Sunday, October 31, 2010

The class I took at the Community Access TV station

It's been a few years. I used to sit in bed watching Community Access TV Saturday morning.

The Community Access TV station was in the back of a local high school--the one where all the rich kids go--so I would sit and watch the show the high school kids produced. It was short videos made as assignments for their video class.

In one episode, some kids made a short documentary about their friend taking a tennis class. They filmed him playing tennis. He kept missing the ball. He'd go pick it up. He'd miss it again. They interviewed the teacher.

"What is ______'s greatest strength as a tennis player?" they asked.

The teacher laughed. They kept the camera on him, so he finally stopped laughing and talked about the improvement the kid had made since the beginning of the term and that, with continued effort, he thought he could be a reasonably good player.

In another video, some kids interviewed students in the hallway about their feelings about Christmas. One kid gave a long interview that was very good. He sang, talked about his family and what they did on Christmas.

Another gave an interview that wasn't so good.

"What is the spirit of Christmas?"

"The spirit of Christmas is presents for all the little children," he said nervously. There was an awkward silence. He added, "Who don't have presents."

"Are there any seasonal dishes you like?"

"I like chicken."

"That's not very seasonal."

"Fried chicken," he said. And, after a long pause, "with seasoning."

I'm surprised the teacher let them leave that in.

One episode had some younger kids. They looked 13 or 14. One kid was interviewing a big burly kid.

"Tell us about your diseases," the interviewer says.

The kid says he has trouble with his tear ducts and has to use eye drops. And he has ADHD and takes Ritalin.

"Does it suck having ADHD, or do you not notice?" the kid asked.

The other kid didn't answer.

"Show us your Judo," the interviewer says.

They were on the grass. The kid shows him his Judo. Quickly knocks the interviewer down. He hits his head on the ground and writhes in pain for the rest of the video.

The Molechai and Zar Show

There was another show I liked. It came on in the evenings. It was two 12-year-old boys. Both seemed extremely bright. They had a movie review show, like Siskel & Ebert. But they reviewed almost nothing but R-rated horror movies.

They were discussing one movie. "What was your favorite killing, Zar?" Molechai asked.

Zar said he liked the one where a man's head was cut off by a sheet of glass. There was blood everywhere.

But the kids had some sense of moral outrage. One of them was incensed at a scene in a PG-rated comedy. "It should have been rated R!" he said. The movie had a scene where two women spy on a man changing his clothes. "They didn't show him or anything, but they spied on him while he was NAKED!"

I later talked to a guy who had worked as a cameraman on that show. The kids had gone to their parents wanting to do it. They became celebrities at their school for a few weeks before losing interest. Then the cameraman needed videotape so he recorded over the tapes of the show.

Less ambitious shows

The station would broadcast anything that wasn't legally obscene. There was one old timer, a Libertarian, who would sit and read pamphlets for an hour every week. His show had been on for years.

Another guy, a Christian, would set up his camera on a tripod and hang around in his living room without a shirt. He would walk around, eat dinner with the microphone close to his mouth, belch, and occasionally say something religious. He was very hostile toward other denominations, but it was never clear why or what he believed. In one episode, he held up his cat and started speaking in a falsetto cat voice. "Yes, master. I'm sorry, master." I'm probably making it sound more interesting than it was.

If you ever film a TV show in your living room, at least clean up the room.

The Documentary Video class

The only ads they had on Community Access TV were for the classes they offered. For a long, long time, I would sit there watching and I'd think, "I ought to take one of those." I thought that for a few years, then finally looked up their website and sent them an email.

The fellow emailed back. Just as soon as they had enough students they'd start another class. He told me the price, which I think was $65, plus the $10 to become a member of CTV.


After a few weeks the class was starting.

I went to the TV station.

The studio was in the back of the school, but I didn't get that vague feeling of dread I usually get when I go into a school.

There were a handful of people in the class. There was an older woman, a high school senior, a man who didn't like the idea of any private business enjoying any advantage as a result of the documentary. The teacher was openly hostile toward him and they were constantly fighting.

The guy teaching the class was named Larry. In his 50s. He rode a bike. I wasn't sure what to make of him. He produced, it seems like, almost half the shows on the station. He worked very fast. The talk shows were live-on-tape with no post-production. He worked very fast editing the stuff that did require post production. He used analog editing equipment rather than digital editing because he could do it faster.

I think the problem with the class was that Larry had a very simple formula for making these documentaries, but he didn't spell it out. We started out looking at clips of documentaries exemplifying verious techniques---looked at an MTV documentary and one by Ken Burns. He should have shown us videos made by previous classes.


Larry knew how to work quickly. The videos the documentary classes produced all seemed to follow the same formula.

You picked a subject that would give you something to videotape, some action or activity you could easily get footage of. And you picked a subject that had an expert you could interview. Then you'd interview your expert in the studio one day and you'd go and film on location another day. A little editing, and you had your movie.

That may seem obvious, but because he didn't spell it out and explain the formula to the class, people kept suggesting ideas that wouldn't work. Pretty much anythings that's not fiction is a documentary, so we were suggesting all kinds of crap.

Luckily, we had Sue there, who was very serious about it, had a subject in mind and did the work and made the arrangements. She was an excellent interviewer. She and Larry did nearly all the work.

The filming

First we had a fellow come in to be interviewed. He was manager of a glass recycler. The only place that recycled window glass.

I operated one of the cameras.

There were two camera filming. We had to each keep an eye on the monitor to keep track of what the other was doing. If one of us was filming a close-up, the other needed to do a two shot.

The interview went fast, but was for naught. We screwed up the sound.

That's okay, Larry said. We'd just have to interview him again when we got on location.

On location

We went to the place where the recycling was done. We walked around. Sue interviewed the manager. He showed us the broken glass that came in, the pellets they made out of it. He showed us the molds he used.

Larry and Sue were doing that while I hung around with David, the high school kid, and tried to stay out of the picture.

After they were done filming, they handed the camcorder to me. I could get some other shots.

I filmed some lovely close-ups of the glass objects they produced. Glass trophies and awards, decorative items, knobs for cupboards and drawers. David did some filming, too. He was more energetic than me, walking along doing tracking shots of the glass.

I wasn't able to be there the day they went back for more filming. They went back and taped the actual glass work, pouring the molten glass into molds, then letting it cool.

Final result

For the final class, we edited it very quickly. It would have gone faster if Larry had ignored us. But he listened to our helpful suggestions. Sue dubbed the narration she wrote. Added some music.

The final result wasn't bad.

There were going to give us each a DVD of it, but I never got mine. I did see it on TV a couple of times though.

My big contribution:

For the opening shot, Larry wanted it to start zoomed in on some detail on the building, then zoom out to show the whole building, but there was nothing interesting to zoom in on.

"What about those pigeons?" I said.

He zoomed in on the pigeons, zoomed out to show the whole building, then zoomed in on the sign that served as the title.

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