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May 15, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright May 15, 2009 Philip J. Cunningham. Used by permission.


Setting up a shot in a methodical manner–tripods incrementally adjusted, white balance achieved, illumination enhanced–allowed for the recording of clean, well-lit images worthy of prime time TV, but much of it came at the price of spontaneity. That which we sought to observe was constantly reacting to us and regrouping due to our presence. Cameramen know all about this of course, and a long lens can, with some foreshortening, capture unadulterated spontaneity, but more than once we simply scrapped the shot when members of the crowd seized up or returned our curiosity in an obvious way.

Which brought us back full circle to the solipsism of the TV standup; one of the few tasks we could do convincingly was a phony setup in which one member of our crew talked to the red light of the camera hoping to simulate an intimate conversation with unseen viewers in faraway land in the not too distant future.

It was hard to get away from the feeling that television news was at least as much about “television” as it was about “news.” The starving students and their rowdy supporters on Tiananmen Square were, for our current purposes, but a colorful backdrop; BBC wanted to shine light on one of its own. But even that proved an elusive task.

To get the angle necessary to see both the correspondent and the crowd, and, if humanly possible, Mao’s distant portrait floating somewhere in the foggy night air, we had to find some way to put the solidly built, silver-haired John Simpson head and shoulders above everyone else. But a plaza as wide and unadorned as Tiananmen Square offers few natural promontories other than the monument, which was already staked out by students and at this juncture off-limits to the crew.