Ken Kerbs

The sequence made it all over the world.

originally published on Sitewelder, September 26, 2010

My Friend The Garbage Can in Times Square

By Ken Kerbs

I've worked for CBS News as a cameraman and broadcast technician for the last seven years. It's my third career. Initially, I was a magazine assignment photographer for the news and business magazines here in New York. Then, after graduate film school, I worked on Wall Street as a video producer and got a more-than-I-bargained-for-education!

2010, however, has been unmatched in the number of news stories I've covered. A coal mine explosion, the BP oil disaster, Tiger Woods' charade, a blizzard, a hurricane, anti-mosque protests, and a horrific flood which killed 21, to name a few.

The important thing about being a news cameraman is being prepared. Is the camera functioning, are the batteries fully charged, is my weather gear where it should be, are my lights in working order? The list goes on.

One Saturday at work, I was in the office after returning from a May Day protest in Harlem that didn't produce any footage our producer thought relevant. The story was immigration and my protesters were a little too off key. Nothing I shot or any of the interviews I recorded spoke to the controversy. With no other assignments on the schedule, I had some time to myself so I cleaned my camera and ate a decent meal. A friend I was talking to on my cell asked me what was going on and I said that until my shift was over at 9 p.m. I doubt I'd do anything else--unless a plane crashed or a bomb went off. I was kidding.

Around 7:30 my desk producer said there was a bomb scare in Times Square, go check it out. I was like, "Yeah, right!" I grabbed my camera, an extra battery brick, and a hand-held microphone. Carrying a tripod in the crowd, I thought, would only hamper my mobility. As the taxi drove me east on 57th Street, my producer calls and says they think it's only a false alarm.

"I'm already close to Times Square," I said, "I'll see what's up."

I make my way to 47th Street and Broadway and along the way I meet a Broadway show producer who is practically crying on the phone about letting his full house of patrons go. "The Police forced the evacuation of the theater," I recorded him saying. A few blocks ahead I began asking people what happened. One couple told me they were walking by a car when they heard popping sounds, like firecrackers, and saw a cloud of smoke. They scampered away from it as fast as they could.

With all my "preparedness" I was missing two very important items. My tripod and my eye glasses!

I couldn't see clearly in the distance so I put the camera up to my eye and in the 2x telephoto setting scanned the scene until I locked in on two men in bombsquad outfits and the lights of a hatchback car blinking.

That moment my heart raced and I wanted to scream: MY TRIPOD!!!!

After about  ten mintues of walking back and forth, I found a garbage can whose top was curved, much like a mailbox, and turned it a quarter turn to rest my video camera on top. That did the trick. I now had my makeshift tripod!

Photography is a game of angles and I knew I had a great one. I could follow the bomb squad, almost two blocks away, as they broke the car's rear window and took out its contents. Two propane tanks and a black metal case were all in my viewfinder as I shot across the pedestrian area of Times Square. I knew these would be key to telling the story and I was a bit giddy capturing it.

I stayed for over two hours following the action and without my friend, the Times Square garbage can, I wouldn't have been able to keep the camera steady for more than a few seconds. In the back of my mind, I figured, if that car blows, I could drop down to the ground and protect myself behind it.

Thank God for the bombsquad and that trash can!


originally published in Digital Producer Magazine, 5/22/08

70 Days Around The WorldThe Bare Bones Technical in Producing Creative TV

By Ken Kerbs and Brian Wengrofsky

Sweat in 125 degrees Fahrenheit heat during the pouring of gold at the end of the production line in Africa? Subject yourself to -15 degrees Fahrenheit on the western edge of Siberia at an oil extraction facility? Sample water in Florida at various stages of the desalination process? Sniff, taste, then spit coffee at a tasters association in Brazil? How about trying 20 kinds of beer at the Baltika factory in St. Petersburg? Cars, planes, and solar panel factories, pig and fish farms, rice fields and timber operations. Consumerism, commodities, high tech. We hit 'em all.

That's exactly what award-winning director of photography, Brian Wengrofsky, and I did as we teamed up to shoot a nine-part business series with the high-energy, financial journalist, Markus Koch, who hosted a new show for Germany's n-TV network. (The show aired for nine weeks beginning May 22, 2008.)

It's not every day you get to go around the world in 70 days with two spanking new Sony PMW-EX1 XDCAM-EX HD camcorders, touch down in eight countries and visit 27 cities you've never seen before. Just try hopping on more than 32 flights, lugging 15 bags of equipment through the revolving doors of some 25 hotels, and shooting nearly 90 hours of footage for 45 stories. One thing's for certain: when you finally get home and put your feet up you'll probably discover as I did that you've learned plenty of new tricks of the trade just by having confronted the visual and logistical challenges head-on.

70 Days Around The World With Markus Koch, (or in German, In 70 Tagen Um Die Welt Mit Markus Koch) was Koch's idea to focus on emerging markets not solely on the numbers themselves but rather, on the stories behind the numbers. That way the show would feature people these trends affect most--and up close and personal. It was a chance to do a business show in an entertaining fashion and have Koch transform into a get-your-hands-dirty kind of journalist.

Koch and I met at the New York Stock Exchange back in 1999 when he was reporting live from the floor back to Germany. At the time, I was a producer making marketing and educational videos. More recently, I had been working in New York as a cameraman and technician for the satellite newsgathering division of CBS News, Newspath, when he tapped me to produce and direct this show.

It was an offer I couldn't refuse.

From a purely photographic standpoint, Brian and I made a great team. He's shot features, worked on documentaries around the world, done his share of reality television, has an Emmy on his shelf for producing, and a vast wealth of technical knowledge in all formats. For this project, he created a work-flow that included the EX cameras with their 16GB SxS video cards, a souped up MacBook Pro, and a Wiebetech RAID 1 system that takes a pair of 500GB SATA drives.

I've always felt I had some technical handicaps, as I tend to think more in terms of the language of shots--deconstructing, separating and uncovering the details for the story. That's pure pleasure for me. As a former still photojournalist, picture essays have always been my first love. And over the years working in video, I've found editors who just gobble up the multitude of angles you provide them. In that sense, I love the creative side more than the technical.

But with an EX in my hands for the first time on our first leg of our tour to Africa, and with Brian's constant advice, I, too, found a piece of equipment I quickly came to enjoy and respect.

During our long flights and road trips (25 hours in the air from Saigon to Sao Paulo or 13 air hours from Rio to Mexico City via Santiago, for example) Brian and I discussed at length many of the challenges we faced on this job. We often had time limits placed on us and found ourselves splitting up and working a situation with two cameras; one of us would zero in on b-roll while the other shot pieces to camera with Koch. Or, during interviews, we'd have the two cameras rolling at the same time, one for the subject, the other focused on Koch's reactions and questions.

To share with you some specifics, Brian has tackled below both the technical and creative choices made on this tour.

Question:  Why go with the EX, the RAID, and how did you manage the daily workflow of the 70 Days Around The World tour?

Brian Wengrofsky: We looked at a few other options including Red, and a 2-camera P2 system with an HDX900 "A" camera. Tapeless seemed the key to the highest quality HD image and speedy editing workflow. The EX hadn't been released yet but I was keeping a close eye on it. I wanted a camera that could be very quick and portable but also had a proper manually focusing lens, and I was intrigued by the fact that it had a 1/2" imager. Also, this camera made sense because we didn't have a separate data person and managing all that data seemed doable with the lower bit rate EX camera. We shot the show on five 16GB SxS cards and I would download them at the end of the day. On the long international flights Ken would log material from the previous countries and send them to the editors and writers via email. Ken works harder than any director I know. I think he has a cold fusion power plant in his van dyke.

The RAIDs were introduced to me by cinematographer Mariusz Cichon. What's fantastic about them is you can have a hard drive completely fail on you on the road, and because they work in mirrored pairs, all you need to do is slap a replacement in the unit and you're quickly back to where you left off. This actually happened to us twice on "70 Days." I prefer not to think about the hell we would have gone through if we hadn't used a redundant system like this.

Q:  What was the most difficult situation you faced technically?

BW: Well, things worked amazingly well except in Russia. Sony technicians say the camera is rated to only freezing. But, there we had to shoot outdoors in minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit, which caused the LCD to leave trails and I'm pretty sure the back focus went out a bit--a tough situation for a fixed-lens camera with no back focus adjustment. I had dialed up all the rental houses for advice but no one had any ideas. In the end we taped hand warmers to the cameras, the batteries, and the LCD's, which was a joke. We also exceeded the maximum operating temperature at a gold mine in Ghana. When they poured 1200 degree F. liquid gold into bars, it raised the ambient temperature of the room to nearly 125 degrees. The camera got pretty hot to the touch, but everything came out great. I was glad the camera had so few moving parts, considering the cameras were constantly getting covered in sawdust, cement dust, lime, coal dust, and all sorts of other contaminants we came across.Apart from the technical, the toughest thing was the schedule. Most days were a race from wake up to lights out. We had to be very disciplined; not much time to party!  Apart from the technical, the toughest thing was the schedule. Most days were a race from wake up to lights out. We had to be very disciplined; not much time to party!

Soundwoman Leah Dennington-Koch, director of photography Brian Wengrofsky, and correspondent Markus Koch filming during an impromptu jam session with some musicians headed to a wedding in Accra, Ghana

Q: What expectations did you have for shooting in countries like Russia, China and Vietnam who had censors and monitored your every move?

BW: I really didn't think it would be as intense as it was. I mean, they were very nice and all but I'm not used to having government officials riding along in the car with me and giving me looks! In Siberia we had a "news crew" shadowing us and Ken and I still joke that they weren't really a news crew. And they would say things like "you cannot film the dogs" and "you cannot film the cat." It got really silly at times. At the time we were in China the Tibet riots were happening and we found a lot of news was distorted or outright censored. There, too, we had to be careful what we said to one another in the presence of our "translators."

Q:  If you could have done some things differently, what would those be?

BW: I think if I were to do it over I would definitely insist on having a data wrangler/assistant editor on the job. It would have given us a lot more sleep, helped to jump start the editing by a few days, and I think in the final analysis this would have been cost-effective.

Also, I wish I left a few lights at home as I realized that on a show like this it's less about the gear and more about choosing your angles and making available light work for you. One of the nicer looking interviews we got with the head from the Zhengzhou Commodities Exchange in China proved this point. It looks like a 3-point, Kino Flo setup but I actually created key and fill by arranging the curtains on the balcony windows. There was a natural, soft kicker from across the room. I had wanted to throw up a few lights but our field producer (the amazing Robert Wallace) shot me down for schedule reasons. It's great what you discover you're able to do when you have your security blanket taken away.

Q: What were your favorite stories you worked on?

BW: I think the color stories that were not business-oriented were the most fun. My favorite was the Moscow "Walrus Club" story. These guys go out in the middle of winter in Russia, which is no joke, and go lake swimming in the park by cutting a big hole in the ice. Koch was only beginning to heal from a nasty cold and jumped in literally with both feet. He's insane. But a story like this added some levity and spoke to the culture of the place.


Traveling without HMIs or generators, Wengrofsky had to get creative with lighting. Here, he shot a standup to camera sans lighting as Koch became silhouetted against the colorful sky. Some model planes were used as props for this story about Brazil's number one plane manufacturer, Embraer. 

Some of the most beautiful things found we stumbled upon at random included drummers on their way to a wedding in Ghana, farmers harvesting rice outside Saigon, a Cavaquinho band on the beach in Rio. Even though we were doing a business show, Ken was very clear that he wanted the show to include some part of the culture and texture of each country, which was wonderful.

The thing that was really unusual about this trip for me was hitting a new country every week. The differences in people and the range of challenges they face were very striking on such a rapid schedule. It was easy to perceive the ways corporate decisions affect us all. For example, China has terrible pollution problems and we couldn't miss the fact that the relatively pristine Vietnam appears to be heading toward a similar fate.

Q: What strengths do you think you gained as a cameraman from this experience?

BW: Well my big thing the last year or two has been trying to see just how ecstatic I can make an editor. I've actually interviewed the editors on the last few TV shows I've done to get their feedback and it seems to have paid off. We get love letters from our editors every week! Some of them are quite embarrassing in fact.  Also it's been useful watching Ken and how he zeroes in on what content is going to best drive the story. He's a very instinctive journalist.

Q: What are you most proud of after having covered some 45 stories in eight countries?

BW: I think I'm most puffed up about the fact that technically we had a really bulletproof system from the start. So many things can go wrong on a trip like this and I think that so few of them did was the result of our amazing producers Rob and Ken, and that we had thought through so many issues before we started. I had for over a year been working out in my head exactly how I would want to do a show like this. I wasn't sure if I was being too much of a nerd, but now in hindsight it was worth every second.

For more information about Brian, visit his website at