NATO from above
By Jim Young
Remote cameras can produce great pictures, but they are not always easy to set up. To put a camera in a position that would be impossible for a person to shoot from can produce interesting images, but it takes creativity and a lot of technical planning.
In March I went for a walk-through with organizers and news media for the upcoming NATO Summit to be held in Chicago in May. For years now we have set up remotes on the ceiling looking down on the meeting table for political summits and we wanted to set one up for this summit as well. We took a look at what would be the summit room, which at the time was completely empty and as bland as any other empty convention center room. In the week before the summit it would be transformed into a polished meeting room for world leaders and we hoped that we would be allowed to mount a remote camera as well. The idea was to shoot an overall photo of all the leaders sitting at the table for their meeting surrounding the giant NATO seal on the floor. The only way this could be done was with a remote camera because with the height we would need to be at to achieve the image, the camera could only be mounted up in the ceiling among the overhead lights.
We had never actually done this at a NATO summit before. The previous overhead cameras had been at G8, G20 and Nuclear Summits run by different organizers. In the final week before the summit we asked again. At first the answer seemed to be no, but then the officials suddenly came back with a “Yes, you can put up the camera, but you have to put it up immediately.” The other stipulation was that we could not use radio transmitters to trigger the shutter of the camera during the meeting; it would have to be hardwired with long cables.
Due to our previous experience doing this at the other summits, we had learned how to control the camera and trigger it live with a laptop at a remote location, with the photos downloading back instantly so that we could push them straight out to our clients. Our Washington pictures editor Jim Bourg had sent me some of the special equipment and software needed in advance. Here in Chicago the technical challenges of controlling the camera from afar were done in consultation with our Reuters staff technician Michael Berrigan, who has found all kinds of creative ways to overcome obstacles with our remote cameras over the years. Despite having to set up the camera immediately after the approval, we would still be setting it up well in advance of the actual meeting and would not be able to touch the camera for days before it shot the pictures. The advantage of this setup was that we would also not have to wait for hours after the event to collect the card with the images once the pictures were taken. They would be on our laptop and ready for transmission within seconds.
At the last minute we were finally given a window of a couple of hours to run the cabling, mount the camera and test it. Unfortunately, because the room was now sealed off by constructed walls, scissor lifts could no longer get access to the room. All the work would have to be done atop a tall ladder, reaching about 25 feet up to the bottom of the light rigging.
I am not afraid of heights, but it is very nerve racking standing that high up on top of a ladder without anything to hold onto for safety. But when it came to getting the camera’s AC power adapter installed in the light rigging to power it continuously for several days, and more than a 100 feet of cabling running along a bar to the drop area behind the translation booths where we would trigger the camera, we turned to the trained convention center riggers for help.
Before mounting anything on the ceiling we first had to get the U.S. Secret Service to look at all of our gear and approve what we would be installing to make sure that it would be safe hanging above the leaders’ heads. Everything that we put up had its own safety cable attached to make sure that it could not fall from above. Once they had decided there would be no security issues I “volunteered” to climb up and hang the camera, compose the angle and focus it. The camera itself was up and running as we anxiously held our breath to see if everything would work as hoped. We launched the software on my laptop and there it was; the picture that we wanted to shoot. On the laptop we were able to see a real time live view from the camera. We would use this to decide when to shoot the pictures since we would not be able to see the actual event taking place because we were located in another room.
We would have to wait until Sunday for the real test of the planning and preparations and hoped that it would produce the photos we had wanted from the 2 days of the Summit.
Everything went perfectly. We could see a military ceremony taking place in the center of the table with all the leaders arrayed around the sides and then later a clean picture of the seal and all the leaders at the table holding their meeting, exactly as we had hoped for. From the time we pressed the virtual shutter button on the laptop screen it took just a second or two before the pictures were on the laptop to be prepared for transmission. I edited the images as soon as they dropped into a folder on my computer, captioned them and got them ready to be transmitted before the 15 minute event was even over. NATO would not allow us to transmit from inside the room, but after a 5 minute walk back to our filing area, images were ready to be sent to our Global Picture Desk in Singapore to go out on the wire to our clients. Overall it was a very successful operation for us, albeit a scary and anxious setup, but it in the end it produced an important image of a historic event.
Now will anyone volunteer to go up and get that camera down from there?