Monday, July 27, 2009

Mike’s Bar-B-Que Adventure: New York City

Part 9 of a (formerly) 5-part series

Unlike on Saturday, the first hour of Sunday’s GMA Weekend went off pretty much without a hitch, meaning that the whole thing went onto the server as a complete show. There was no need to re-do any segments in the 8:00 hour, so everybody pretty much took a break for that time. Which worked out really well for me, as it was around then that I was introduced to James, the Technical Manager for GMA. He's the one in the jacket.

This guy is responsible for all of the technology used on either of the GMA shows (week-day or weekend), including lights, mics, cameras, monitors, cabling, speakers, electronics, you name it. And like everybody else I met, James was cool as hell, taking at least a half hour out of his morning to give me a personal tech-tour of the studio and pretty nearly every piece of equipment in it. “See this here?” James asked, pointing at the LCD Good Morning America logo on the front of the anchor desk, “That’s new. It’s only been there a few weeks. We’re always adding stuff like that.”

Next he pointed to the large video set decoration that’s on the wall directly behind the anchor desk. I hadn’t looked at it too closely, but it looked to me like some sort of digital modern art. “That’s Broadway,” he told me. He then took me over to the “nook” where one of the couches sits right next to the large studio windows and pointed up to a camera mounted on a metal plate, pointing out the window. The video feed from that camera was sent to the large rear-projection screen (I assume – it didn’t look like an LCD display) after being blurred and having the GMA logo added.

We poked into every cranny of the studio and James was an expert on all of it. We talked about the lights and where they do and don’t use gels to “blue” the interior light to match what comes through the windows. He told me about the challenges of working with natural light, and about how they utilized special lights on shoulder-high stands that were pointed straight at the Anchors’ faces when they were on camera, washing out any shadows that might add or accentuate wrinkles or other blemishes. He told me that the anchor desk was supposed to have wired microphones in case there was a problem with the wireless ones the anchors wore, but the desk was so new that they hadn’t been installed yet. We talked about IFBs (the little earpiece the talent wears so they can hear audio from the Control Room) and how the newest ones were wireless and completely contained within the ear. The days of seeing a spiral cord draped down behind the newscaster’s ear and neck are all but gone.

James walked me over to the weather station and pointed out the largest of the three displays. It’s a 103” plasma-screen, but they hadn’t realized when they procured it that it required 220v power. They had to hang onto it for a few weeks until a proper twistlock power outlet could be run over to it. “It’s also a touch-screen,” James said, reaching over to tap the gigantic display. The result was that the national weather map was replaced with a completely different image. “Oops. They probably didn’t want me to change that.” He laughed and tapped it a couple more times. “Most people just need to take me at my word that it’s a touch-screen.”

Next he took me to the cameras and gave me a run-down that would have made the manufacturer proud. They were HD cameras that recorded in 720p. He told me 1040p is better for sporting events and such, but for the studio, 720p was ideal. He also talked about a special polarizing filter that you need on the front of the camera if you’re going to be recording natural light. The problem with the filter is that if you have it on the camera and aren’t recording natural light, it makes everything too dark. So for the GMA cameras, they contracted with a company to build a large metal box with a manual lever that lets the camera operator physically move the filter away from the lens. “These are unique,” James told me. “Nobody else has these but us and ESPN.” He also showed me a button on Camera 1 that lets the operator switch between two different teleprompter feeds, since that camera records the News Anchor (Ron Claiborne or Chris Cuomo, usually) who has their own script.

Back out at the window, James and I talked about the remote segments they do outside in Times Square or at places like Central Park, where most Fridays GMA hosts a concert in the park. He told me how they had done music sets from places like the Hard Rock Café and the MTV/Viacom building. Because they had direct line-of-site from those venues to the GMA studio’s windows, he said they had been able to use microwave antennas to send the feed directly up to GMA, which is pretty cool and very familiar to us IT-guys. He also pointed out the US Military recruitment kiosk down below, where cabling is available from underground to operate the studio’s HD cameras when they’re taping segments from Broadway. Finally, he asked me, “Have you met the SVO?” I needed clarification that this was the Senior Video Operator and then said that I hadn’t met him. So back we went, through the control room and down a hallway to meet Arty.

All of the direct camera footage, plus any remote feeds, all come through Arty’s console. James dropped me off with the SVO, then actually went back out on set and sat in front of a camera so that Arty would have a subject to work with. With the flick a few switches, Arty was able to select only James’s skin tones, which he then could make more vivid, soften, or tint with any hue he desired. All in the interests, usually, of making the subject look better. “Nobody wants to be shot in pure HD,” James and Arty both told me. “Every little imperfection shows right up.” So they use this technology to make people’s faces slightly less distinct, while keeping their clothes, the set, and anything else in the picture pristine and perfect. Again, I spent a good twenty minutes with Arty while he showed me how they calibrate different cameras to colored bars, how he can save templates of preferred video settings for a show, and even how those settings can be carried on a ram stick for backup and mobility purposes.

Back in the control room, I chatted briefly with Lily, the show’s director, before she was scooped up in an emergency re-taping of David Wright’s news. Some American soldiers had been killed overseas, and ABC wanted David’s newscast to be updated with this information prior to the 10 AM broadcast on the west coast (which would be 7 AM Pacific time, of course). I went out on set and watched as David re-recorded his entire news broadcast, which would then be edited right into the show that had already been taped. It even began and ended with a “toss” from and to the other anchors, such as “Thanks, Kate” or “Back to you, Bill,” even though David was the only one on set at the time he recorded this modified newscast. As with Saturday, it was getting on toward 10:00 and I had to admit that I’d seen pretty much everything and then some. I wanted to be sure to stop back into the audio booth one last time to chat with Joe and Mark before I left.

And I found them in an impromptu jam session. With the 8:00 AM show having run off tape and everything in place already for the 10:00 AM rebroadcast to the west coast, Joe and Mark had some free time. They put it to use with Mark helping Joe master a piece of classic rock on his bass. The funniest part wasn’t just walking into the (fully soundproof) audio booth to see and hear these guys playing the guitar, it’s that Mark’s electric guitar was actually plugged into the GMA studio’s sound system instead of a traditional portable amp. Hell, I figured, these are the sound guys – they know what can safely be plugged in where. We talked about guitars (“Do you play, Mike?” asked Joe. “Well, “ I hesitated, “I’ve had three lessons so far and can play the Eagles ‘Take it Easy’ almost all the way through. Does that count?”) We laughed and Joe promised to try and give me a shout if he rides his motorcycle up through Syracuse sometime. Visiting the Dinosaur with somebody from the GMA Weekend team would certainly bring this saga full-circle.

I bid the audio guys a fond farewell, waved goodbye to James and Lily in the Control Room, and stopped by the Green Room to give a wave to the camera crew. Then I was down the elevator and… in a lobby I’d never seen before. Luckily I rounded a corner and saw the street, so I wasn’t as lost as I’d feared.

My wife and I decided on a last meal before our trip home, and given how much we’d enjoyed our lunch at Planet Hollywood on Saturday, we decided to head there again. They’d had signs everywhere advertising their new breakfast service. Once again, I’m going to rave about Planet Hollywood – NYC dining purists, brace yourselves.

We were again seated with no wait. We were a bit pressed for time, as our driver was to pick us up at 11:00 AM, but I was sure we’d have no problem and we did not. What we did have was one of the best breakfasts I can remember. My wife had an omelet, which was, you know, just an omelet. But once I saw the description for “Crème Brule Battered French Toast,” I knew I had to have it. It was every bit as decadent as it sounded. Yeah, it probably had 12,000 calories or something, I don’t know, but oh boy was it good.

Our return ride to the airport was a brisk 25-30 minutes and it seemed like no time at all before we were back in Syracuse. It’s always nice to be home and we found that the kids and grandparents alike had had fun together. And my wife and I, we had memories to last a lifetime, with stories to tell of the great BBQ Adventure that was finally at an end.

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