The Newsroom: A real life tale

Having just watched the pilot episode of Aaron Sorkin’s  The Newsroom, I had an overwhelming feeling of attachment to it. As a television program it stands on its own. But it also has a clear amount of truthfulness about it to anyone who has ever worked in that environment. I’m one of those people.

Here is a real life tale of working in a newsroom…

June 25th 2009. I was working as a Vision Mixer at Sky News in London. A regular amount of headlines passed by that week. Farah Fawcett had died, Clinton Cards were closing 136 stores affecting over 750 jobs and steel maker Corus was cutting 2’000 jobs in the UK.

In the live studio gallery, the usual buzz was palpable with the ever-approaching Sky News At Ten. Different people work different hours, and on the approach to Sky News At Ten we’d all been working together as a team for four or five hours already with no changeovers. We were relaxed and working well. The Director was briefing the Graphics department with what still photos and sequences would be required alongside any animated maps that might be useful, the Directors Assistant was liaising with Transmission Control with respect to commercial break durations and when we’d need to hit them, and the Text Producer was prepping to remove old and update information on the news ticker. The Vision Mixer… me… well, I was ready to repeat another hour of near-enough the same news we’d already been doing with the added pressure of knowing a larger audience watches at 10pm. No sweat.

Somewhere through the 9pm hour rumours began to surface that Michael Jackson had been taken to hospital by ambulance, and that there was a possibility he had died. Lines started to drop on the wires. They were yellow, meaning minimal information and nothing confirmed. Information was only coming from the TMZ website which, unsurprisingly, had crashed. Whenever the Presenter (Stephen Dixon) was ‘out of vision’ (i.e., not giving the news, but during a news report) he was being given updates in his ear and writing down any snippet of information available. Back in vision and on-air it was never mentioned or broken to the public. News must be confirmed and backed-up with sources before it’s aired. Two minutes before 10pm a new Executive Producer takes over for the show they have been prepping all day. This time round it was one minute to 10pm. That might not seem like much, but it means a lot when there is breaking news on the cards and everyone needs to know what they’re doing. Confirmation still wasn’t coming. By now the TMZ website had pictures of an ambulance leaving the Jackson property. No other news channel on the planet was going with the story, I imagine partly out of fear of it being wrong. Believe it or not, stories are broken all the time of celebrity deaths. Occasionally news outlets go with it, without checking.

For us, the opening animation that starts the shows at the top of the hour was already rolling when the EP appeared. Up till now we were still going with the pre-written rundown. Everything was going smoothly and we were only seconds in to the show, literally. The top-of-the-hour headlines were being read and everything seemed fine. But on the last headline the EP made the statement we were all waiting for:

“Drop everything. We’re going with it”.

At this point, we were at the opening wide shot where the announcer says “This is Sky News. With Samantha Simmonds” and shows off the big video wall. I turned to the EP and said “are you sure we’re going with it? Do you want Breaking News in the wall?” to which he solidly answered “yes”. So on the wide shot move I slowly mixed in an animated text loop that said BREAKING NEWS. Something new was happening, there and then. And now everybody knew about it.

The wires started turning red, and dropping more regularly. The people who write and distribute that ‘wire’ information began quoting Sky News as the source of the story. Then CNN broke it. Then Fox News. Then the BBC.

Behind the scenes it was a frantic scramble to rewrite scripts and get information to the right people. With a CTRL-ALT-DEL scenario in place, nothing on the TV screen seemed out of the ordinary to the viewers. The Presenter was calm and giving the information that we knew had been circling, giving reference to the sources we were using. Off-screen, it was an absolute whirlwind.

From that moment on, everything was a blur. The rundown was out the window. The pre-planned one-hour show that had been meticulously put together throughout the day with live interviews, news packages, guests on set, etc, was no longer valid. Instead we were putting websites to air quoting officials who’d given lines to the press. We aired helicopter shots of Los Angeles with crowds gathering at various spots. We called every possible relevant guest and booked them to come on-air before other stations. It was a full-on code-red scramble.

And at this point there was still no confirmation at all that the ‘story’ was even true.

I distinctly remember a comment in the gallery directed at the Executive Producer along the lines of “If you’re wrong, it was nice knowing you”. In that sort of scenario, it was true. But he was right.

My job as Vision Mixer became rather fluid. Everything on-screen was being put there by me. I was mixing live shots into boxes alongside guests whilst taking location straps on and off, resizing websites on the fly and using them as backgrounds all whilst planning the next move. It was one thing after another, after another, after another. It was like playing 3D chess (which is why I love it).

My shift finished at 1am, and I was completely shattered. It wasn’t till I was in my own comfort zone, sat in my car, that it hit me on what we had actually just broke to the world. Every radio station I tuned in to were playing Michael Jackson songs.

And I admit, I had a little cry whilst driving home.

As I mentioned before, news must be checked before channels go with it. Other celebrity names pop up during the breaking news of a celebrity death. Tom Cruise, Kevin Bacon, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks. Another such name was Jeff Goldblum. A new Zealand news channel went with it, saying he had fallen 60 feet off a cliff during filming and had died too. It was completely untrue. In comedy style Jeff Goldblum later paid tribute to himself on the news of his own passing on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report.

If you like Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, you need to watch Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. It’s the story of the behind-the-scenes cast and crew who work on a comedy sketch show in Hollywood. It’s brilliantly written and acted with fantastically weaved story lines, and deserved more than one season on our screens. Not to mention it has Matthew Perry in it.

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Get Into TV: A Personal Journey

The following entry has been hosted as a permanent page on my website for the past year. I thought it about time I re-published it onto the blog:

Question: “How did you get into television?”

Answer: “Being honest, being a Runner is probably the easiest way into television. You’ll do a lot of hard work for not a lot of money, but if you do it right and have the attitude to match and are in the right place, you can make it”

This question comes up a lot. And I don’t think there is a hard and fast answer to it. I fell into a career in television by accident. Sort of. And it started because of my fascination into bloopers, movie mistakes and out-takes.

As a kid I would scan the TV guide listings at the beginning of the week, looking for any ‘Making Of’ programme. They seemed to be on in the early hours of the morning and never seen through the day. I had a stack of VHS tapes and I’d ask my mum to record anything that showed behind-the-scenes of movies or TV programmes, showing the audience how stunt sequences were put together or showing scenes being redone take after take because of laughter, etc. It all looked like so much fun. For me, the movies and programmes were a work of art already. But getting to see extra stuff, what goes on in the background to put it all together, really fascinated me. I was also quite particular about it and had my brother dub the ‘Making Of’ programmes onto the end of the VHS tapes that had the movies on!

When I was a kid I thought when actors got shot in movies, they really got shot. It made more sense when I found out what blood packs and squibs were. But this sparked something in my mind. What else goes on to make these films happen? In primary school we had to do ‘projects’. The dreaded Projects were a series of documents on a subject of our choosing to prove we had a firm understanding of the subject. I chose robots. A fairly decent choice for a nine year old. But I wasn’t thinking like your average nine year old. I wanted to make my own Terminator endoskeleton hand. As you do. And I did. And I still have that project with my nine year old hand cut out in cardboard with straws for the endoskeleton fingers and wool for the tendons. It still works beautifully!

As technology advanced I became more and more interested in Visual Effects, more specifically Computer Generated Imaging, or CGI. Making something out of nothing. I started collecting books on 3D animation and green screen compositing. I collected books by companies such as Industrial Light and Magic and Digital Domain and I’d sit through the credits of movies to find out who was responsible for the Special Effects. Remember, I was 14.

This fascination stuck with me through my teens, and by the end of my time at Secondary School I knew I wanted to be a Compositor and working in Post-Production. I told my Careers Adviser what I wanted to do, to which her response was “the computer suggests you should be a plumber. Or a librarian”. She had no idea what I was talking about. And clearly neither did the computer. So I took the matter into my own hands. I researched every Post-Production house I could find on the internet. To my astonishment it turned out the most common ones were all based within one square mile of Soho in London. I wrote and emailed to more than two dozen companies indicating my age and what I’d like to do. As naive as I thought I was, I actually got responses. Several Producers told me my location in Scotland wouldn’t be useful and that if I wanted a career in TV or Film I should move to London. And that jobs were available.

So I moved to London.

Aged 19 I left my cosy council house in Scotland where I was born and bred, telling my mother I’d be “back in six weeks”. I left my friends, family and everything behind to take a risk. I arrived by coach on the Thursday (reminder: never ever take an Edinburgh-to-London coach. Ever) and had job interviews on the Friday for positions as a ‘runner’. Basically, a runner will do all the small, and rubbish, jobs to help make the entire situation runs smoothly. If that means taking and delivering the lunch order for Alex Winter (Director and Actor: Lost Boys, Bill And Ted), giving your ‘visual opinion’ to David Soul (Starsky & Hutch) getting Kylie Minogue a StarBucks coffee, picking up chinese takeaway for Natalie Imbruglia, going to HMV to buy DVD’s for Terry Gilliam (Director: Twelve Monkeys, Brazil, Time Bandits) or finding biscuits at 3am for The Super Furry Animals… then that’s what you do. It’s long, it’s hard and a lot of the time you are treated like crap. And sometimes it’s utterly brilliant.

Before I’d even got home from my last interview I had a message that one company, Rushes Post Production, were offering me a position with their running teams. I was overjoyed and accepted immediately. Needless to say I didn’t go back to Scotland after 6 weeks. I’ve lived in London ever since.

Living in London with the salary of a runner is impossible. I ended up moving departments within the same company and became a Media Librarian, responsible for all the digital tapes and back-ups, booking in and out, etc. But that paid not much more than a runner, so I applied for a job as an Assistant Transmission Controller with another company (Todd AO, later rebranded Ascent Media). This job entailed checking every second of scheduled television for a specific channel. Paper logs would be checked, computer logs would be checked and then the next days listings would be ‘appended’ on to the end of that days listings. All the tapes (before it was all digital) had to be pulled from a library and individually rewound and checked, put into the right order and racked up ready to be put into a huge tape machine (imagine a multi CD changer but filled with video players instead).

From there I became a full-time TX Controller and as the months went on became a Senior. Even in Transmission I was interested in how everything was put together and what each piece of equipment was responsible for. So I became part of Broadcast Operations; a small team who install, test, fix, break, upgrade, soak test, replace, etc, every piece of equipment that’s to be used in the Transmission Suite.

Purely out of the blue I saw a job at Sky News and applied to do some similar type Transmission work, but in a Live environment instead of pre-recorded tapes. Miraculously I was offered a job as a Playout Operator, responsible for all the digital clips and order of the shows. This was similar to the Transmission job except it was now all file-based on computers instead of tapes and the turn-around was one hour instead of 24 hours. Sky News was a major challenge, both physically and mentally (sometimes the content is quite graphic before it’s edited for television).

After a year in Ingest and Playout I became interested in Vision Mixing and spoke to one of the Sky News Directors about it. Vision Mixing is effectively editing a show in realtime. In film and TV an editor will take all the film and recordings and put them together over a period of time, tweaking here and there, until they have the perfect edited programme. A Vision Mixer (or Switcher) does all of this entirely live with graphics sources, cameras, satellite signals, etc. It’s a hell of a lot of pressure, but the technology behind it is immense. When a Director shouts “CUT CAMERA 4!”, it’s the Vision Mixer they’re talking to. I was trained as a Vision Mixer at Sky News and after 4 years also began directing here and there, taking the ‘creative’ side more seriously.

In 2011 I decided I’d like to try my skills with other genres. I’d been a fan of Big Brother since it was first broadcast and started getting in touch with people who either worked or knew people who worked on the show. On a dark and wet Tuesday morning I took a phone call asking if I would like a job as a House Director working on the next series of Big Brother (August 2011) which had been picked up by Channel 5, “starting with Celebrity Big Brother”.

That was the day I chose to go freelance.

Since then I’ve worked on two series of ‘classic’ Big Brother and two series of Celebrity Big Brother, I’ve worked as a Studio Director for Bloomberg TV, Sky News and Five News and Vision Mix for Sky Sports News and Sky News.

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Got shrimp?

I’ve got shrimp.

Four, in fact.

This is my Ecosphere…

So, what is an Ecosphere and how does it work?

An Ecosphere is a self contained world with everything it needs inside to create a life cycle. Nasa first created Ecospheres to recreate a miniature Earth. The Ecosphere in this video contains water, algae and shrimp. The algae creates oxygen through photosynthesis. The shrimp consume the algae and the oxygen and produce biological nutrients which in turn creates more algae.

The algae feeds the shrimp. The shrimp feeds the algae.

All that is needed is the right amount of sunlight. The balance within the Ecosphere will continue to create life providing there isn’t too much or too little sunlight.

NOTE: This Ecosphere arrived in June 2012 with four shrimp and successfully grew fresh algae. To date, all the shrimp are still alive. It’s documented that shrimp in the wild can last 20 years. Some Ecospheres with Nasa are over 10 years old and are still going strong.