Real Video Horror Stories 2011 - From the Trenches

Things happen. A hard drive crashes. A battery dies. A viewfinder decides to fail at that one moment of moments – but you’re a videographer, it’s in your heart and it’s in your blood to save the shot. So, like the knight who fell from his trusty steed while proudly galloping to battle – you brush yourself off and get back in the game, ready to battle yet again. Here are our offerings this year of our annual stories of terrifying mistakes, and the motivation to avoid them, written by the professionals you’ve been reading in Videomaker all year, and as tradition, I’ll start with a story of my own.

Prison Break

The Assignment was twofold: Get some shots of an Open House ribbon cutting ceremony at a prison for that evening’s news, but make sure to get some extra footage for future stories.

State prison authorities invited local townsfolk to tour the brand-spanking new prison in our viewing area to assure them of its safety and explain the revenue-abilities for the town. I needed to get a few shots of average citizens on the tour, but I also had to get shots that didn’t have townsfolk in the scene for the file footage. Not as easy as it sounded, it turned out. The tour was going to flow throughout most of the different sections of the facility: dining area, medical area, recreation area, cell blocks, etc. All but one of the cell blocks were still vacant, and we obviously weren’t going to tour the occupied area.

Ours was the last tour of the day and as the tour guides shuffled us in tight groups from area to area, I captured the obligatory shots of tourists on parade, but I kept pausing as the last tourist filed out to get shots of each section without any people in the scene. The guides tried to hustle me along at first, but realized what I was doing so allowed me to quickly grab my shots. And I mean quickly: wide shot – focus, frame, shoot, count 1,2,3… 8 next – medium shot – focus, frame, etc. I tried to shoot off three quick shots in each room within the 30 seconds allowed.

Finally, we reached the dining room in the late afternoon and light was spilling in from tall windows that were shielded with bars near the ceiling. The light through the bars spilled stripes across the empty seats, tables and floor throughout the room, visually speaking ‘prison’ in a way no words could. A photographer’s dream. I wanted to capture it just right, encompassing the seats, tables, walls, and especially those incredible stripes that told a tale of imprisonment and loneliness. The only problem was I couldn’t get the best angle from eye level due to the height of the windows so, I kneeled down behind a counter and shot up from below-the-knee height. Shot one: Focus, frame, shoot, 1,2,3… I was concentrating on the shot so well, I didn’t notice it got very quiet. Too quiet. Shot two: Focus, frame, 1, 2,3…When I stood up, I realized I was alone. The tour guide lost visual contact with me as the last tourist exited the room, and had assumed I filed out with the others. Hoping to catch up, I ran out a nearby door, only to find I was outside in a long-narrow circular fenced-in grassy area. The chain-link fence was 20-feet high and topped with razor wire. I reached back for the door, but it was locked. Of course – this is a prison, all doors lock automatically.

Trying not to panic, I suddenly heard voices and followed the circular path to find the tour group, but the grassy area let out into a wide exercise yard – full of prisoners! One by one they noticed me, and each one froze in shock. No one spoke a word. We all stood there until a guard saw me and shouted at me not to move – and then – pandemonium. Guards raced towards me, other guards raced into the yard herding the prisoners to a far wall, and I was left with a lot of explaining to do! The weekend shift. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, always a surprise.

– Jennifer O’Rourke

Another Prison Lockdown

The client called with an assignment and says to arrive two hours early and allow one hour for pre-production and two hours after break-down in addition to eight hours of shooting. We wondered why so much time only to learn the project was in a maximum security prison. The four hours was for security checks, which includes a complete accounting of each piece of equipment. We were required to bring a print-out of each piece of gear that they would use as a checklist.

On entering the facility we placed all the cameras, lens caps, light stands, batteries, cables and everything we took into the facility on the floor, and they matched each piece of equipment to the checklist. A lot of people signed the list and they kept it to match with the gear when we left the facility.

After eight hours of shooting and endless security check points, we arrived at the last check point where they had our gearlist, and after laying everything out on the floor again, one black 8-foot extension cord came up missing. I asked what happens now and after 20 minutes on the phone we’re told they have 1/2 an hour to locate it or they “initiate complete lock down” which involves everyone remaining at their designated position for as “long as it takes” until the cord is found. Luckily, not too long later, an employee noticed a piece of Velcro on a cord in the hospital that she had never seen before and called it in. Turns out that someone on the shoot mistakenly plugged the cord in then left it behind.

I could go on for several pages on this one because a “lock down” in a maximum security is huge and could have involved hundreds of additional emergency staff. There was an unbelievable amount of people involved in this ordeal. Throughout the shoot day, we were all over the place so that cord could have been anywhere. I couldn’t believe it when they told us they found the cord, just in the nick of time. We were wearing bright yellow security alarms with big red buttons during the shoot just in case something went wrong. It was the weirdest shoot I have ever done.

– by Terry O’Rourke

Battery Charger Blow-out

Christmas day 1989 – Walter Cronkite reported the execution by firing squad of Romanian leader Nicolae Ceauescu. For reasons I didn’t understand, they executed his wife too. Within a week I was on my way to Romania. A church in Sacramento collected funds to send food and medicine to affiliated churches in Romania. As a TV news photojournalist, I offered to go and document the deliveries.

Knowing I’d be in country for a week, I checked the power input on my Anton Bauer quad charger and it read: 100-250, 50-60. I called Anton and double-checked what that meant and I was told the charger was bullet proof and would work anywhere in the world. Off I went from San Francisco with my Betacam, charger and four brick batteries to Austria non-stop. Our party arrived in Vienna on Saturday morning and we had a few hours before setting off on a lengthy drive to Transylvania. I decided to top off the batteries so I plugged in the charger and it instantly blew up and caught fire! Most of western Europe closes for the weekend at noon sharp leaving only gas stations and some restaurants open. What to do? Fortunately the charger blew out at about 11:30 in the morning, and I learned there was a hardware store just around the corner. I ran to the store, which was in the process of closing, but they let me in and I bought a standard car-lighter plug, some wire, and crimp connectors. I detached one side of the charger that has two battery receivers and spliced the cable wires to the lighter plug. By doing so, whenever the car was running, I had two batteries “on charge”. I was never short of power and, luckily, the car charged the batteries.

On my return to Sacramento, we cut the footage into a five part series that aired on KOVR-TV. My experience in Romania was “magical”. The Romanians were just delightful.

A curious side note was Romanian television was running Warner Bros. cartoons that were interrupted periodically by live coverage of some executions by firing squad, then it was back to Bugs Bunny – now that’s what I call diverse programming. I often think what would I have done if I just didn’t bother to top off the batteries until getting into Romania, or if I hadn’t found a hardware store minutes before they closed. The rest wouldn’t be history and I would have a horror nightmare to live with the rest of my life. To Anton Bauer’s credit, they replaced the charger that blew out.

– by Gary Tomsic


In Loving Memory

They dropped the casket and the situation got worse from there. Weddings are emotionally charged events. Double that for a funeral. They’re different celebrations of life but things can go wrong at either and have an impact that sometimes cannot be easily be overcome.

Along with producing memorial videos to celebrate one’s life, I also videotape many funerals, but the family members at this service asked only for a montage – and the dropped casket was only the beginning as this poor family put their loved one to rest.

A short time after the dropping casket calamity, I delivered the montage which turned out great and seemed to soothe the somewhat horrific beginning. I was told the presentation went well, up until the video’s final closing title: “In Loving Memory of Georgia”. The lady’s name was Gladys. Someone at the funeral home had given us the wrong name. I received a panicked call from the family counselor. Relating the horrors of the event and subsequent backlash, I was asked to bring a corrected version and extra copies to the now-in-progress reception. I said yes. Nothing was going to change what happened, but the corrected montage was delivered in under an hour and shown at the reception. Dozens of copies were distributed, paid for by the funeral home. Shooting funerals, like weddings, doesn’t allow for re-takes, so you never know what will happen, you just hold your breath and deliver as best you can.

– by Earl Chessher

500 Scenes, 10 days, 3 minutes of Horror

My most disastrous horror story occurred before video was a gleam in my eye. It was the pre-historic year – 1975 – and I had a nifty Super 8mm film camera; (antique technology our younger-than-50-years-old readers are unfamiliar with.) I obtained a copy of a Rossini overture on audio tape, (see comment, above, about younger readers), and painfully created a scene-by-scene breakdown of each phrase of the music, based on the projector speed of 18-frames per second. I then packed up my camera and a relatively heavy tripod and went for a very long walk in the woods, carefully framing, focusing, and shooting gorgeous fall leaves on trees for the exact number of frames needed per musical phrase. I shot over 500 scenes, editing in the camera, using a single frame release cable on auto-exposure. What I didn’t realize is that the auto-exposure feature of the camera could not be used with single frame shooting. What I received after the mandatory 10-day wait for film processing was three minutes of overexposed, completely unusable footage. A total bust. The moral of the story? Read the owner’s manual and learn your camera.

– by Mark Levy

Porta-Potty Death March

Of all the ‘hats’ I wear in my work, Producer is foremost. Whatever you may think, producers make projects happen. Producers arrange everything from getting cameras, locations and places where the crew eats, sleeps and even goes to do their “business”. On a horror film shoot – ironically – I secured an awesome studio location. But, the studio space had a missing necessity: no toilets. As a good producer I ordered up a pair of ‘porta-pottys’ for the crew. But – on delivery day there were no “facilities”. Remaining calm I contacted the company and was told, “the items had been delivered on time” though they weren’t there. As I tried to hash it out over the phone my fellow producer drove up and said, “Hey, I passed a couple of porta-pottys on my way in.” Sure enough there they were, more than a quarter-mile away sitting alone on a vacant lot!

Apparently, my directions weren’t ‘necessary’ as the company used GPS for delivery. After a nasty call, the company agreed to move the “facilities” on Monday morning, but this was Friday, So during the hottest summer on record, anyone desperate to ‘go’ would undergo what we called the ‘Porta-Potty Death March’. We had a bet over who would be the first. After two days, nobody did!

– by H. Wolfgang Porter


More Toilet Humor

One summer about 15 years back, I found myself between jobs and decided it would be fun to PA on a local independent 16mm project; partially to keep busy but also to assess the state of the local indie scene. We were way out in the middle of nowhere and they were using a rented RV as a base of operations. Well at some point on the second day the RV’s toilet filled up, so the Unit Manager and I drove the foul-smelling beast to a local campground that had disposal facilities. Neither of us had done it before but how hard could it be? Hook the tube to the drain pipe, put the tube in the hole. If there’s one thing you must know before ever renting an RV, it’s that you should always make sure the release valve is in the closed position before taking the cap off the drainage pipe. In a matter of seconds both of us were covered, arms and legs, in a mess of unmentionable. I took the rest of the day off and never went back. When someone asks what I think of unpaid PA jobs I have a very fitting answer for them.

– by Peter Zunitch

Last Call

Real horror stories – Stories that don’t make the video scrapbook – are stories that you tell only in the presence of your fellow video producers because, honestly, no one else would truly “get it”. But we do. We love hearing your stories from the trenches, and especially how you solved a tricky situation. We hope these stories have inspired you to keep making video, and realize that everyone has those moments of falling off that trusty steed, but they get back on and get the shot, and have a great story to tell… ‘Til next year…

Videomaker Managing Editor, Jennifer O’Rourke is an Emmy award-winning videographer & video editor.

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