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Shoot First: Code of the News Cameraman

Shoot First: Code of the News Cameraman

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Shoot First: Code of the News Cameraman

5/5 (1 rating)
364 pages
17 hours
Dec 5, 2014


This compelling memoir shares with the reader a unique perspective seen through the camera lens. The title of the book refers not only to being competitive in the field but to a mindset necessary for job survival: act now, react later.

For 29 years (1968 to 1997), Hank Schoepp covered the news for KPIX, the CBS affiliate in San Francisco. There were events he documented in the camera and witnessed firsthand which commanded regional, national and worldwide attention. Among these: getting tear-gassed during student protest and rioting at U.C. Berkeley; Patricia Hearst’s kidnapping from start to finish; searching for a vanishing school bus, its driver and 26 children in Chowchilla, California; traveling to Guyana after a mass suicide of over 900 people in Jonestown; rushing to the murder scene of a San Francisco mayor and supervisor; accounting for the devastation of the Bay Area’s Loma Prieta Earthquake, and narrowly escaping flames of the Oakland Hills Firestorm.

Many books have been written by and about broadcast journalists with interesting things to say. And yet few have spoken on behalf of those who perform on the other side of the camera lens. Finally, that voice is heard loud and clear with SHOOT FIRST: Code of the News Cameraman.
Dec 5, 2014

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Shoot First - Hank Schoepp



Remember the dream. You’re driving by the airport when you catch something out of the corner of your eye: a blue sky, white plane, black smoke. Next thing you know, you’re pulling off to the side of the road, popping the trunk, running back, lifting the lid, reaching down and switching on the camera and the videotape recorder at the same time.

20 seconds to power up and counting …

Instinct leads you through the drill. Reach for the big oblong box called Mini-cam.

Swing it onto your right shoulder. Keep the recorder in the trunk of the car. Wait for the battery inside to send an energy surge through four feet of umbilical cord to the camera.

And stand by. 5 seconds …

Wrap your right hand around the grip handle at the front of camera. Slide a finger over the lever to control the zoom lens. Next to the lever is the button to roll videotape, where your thumb automatically, impatiently rests.

All you need is power. 10 seconds …

Something stirs inside the recorder: a sound of shifting gears, as a section of the videotape lifts and engages over the recording head. On cue, your left eye closes while the right one remains open, cushioned against a rubber cup, peering down a tunnel at the blank viewing screen. An enormous eye, reflected on the glass, stares back and blinks.

There’s a spark of light. 15 seconds …

A thin horizontal line appears on the viewing screen. It cuts across the screen like a laser beam. It gets wider, fans over the screen to form an image in shades of gray.

A little red light flashes briefly in the upper left corner of the screen. It stops flashing, and then stays on while video and audio are in the recording mode.

20 seconds … And you’re rolling!

Your eye presses firmly against the rim of the rubber cup, glued to the viewing screen, reaching out through the long lens for a piece of the sky, zooming in slowly to find something, anything moving in the frame and seeing only buildings and a hill, then the horizon beyond the hill, then the smoke, already scattered in the wind, a fragmented trail of black spiraling downward to where the bay and the plane must be.

No! Yes.

Due to a technical delay common with early videotape cameras, you failed The Shot. More importantly, the dream spoke honestly to your reaction: a rude awakening triggered by frustration. The fact that passengers and crew might have perished in a plane crash never entered your mind. Not at that very moment; not for a television news cameraman. Whether in a dream or in the real world, job survival called for the same modus operandi: You shoot it now. You think about it later.


A Kiss and a Promise

On a July afternoon in 1968 news cameraman Lou Calderon returned to Television Station KPIX in San Francisco, bearing the fruit of his labor. Entering through the front glass door on Van Ness Avenue, he routinely walked past uniformed security at the reception desk and proceeded along the first floor corridor to the rear of the building. Arriving at the processing area, he deposited the Giants game he had shot earlier onto a receiving table – camera magazines loaded with exposed 16 millimeter black and white reversal film. The processing machine dominated the room, an imposing row of stainless steel tanks filled with chemicals, driven by a labyrinth of film spools, and extending ten or twelve feet from a darkroom wall to a dry-box and take-up reel at the far end. Now it stood motionless and unattended. As always, Lou couldn’t help but notice the sign on the darkroom door which read: DONT LET OUT THE DARK.

The film processing technician, a young novice named Raymond, delivered his reel of developed film to the news department on the third floor, then returned to his post at the processing machine downstairs. He collected magazines of exposed film left for him on the receiving table and carried them to the darkroom for unloading. Opening the outer door, he instinctively closed it again before opening and entering through a second door. Standing in total darkness, he set the magazines down onto a workbench to prepare the film for processing. With Braille-like efficiency, he unscrewed and opened the round panel door on the take-up chamber of the first magazine. Tipping the magazine just so, he carefully removed four hundred feet of exposed film from inside the chamber. Once wound securely around a plastic core within the chamber, the roll of film now moved slowly, precariously between his hands toward the spindle on a rewind flange. He was inches from the spindle when Lou Calderon stepped from his hiding place in the dark and kissed him gently on the cheek. The first three innings of the Giants game hit the ceiling, then spiraled downward to the darkroom floor which was now bathed with streaks of invading light, as Raymond exited through the inner door, the outer door and the front glass door on Van Ness Avenue, never to be seen or heard from again. As told to me, so goes the story of how I got my first big break in television news.

IRONICALLY, THE KPIX darkroom fiasco occurred at the same time I was performing duties similar to Raymond’s at a film lab not far away. I had been working as a film processing technician at Monaco Laboratories for about four years when opportunity came knocking on my own darkroom door. You in there, Hank? Call Channel Five.

I would, but first I had to complete the task which, in retrospect, made me appreciate poor Raymond’s fate all the more.

Back in 1968, film used for shooting television news carried a high speed emulsion for exposure at lower light levels, sometimes in difficult environments. Due to the extra sensitivity to light, processing called for loading the film in the dark. With precision and sans safelight, the overlapping ends of film and machine leader were stapled together. Guided along by the leader, a resilient 16 millimeter wide pilot strip with matching sprocket holes, the film snaked around spools in the first developer and stop bath tanks in total darkness, initially producing a negative image. Then it passed into the light through a tiny aperture in the darkroom wall, where each frame reversed as positive in the tank of second developer. The film wound and dipped through another stop bath, a cleansing rinse, air squeegees to blow off moisture and a box housing heat lamps to dry. The fifteen or twenty minute journey finally ended on a take-up reel outside the dry box.

Originally, all news film shot for KPIX had been processed at Monaco Laboratories. Cameramen showed up at the service counter in relay: dropping off or picking up a day’s work on their way to and from the television station. It was a convenient arrangement, with less than half a mile between two points.

Inevitably, the day arrived when a KPIX accountant realized a more convenient arrangement, and economical. Following the up-front investment of a machine, processing news film at the station would be cheaper in the long run. And, since the machine seemed so easy to operate, pushing a few buttons or winding film on reels didn’t require a great deal of experience. Almost anyone could be trained to do it. Two had. Practical jokes notwithstanding, Raymond and his predecessor had been boon-docked by accidents waiting to happen due to poor maintenance and carelessness. One news story too many had expired at the bottom of a tank of chemicals or, with a most recent disaster, on the darkroom floor. Finally, someone was sending up a flare for help.

I returned the KPIX phone call, agreed to a meeting time and arrived through the front glass door on Van Ness Avenue. Dave Horwitz, designated flare holder and producer of the six o’clock newscast, greeted me in the small lobby with a smile and firm handshake. Without further ado, he escorted me down a hallway on the ground floor to a room in the rear of the building. The processing machine had been out of service during rescue runs back at Monaco Labs. Good thing. First impression was the stink of rotten chemicals left to stagnate in tanks, particularly the stop-bath acid. But the obvious red flag was the machine leader. What should have been indestructible had frayed edges. And it had been staple-spliced repeatedly into piecemeal sections, rather than replaced with a new, seamless 1,000-foot roll.

One section of the machine leader had detoured from a sprocket-driven spool designed to guide it toward the next tank of chemicals. The result of an uneven splice, it hung over the sharp edge of the spool. Even an untrained eye wouldn’t have missed the scratch that ran down its center. And, where the leader went so followed the film. Had not three innings of a game met their demise on the darkroom floor, they would have perished in the bowels of the machine. I said something like, I’ve seen enough, and we moved on.

Studio A was in transition. Engineers and floor attendants were moving about, busily rearranging lights and props for an upcoming talk show. Studio B was permanent home to the news set. Smaller by half than Studio A, and less impressive when compared to the mega-sized broadcasting centers of today, it was still big enough to make a significant dent in a modest three-story building.

It was between newscasts and the studio was deserted. Having entered through one sound-proof door, Dave and I made our way toward the other. We passed under rows of lights rigged along a ceiling two stories above our heads, stepped between abandoned cameras on pedestals, crossed in front of an elevated anchor desk for three and watched our shadows slip across a weather map of the Bay Area with varying temperatures. This was your ordinary meat-and-potatoes news set, circa 1968. Forget flashy lead-ins: eye-popping graphics and ear-splitting music. It also happened to be where the top-rated news show in Northern California came from, and I was impressed. Of course, preceding the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite probably had something to do with it.

Riding the building’s one passenger elevator to the third floor, Dave made reference to the second floor in passing. The General Manager’s office, Programming, Engineering and Human Resources were located on that level. Additionally, due to space restrictions, other departments such as Special Projects and Public Relations operated out of a large, old Victorian home across the street.

Master Control was the broadcasting nerve center of the station and eminent domain of the engineers. Dave led the way, as we entered light of foot on the third floor level. We were overwhelmed by gauges, dials and video monitors. Amidst the busy hardware were two 16 millimeter film projectors, mounted side-by-side. Dave gave the rundown on how a news story on film was transmitted over the airwaves: An electronic sensor received impulses of light and shadow from the two projectors. Edited in a synchronized format called checkerboard, opaque film leader from one reel yielded alternately to the projected image of the other. A-roll carried magnetically striped film for recording narration or voice-over as well as for interviews or sound bites. B-roll provided the pictures. To this day, even while keeping pace with an ever-changing technology, the visual element of a news story on film is typically referred to as the B-roll.

My cook’s tour continued down a corridor, past several film editing booths resembling walk-in closets. All were vacant. Before I could ask where everyone had disappeared to, I entered the newsroom where some dozen or so people were standing around, cheering and applauding. Not in the habit of being the center of attention, I was taken by surprise. Emerging from the crowd, News Director Ron Mires approached me in a kind of strut, while grinning from ear to ear. He offered another hand to shake, then gestured the rest of the way into his office. What followed was a brief, yet satisfying meeting of the minds, launching my 29-year career at Westinghouse owned, CBS affiliate, KPIX Channel 5 Eyewitness News.

But there was one condition.

I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in a darkroom, I told the news director.

I would agree to run the station’s film processing machine, but not indefinitely. I had not come to the table without some experience behind the lens: four years in the Navy as a Photographer’s Mate, two years at Disney apprenticing on animation cameras, a short independent film under my belt. Hopefully, it had not gone to waste. And, what I was asking for did not seem unreasonable. When the next opening came along for a position as news cameraman, I wanted first crack at it.

That’s a promise, Ron Mires said.

We shook on it, and I thanked him for the extraordinary reception: a welcoming committee and standing ovation, no less.

It wasn’t for you, Mires said. By way of explanation, he raised a hand and tapped the light brown hair crowning his head. It was neatly parted (almost too neatly), combed to one side and new. What do you think?

You could have fooled me, I replied, already feeling the wind going out of my sail. But I wasn’t there for an ego massage. There was a job waiting to fill, long overdue.

With mixed emotion, I gave notice to terminate my employment at the lab. Dan and Dick Monaco had been good friends, as well as bosses. They treated me fairly and paid me on time, which was all anyone could ask from an employer. And, thanks to them, I had learned and sharpened the skills of a film processing technician. But I meant what I had said to the news director. In the not too distant future, I wanted to be able to see the light of day, preferably through the lens of a television news camera.


The Way It Was

On Monday, July 22, 1968, I opened the front glass door on Van Ness Avenue for the second time and entered Television Station KPIX. After that, it didn’t take very long to whip the film processing machine back into shape. With clean tanks, fresh chemicals and new leader threaded from darkroom to dry-box, the old sprocket wheels were up and turning once again.

That new guy on the film processor: How long do you suppose he’ll last this time?

My chances for job survival had to have been a curiosity on the minds of those who occasionally dropped in to check me out as I attended the machine. To their credit and, directly or indirectly, to their advantage, most everyone wished me success: words of encouragement from all stripes of the crew onboard the Good Ship Westinghouse.

General Manager Lou Simon was the Captain then. Ray Holtz: the Chief Engineer.

Let us know if there’s anything we can do to help.

Rae Whitehouse greeted me in Payroll. Lud Lozier acknowledged me from Security. And Geri Lou Cheney, Secretary to the News Director, all-around Girl Friday and finder of skeletons in closets, stopped by to make sure that I was still around after the first week.

Don Ponce, in charge of Shipping and Receiving, delivered chemicals and raw stock (unexposed film) to the processing area. How’s it going? Punch me here! he would then insist, gesturing to his washboard abdomen. Don was a retired Air Force fitness instructor who claimed to be 60 and looked 40. Come on Hank! Hit me! It’s OK! Finally, the slightly sprained thumb on my right hand acknowledged his washboard and perpetual youth, as well as the name by which he became known to me: Ponce de Leon.

Hello. My name is Harry Fuller, and I want to personally welcome you to KPIX. Among handshakes at the station, Harry’s was the most impressive. And unexpected, because it came from someone who ran errands for the newsroom. When I first met the young lad going places, he was bringing coffee to someone. A couple of years later, he jumped ship, accepting an offer at competitor KGO TV, the ABC affiliate in town. The next thing I heard: he was their Assignment Editor, the single most important decision making job in a newsroom. And the next thing: their News Director, no less. Several years later, Harry returned as our News Director. Then General Manager, then Vice President in Charge of CBS Media Internet Service. (I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear someday about Harry setting up a CBS News Bureau on the moon.)

BACK ON EARTH, and in 1968, there were six news cameramen on staff at KPIX. Photojournalist was a term not yet coined, so they were just ordinary (correction: make that extraordinary) cameramen. It took a while before the first camerawoman, or cameraperson, would enter the playing field for news, packing the early hardware, heavy and cumbersome at best, over a delicate shoulder. Finally, when she did, it was with the courage and pioneering spirit all those people back in that newsroom might have saved their cheers and applause for. But back then, I only knew this particular cast of macho camera characters.

Ralph Sandino was the Chief Cameraman. Nonchalant, soft spoken, nothing seemed to ever rattle him, which was probably how he got to be head of the pack. That and the fact he had been around longer than any of his peers at the station. Also, he was noticed most because of his camera: the one without the Mickey Mouse Ears. In the shape of a long box without a film magazine on top, it didn’t look like an ordinary camera. But it meant not having to enter a darkroom, with high-flanged spools loaded and unloaded in the camera in daylight. Convenient for the shooter, and the seniority hath its privileges.

Ron McCormick, or Ronnie Mack, suffered poor vision in his right eye and worked with a custom-fitted viewfinder, which extended further from the side of the camera to meet up with his left eye. Otherwise, he was a straight shooter from the Old West who might have stepped from a Marlboro cigarette ad. His weather-beaten face certainly fit the image, as did that heavy smoker’s gravel voice, should the cowpoke in the ad speak. Only the horse and ten-gallon hat were missing.

Stephen Pastzy was the gentleman in the wild bunch. Hungarian born, he had an element of charm and the accent to match. And he was the only cameraman I ever saw who came to work wearing slacks, a coat, dress shirt and tie. Every day. He could be out there in the hot sun covering a riot, chasing protestors, which happened frequently in those days, only to return to the station the same way as he had left: relaxed, perfectly groomed and dressed to the nines. To complement the image of savoir faire, he most often wore his coat as a sleeveless cape draped from his shoulders. That and the accent. Move over, Bela.

Gerd Rausch lived on wheels. Cars, pick-up trucks, motorcycles, some in various stages of repair, occupied much of his garage, driveway and other parking spaces around his home. He could fix anything. He had even managed to customize the company car assigned to him: a black 1968 Chevy sedan. Added to engine and chassis were a few of Gerd’s other personal touches, where his same attention to detail could also be found inside the trunk lid. From there, a photo collage of beautiful, scantily clad young women watched over his neatly arranged camera gear. Gerd was especially proud of his ladies, revealing his car trunk only to those he happened to like. Fortunately, I was privileged.

Tony Frazzita had found Jesus. That came straight from him, as told to me and, with all due respect, I believed him. Still do. But the reporters he worked with daily were the true believers. They were the ones faithfully sitting beside him as he drove to news destinations through impossible traffic snarls, arrived on time every time and parked in spaces miraculously reserved only for him because, in his own words: The Lord hath provided!

On the other hand, the devil made Lou Calderon do it. Rumors traveled fast, even faster through a news department. By the time I had met the notorious prankster, I was prepared for most anything. Lou had a peculiar habit. He would occasionally glance back over his shoulder during a conversation, which we had to break the ice. We exchanged small talk: family, hobbies, leisure and so forth. Lou favored the wife, the kids, a dog and a power boat tied up across the bay in Alameda Harbor. In turn, I looked forward to traveling to far-away, exotic locations with my lifetime partner Earl. Glancing over his shoulder one last time, Lou pretended to see someone he needed to catch up with in a hurry and was gone in a flash. Thereafter, in the course of a day’s labor, I might encounter Lou in the newsroom, editing room, screening room, snack room or, routinely, the processing room, but never in the darkroom.

These were the cameramen from an earlier, different generation of television news: free souls, one brotherhood, multiple personalities. They could be wild, funny, serious, sad, eccentric, mischievous and always professional. I had but one ambition back then: to join the club. Meanwhile, processing their film day in and day out, I got to know, admire and envy each and every one of them. Meeting all the other players of a winning news team would take a little longer.

Familiarity came instantly, though somewhat remote at first, from the smiling, talking faces on my television screen. Introductions followed later.

John Weston rolled into the station weekday mornings on his motorcycle, sans helmet and, as a member of News Director Ron Mires’ exclusive club, sans hair. I was never sure, nor had I the nerve to ask, whether the toupee traveled in the saddlebag or waited for him in his desk drawer.

John anchored Eyewitness News at noon and six o’clock, morphing from easy rider to town crier with a full coiffure. Serious became his persona on-camera. He delivered the goods in a clear, straightforward manner, without the fanfare. (They hadn’t invented Happy Talk yet). While Walter Cronkite told us the way it was on a national and worldwide scale, John did the same for our local viewers.

Wanda Ramey co-anchored the noon and six o’clock newscasts with John. She was light to his heavy, warm to his cool, equally comfortable facing a camera in the field or in the studio. Since she never mentioned it to me, I had to learn later through the grapevine about her being the first woman news anchor in the western United States, placing second in America for local television. Truly, Wanda was a broadcast legend in her own time.

Rod Sherry produced and anchored the eleven o’clock news. Appearing solo at that magic hour, he summed up the events of the day for our viewers. A stickler for accuracy, Rod spent much of his time before the show collaborating with film editors. I don’t recall any other anchorperson I have known over the years that paid that much attention to what went into his newscast. And, of course, as did everyone else back then, he wrote his own script.

Fred Van Amburg was the jock-anchor in residence when I came onboard, though not for much longer. Matching an athlete’s image with his stocky build and broad shoulders, he looked like he belonged on-camera while talking about the players or giving scores. So, it was only a matter of time before ABC owned and operated KGO TV made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He dropped his first name and became their lead news anchor at six and eleven p.m., where he resided for many years to come.

Barry Tompkins replaced Van Amburg with considerable ease, sitting comfortably in the chair recently vacated. Approaching a familiar theme and customizing it, he took sports reporting to another dimension. Barry not only covered all the bases, hoops and yard lines, he also invited viewer participation. White-water rafting was one of them, with my camera along for the ride, helping to share in an unforgettable experience.

With a name like Hunsacker (Smuckers spelled backwards?) you had to be good at predicting rain. And in his unique way, he was. Even with his requisite good looks, Leon Hunsacker was a guy you least expected to see standing in front of a weather map. On certain occasions, although not often enough to distract from the task at hand, he would stumble. He had turned awkwardness into style: missing his floor mark, talking to the wrong camera, forgetting a line, then dismissing it with a chuckle and starting over. Shucks, folks, this is all new to me! I’m just a meteorologist who’s never been on TV! The viewers ate it up and our ratings soared. I couldn’t help wondering if Leon was our comedy relief, the one designated to get us through difficult times.

1968 WAS A YEAR like most any other. Bad news seemed to dominate the airwaves. And, at times, going after the messenger was fair game. Someone caught on film at an incriminating moment might not necessarily want to see it repeated again at six-o’clock. Going after a high-profile cameraman was a way to make the point. On occasion, Ralph, Ronnie Mack, Stephen, Tony, Gerd or Lou would return to the station, a little worse for the wear from a rough assignment. Receiving their exposed film within the safe confines of a processing room, I considered whether my aspiration to follow in their footsteps had been well thought out. But, whenever I watched the product of their hard-earned efforts in an editing booth by day or on my home television at night, I knew.

And so, for the remainder of an eventful year, thousands of feet of news film snaked around my spools, plunged through my chemicals, dried in ribbons under my heat lamps and moved through my processing machine as fast as anyone could change reels while still in motion and deliver them to editors waiting in the newsroom upstairs.

Student activists were gathering at night on the streets of Berkeley. The city council declared that street rallies were illegal and could be halted by police action.

At the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland, the murder trial of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton was getting under way. Supporters crowded the front steps of the courthouse chanting: Free Huey!

Over in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, police were greeted with a barrage of rocks and bottles from angry street people during a narcotics arrest.

A new threat of violence returned in Berkeley when the permit to close Telegraph Avenue for demonstrations was revoked.

Huey Newton was convicted of manslaughter.

Eldridge Cleaver, a fellow Black Panther and party co-founder, was holding police responsible for bullet holes found in the front window of the San Francisco headquarters.

One inmate was stabbed to death and several others injured during a fight and melee at San Quentin State Prison.

At San Francisco State University, the Black Student Union demanded reinstatement of an instructor/graduate student who had advocated guns on campus and was suspended. A student strike followed. Roving bands of militants dropped by and terrorized classes. The Police Tactical Squad was called in. After bloody skirmishing, nine persons were injured, thirty-nine arrested. From a loudspeaker on the roof of a van, a dissenter’s voice urged students to continue the unrest on campus. Outraged, acting university president Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa climbed up and ripped the loudspeaker wires loose, gaining fame which would ultimately launch his career as a United States Senator. Meanwhile, the sight of him on that day taking matters into his own hands provided one of the most memorable photo-ops to emerge from the turbulent sixties. Memorable and missed.

SIX MONTHS OF NEWS IN THE MAKING had come and gone, passing me by, illuminating my TV screen with moving images while I sat patiently in the dark, watching and waiting. Well, perhaps not so patiently. I was beginning to wonder when, if ever, the chance might come along for me to finally capture on camera the life and times of extraordinary people, places and things. Actually, by then, I would have settled for ordinary people, places and things.

How about a cable car? the assignment editor asked me one fine day. Together with producer Dave Horwitz, Fred Zehnder represented the driving force behind Channel 5 Eyewitness News. Because of these two men the station was Number One in the ratings. Therefore, when either of them had something to say, we listened.

Shoot me a VO (voice-over). Make the cable car the story, Fred said. Let’s see if you can tell it all on just a hundred feet of film.

I could. The camera was one I had already used in the Navy: the silent 16 millimeter, spring-driven, Bell and Howell Filmo Model 70 DR.

And this was going to be my audition. Ron Mires had kept his word.

At long last, the position for a news cameraman at the station was made

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