27 March 2009

Public Broadcasting, Private Thoughts

The next instalment of my recounting of the last month of events in my life takes us to the Fairfax Public Access studio tour, and what an exciting and interesting adventure this was!

I know what you're thing, and just don't say it!  I know the reputation that Public Access has and I'm hear to tell you that you are quite mistaken when you think that production at a public access facility is the one-way ticket to nowheresville.  Case in point, when I was in middle school I was friends with a clever, funny and creative classmate by the name of Josh Cagan and at that time he had a small, cottage production interview programme on West Hartford Community Television.  Today, Josh has a his first feature film coming out this summer, Bandslam!  Public Access to Hollywood feature film can't be all that bad, even if it did take about 25 years.  And, need I mention Mystery Science Theater 3000?

Anyway, I first joined the Digital Video, Audio & Animation for Profit and Networking with some trepidation.  As I've already said, my goal here isn't to become rich or famous and although I'd like to make a bit of money for my work, in some ways I feel that Project KronoSphere should be produced completely as a non-profit endeavour.  Obviously, this does not fit well with the idea behind a group explicitly geared toward profit.  None the less, this group is the closest meetup to my house and the idea of touring an actual studio was quite exciting.

The meetup directions stated that it was to occur on Saturday, 14 February 2009: Saint Valentine's Day.  Yes, I would have to spend Valentine's Day with strangers whom I'd never met, but only really the afternoon and the important thing was I was there to learn.  So I dithered.  I considered.  I contemplated.  And finally, on the morning of the 14th, I decided: I was going.  So I reread the instructions more carefully now committed to the meetup.

Apparently, I'm supposed to pre-register.  D'oh!  Well, registration can be sent via e-mail, and e-mail is pretty fast, so I decided to just shoot off a quick message to someone named Meena expressing my interest in attending.  After all, 3 hours notice should be sufficient when using e-mail, shouldn't it?  So I use my iPhone to direct me to the Fairfax Public Access studio straight from the Leesburg Outlet Mall and arrive less than 10 minutes late.  I park around the side, hastily finish my Roy Rogers large roast beef sandwich and look for the front door.  Around the corner, I find the unassuming entrance and cross the threshold.

Directly inside, there is a counter where equipment can be checked out where a man stands chatting with some other visitors.  Desiring to know where to go from here, I wait patiently for the conversation to finish.  After about 5 minutes of staring at ceiling tiles I abandon this hopeless quest for directions and proceed to enter deeper into the bowels of the studio.  There I notice a placard with various event times, one of which announces an orientation and introduction to the studio.  I continue to wander until I come upon a large group of people sitting around in front of a large desk where a kindly woman of south asian decent is speaking.  This, I later learn, is Meena.

Since I did not register properly and was a few minutes late, I just stood in the hall looking in upon the beginning of the orientation.  As Meena asks everyone attending to introduce themselves, she spots me standing in the back and invites me to sit.  Eventually, I find a seat next to a nice fellow who has moved down from Boston and a pretty woman in front of me who wishes to start a cooking show.  Alas, I have since forgotten the names of these kind people and although I left them my e-mail address they haven't written me either.  None the less, I wish them well in all of their endeavours and hope that the experience we shared brings them much success!

Eventually, I am called upon to announce my goals, and I introduce the group to the basic concept.  Well, very basic, as I don't think I even called Project KronoSphere by name, but rather referred to it as a serial drama that could be live-action television or made for radio.  Like at The Washington Screenwriters Meetup a week before, Meena is quite keen with my idea to produce an all-new, original radio drama series.  After the introductions, Meena leads us into the depths of the studio.

First, we see Studio A, which has a full kitchenette ready-made for a variety of cooking programmes as well as storing an interview desk and chairs.  This room has 3 cameras and good lighting and thus is perfect for interviewing with one camera on the interviewer, one on the interviewee and the third as a wide shot.  Next to Studio A is a control room filled with equipment for sound and video editing.

Next we enter Studio B, which is mostly empty and has a screen which can be drawn to change between different monochromatic backgrounds.  The bare walls are coloured in the shade of Chromakey Blue and there are screens for Chromakey Green and Black.  This room also has 3 cameras and a lot of lighting equipment.  Because it does not contain any fixed equipment like Studio A, Studio B looks bigger than A.  The Studio B control room, however, is quite similar to that for Studio A though smaller more cramped.

We are then shown the 2 radio studios available.  These are broadcast as WEBR and WRLD and are outfitted very similar to a standard modern radio studio where a disk jockey or call-in show host sits and spins disks or answers the phone.  These studios would not suit recording audio drama, however.  For one thing, they are not big enough to store the full cast and foley artists to record the script like it was done in the classic days of radio.  In fact, as an audio production, the Fairfax Public Access studios don't really supply what is needed in terms of recording actors, then music and foley, with each actor on an isolated channel.  They do, however, have adequate editing facilities which we saw at the end of the tour.  But first, there was one more studio to see.

Studio C is very small.  It's walls are perfect Chromakey Green from floor to ceiling and everything in between except for the large window where the control studio can see the performers.  The lighting is both bright and diffuse with special filters to reduce glare, as well as lighting from behind and above.  There is only 1 camera here, which is computer controlled from the control room.  The control room has a computer with a number of digital backdrops which are then combined with the performers in realtime to give the appearance of a number of exciting recording locations.  Because of Studio C's numerous advanced virtual studio images available, users of Studio C aren't allowed to bring any props into the studio.  This, combined with the fact that the majority of digital backdrops available are for news anchor sets and fairly static, it doesn't seem that even Studio C would be all the appropriate for recording most of a live-action science fiction drama like Project KronoSphere.  At least, not without hours and hours of computer graphics rendering, which is much beyond my abilities at the moment.

Finally, we are ushered back into the conference room where Meena goes into the technical and legal details of using the Fairfax Public Access studios.  The first and most unfortunate of these issues is that, as a DirecTV subscriber, I can't receive any of the transmissions from the Fairfax Public Access stations as they are only available on COX Cablevision and other local cable television networks.  What more, as Meena goes through all the information in the information packet that I was too late to receive, I am partially at a loss since I don't have any of that information in front of me.  Meena is kind enough to leave me her packet after the orientation however.

The real shocker, though, turns out to be the rights structuring you need to agree to in order use the Fairfax Public Access.  As a writer of a screenplay, you are generally the copyright © holder of your work and all derivative works.  You then sell the rights to this script to a producer who then produces your story and maintains a production copyright ࡅ on the final piece.  When you sell those rights, you sign an agreement which will spell out the terms of what your rights are with the original script versus the studio, which is standard in any production.  What bothers me about the Fairfax Public Access agreement is that you basically agree to give up all rights for a 1 (ONE) year term as well as the rights to any derivative work from time of first broadcast.  This means, if I produce my scripts at the Fairfax Public Access studio, I'd be giving up all rights to produce other Project KronoSphere scripts at a different studio for that 1 year period!  However, the loss of rights isn't complete, since Fairfax Public Access is a non-profit organization, which matches my own goals well.  So, as part of the production agreement, you have the right to request the release of your production on any other non-profit medium, such as other public access stations or on the Internet via YouTube and in podcasts.

The final part of the Fairfax Public Access tour is signing up for courses.  Only by taking the studio courses can you be authorized to use the studio equipment and facilities.  The courses range in price from free to about $500 for some hands-on video editing training with professional software.  There is also a membership fee for the studio.  Since I could not decided then if I even wanted to use this studio, though it remains an option in my mind, I decided to simply pay the membership fee as a donation for the free orientation even though I can never watch their transmissions.  And with that, and a bit more friendly conversation with Meena, the cooking show woman and another kind woman, I left the studio and headed home, wiser and with many more options.

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