Thursday, August 4, 2011
XL-1: How This Camcorder Changed My Life
I was fresh out of college with a BA degree in International Relations from Bilkent University back in 1999 and I was gunning for the Turkish Foreign Ministry exam. I was told that a good internship could make my application more attractive and so via some proper networking that summer I found myself working as an unpaid intern at the diplomacy desk of the newly opened offices of CNN Turk Ankara.
At first my regular tasks ranged from getting news director's coffee to write down lazy field reporter's confused thoughts down on a piece of paper over the phone just to be yelled at later on for not doing it in an organized manner. It simply sucked for the first few weeks. You are an unpaid worker and everyone tries to take advantage of you with only few people care about teaching you something remotely useful.
One of these people was a young cameraman named Korhan & he absolutely loved being behind the camera. CNN Turk was the first and only digitally broadcasting TV channel back in 1999 and the equipment was top of the line, even for today's standards. That's about when I got my hands on the gorgeous Canon XL-1. Me & Korhan became good friends, we were about similar age & we both smoked like a chimney. Although we were from entirely different backgrounds, something clicked and we started talking about everything. I was especially curious about the digital broadcast cameras around us. The main camcorders CNN Turk cameramen used were Panasonic DVC-Pro camcorders which costs around $70.000 if I recall correctly. The Canon XL-1 was merely a detail unit, a secondary camera which was around $10.000. CNN Turk purchased them for the reporters in an attempt to help them multi-task when they're out in the field. CNN XL-1 was not in an out of box state though. It was heavily modified to become news camera worthy. The small battery pack was rigged and replaced with a bracket that could hold a giant 4lb, 20000mAh battery which was supported by a custom shoulder mount. Built in audio receivers for wireless microphones, a variety of alternative lenses, the XL-1 was truly an excellent pro camcorder with lots of features that you start to see in modern day consumer camcorders just recently.
Korhan knew the camera very well and was obsessed with technique. In news stations when cameraman is not in the field, he gets some tea or coffee & go online while there are TV monitors all around them. Even in the ordinary daily news footage they can catch glimpses of great camera work. A smooth zoom out, a steady shoulder pan are noticed by these guys and could be ridiculed, praised or just ignored. These guys, some college communication department grads and/or old timers who learned the art from a former camera master, are true geeks. Korhan was a new grad too and he was an idealist still. Thought me, in a mere couple months too, many things from white balance to a proper mezo pan, fundamentals of properly using the camcorder and learning its eccentric features.
It was all fun and games until one morning when the news director came and said:
- Hey intern, I've been seeing you playing with that Canon day in day out, I'm one cameraman short this morning, one of my guys just called in sick, are you up for it?
Up for it? I felt like I was born for this moment. Something like this was unimaginable to me at that time. At the end of the day, it was the least important agenda item that morning which didn't even make the news, a boring press conference at the police headquarters, but it was my first real camera work indeed and I nailed it. In the coming weeks, I get to go to few more stories as secondary, support camera and things started to get interesting.
My birthplace, Ankara, Turkey, is an eventful place. Only a small glimpse of the events are caught on tape. Sometimes even if it's caught on tape, it's never shown on TV either because it's just another murder suicide or something the network owners decided not to make a story of off due to its sensitive, political nature. I guess it must be similar around the world. But I get to witness the raw footage behind the XL-1 camera for a year and it taught me about life much.
I never saw a dead person in my life until 1999, I was 22, but that year I get to see lots of interesting things and unfortunately many many dead people. I witnessed the aftermath of a 7.4 earthquake, saw cities in complete ruins. Followed Clinton, the US president of the time, during his Ankara trip. Shot a police operation during an armed robbery by sheer coincidence. Saw 150 car crash, vans, cars, trucks stuffed like sardines on an icy bridge. Saw people who made it against impossible odds, and some who perish for simply no solid reason. All in all, if being an intern/cameraman left me with something, it was the feeling that the life was not as certain as death sure was and that I had to live my life, each day as if it's the last one.
Another useful item was a great reference letter from Mete Belovacikli, head of CNN Turk Ankara branch at the time, which then I sent to San Diego State University Communications dept. along with my application for their masters program in broadcasting and my reel. I was admitted for fall 2000 semester with much enthusiasm. After all that effort It took me less than one semester to realize I didn't really want to master broadcasting, but I just liked running around with the XL1 on my shoulder from story to story. Yet, there I was, summer of 2000, San Diego, CA., simply the most livable city in the US and perhaps on earth & with my whole life ahead of me.
Right now, 11 years later, I end up making a career developing electronic products for consumer electronics industry but I can tell that this camcorder had a lot to do with why I chose what I do today.