Learn to fly: Video inspiration

September 28, 2008

I’m mixing it up a little bit today and posting someone else’s video because I just love it. I love this video. The videography is pristine. It cuts to the essence without any other interference. And the title “Learn to Fly” perfect.This video has soul and story.

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Photomerge: so easy it’s cheating

September 28, 2008

I stumbled across the “Photomerge” feature in Photoshop a while back when I was trying to take a photo of my tiny little living room. I don’t have a lens wide angle enough to take it all in at once, so I stuck my camera on a tripod, and snapped off 10 or so photos, rotating the camera a little between each one.

I’d intended on making a panoramic photo manually with layers and the transform tools, but following the No. 1 rule of the Web, I Googled it first, and low and behold, there is a MUCH better way.

Photomerge can do hours of manual Photoshopping in about as much time as it takes you to go to the fridge to get a beer. It’s like magic. Here’s my first living room picture: (Click to enlarge)

Check out how the edges of the walls and the carpet bow in the middle. Photoshop warped and transformed them to make them fit together perfectly. I NEVER could have made it look this nice.

I immediately started thinking about how I could use this at work, and the opportunity came up with a story about a dangerous intersection an hour north of town. Since most people that read the paper would never see it, I thought it might be neat to show folks what it’s like to be getting ready to pull out from that stop sign.

If you click and view it full size, you have to scroll back and forth to take it all in — just like how in real life you have to turn your head. Even though it’s simple, I thought it was kind of an immersive experience, and I think there’s some potential there. The News Journal actually used this photo in the print edition as a banner over the story. I was stoked.

This morning I dug through my old photos and found some shots that looked like they might stitch. The first is of my brother Cody at Meteor Crater in Arizona. The eight photos stitched were shot hand held with a point and shoot. (Click to enlarge)

It’s not just horizontal panoramas that are possible. So you can get an idea how Photoshop merges and warps individual photos together, here’s what it did with some random shots I took from a window overlooking a dam in Arizona: (Click to enlarge)

Some variation of the jagged edges occurs in just about all of the merged photo sets, and I usually just crop them out.

I’m not going to post a step-by-step tutorial on how to do these, but if you can’t figure it out, a quick Google search for “Photomerge” is all it takes. Technology is so freaking cool sometimes!


History stories scare me

September 25, 2008

Yesterday I ventured upstairs to the archives at the Pensacola Historical Society for the second time in the short time I’ve been in this city. I had to do some research on the history of the first fire station that was ever built in this town. I always feel like I don’t have enough time to do historical research, but there is a big population of people in Pensacola that have a big interest in the city’s history, and they’ll let you know if they think you got it wrong.

This story was about an art gallery that is recovering a part of history by painting a mural of a firehouse on the wall where the door was originally located more than 130 years ago.

Here are the then and now pictures.

Things have changed in Pensacola. But in some ways…not that much. I guess that’s the beauty of a historic district. They preserve some semblance of history, even when so much change is unavoidable.


Getting my feet wet

September 16, 2008

Here is why this is the best job in the world. This was my substitute for coffee Tuesday morning.

Last Tuesday, bright and early, I was pulling up at the port at the Pensacola Naval Air Station for a ride aboard the smallest aircraft carrier in the Navy: The HLT. (Short for Helicopter Landing Trainer).

This thing is run by civilians, and has booked well over 100,000 mishap-free landings by helicopter pilots. This is astounding when you realize that many of the pilots have only been flying helicopters for a couple of months.

These nice folks took me onboard like I was one of the crew, showed me the ropes and got me on the flight deck for some really cool stuff.

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This guy’s name is Michael. He’s retired Navy, and he’s been guiding in helicopters for years. He swears that he feel safer on the boat than on his 45 minute daily commute. I don’t think I was ever scared on the flight deck, but I’ll admit that when those rotor blades were spinning over my head and I was snapping photos, I had a strong urge to back away.

Michael had no such urge.

I did not look nearly this cool on the deck, although I was suited up in a red life vest and what the ex-Navy types called a “Cranial.” Goofy journalist self portrait after the break…

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This stuff is for the birds

September 9, 2008

Last Sunday, I headed out to Ft. Pickens (on my day off) to meet up with a park biologist (on her day off) for a story about birds. A hurricane 2004 washed away the dunes along with the only access road on this small barrier island. At first it seemed like devastation, but as it turned out, shorebirds love the huge areas of flat wetland that were left by the storm. 

My spectacular guide knew a lot about the birds, but her true passion was sea turtles. 

When we passed a turtle nest in some of the remaining dunes, she noticed that a ghost crab had burrowed into the top of it. This was totally unacceptable, and next thing I knew, she was shoulder deep in the nest, rooting around for the crab. 

She never did find the crab, but while she was rooting around for it, she discovered that the sea turtles had hatched, and were slowly digging to the surface. She said that they would have to start camping out at the nest at night, because the babies wait until the sand is cool before they break surface and head for the water. 

Even though the road is gone, the campgrounds at the park are still open to people willing to venture down the four or five miles of beach. Some folks ride bikes out, and others, like this fellow, strike out like they are crossing the Sahara. 

This guy was from Mississippi, and he flagged us down to chat. He had made several trips to the park in the past, and was wondering what kind of shape it was in now that the road was gone. They usually have generators running out there to pump up fresh water, but they weren’t running because they were taken off the island during Gustav, and hadn’t been trailered back out there yet. 

That cracked bit of road in the foreground there…it was just unearthed by hurricane Gustav. Hurricane Ivan buried it four years ago, and people had forgotten it was there. 

While we were talking to him, two pods of dolphins started splashing around in the water just off shore. They jumped completely out of the water several times, but I never got quite the shot I wanted. 

It was a cool day. Actually, there was a bunch of really cool stuff that happened that I wish I could have worked into the story, but it really didn’t belong, and space wouldn’t allow. (Even though I did take some liberties and write this one out to 15 inches). 

As I type this up, I’m thinking it would be really cool to be able to link this blog entry to the story so that if someone wanted to know more about what was going on at Ft. Pickens, they would be able to get a general idea what I experienced out there. 

This really is one of the coolest jobs ever, and even though space and time is the name of the game, I think we might be able to inject something back into the communities we work in if we have just an hour or two a day to blog about the story behind the story. 

See all the photos from my day at the beach after the jump. 

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My side of the notepad

September 3, 2008

This post comes a couple weeks after I wrote the story.

I drove about an hour north, to a little town near the Alabama state line, and met three people I won’t forget. One of them, I never got the chance to speak with, but I think I met her just the same. Callista White died at an intersection down the road three years before I pulled in to her grandparent’s driveway, but she was there. Looking up at me from the kitchen table in Leroy and Adelia White’s little house.

Adelia said to me:”Don’t you think she is a pretty girl? She was pretty on the inside too.”

Something about the transition from “is” to “was” in Adelia’s voice hit me deep down. I do think their granddaughter was beautiful.

I was immediately emotionally invested in the Whites. I sympathized with them and I wished that their granddaughter, Callista, was there, and not just in a picture.

Leroy drove me to the intersection where the accident happened. I forced myself to stay in the notebook. Keep my eye in the viewfinder. Think about the story, not about the tragedy.

I didn’t want to ask him to get out of the car and walk me to Callista’s memorial. But I did. And he did. I didn’t know what to ask him once we were there. I smiled when I asked him a question. No that’s stupid, don’t smile. I don’t know, how should I talk to him? What should I say?

He stares at a passing semi as we wait to cross the road on the way back to his car. She was killed by a semi. Right over there. When they passed the wreckage on the way to the hospital that night, Leroy knew that she was dead.

He took me to Callista’s grave where he told me more about her. Details about a girl he loved that I knew there would never be space for in the newspaper. There would probably be only 12 inches.

I kept my eye in the viewfinder, and my notebook in my pocket. Leroy has to tell it. In his expression. In the way he holds his shoulders when he looks at the grave.

I focused so much on getting the shots. How do you listen to someone who is confiding in you, when you’re clicking off frames. I needed a different depth of field. He’s telling me about her brother who got a scholarship to college to fulfill a promise to her memory. If I move, I can get his reflection in the headstone, looking over her shoulder.

He’s still talking. I nod to him between shots. I force myself to be detached. To think of the story. The images. My job. It makes me feel dirty in a way. Like a peeping Tom. Like a voyeur. I choke those feelings back. How can I do this. I’m in over my head.

On the way back to his house, I realize I had set the exposure compensation two stops underexposed. I’m devastated. The blackness looking out at me from the little LCD screen shouts to my failure. I wasted it. All those things he said. I’m in over my head.

This is a hard job. I don’t sleep some nights when I fear that I wasn’t good enough to do a story justice. But that pretty girl on the kitchen table helped us through this one.

I saved the photos. I used a trick a spectacular photographer, Cheryl Guerrero, showed me at Poynter, and salvaged them in Photoshop. Just barely.

I edited together a little video for the Web. There was something about the way Leroy said, “I don’t know. It’s just one of those things.” And the way his eyes follow the semi as it passes. It gets me every time.
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They gave me 14 inches for the story. The lede:

Leroy and Adelia White think about Thanksgiving 2003 all the time, but they can’t recall it perfectly.

“Tragedy has a way of blocking your mind,” Adelia White said.

She stares at two pictures of their granddaughter on the kitchen table. Callista Whites smiles from a photograph, dressed in maroon high school graduation robes.

“Don’t you think she’s a pretty girl? She was pretty on the inside too,” she said.

I didn’t do it justice. I have read the story out loud to myself at least a dozen times since it was published, but I just don’t know.

It’s hard to be in the emotion, to feel someone’s pain, to want to help — but to be getting paid by the hour while you’re there. Plus mileage. Then type it up, as good as you can, as fast as you can, so you can move on to the next story.

I love this job. But sometimes it is so hard.


Capital “S” in 10 inches or less…

September 3, 2008

At Poynter we talked a lot about writing stories. Not just stories, but Story. Capital “S.” Big picture, “what does it say about life and the times we live in” stuff.

Yesterday I reported on one of the last “full service” filling stations in town. I hung out with them all morning, took photos, talked to customers and really got a good feel for the place. I was really inspired by them, and the experience made me nostalgic for life in a time that I never even experienced first hand. But I grasped the essence, and I was ready to lay it out in full-on inspirational narrative Storytelling detail.

I had 12 inches on the page, and was just getting started when my editor asked me to keep the story to 10 inches because the paper was tight.

“Uhhhh…sure…piece of cake…”

Internally I was having one of those “ohhhh crap” moments. As I looked at the screen, my eyes simultaneously crossed and went out of focus and my mind went spiraling off in another direction entirely. (That has been happening to me a lot recently.)

As a writer, it’s quite the interesting challenge to tell a Story in 10 inches. I had to distill this thing down to the essence, and really find a way to make the words work overtime. I’m not sure how well I did, I’ll let y’all be the judge. Here’s how it ran:

Ivey’s at your service

Nine Mile Road filling station keeps tradition alive and customers satisfied

Ivey’s service station owner Wayne Ivey, 65, replaces the battery in a customer’s car. “It’s hard competing with the name-brand places,” Ivey said. “But you see all those cars out there. We must be doing something right.” (Travis Griggs/tgriggs@pnj.com)

A bell dings as a car pulls up to the pumps at Ivey’s service station on Nine Mile Road. Moments later, an attendant comes out to pump gas, clean the windshield and chat while waiting for the tank to fill.

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