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March 13, 2005

other reasons to love NPR

the winter rains have turned Death Valley into "Full of Life Valley." the usually harsh landscape that is barren and dry is now lush and green, with carpets of yellow wildflowers spreading up the sides of verdant foothills. in the background, snowy-capped peaks rise into an incredibly blue sky. seeds that have lain dormant for years are exploding into an absolute riot of flowery color. the beauty is in itself breathtaking, but knowing that seeing it is literally a once-in-a-lifetime event makes it completely stunning.

now, i've been an enthusiastic listener and supporter of NPR for a long time. alas, due to not listening to my car radio quite as much these days as i'd like to, i missed Alex Chadwick on "Day to Day" airing this story about the current miracle of Death Valley. luckily, T.T., another staunch NPR listener-and-supporter, did not. he decided it was the perfect adventure to celebrate his birthday.

and so off we went, destination unknown to me until the desert suddenly gave way to green meadows and bright flowers. i was completely unprepared -- "how did you know about this?" i asked him. "NPR," he grinned, "how else?"

the fields of yellow and white daisies literally looked like something i would dream of running through. so of course i did, arms outstretched, twirling like a little kid. the salt flats stretched into infinity, sparkling crystalline in the sun. we marvelled at the canoes and kayaks sailing across the all-famous lowest point in the Western Hemsiphere -- which usually has, at most, an inch or so of water. and all around, flowers.

i was also completely unprepared, when, at sunset, the dunes casting long shadows against the reddening mountains, i found out we hadn't come to just celebrate his birthday. of course i said yes.

once-in-a-lifetime indeed. thanks, NPR.

*** many thanks to the splendid Zippy the Fish for providing the photo links at this time...please click & marvel. ***

Posted by hadashi at 9:07 AM | Comments (2)

March 12, 2005

cattle songs and big guns

at the end of this week, i'm off to do a job in Ethiopia. i'll be near the Omo River, with the Nyangatom tribe. knowing nothing about the region or its people, i started doing a little on-line research.

the information i've been reading presents these people, also known as the Bume/Bumi, as "semi-nomadic agro-pastoralists" who "are famous for their oratory gifts and their cattle songs." they also seem to have a fondness for honey. due to their relative isolation, they are considered near-Stone Age in many aspects of their lifestyle.

then i ran across this photo. clearly, there seems to also be a fondness for large automatic weapons which are NOT very Stone Age. i suppose the glib references to "being known as great warriors" make more sense now.

i'll keep reading, but now i'm starting to think i should bring some honey.

Posted by hadashi at 10:27 PM | Comments (0)

March 7, 2005

simple pleasure

i hung up my bedsheets to dry outside for the first time this year. they spent a good part of the day wafting over our little neighbourly garden, which is still deciding how it's going to make that transition into blooming again. i've forgotten how letting one's bedsheets have quality outdoor time gives them a certain happy magic. they smell and feel like they went on a bit of a sunshine-y journey over the rooftops, much as a kite set free might do.

Posted by hadashi at 3:43 PM | Comments (0)

March 4, 2005

the reality in reality tv

my friend Marti once asked me to write a piece on the value of reality television. by semi-popular demand, you may now read it here:

the barrage of questions is inevitable: "did he really say that? is she really that nasty? did you know who was going to win? were they really starving?" when asked about my job, i usually give a vague answer: "oh, I'm freelance; i work in television." sometimes i'm pressed for more details. "i'm an audio mixer, you know, the ears of a show, if the camera is the eyes." if a person is really nosy, they will learn that i've worked in what's now called "reality television" for several years. a few years ago, this was only mildly interesting. however, with the explosion of the genre's popularity, the true question underneath all this is even more compelling: "is it really real?”

but is that the most important question? it amazes me that this juggernaut of pop culture is already generating writing and dialogue that dissects the sociological and cultural importance of the reality genre. whenever i read or hear a piece about how it has changed television programming or even American society forever, i can't help but be a bit puzzled. since it's "just" my career, it's made me reflect: what is the value, if there is any, in reality television? and why does it so greatly affect us?

let's get one thing straight: it's unscripted television, not reality television. never was it supposed to portray reality. whenever a bunch of strange crew members with lots of expensive, heavy video equipment get thrown into the mix, it's going to be artificial. sure, documentaries approach reality -- they capture life in progress and try not to interfere -- but still, there's a person with a camera there. on the other hand, unscripted television sets up a manufactured situation and then lets things unfold, with various manipulations along the way, usually in the form of planned, staged events that are heavily edited to give only the high points of every drama.

ask yourself, gentle viewer: how real is it when a bunch of people get dropped into the wilderness or onto a deserted island and have to survive? or when a group of kids who don't know each other are thrown into an overly decorated house/RV and live together/go on a trip with no money? how about when a horde of impossibly good-looking men or women all compete under one roof for an equally impossibly good-looking woman or man?

most of you actually recognize the shows I'm talking about; the Survivor series, the Real World/Road Rules empire, the Bachelor franchise. there's a lot that's not very real about them. the Tribal Council set is a lot of chicken wire and plaster built into the existing surroundings. those cool missions or challenges those Real World/Road Rules kids do take a lot of planning, rigging, and preparation. the Bachelor-type houses take thousands of feet of cable and weeks to prepare with camera, audio, and lighting. so what value could this genre of true-life meets fakery possibly offer? i think the answers are both closely personal and widely applicable.

when i started working on a little cable show on MTV called Road Rules, i and my fellow crew really thought we'd always be doing non-network, non-mainstream television. the format was simple, but the technical and physical demands were extreme, and that's what i loved about unscripted television. it was a great challenge, and far more interesting than sitting on a dim soundstage on a studio lot, waiting for a microphone to malfunction. i got to see a large chunk of the world, make some lasting friendships, and learn a lot about life.

it was eye-opening to me (especially since I was fairly close in age to the cast) to see how some would push themselves beyond their limitations and fears, while some would take the experience for granted. some would make themselves work as a team despite personal differences, but others would stay arrogant and self-centered. this same dynamic played out behind the camera with the crew, as we learned to work together as well. my faith was often challenged and questioned; however, i not only discovered how integral it is to my life, but also found that my colleagues were eager to talk about spiritual topics with a person they considered a friend. i realized that people's lives are changed during a shoot, sometimes much more than what you see on the screen, for both cast and crew. it's an intense, compacted experience that forces one to look much more closely at the intricacies of life. a staple interview question that a seasoned reality director friend always asks is: "what have you learned, and how have you changed or grown?" the cast, knowing they have to answer that question every week, is more apt to re-evaluate choices and events than to just sail through the days without introspection. the crew doesn't get to talk to the cameras, but we too have found it valuable to take stock of our experience in a deliberate and thoughtful manner.

nowadays, things have become decidedly more complicated with the explosion of network reality TV, and the plethora of job opportunities that have come with it. i remember getting called for a show called "Temptation Island," and when the premise was explained to me, i really thought the production manager was kidding around. people being baited to cheat on their partner? as entertainment? of course, now that's old news. by the time "The Bachelor" called, it was clear that i had to be willing to take responsibility for choosing what jobs i did based on content. these decisions haven't been easy. i had an incredible adventure doing a season of "Survivor," but i couldn't in good conscience come back for another season after seeing how the show was run. when "Dating Show in France" (now known as "Joe Millionaire") was starting, i had already decided that i needed to adhere to a blanket rule of No Dating Shows, even if i hadn't worked for awhile and could use the money and show credit. these are my personal choices of course; i don't want to judge fellow crew in their work decisions. there are so many other factors that go into choosing what assignment to take, but it's a constant sorting of priorities and a lot of prayer. i always have to be flexible and open to opportunities that arise.

ok, so obviously there's personal value for me, the crew, and the cast -- but what about you, the maybe not-so-gentle viewer? let's go back to the questions – what is the elusive real in reality? and why are we so riveted to these shows, even the ones we won't publicly admit to watching?

when you watch a scripted film or television show, there's a degree of predictability – you know the story needs to be resolved before the hour is up, you know that if a character leaves or dies, it's because the actor's contract ran out, you know what consequences will most likely follow a character's decision. however, in an unscripted show, there are no such guarantees. you have no idea what could happen because the story is being written as you watch; characters are being developed in real time and there's no obligation to keep them consistent. and when they scream or laugh or scheme or sacrifice, it's really, truly happening.

you see, what is absolutely real is the emotions, the behaviour, and human nature. that's what's so compelling, and even addictive – the unpredictability of people thrown into situations they have no immediate control over. what will they do? what will they say? or, more importantly, what would I do? what would I say? you see, unscripted television is a window into a different world, where things are always exciting and glossy and high adventure, but it's populated with people just like you or me. today, Jane Doe; tomorrow, Jane From That TV Show. who wouldn't want a bit of stardom, even if it lasts for just a moment?

yet, do we really need to be on the small screen to become more self-aware, to see life with greater clarity? i think that reality programming gives you unprecedented opportunity as a viewer to actively engage with the usually passive medium of television. it's a unique opportunity to put yourself in Jane Doe's shoes and work through common situations and familiar emotions without having to live out her consequences, and in so doing, grow and learn a bit.
so don't just ask yourself what you would do or say – ask yourself why? would you really, truly behave any differently than those on the show? i've worked on a quite a few very different programs, and yet people are generally the same: everyone wants to be accepted; no one wants to be misunderstood. everyone has their own story; no one is immune from fear. everyone thinks they know themselves the best; no one ever does. i am always surprised when viewers tell me how much they hate so-and-so from a show that i've worked on. "you've never even met her/him," i think, "and yet you can call her/him all sorts of names." even the most annoying, repulsive cast members i've had to put a microphone on have some redeeming characteristics, or exhibit behaviours that i have to admit i have sometimes too.

i've predicted the death of reality TV's popularity at least two or three times, and within the somewhat small world of reality crewmembers, we always speculate as to when this remarkable trend of employment options will finally fade away. what we do know is this: as long as people watch television, reality will never go away completely. why? because, dear viewer, your own life will always be surreal, unpredictable, and adventurous, and watching what you already know to be true happen with other people makes you part of a community, where these strangers on the screen could be your neighbours, friends, family. in a sense, they are. so next time you tune into an unscripted program, look for the moments of clarity; look for the lessons learned or rejected, and challenge yourself to have those epiphanies too. you have your own fear factors; you have to negotiate alliances & make sacrifices at your work; you have to learn to get along in your own real world house.

just don't try to date twenty people at the same time.

Posted by hadashi at 12:40 AM | Comments (0)