between the truck and the house. We begged them to use the headsets to issue orders but they liked to gallop instead.

Between the approaching storm and the techs & tweaks, we were up against a hard out time and the homeowners were tapping their feet like Fred Astaire. This would be the last take and it had to be right from stem to stern. For the last time, Barrett laid out Wood, Saw, Hammer and those Nine Brads in perfect order… But we we’re missing Brad #9. Over the loop you can hear Barrett, “Hold on a moment, were missing some nails…there’s another box in the truck” “No more delay” intones the Director “Roll Tape, Count Her Down…” So off we went into the take. Bill is Whisper Screaming into the headset “Somebody get me those Brads…”

The scene is going surprisingly well but with a side wink of her eye, we can see that our brave host knows that she is in trouble as we approach the final nail. The crew is praying that somebody will get us the brads in time but then the talent straightens up and announces “I am out of brads … I can’t finish this scene…”

Lightning strikes nearby, the power goes out and the homeowners want us gone.

We did not get the shot and the Producer had to negotiate a pricey return on Monday to finish up. After the dust settles, Bill Barrett does the math.

Box of 35 One Inch Brass Brads in early 80 Dollars = 50 Cents

50 Cents Divided by 35 Brads = .014 Cents Per Brad

Pro Rated Cost of Brad #9 Includes:

Re Rental of House, Talent, Crew & Equipment Cost For a Total of ……….. $700

Now… One could quibble over Bill Barrett’s final figure but the point is made…

And the moral is… “Slow is Fast”



The legendary CBS Newsman had the ideal order for Five Stories in a program.

{Assuming that each had an equivalent news worthiness}

#1 Put Your Second Best Story First {start with a bang & keep audience watching}

#2 Put Your Weakest Story Second {get it out of the way}

#3 Put The Next Weakest Story Third {your building to a big finish}

#4 Put Your Third Best Story Next To Last {building to best story}

#5 Put Your Very Best Story Last {end with a bang}

The Names of the Networks


We all think we know the names of the majors American networks but ask a rushed, frustrated and exhausted crew member what those initials really stand for….

CBS - Caucasian Broadcasting Company or Can’t Broadcast Sports

PBS - Political Bull-Shit.

NBC – No Bonus for Christmas.

ESPN – Exceptionally Slow Paying Network.

And my favorite …

ABC - Always Be Cheap

.... Of course. network crews are rarely rushed, frustrated or exhausted.

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