“Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States.” With those words and a flourish of “Hail to the Chief” the leader of the United States enters a room. If you’re part of the media coverage, this can be the make or break moment. It may be a politician, an entertainer or sports star, when you land the big interview, you have to be ready.
How do the pros handle the stress? We spoke with Dave Roberson, who has been covering the news for all the major networks for the better part of three decades.
Roberson has been involved in many big interviews, including the last three sitting presidents, dozens of politicians, celebrities and regular people in order to “get the story” for Dateline, 20/20, 60 Minutes and just about every evening news program. He is a winner of Emmy and Pace awards. We caught up with him from his Austin, TX home to gain some insight from a freelance camera operator who has been there.
The Early Years
When Roberson was a teenager, he was interested in photography and video. So what did he do, when his Air Force father was assigned to the Pentagon and the family started living in the Nation’s Capitol? Roberson managed to go to college and find his way into the news business.
“I got an internship back in the early days of CNN.” Roberson says of his first experience in his early 20’s. “CNN was really a small time operation and that was advantageous to me.” He started as a studio camera operator, which rarely happens with internships today. “Back then, if you could handle yourself, they would let you do as much as you could do really.” Roberson says that his experience proved valuable. “From there I managed to get a job at C-SPAN. That was my first paying gig.”
He tells us that even field shoots for C-SPAN were pretty much like studio shoots. They would roll out with a truck and multiple cameras and a director called every shot. Roberson knew that he had to get out of the studio. “I just decided pretty early on that I didn't like being in the studio because it's always cold and dark. I sort of wanted to experience things.” He left C-SPAN in less than 2 years and went freelance.
“Back in Washington in those days, there were a lot of production houses that offered services. They would hire me to be a freelancer to work with their equipment for their clients. I did that from ‘89 to ‘95” This put Roberson in front of lots of different producers from every network.
Soon, producers were asking for him by name. He was regularly working for Dateline. This led to other opportunities Roberson tells us, “The good thing about Washington DC was that big things happen there. You can pretty quickly, if you play your cards right, and do a good job, end up in a position where you’re doing an interview with the president.”
All About the Place
Roberson no longer works for rental companies. He owns his gear that includes a Sony PDW-700 and PMW-F5. He tells us that, “With today’s cameras, you can almost shoot with just one or two lights because they’re so forgiving. They just make things look so rich and soft.”
So where does he start when planning a big interview? Location, location, location.
“If there is any way you can control the space that the interview is done in, use it. You need to get yourself some depth and in some sort of setting that's interesting and cohesive to what that person is about.” Often times you have no control over your setting but the background is going to set the tone that will carry the story. Roberson says that if you can, visit the sight before the interview. If you can’t visit, research the location online and, as Roberson explains, “Arrive early — real early. Get in the door as soon as you can because time will solve a lot of things for you if you’ve got the tools.”
“Arrive early — real early. Get in the door as soon as you can because time will solve a lot of things for you if you’ve got the tools.”
Surprisingly, Roberson likes to include a window in the shot when it’s possible. “I think windows add a real sense of reality to the shot. When you watch studio shoots, they never have windows in the shot because it’s hard to fake a real window. So, if I can get away without taking too much of a risk, I like to incorporate a window into my shots.” By taking a risk, Roberson tells us that means being able to control the light from the window and watching for the passage of time. If it's later in the day, for example, the sun will shine directly into the window. You can’t use that.
Technical Nuts and Bolts
Next Roberson says, it’s about setting up depth in your shot. He says that knowing your cameras is key, “Whatever the widest shot is, I’ll use my F5 because it has the shallowest depth of field. I can get away with a wider shot and still have that separation with the soft background. Then I’ll use my 700 as the tight shot because, if you do it right, they’ll end up having the appearance of the same shallow depth of field even though they don't. Because of the different lens length, I might have to push the 700 pretty far back from the subject so I can zoom in father.”
In a network production, normally there is a dedicated audio person but Roberson knows that sound quality can destroy a great interview. Again, being able to control the environment is critical. “Sometimes we’ll get stuck in a room with loud air conditioning and you don't have any choice. I’ll take sound blankets and clip them over the vents or do whatever we have to and minimize it as much as possible.”
One interesting trick Roberson uses, “If you have a loud air conditioner, you’ll want to turn the fan to ‘on’ so it’s not cycling on and off.” This is to maintain continuity. Hearing the AC running during one shot but not in the next would be distracting.
Roberson also tells us that he’s learned so much from his early days about being prepared before you start. His motto is “double check everything.” Especially if you're shooting on a tight schedule and you only have one chance, like a Presidential interview.
He says that one early shoot he had in Washington was almost a disaster but it taught him a lesson that he is mindful of even today. Roberson was getting footage for Good Humor Ice Cream but this was a special delivery. “They were delivering one of their trucks to the Smithsonian Institute. I’m supposed to film it being offloaded with the Washington skyline in the background.” Unfortunately, in those days viewfinders were black and white. You couldn't see the color and he discovered, after the ceremony, that the camera filter was set on the tungsten light setting. The video would have been totally unusable.
“I managed to talk the Good Humor people into putting it back on the truck and doing the whole thing over again. From then on I have obsessively check my color balance over and over again.” He says with a chuckle.
Follow the Rules
As in every area of life, there are certain unwritten rules about what the media can and cannot shoot. This is especially true when it comes to Presidents and even Presidential Candidates. For example, during the 1940’s much of America had no idea that Franklin Roosevelt was in a wheelchair. The press corps all agreed that he would never be photographed in his chair. That may sound completely strange to us today but there are still rules.
Roberson tells us about the rules when traveling with, then Candidate Bill Clinton. “The campaign plane was about 30 people. He sat at the front of the plane, like 15 feet away. The unwritten rule was that you don’t shoot in the plane unless the candidate comes down to talk to you.” No matter how big the story, you don’t turn the camera on or ask the candidate any question.
“We would fly like for 20 minutes and he would have an event. We would all ignore everything until the moment the plane landed. Then we would have to run down the aisle, get out of the plane and go to the bottom of the steps. Then the nominee gets out and everybody starts yelling questions at him.” Roberson says of the chaotic scene.
He continues that it is a cycles that goes on for several weeks. Fly along with Bill Clinton to a new city, a flurry of activity and back on the plane for a quite trip to the next city, ignoring the confrontation that just happened. “It was really kind of bizarre.”
For most newsmakers and celebrities, the biggest unwritten rule is the pre-written questions. You will almost always be asked for a list of questions and you may be told what you can and cannot ask. This might sound counter-productive, especially if you are pursuing a particularly controversial subject, but that is part of the rules. If you violate the rules, you will find that you will not get future interviews. This is especially true in Washington, where news travels fast.
If you have the skills and are ready to to enter the fast paced world of freelance news, what advice would Roberson give?
“As a freelancer, you are super easy to fire. They’ll just never call you again. It’s very, very important to be a solution not a problem. The producer is already stressed out of their mind half the time. What you want to be is not a complainer. You want to be a person who will give your input but at the same time you don't want to add to their woes.”
It is this work ethic that Roberson brings to the field every day on the job. He is constantly working, although today he’s based in Austin and not D.C., so he primarily finds himself working closer to home. He’s recently covered the Republican National Convention, the Dallas police shooting, the Presidential Debates from Las Vegas and much more. You can catch up with Roberson on his web site www.texascameracrew.com.
Sidebar: Five Tips for Shooting in the White House
Dave Roberson has done lots of high profile interviews and maybe none as important as a White House Presidential interviews. Roberson tells us that a White House production comes with some unique challenges:
1. You Can’t Choose the Set-up
The White House is a very special place to have the opportunity to work in but the Presidential staff is in control of every aspect of what you’re going to produce. As a result, you will not get to choose how the room is going to be set up. Roberson says, “A lot of the decisions aren’t made by you and they aren't even made by the network or whoever you’re working for. Some person in the press office sets the chair that the president is going to sit in. You don’t get the pick the chair and you don’t get to pick the spot.” He says that you have to use your lighting to control the look you want.
2. You Can’t Move Anything
The White House was built in 1792 and is a historic landmark with historic things in it. Unlike walking into anyone else’s house, you can’t simply move the furniture around. Every book, vase, lamp and piece of furniture is placed there by the staff and it cannot be moved. Roberson tells us that once they placed a lamp immediately behind the president. It would have looked like he was wearing a hat. “They had to send somebody up from the White House Curator Department to slide the lamp three feet to the right.” This took a lot of time and involved a number of staff members.
3. You Can’t Plug in Just Anywhere
The White House was built before electricity so you simply can’t hunt down the nearest AC outlet and plug in. Because electricity was an afterthought, added in 1891, the plugs are difficult to find. In some rooms they are completely hidden within a column or behind a removable panel. Roberson says that a special breakout box was used when AC is required.
4. You Will Have Everything Searched
The Secret Service is very serious about protecting the President and no one is above reproach, including members of the media. Every bag will be opened and every piece of equipment is scrutinized. Roberson’s insight: “You have to take in with you everything you think you could possibly need. There’s no going back to get more. Once you’re in – you’re in.” But don’t take too much stuff, “The more time they spend digging through your gear, the less time you get setting up.”
5. You Will Be on a Tight Schedule
You will be given a schedule of when to arrive and when to set up. The President will arrive at a set time and only have a short window for the interview. You cannot spent a lot of time placing and adjusting lights or mics. You need to be ready as quickly as possible and the President will be on his schedule, not yours. If he is delayed in a previous meeting, you may have your time cut short.
Finally Roberson says, “You have these dreams that this is going to be on my reel and this will be the greatest thing ever. It’s definitely a tough thing. There’s a lot of ways to get tripped up.” So before you go, ask lots of questions and think like a Boy Scout – Be Prepared.
Jeff Chaves is the Chief Creative Officer of Grace Pictures Inc., which he co-owns with his wife, Peggy. He got his start as an Army Broadcaster in the 1980s and spent 12 plus years working on broadcasting. Jeff left broadcast television to pursue full-time ministry.