How the Avengers of Journalism rewrote the face of journalism.
Here, pick up this camera and go out and shoot.
Anything, but no more than five minutes. Don’t spend too long.
That’s all the instructions they were given. One by one they filed into the room unaware of the challenge. Some candidates were dismissed outrightly.
Yes! Thank you.
Your flaw; that intuitive look and feel at handling a camera. And by the way if you were from the BBC, chances are you didn’t last long in the interview.
There’s such a thing as institutionalised journalism in which you prefigure you know how journalism works. This here location off Soho street in London, about to give an electric shock to journalism as a patient, wasn’t it.
It was like you were about to jump off a 100 foot cliff insisting on a paraglider helping you descend. There is no paraglider.
And so 3000 applications applied to a small print in the Guardian newspaper with a P.O. Box extolling the virtues of a new film form for journalism. The advertisement, blink and you’d miss it, looked likely something from the pages of dodgy job offer. You will become video journalists, whatever that was!
You’ll be the first in the UK, and amongst a select few in the world. 3000 hopefuls were painstakingly whittled down to a hundred, and then thirty like something out of the X-factor, before its days.
“We were odd people, very odd people”, says one of the successful Steve Punter. “It was a mix of Black people, white, Jewish, Moslems, agnostics, LGBs and so on”.
Steve Punter got accepted by filming a bike courier at work, except he got so close to the courier’s approach that he got clipped by a wheel, the camera smashed into his face with blood pouring from near his eye socket.
Heavens knows what the interviewers must have thought when he walked inside to deliver his film, blood now all over his shirt. Actually we know. They were horrified at his condition, but wow what a film when they cleared the blood from the lens and hit playback. This guy had the eye of Hawkeye and a film sensibility to boot.
Another applicant wowed the interviewers by riding pillion on a motor cyclist he flagged down. Yeah, just like that! The shots were like something out of the film Premium Rush (2012) as the cyclists weaved through rush hour traffic at some ridiculous speed.
“They didn’t want people who fitted into a box; they were looking for a particular form of dynamism, adds Trish Adudu.
When we all gathered for the first time, you couldn’t help but question why you, and the person in front of you what super powers they might possess.
Thirty people were pulled from newspapers, magazines, research posts, secretaries, civil servants etc, says a leading figure in British media Sir David Nicholas narrating a soon-to-be made documentary.
Personnel, tick! The next thing was what the f*** are we all going to do? That’s when they wheel in this guy, something like Nick Fury, except he ain’t black and doesn’t wear a patch. Michael Rosenblum was a New Yorken, who didn’t pull his punches.
The UK team behind this new “amazing” venture were scouring the US for ideas. Chicago, Philly, New York, when they came across an operation called NY1. These reporters did everything themselves, everything, and ran journalism like it was a beat operation. That is you had certain areas and patches you covered. It was like you were your own boss, an uber driver of journalism deciding on what fare, or in this case story you’d cover.
The team liked the set up, and in the process of transplanting it to the UK, made Rosenblum an offer. The thing was though in the free-for-all entrepreneurial cage-fight spirit of New York, where anything could go, would the idea work in the British sensibility of Queensberry Rules?
Management, the team, Rosenblum and this motley outfit were about to find out, and it wouldn’t be pretty. The press would quietly, then full scale, come to loathe us. Why?
“Well, we were part of the breakdown of a well ordered unionised and structured way of producing television”, says Dimitri Doganis, “ and everyone was trying to produce cheap but high quality TV”.
It’s 1994, the year of Friends, Kurt Cobain’s earthly Nirvana, and Nelson Mandela being crowned president of South Africa, shedding Apartheid.
Rosenblum’s training included the art of the quick steal. Where as TV news making could take 3 hours, we learned to do it in 45 mins. We’d go out for shoots and then deconstruct them afterwards. The visuals mattered, and behind the scenes there was a tug of war happening inside management about what cameras to use. Would it be the nimble handy VX1000, at UKP 2500 which wasn’t quite your definition of pristine pictures, or would it be the Beta cam at UKP 15,000, which weighed a bit and whose pictures weren’t top notch?
Meanwhile, countdown to the launch was imminent, the press were having a field day with shifting opinions; some who saw it as the end of the BBC monopoly rubbed their hands with glee. Others like the Mirror newspaper launching its own service, which would feature bunnies reading the weather, probably had effigies of the station’s heads somewhere.
There’s a saying, “everyone has a story to tell”, but how do you know, and is it worth the listen? At an expensive Chinese restaurant in North London, where the videojournalists were taken out for supper, we’d find out. After our meal, we were instructed to find a story from the diners.
How on earth are we going to do that? I thought. Minutes later I found myself crouching down to table height of a couple, whilst I explained my plight and they regaled me with their life. Job done!
We were something approaching numinous. It was like a weird sprinkling of dust in which the industry would come to fear and loath you, says Dimitri.
Each one of us had something strange that would make this gig work. Julia Caesar, who became entertainment correspondent would wear the brightest read coats in premieres which caught the eye of celebrities like Tom Cruise, so much so that at every premiere he’d walk over to her. From pariah in which camera men ( they were mostly all men) rubbished her, soon they were leaving prime spots when she’d arrived, knowing that anyone next to her would get their money shot.
Me, fancifully I thought I could have been Tony Stark looking back on the days. I was forever tinkling with the tech, something that would pay a major dividend a decade later, when I would build one of the first video-magazine platforms encoded using the Flash engine and lingo from Director.
In the meantime, we had a point to prove, and the industry was about to be turned upside down. You see, you can revolutionise through tech how to fashion films on a platform, but the real revolution is a mindful one, analogical thinking that makes connections with the unexpected taking on board the seemingly impossible or absurd. Through the combination of fun, and our own innovations the most bizarre ( to some) relational adaptations emerged that fostered compelling but odd outcomes.
And one of them, years later of incubating, was going to be the story of how Cinema would usurp a penchant for journalism-making, and its practitioners would offer the widest source of expatiation from their own diverse backgrounds. Why is this so? It’s the inevitable example of what biologists called the Adjacent possibility theory. In its wake it will yield not just cinema stories but cinematic moments as seen from TikTok, snapchat et al. There’s an outside analysis of an inner view ahead, which is truly like the Avengers.
End of part one